Introduction to Othello

This introduction continues to be co-written by College Writing II Honors students, each of whom chose to focus on a particular aspect of the text, its context, or its interpretation.

Othello‘s Setting: Cyprus by Galilea Estrella

Race in Othello by Belinda Aketch

Racial Tensions in Othello by Megan Marina

Racism in Venice by Andrea Garcia

Gender Identity in Othello by Abigail Berkowitz and Alexandra Sullivan

Symbolism in Othello: The Characters’ Nationalities by Galilea Estrella

Othello’s setting: Cyprus

by Galilea Estrella

The main story of Othello occurs on the island of Cyprus. Cyprus is located on the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. It is south of Turkey and east of Crete. Cyprus’ early history consists of being part of the Ancient Greek Civilization. The Greek myths say that Cyprus is the birthplace of Aphrodite. Its history in the Common Era can be described almost as insignificant. The island was almost never a major conquest goal for other nations. It is true that it was always colonized by other nations, but it was usually used as a “stepping-stone” for conquering other territories (Casson 2). For example, before the Common Era, nations like Persia used the island of Cyprus in order to help in their conquest of Crete, Rhodes, and the Ancient Greek city-states. In the context of the play Othello, Cyprus serves as the battle ground between the power struggles of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. In the middle of this battleground is where the tragedy of Othello occurs. The question in regards to the setting is why Shakespeare choose this island as his setting for his tragedy?

            According to Joanna Montgomery’s article “Shakespeare and the Cyprus Setting”, there is an answer to this question. Montgomery claims that Shakespeare wanted the setting to mirror the fall of Othello. At the time Venice was one of the most powerful nations and any territory under its power was bound to prosper. In the Turk wars, Cyprus is under control of Venice and is being attacked by the Turks. Cyprus eventually falls under Turkish control and the island itself goes through a decline under its rule (Montgomery 159). Montgomery says that this is similar to how Othello (Cyprus) is happy with Desdemona (Venice) but soon meets his downfall due to Iago’s (the Turks) lies and manipulations. This comparison would seem irrelevant to us today but to the 17th century nobility of England it would have been something that they would have figured out considering the Turk Wars were recent history. We will never know if this is what Shakespeare intended but it is the most reasonable explanation.

Race in Othello

by Belinda Aketch

In Shakespeare’s time, Englishmen were facing the fact that there are people who don’t look like them in this world. The slave trade had already begun and during this time colonialism was flourishing. People in the Elizathean period were bringing Africans back to England as proof of the existence of black people (Shaw 85). The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a memoir written by Sir John Mandeville, sparked the “appetite of England for information about the continent of Africa and its inhabitants” (85). In his memoir, Mandeville continuously references the people of Africa by their color, thus the Englishmen began to link Africa to blackness. Queen Elizabeth was not a fan of the increasing number of “negars and blackmores” (Weissbourd 5 in the country because it was considered to be a cause for alarm. The thoughts and beliefs about African people during the Elizabethan Era echo the thoughts of the Queen. Despite the beliefs of the people in England at the time, and Queen Elizabeth, William Shakespeare presented Othello.

Like many countries, Britain was involved in the transAtlantic slave trade. In the article, “The Abolition of Slavery” by the British National Archives, the history of black slaves and the abolishion of slavery is discussed. They state, “It is estimated that these ships transported over 3.1 million Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas. Approximately 2.7 million arrived – the others died during the notorious Middle Passage. The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on 25 March 1807” (National Archives, p.3). This shows that slavery was still in place during shakespeare’s time. Suggesting that race may have been a major topic of discussion in people’s daily lives and also in works of literature. Because of this, Shakespeare’s mindset and perspectives may have been influenced by them. This is not stating that shakespeare was racist or not racist, however, the fact that his society partook in the Trans-atlantic slave trade implies that it may have played a role in his writing. This is the case because he had to keep in mind the audience while composing his work. 

Although Othello is trusted and admired by the duke and several other people, he is hated by a few others. Iago is one of the major characters that clearly abhorred Othello. When he is with Rodriego, talking to Brabantio, he uses somewhat racially offensive terms to describe the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. He states,  “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe” (I. i. 94-95). Trying to portray Othello in a negative light to Brabantio, Iago tells Brabantio that Othello has run off with Desdemona and is having an affair with her. Othello is referred and compared to a black male sheep. Because darkness is often linked to the devil, the aim of this description of Othello by IIago is to liken Othello to a villain. On the other hand, Desdemona is compared to a white female sheep. Due to the fact that white things are oftentimes associated with good, Iago’s goal in this description is to make Desdemona seem innocent and pure. The contrast description of Othello and desdemona acts to drive Iago’s insinuation that Othello is the villain.

In Venice, Othello is different from those around him. His origins and history were different than that of the people in Venice. While he shared the same religion, ethics, and allegiance to Venice, the color of his skin was the difference that everyone saw and commented upon. Therefore, while he lived among everyone, he was separated from them. 

Othello is often referred to as “The Moor.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, a moor is “a member of a race of Muslim people living in north-west Africa who entered and took control of part of Spain in the 8th century.” Therefore, the term moor does not have a positive connotation. Using this term plants a seed in the mind of readers that Othello is not a good person. The first instance was in Iago’s speech after Othello denied him the promotion and position of lieutenant. Iago says, ‘his Moorship’s ancient,” (1.1.33)  where he mocks Othello’s character and his race. However, Shakespeare utilizes this to illustrate the two ways Moors were depicted on stage during this time: noted for his extreme blackness and being villainous, and for his notable conduct (Shaw 87). This allowed Othello to be seen as “a Moor who was black in the face yet white and noble in the spirit,” (84) which perplexed the people of England.

Othello is referred to by a word that describes his outward appearance, while everyone has their own personalized names. This allows for people to judge Othello just based on his name and his race, without knowing anything about him. Everyone else is seen as independent individuals, but Othello is not given that chance. When Othello is referred to as The Moor, it is not just indicative of his face and what he looks like, but it is a symbol of color symbolism in Elizabethean morality. Black was considered to be wicked and guilt, while white was the symbol of honor and innocence. This makes Othello’s skin color sound like it is one of his flaws, when in reality, it isn’t. A study done by Gregorgio Garcia in 1607 linked the languages that were found in the New World with that of the devil. His study suggested that the devil helped the Indians invent these new languages. However, this association corresponds to the Elizabethan views of Africans. The reference made to link Othello to witchcraft stems from this stereotypic view of Africans (Shaw 86). Additionally, Iago describes and refers to Othello as the devil, which portrays the Elizabethan fear of the people in the New World.  

In the article “Othello’s Racial Identity” by Phillip Butcher, the topic of race is tacked down. Phillip states that the description of Othello is not detailed enough. To further his claim, he states, “The Spaniards applied the term moor to Arabs, Berbers, Syrians and negroes without regard for their wide racial differences. This practice passed into other countries” (P 1). This shows that “Moor” was not just a term for balck people and was instead a term used for a general group of people. Because of this, there can be some wiggle room for different perspectives. This goes to show that while reading Othello, everyone will have different perspectives and opinions depending on what  historical background information they may have. In general, although it is not a major aspect in the general theme of Othello, race references are prevalent. Some characters like the duke give Othello all the respect he deserves; however, there are some characters that do not, like Iago, Brabantio. 

As a result of the situation with the Trans-atlantic trade system, the British society developed stereotypes and stigmas about black people. Due to this, Shakespeare also may have been influenced by it. Hence why at certain times Othello may have been referred to with racial slurs or as a villain in the play. In addition, some of the resentment that Othello faced was based purely upon something that was visible. The play goes on to portray and give examples of racial interactions that might have happened at the time.

Racial Tensions in Othello

by Megan Marina

Throughout William Shakespeare’s Othello, racial tensions can be witnessed both explicitly as well as implicitly. Though it is not the utmost theme explored through the play, as jealousy and love claim this title, it is still a central component to understand the play. 

Racism has been a concept in society since the early 20th century. The scholar Patrick C. Hogan provides this background context in his scholarly article “OTHELLO”, RACISM, AND DESPAIR. Here, Hogan writes that, “More recently, Derek Walcott has spoken of having black skin, but looking at the world through blue eyes– seeing oneself and others through the distorting lenses of white racism.” (Hogan 431) Hogan goes on to argue that this is, primarily, is the tragedy of Othello that leads him to kill Desdemona, and ultimately himself. He states that the violence in the play is a result of the persistent forces from society, both implicit and explicit.

Racial tensions are displayed right from the very start of Othello through the conversation between Iago and Roderigo. Derogatory terms such as “thicklips” and animalistic slander are carelessly thrown about in casual conversation. When the two go into town to warn Brabantio about his daughter’s secret relationship with the Moor, Iago cries out,

Iago: “Because we come to

do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll

have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;

you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have

coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.” (I.i.120-124)

Here, Iago is explicitly expressing how he does not think of Othello as a human. Instead, he is merely an animal, a “barbary horse” due to the color of his skin. This idea of Othello being an outsider to the human race is also explored later in the act. Brabantio furiously conveys this idea, saying how, 

Brabantio: “[Desdemona] is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted

By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;

For nature so preposterously to err,400

Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,

Sans witchcraft could not.” (I.i.398-402)

By accusing Othello of witchcraft and other supernatural forces, Brabantio sees the Moor as a threat to society and as a predator to the vulnerable, such as Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona, as Brabantio believes Othello is able to cast spells and other such trickery. Once again, these characters are publicly expressing how they do not view Othello as a human being, simply due to the color of his skin.

 In fact, the idea of Othello as a part of the devil’s party is also brought into the play. Iago expresses how “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (II.iii 351-53). Essentially, Iago is claiming that Othello is simply putting on a show to deceive those around him into thinking that he is glorious and well-respected as an alter-ego to his true, evil self. This is ironic, since Iago is presenting the exact same image with the exact same intentions: to trick society into believing Iago is a true and good man.

Society’s racist behavior is not always intentional or outright. Sometimes it is subtle and unknowingly. For example, in Hogan’s article, “Othello is a great general in the Venetian army… yet they refer to him far less frequently as ‘Othello,’ as this particular man, than as ‘the Moor’ — when counted up, the proportion is almost two to one in favor of the generic category over the name.” (Hogan 439) Moor has now become a racial derogatory term, since the Venetians are essentially stripping Othello of his name and referring to him as his ethnic origin, which is a clear form of racism. Unlike this ignorant form of racism, Iago’s is much more calculated. Iago harshly states that:

Iago: “Ay, there’s the point: as—to be bold with you—

Not to affect many proposed matches

Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,

Whereto we see in all things nature tends—

Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,

Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural. (III.iii.1886-1891)

Othello tries to ration with Iago, expressing how good things can err in nature, but being the mastermind that he is, Iago uses Othello’s words against him to confuse him even more. Iago cleverly explains how Desdemona has “erred” from her nature, being that she is a white Venetian and chose to marry a black, African man instead of a white, European man, the latter being an expected practice during this time.  We clearly see how this works, witnessing Othello become vengeful and how the future events of the play unfold. Using present terminology, the idea of racism is heavily illustrated on multiple occasions in Shakespeare’s Othello. One would think that by viewing examples of different forms of racism in works of literature and throughout history, these sorts of behaviors would no longer exist in today’s world. Perhaps society as a whole needs to read Shakespeare’s Othello together to fully understand the damaging effects of racism, whether it is an intentional or ignorant act.

Racism in Venice 

by Andrea Garcia

The chosen setting of Othello, Venice, was an artistic and strategic decision by Shakespeare for a variety of reasons. Venice during Shakespeare’s time was a predominantly wealthy city, full of commerce and trade, and “it was a racial, religious, and ethnic melting pot” (“Shakespeare and Venice”). However, there were still racial and social tensions within Venetian society. These tensions are influential in Othello because Shakespeare uses Venetian society to show how people interact with those of different races or backgrounds. Venice is also used to represent individual displacement and the distrust in ‘Moors’ despite them having a significant title in society. 

According to Caciedo’s article “Othello, Stranger in a Strange Land,” Othello struggles to assimilate into Venetian society, and Venice makes this increasingly difficult because it does not “perceive and receive” Othello despite the city being recognized as a ‘melting pot.’ Othello represents “what immigrants might encounter” (Caceido 16) in Venice, and these encounters include the absorption of cultural identities, isolation, and segregation. Othello is a well-recognized leader in the army, and he has contributed much of his effort to helping war related causes. However, Othello finds himself in a “segregationist society” that takes advantage of his services. Caceido describes Othello as an integrationist, which is essentially someone who “seeks to maintain cultural identity while simultaneously having ‘daily interactions with others’” (Caceido 19). He marries Desdemona, a Venetian inhabitant, so he is forced to interact with society. Unfortunately, he is merely tolerated by Venetians because of his work, but he is disrespected because he is a ‘Moor.’ 

Gender Identity in Othello

by Abigail Berkowitz and Alexandra Sullivan

William Shakespeare’s play Othello captures the gender ideals of his current society and how those ideals are challenged by Queen Elizabeth’s redefined expression of femininity. As the male characters maintain a more traditional identity and the female characters strive for a more progressive expression, power tensions ensue as each question the authority one believes to rightfully have over the other.

The Elizabethan era held women in a respect that is so vastly dissimilar to the present and gave them a different place in the social hierarchy. Their social status can be defined as quoted in the article “Gender, Class and the Social Order in Late Elizabethan Drama,” stating “…in potestate maritorum…” (Suzuki 1). This references the complete authority a man has over a woman which was apparent in marital relationships. A woman was expected to partake in arranged marriages, often being forced to marry a man she did not love. Additionally, she had little voice in how her husband treated her and was expected to follow his command. In potestate maritorum was also applicable to other domains aside from marriage. Voting and inheritance were reserved strictly for the males along with aspects of education, starkly contrasting to the expectations of and restrictions placed upon their counterparts. Women were not allowed to attend university, ultimately leaving the fields of law and medicine open only to men and limiting the woman to domestic jobs. In addition, society was weary of female public appearances, depriving them of theater and stage careers as female roles in plays were performed by men.

The notion of women as the inferior sex is not unique to the Elizabethan time period. In fact, heavy influence of this concept was initiated by ancient societies, specifically Greece, which regarded women as the source of many of their problems. In Therese Kemp’s book, Women in the Age of Shakespeare, she discusses England’s adoption of ancient customs and recounts accepted myths of ancient Greece. Kemp writes about both Pandora, a woman who released pain, death, and sickness into the world by opening “Pandora’s box,” and the devilish wives of Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle (1). These common depictions of sinful and naive women gave rise to traditional Elizabethan culture of male supremacy.

Ironically, although male dominance was conventional, England at the time was ruled by a woman: Queen Elizabeth. She is considered a peculiar figure in history because while she lived in this tradition of male supremacy, her strength added to the power of many women and was a catalyst in England’s progressiveness. Reviews of the article, “Shakespeare and Elizabeth,” by Helen Hackett, suggest Queen Elizabeth’s unique characteristics in comparison to society at that time. She appeared as a royal figure with the appropriate dress, but her wit, brutal honesty, and independence strayed from “…the feminine qualities that Victoria epitomized.” The contrast between her and other queens was severe and her “…masculine qualities…” (Frye 603) were not admired by all. The masculinity Elizabeth presented through her female figure was not generally accepted in the traditional Elizabethan society, many describing her as “…a grotesque and tyrannical un-woman…”(Sandler 1). Despite the controversy, her confidence to come out as a deviant with her redefined femininity is a phenomenon deeply intertwined into the themes of many of the Shakespearean plays.

Shakespeare’s writings were designed to be performed in the theatre in front of a more traditional audience, but even though roles were created in his plays to display their traditional ideals, many of the roles were influenced by Elizabeth’s own ideology. Specifically in Othello, the results of the many struggles in the three main relationships ⸺ Emilia and Iago, Bianca and Cassio, and Desdemona and Othello⸺,  identify with either the traditional in potestate maritorum, or the strength asserted by Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare introduces Emilia, a wife to military ancient Iago, giving her a noble and respected status in society. Of a woman of her standing, she is expected like other women of her rank, to be as close to traditional female ideals as possible. During a disagreement with Iago, Emilia defiantly persists that he “… has little cause to say…” (II.i.121) that she is emotional and judgemental, negating any of her husband’s insistence that she possesses the negative stereotypical female traits. Iago reclaims her newfound strength in speech, with a nonchalant “Come on, come on!” (II.ii.122), treating her as if she is thick-headed or child-like. He even goes as far to say that all women “…rise to play, and go to bed to work.” (II.ii.127), reducing her value in society to childlike individuals built for the sexual pleasure of men. Emilia does not follow through with an equally witty retort as she does not even reply to these verbal insults. Iago has diminished her worth as a woman and overall human being, causing her to diminish her response to a size equal to the amount of importance Iago associates with her.

Bianca, a lover of Cassio’s, who’s job as a prostitute, diverges her character from the sexually demure and domestic-bound standards of the traditional Elizabethan woman. Regardless of her lesser position in society, Bianca is outspoken and relentless, inquiring to Cassio as they cross paths about “What [kept him] a week away…”(III.iv.196), to which he responds with a brief apology. Cassio’s egocentrism quickly stifles the sentiment of his regret as he instructs Bianca to immediately copy the embroidery of Desdemona’s handkerchief. The quick dismissal of her emotional speech strikes into the belly of the beast, as Cassio reclaims the wit and groundedness⸺once an indicator of his masculinity⸺Bianca stole. In a gesture unlike the courage and honesty she displayed only moments ago, Bianca submissively complies by following Cassio out of the audience’s view to eventually carry out his command. At first Bianca asserts herself in a manner paralleled to the actions of Queen Elizabeth, but against Cassio’s persistence of maintaining traditional gender roles, Bianca, regardless of her desires, molds to the role that most compliments his preferred expression.

            Desdemona is the wife of the play’s namesake and the virgin daughter of a Venetian senator, providing her with a high status and a sexual purity that is demanded of respectable Elizabethan women. During their final scene together, Othello and Desdemona argue over the punishment for her falsely-accused marital infidelity, Desdemona displaying honesty and bravery in persisting that she never “…gave [Cassio] token.” (V.ii.76) over her body. As Othello’s intentions of killing Desdemona are stated more and more as an inevitable and necessary consequence, her requests to extend her life become shorter and shorter, forcing Desdemona to submit. She “…is too late…” (V.ii.105) however, as Othello finally quenches his thirst for revenge against the source of his insecurity by smothering Desdemona, he swiftly ends her life. Desdemona is forced from her initial, progressive expression of the female gender, into a permanent, constrictive mold of tradition, by keeping her forever silent and compliant.

            As men and women’s beliefs about gender identity and expression evolve or remain static, the compatibility of their presentations impact the conflict between each other. Shakespeare illustrates this power struggle by paralleling the dynamic of his male and female characters in Othello, to his society’s own evolution of and struggle to accept different performances of masculinity and femininity.    

Symbolism in Othello: The Characters’ Nationalities

by Galilea Estrella

In Othello we are told of the nationalities of some of the main characters. Cassio is from Florence (Shakespeare 1.1.19), Desdemona is from Venice since she is the daughter of a Venetian noble (Shakespeare 1.3.288-294), and Iago is from Florence (Shakespeare 3.1.37-41). This information to the modern audience is insignificant but to the audience in the 17th century this probably meant something. The audience being informed that Cassio and Iago are from Florence might have been a red flag. The recent history of Florence at that time was about the turmoil and the scandals of the Medici family who were the rulers of Florence for certain years in the 16th century. The audience could have developed a stereotype about Iago and Cassio being the villains because they were from Florence. Giving the sense that Cassio is a villain due to the stereotype might have helped to confuse the audience during that time. The bad reputation that the Medici established and that they governed over Florence would have helped in establishing this stereotype. One of Venice’s reputations during 16th Century was about having the largest number of courtesans (Rutter). This could have created a stereotype against Desdemona. Since Venice was known for its immoral women than Desdemona is an immoral woman as well. Shakespeare might have included these nationalities in order to trick the audience and possibly create foreshadow for the story.

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