BBL 3208
Historical context
Othello takes place in two countries:
– Venice
– Cyprus
The Republic of Venice existed from
– It is located in present-day Italy.
Geography (cont’d)
Venice controlled the island of Cyprus
from 1489-1570.
– The island was a place for commerce
and a good location for the Venetian
fleet in the eastern part of the
Mediterranean Sea.
Cyprus was lost to the Turks in 1571.
Cyprus is located east of Italy, in the
Mediterranean Sea. It is just south of Turkey.
Geography in the Play Othello
Othello is asked to help defend
Cyprus against the Ottoman Turks.
Desdemona accompanies Othello to
– It is unusual that a woman would go with
her husband on military business.
Types of People in Othello
– Most are noblemen and women
(Brabantio, Desdemona, Roderigo)
– Also, there are the nobles’ servants
– Some are soldiers (Othello, Cassio,
– Others are part of Venetian government
(the Duke)
Types of People (cont’d)
–Black nomadic people of the
northern shores of Africa, originally
the inhabitants of Mauretania
–Converted to Islam in the 8th
Moors (cont’d)
–Invaded Spain in 711 and
dominated until the 11th century
–had great dynasties up until 1492,
when the last of their cities was
conquered by Spain
–virtually exterminated by Spain
during the Inquisition (late 1400s1820)
Moors (cont’d)
Othello is a Moor
– Discriminated against because of his race
– Othello has been accepted in some ways
because he is a Christian and a military
– Yet his marriage to Desdemona reflects the
prevailing view toward interracial marriage.
The play's first act is set in Venice.
Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio,
a Venetian senator, has secretly
married Othello, a Moor in the service
of the state. Accused before the duke
and senators of having stolen
Brabantio's daughter, Othello explains
and justifies his conduct, and is asked
by the Senate to lead the Venetian
forces against the Turks who are about
to attack Cyprus.
In the middle of a storm which disperses the
Turkish fleet, Othello lands on Cyprus with
Desdemona, Cassio, a young Florentine, who
helped him court his wife and whom he has
now promoted to be his lieutenant, and Iago,
an older soldier, bitterly resentful of being
passed over for promotion, who now plans his
revenge, Iago uses Roderigo, “a guli'd
Gentleman” in love with Desdemona, to fight
with Cassio after he has got him drunk, so
that Othello deprives him of his new rank.
He then persuades Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead in
his favour with Othello, which she warmly does. At the
same time he suggests to Othello that Cassio is, and has
been, Desdemona's lover, finally arranging through his
wife Emilia, who is Desdemona's waiting-woman, that
Othello should see Cassio in possession of a handkerchief
which he had given to his bride. Othello is taken in by
Iago's promptings and in frenzied jealousy smothers
Desdemona in her bed. Iago sets Roderigo to murder
Cassio, but when Roderigo fails to do this Iago kills him
and Emilia as well, after she has proved Desdemona's
innocence to Othello. Emilia's evidence and letters found
on Roderigo prove Iago's guilt; he is arrested, and
Othello, having tried to stab him, kills himself.
Theme-human nature
Othello offers a study of human nature,
which is made up principally of two warring
elements, love and hatred. Of the three
characters in Othello, Desdamona and
Iago are the antitheses of each other,
with the former stands for love and life
force that strives for order, community,
growth and light and the latter for hatred
and anti-life force that seeks anarchy,
revenge, death and darkness. Othello is
the combination of the two.
In the first part he manages a calm control of
himself under law and order, so the love
triumphs over hatred. In the latter part,
however, when the social conditions in Cyprus
are less secure, the Iago spirit starts to
undermine the noble values of Othello.
Gradually Othello’s noble quality is poisoned
by Iago spirit, and yields to evil. The murder
of Desdemona acts as the final destruction in
Othello himself of all the ordering power of
love, trust and bond between human beings.
So it is the flaw, the sin that all flesh is heir
to that destroys Othello.
Theme —humanism
Othello can be regarded as a tragedy of humanism.
Othello is a new man of the Renaissance. He is a great
warrior, and too noble-minded to suspect those whom
he loves. Though he is a black man, he has great moral
beauty. He loves Desdemoda so dearly just because
he finds he to be the embodiment of integrity,
sincerity and loftiness of mind. These qualities ,
together with her youth and beauty, make her his
ideal of a woman, and her love the greatest reward
for his long and hard life. Desdemoda and Othello
both belong to the future world. Their tragedy shows
that noble-minded people may be led astray by evil
forces in an evil society and commit horrible mistakes
if they cannot distinguish truth from falsehood, and
good from evil.
Jealousy is also often regarded as one main
theme of Othello. Almost all the characters in
the play are in some way jealous or are
involved in jealousy. Othello, the essentially
noble man, who is not “easily jealous”, has
been infected by Iago’s jealousy and becomes
a prey of jealousy. Evil conquers Othello with
jealousy and destroys his nobleness. Subtle
variations of torture reduce him to a beast of
fury and madness. The love that united man
and woman, youth and maturity, black and
white in marriage is shattered. So this play is
a close study of man’s nature.
Theme —racial prejudice
Othello is also a tragedy of the coloured people in a
society of racial prejudice. Though well-known as a
soldier and in high position, Othello has been a man
living in loneliness, because he is black. The citizens
of Venice seem to be treating him as one of
themselves, but to have him marry one of their
daughter is quite another matter. Here we can find
strong racial prejudice against the black. Iago, in
carrying out his evil intrigue, sees this, and in his hint
to Othello, he touches persistently on the
unnaturalness of Othello’s marriage in the eyes of the
white gentlemen. Here lies the social background of
Iago’s success in ruining Othello’s happiness
What is Tragedy?
Othello is a tragedy, which means that it
looks at life’s dark underside.
Tragedies frequently make reference to
our mortality, to death, to decay, and to
good and evil.
Tragedy explores our dark impulses such
as jealousy, murderous impulses,
unhealthy competition, and uncontrolled
Heroes of Tragic Plays
Heroes are often pushed to the furthest limits of
human endurance.
Heroes in Shakespeare are lofty figures such as
princes, kings, and other noblemen who live life
to the fullest—and fall.
Despite their elevated status, Shakespeare’s
heroes share traits with which we can identify.
Shakespeare’s heroes often struggle with their
Some critics have noted that tragic heroes have
a tragic flaw, the one imperfection in an
otherwise perfect nature that leads to the
What is Catharsis?
This term means that we the reader/viewer of
the tragedy are transformed by viewing the
horrific suffering of the hero.
Critics have noted that the hero often
experiences a redemptive moment in which
he realizes the reason or scope of the
downfall, and there may be moment of selfacceptance or realization.
We, like the hero, may experience a kind of
relief or release after experiencing the shock
of the tragedy.
OTHELLO is. . .
A tragedy first produced 1604
Act I set in 16th century Venice, a sophisticated,
cultured, somewhat decadent city-state
The rest of the play is set in Cyprus, a Mediterranean
island that is a Venetian colony
One of Shakespeare’s most intense plays
An archetypal story of the jealous husband
A plot with suspicion, the destruction of reputation, racial
tension, sensuality, and . . . murder.
A play with one of Shakespeare’s darkest most
loathsome figures, IAGO, a charming man without a
conscience, a malignant and destructive plotter
Time Frame
During the Ottoman-Venetian War 15701573
Act I: Venice, one
Act II: Cyprus, a few weeks later, night
Act III: Cyprus, the next morning
Act IV & V: Cyprus, that night