Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On Othello: Context, Subtext, Intertext

For a review of the text: It was written about 1603-4. The plot takes place in Cyprus, Venice, and the leading character Othello is based upon Un Capitano Moro from Cinthio's "Hecatommithi," a collection of short stories with the outline of a tragedy. The plot in Othello closely follows Cinthio's plotline.

Context: During the time Othello was published, Venice was flourishing. People viewed it as a place of luxury and wealth; many even called it the pleasure capital of Europe (in terms of sexual tolerance). Socially, Venetians were generally hospitable to foreign people, but class distinctions were rigid and primarily determined by honor and reputation. Women were subordinate to men (wives to husbands/fathers), although many women did embrace informality of sexual relationships and took up roles as courtesans. Venice amassed its wealth from trade with to Ottomans and North African peoples; we can trace Othello's lineage here by his title "the Moor." In 1570, however, the Turks took Cyprus from the Venetians, uprooting their glorious society and marking the decline of Venice itself.

Subtexts: Cultural tensions were high during this period due to colonization and expansion. The Venetians were faced with the new Turkish presence as North African people were faced with the Venetian presence. Consequently, remarks about racism and assimilation come up often in the text, demonstrating the hesitation to blend cultures. Additionally, how things are versus how things seem repeatedly arises, warning that people should not believe the first thing they see or make assumptions based on what things seem. Examples of misunderstandings include Othello's magical seduction of Desdemona, Iago's honest, Cassio's reputation, and Desdemona's adultery.

Intertexts: Shakespeare's other works such as Richard III, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice are useful intertexts. In the first two plays, Richard of Gloucester and Aaron are characters whom Iago was modeled on; therefore, understanding their characters deepens our understanding of Iago. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare emphasizes the Venetian people's fascination with foreign people and glorifies Venice in its portrayal. Lastly, the Bible behaves as an intertext. Desdemona radiates Christian virtues (love, patience) but seems to be influenced by the devil when she "commits adultery." Further, Othello's magical powers of seduction are supposedly satanic in nature. Altogether, Othello is likened to Adam, Desdemona is likened to Eve, and Iago signifies the evil serpent who leads them astray.

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