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Introduction to Othello

Introduction:

The Play:

Othello was probably written in late 1603, though some think it may have been written as early as 1601, and seems to have been first performed in November 1604 at court. It is one of a series of tragedies wrote between 1599 and 1608, including the four great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, which established him as one of the world’s greatest dramatists, and some would say, the greatest.

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The main source of the plot appears to be Cluthio’s Hecatommithi(1565) which tells the tale of an ensigh who lusts after his Moorish captain’s Venetian wife Disdemona. He avenges her rejection of his advances by persuading the Moor of her adultery with his friend, a captain.

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The similarities with Shakespeare’s play are obvious. Shakespeare has added the sub-plot of the gullible suitor, Roderigo, and changed the backdrop of the story to Venice’s wars against the Ottoman Empire.

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The play is curiously structured. The first Act takes place in Venice in the civilized and cultured atmosphere of the Court. The second and third acts, during which Iago persuades Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity take place in the rough, masculine atmosphere of an army camp on Cyprus, before Venice is re-introduced in the form of courtier messengers from the court of Venice.

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Context:

There are a number of contextual points of interest about the play.

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First, the Elizabethan court was visited by a Moorish embassy from the King of Barbary in August 1600, which stimulated a lot of interest at Court. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed at court that Christmas, before the ambassador’s departure, so it is likely that Shakespeare encountered ‘the Barbarians’ as they were known, and probably stimulated the idea of a play with a Moor at its centre.

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Secondly, Elizabethan male-female relationships were rather different from now:

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Men seem to have been obsessed with the danger of being cuckolded by their wives. It sometimes seems as if cuckoldry is a part of all of Shakespeare’s plays.

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Women were usually uneducated academically, that being thought unnecessary for someone whose duties were likely to be to bear children and look after the household.

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Women were normally sheltered at home, rather than taking an active part in the outside world.

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The Plot:

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Othello is a story of jealousy and slander. Othello, a Moorish general, employed by Venice against the Turks, woos a Venetian gentlewoman, Desdemona, by telling her tales of his warring exploits. They elope and marry.

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Othello is needed for the war against the Turks, and so, although Desdemona’s father complains about Othello to the Duke, Othello is sent to Cyprus, and his new wife Desdemona goes with him.

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Iago, one of Shakespeare’s great villains with a strong sense of humour (think Edmund in King Lear, or think Richard III) has been slighted for the role of lieutenant, and fearing he has been cuckolded by Othello, convinces the general in Cyprus that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, Othello’s choice for lieutenant instead of Iago.

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Othello murders Desdemona, and tries to have Cassio killed, Iago murders his wife Emelia before the truth comes out, when Othello commits suicide and Iago is arrested and is planned to suffer a lingering death.

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C21 Considerations:

There are two key cultural changes which need to be faced up to in any modern production of Othello.

Firstly, the attitudes to racial difference have changed, with much of the expressed attitude to Othello’s Moorish background being considered unacceptable.

Secondly, acceptable male-female relationships have changed, and are still changing, compared with the attitudes expressed in the play.

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