Context and Background Othello

Shakespeare’s World - Othello #

= Shakespeare sets several of his plays in Italy - the earliest appearance of the Renaissance.

Italy is at this time not yet a nation state, rather a collection of City States with Venice one of the more powerful ones. Venice represents the centre of power, civilisation, culture and order.

Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean is one of its colonial outposts under threat from the Turks and represents insecurity, danger, uncivilised society.

Othello is a play about the impact of social forces on individuals. The perspective of modern reader is influenced by modern understandings of race, gender and class. Modern criticism is informed by psychological, feminist and Marxist ideology. Social forces are to do with cultural identity, racial ideology, gender construction and, to a less extent, class.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values. The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. We also generally accept responsibility for our own destiny. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic and distressing.

Othello as a play about the impact of social forces, we can see these as the forces beyond the individual which bring about the tragedy.

Racism #

Racism in Medieval times was quite acceptable socially. The movement of people around the world was more limited. The “other” was considered foreign and there was no stigma attached to disparaging them and adopting superior attitudes. Note the denigrating names used by some for Othello. Miscegenation (mixed marriages between different races) was then and until recently considered a taboo.

Othello is a victim of an ideology which constructs him as ‘different’ and in terms of particular racial stereotypes.

Though Othello is Black he is still respected by most of the Venetians. However there are times Shakespeare uses racial references to describe Othello such as referring to him as “the Moor“ and using bestial descriptions to describe Othello such as “the black ram”. By emphasizing Othello’s skin colour in their remarks it reflects upon the difference Othello has from the Venetians, but by also using “black” symbolizes not only Othello’s skin colour, but also the early warnings of Othello’s potential to become evil.

Iago’s envy of Othello partially racially motivated, with animal-like, racially disparaging terms.

IAGO tells Desdemona’s father, BRABANTIO that:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

He may be threatened by his characteristic sexual prowess:

I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ’twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;

Another major factor is his being overlooked for promotion which Iago attributes to bias:

Preferment goes by letter and affection,

Iago also describes Othello as gullible and ‘easily led by the nose’.

Othello can be see as a victim of racist ideology because he succumbs to and accepts the racist constructions of himself as ‘other’

The horror of miscegenation (‘a black ram tupping a white ewe’)

Desdemona’s reports that ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind’ and the Duke’s comment to Brabantio that ‘Your son-in-law is far more fair than black’, indicate some acceptance.

Othello’s confidence is based on, ‘My services which I have done the signiory/shall out-tongue his complaints’.

Othello also claims, ‘Rude am I in my speech’

He accepts the racist belief that blackness equates with unattractiveness ‘Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation …’

equate blackness with evil and ugliness:

‘Her name that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as my own face’.

OTHELLO in his final speech before he smoothers Desdemona:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.


Behold, I have a weapon;
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier’s thigh: I have seen the day,
That, with this little arm and this good sword,
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop: but, O vain boast!
Who can control his fate? ’tis not so now.
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt

OTHELLO’s final Speech:

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Stabs himself

Feminism #

is also an issue as individual women have always asserted their independence and autonomy.

Desdemona would have to go down in history as the most innocent victim of male paranoid “green-eyed” jealousy.

Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian senator, wedded to Othello. She is often portrayed as an innocent, sympathetic lady who possesses great beauty.

Even when bestial imagery is used by Iago to describe sexual acts with the Moor and Desdemona she is still referred to as the “white ewe”, with “white” representing innocence and purity. Epithets of jewellery are also often used in connotation to Desdemona and her beauty by referring to her as “the riches of the ship” and “the pearl” to describe her.

Shakespeare developed Desdemona to be a stark contrast to Iago in nearly every possible way. Iago plays on Desdemona’s honesty and willingness to take up causes such as assuring Cassio “I will have my lord and you again, as friendly as you were”.

However, Iago uses the warning Brabantio said to Othello, “she has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” to use as a basis to “poison” Othello’s trust of her.

Desdemona was a character of greatness, which had touched the lives of many, as she Shakespeare’s symbol of love and kindness. Desdemona reflected upon many of the outcomes of the play as the first of the great characters to fall, which then resulted in the other characters downfall. The importance of Desdemona as a character is that without her there would not have been the basis of Othello’s jealousy, nor the ability for Iago to manipulate Othello into self-destruction.

Desdemona in Othello

Although Desdemona submits passively to her husband, Othello, as he strangles her to death, she demonstrates her strength at the beginning of the play when her father asks the Duke of Venice to stop her marriage to the Moor, Othello. He has ideas about who he wants to marry her to but she has fallen in love with a black man and he is opposed to their marriage, which has already taken place in secret by that time. The Duke asks her to give an account of herself and in a remarkable speech, she convinces him. In that speech she comes across as a modern woman – an independent woman who has been a good daughter but is now ready to ally herself with her husband. If her father doesn’t like that then it’s just too bad. It isn’t his business anymore. It required enormous strength to say things like that in a room full of powerful men at that time.


‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us. Look you, Cassio and my husband!

Emilia understands her husband well when she asks rhetorically why men exchange their wives for others and answers,

“Is it sport?/ I think it is.”

Emilia famously speaks to Desdemona about the infectious infidelity of husbands, saying:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

When she learns that her husband, Iago encouraged Othello to murder Desdemona, she defiantly condemns both:


She’s, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
‘Twas I that kill’d her.


O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil!


She turn’d to folly, and she was a whore.


Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.


She was false as water.


Thou art rash as fire, to say
That she was false: O, she was heavenly true!


Cassio did top her; ask thy husband else.
O, I were damn’d beneath all depth in hell,
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity. Thy husband knew it all.


If he say so, may his pernicious soul
Rot half a grain a day! he lies to the heart:
She was too fond of her most filthy bargain.

Do thy worst:
This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven
Than thou wast worthy her.


Peace, you were best.


Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed–
I care not for thy sword; I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives.–Help! help, ho! help!
The Moor hath kill’d my mistress! Murder! murder!