o Based on Italian author Cinthio’s Hecatommithi; Cinthio’s version may also have been based on a real incident in Venice c. 1508
§ Most of the characters and the general plot come from this story, the main change being that Iago’s character in Hecatommithi desired Desdemona, which gave him a motive; in Shakespeare’s version, Iago does not have a defined motive.
o Premiered on stage Nov. 1, 1604; written sometime between 1601 and 1604, which was after Hamlet, but before King Lear and Macbeth
o Abd al-Wahid ibn Masʻud ʻAnun was principal secretary to the Moroccan ruler "Muly Hamet" (Moulai Ahmad al-Mansur). He came to the court of Queen Elizabeth I with his entourage in 1600 to promote the establishment of an Anglo-Moroccan alliance since both countries had a mutual enemy (a.k.a Spain). The Moorish Ambassador and an entourage visited London for six months
§ Their customs/traditions caused a stir because they were so different from those of the English.
§ Audiences of Othello would likely have compared Othello to the Moors they had met/heard about.
§ “Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe”
· Morality had a somewhat looser definition
· A woman was considered virtuous if she only had one lover outside of her husband
§ It is on the water and therefore was popular for trade/commerce
· Wouldn’t be uncommon to have foreigners or outsiders there
o Ottoman Empire
§ Ottomans à Turks
§ A threat to European powers
§ Had won Cyprus from the Venetians in 1570-3, and controlled it at the time of Shakespeare writing Othello
§ Even though a Christian navy defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, they still remained a dominant power in the Mediterranean
o See Cinthio.
o Joannes Leo Africanus
§ Moorish diplomat and author
§ He dictated A Geographical Historie of Africa (a largely firsthand account of the geography of North Africa), and it is said that Shakespeare may have based Othello off of Leo
§ Leo mentions the enchanters he came across as well as the interesting embroidery of many of the Egyptian women
· 3.4.57-59 “That handkerchief/Did an Egyptian to my mother give./She was a charmer”
o Pliny’s Historie of the World
§ 1601 à translated by Philemon Holland
§ Probably where Shakespeare got most of his knowledge about the Mediterranean world
§ “Anthropophagi” and other various terms, including references to the Pontic Sea (3.3.456-9), come directly from this translation
o The Commonwealth and Government of Venice
§ A 1599 translation by Lewis Lewknor of Gasparo Contarini’s work
§ A description of Venice and all its various customs that greatly influenced Shakespeare’s depiction of Venice
o The Bible
§ When Othello is about to be arrested, he bids his followers to sheath their swords and wants to keep things peaceful (1.2.60), which is similar to Jesus’s actions in the Garden of Gethsemane
· This implies that Othello wishes to act virtuously
o Arden in Warning
§ A play Shakespeare would known
§ A young wife and her lover murder her husband but they are brought to justice when they confess and are led off to execution à a handkerchief helps to reveal the crime; in Othello, the husband murders the wife and accomplice tries to murder wife’s so called “lover”, the confession here is Othello’s [spoiler!] (no, not really, it’s a tragedy…) death speech.
o Morality plays
§ Medieval allegorical plays in which a character was persuaded by personifications of virtues/sins to either turn toward or away from God
§ Iago is a personification of Vice
· Attempts to get man to turn away from God
o Iago is trying to trick Othello into being angry with Desdemona or her supposed “infidelity”
· The Vice character in a morality play would tell the audience outright that he was the vice
o Iago has several asides when talking about his plan
o Fall from Eden
§ Iago tells Roderigo to regain self-control over himself after learning that Desdemona was married (1.3.323-4), although he is ironically tempting the protagonist to the proverbial fall. “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.”
§ Iago is always referring to Othello as “the Moor”
§ Othello berates himself as a “base Indian who threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe.” (5.2.357-8) [Reference to New World as well.]
· In the First Folio, “Indian” was spelled “Iudean” (Judean?) and so potentially could mean Othello compares himself to Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. In Shakespeare’s day, one’s soul was referred to as a “jewel”.
o Animal imagery
§ “black ram tupping white ewe” (1.1.90-91)
§ “drown cats and blind puppies” (1.3.338-9)
§ “for the love of a guinea hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.” (1.1.318-9)
o Wealth/luxury/upper-class themes
§ Money (1.4.347-371)
§ Robbery (1.1), “debitor and creditor”, “price”
§ Rank: Iago detests Cassio for being chosen for Othello’s lieutenant, a position that he wanted.
§ Iago on Desdemona: “She’s full of most blessed condition.” (2.1.252-3)
§ Desdemona’s back-handed chat with Iago (2.1)
§ [Spoiler!] Desdemona is unable to defend herself from her accusations of infidelity. (5.2)
§ The differences between high-class (Desdemona), middle-class (Emilia) and low-class (Bianca) women all end the same – with their men (Othello, Iago, and Cassio) throwing them aside despite their loyalty.