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Historical Context in Othello

Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello is set in Italy. Shakespeare’s source material for the plot was Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, published in 1565. One of the stories in the volume concerns an unnamed Moor of Venice, his new bride “Disdimona,” and his villainous Ensign. The events of Othello take place around the year 1500 when the Venetian and Ottoman empires were in conflict over the cities, islands, and ports of the Mediterranean. Cyprus, where much of the play unfolds, was a Venetian port under almost constant siege by the Ottoman Turks.

Historical Context Examples in Othello:

Act I - Scene I

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"the Moor..."   (Act I - Scene I)

There is a great deal of debate amongst Shakespeare scholars as to the precise meaning of “Moor.” In some instances, the term has been used to describe natives of the region that is now Morocco and Algeria; in others, it has referred to anyone of Arab origin. The question of Othello’s race is also up for debate. Some scholars suggest that the term “Moor” was used in Elizabethan times to denote all black Africans, while others point out that many Moors technically would have been of European ethnicity. These debates have played themselves out in stagings of the play: the role of Othello has been filled by actors of various races, including white actors in blackface.

"Rhodes..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Rhodes and Cypress are islands located in the Adriatic Sea. Beginning in 1423, Venice fought against the Ottoman Empire over various holdings in the Adriatic Sea. Othello is set amidst these wars, particularly the 1570 Turkish invasion of Cypress. Though Shakespeare significantly alters the history, his contemporary audience would have viewed this reference as proof of Iago's extensive military experience.

" wife..."   (Act I - Scene I)

Cassio's wife is never depicted in the play or mentioned again after this line. The primary source text that inspired Othello is Giraldi Cinthio's 1565 Hecatommithi. In Cinthio's story, Cassio is married and his wife is a prominent character. This line is either a reference to this story or evidence of an intended character that Shakespeare either never wrote or removed from the plot.

"Sblood..."   (Act I - Scene I)

This is a short hand way of saying "God's blood," meaning the blood Christ shed when he was on the cross. In order to get around the third commandment (Do not take the Lord's name in vain), speakers in the Early Modern period would curse parts of God, like his blood, rather than God himself.

"yet do they all confirm A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus...."   (Act I - Scene III)

The events of Othello take place around the year 1500, when the Venetian and Ottoman empires were in conflict over the cities, islands, and ports of the Mediterranean. The duke and senate are discussing the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes in this scene. In this time, Cyprus was a Venetian port but Rhodes was not, though both were under almost constant siege by the Ottoman Turks.

"I learned it in England, where indeed they are most(70) potent in potting...."   (Act II - Scene III)

While the play and, in most cases, its productions are English, Othello’s characters are almost exclusively Italian. In tangential passages such as this, Shakespeare pokes fun at his countrymen to the likely delight of his Elizabethan audiences.

"Why, masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' the nose thus?..."   (Act III - Scene I)

The clown’s joke originates from the reputation of Naples as a hotbed of syphilis. The sharp, nasal tone of the instruments sounds similar to that of a man whose nose is affected by syphilis. Shakespeare’s plays are a blend of high and low sensibilities. In each of his plays, one can find both serious meditations and dirty jokes.

"green-eyed monster..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Renaissance men often suspected their wives of adultery because of the stigma around being a "cuckold." A cuckolded man (a man whose wife is cheating on him) faced both social humiliation and ruined credit. Such harsh consequences led to frequent paranoia, also called horn-madness because of the metaphorical horns that supposedly sprout from the cuckold's brow. Othello's anxiety, though unfair, is understandable.

"Prithee, tonight Lay on my bed my wedding sheets. Remember; And call thy husband hither...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

It was a tradition in Elizabethan times for a newlywed couple to display their bedsheets in public. The bloodstains on the sheets would serve as proof of the bride’s preserved virginity. Desdemona wishes to show Othello their bedsheets to remind him of her chastity.

"I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, Lay down my soul at stake. If you think other, Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.(15) If any wretch have put this in your head, Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse! For if she be not honest, chaste, and true, There's no man happy; the purest of their wives Is foul as slander...."   (Act IV - Scene II)

This passage represents a note of clarity and truth amidst the sea of confusion. Indeed, Emilia has never seen any signs of infidelity because there are none. Emilia is bold enough to challenge Othello on his assumptions despite his position of authority. Emilia goes on to make a broader statement about the nature of relationships between men and women. She deconstructs the widely accepted double standard that expects women to be entirely chaste and pure. To Emilia, such an expectation is unrealistic, for “there’s no man happy” regardless of a woman’s supposed virtue. Emilia’s comments reveal a great deal about Elizabethan society and remain relevant to this day.

"“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree, Sing all a green willow; Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,(45) Sing willow, willow, willow. The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans; Sing willow, willow, willow; Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones”— Lay by these:—(50) Sing willow, willow, willow” Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon:— Sing all a green willow must be my garland. Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve Nay, that's not next. Hark, who is't that knocks?..."   (Act IV - Scene III)

The Willow Song sung by Desdemona predates Shakespeare’s play. The earliest record of the song can be found in a book of lute music from 1583. The original song was an eight-verse ballad about a man who dies because his lover abandons him. Elizabethan audiences familiar with the song would have understood the fatal foreshadowing at play.

"Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe Should yawn at alteration...."   (Act V - Scene II)

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, an eclipse of the sun is an omen of misfortune on earth. As Othello reflects, the “affrighted globe/Should yawn at alteration.” The alteration—or change—Othello speaks of is Desdemona’s death. His choice to discuss her death on a cosmic scale reflects the depth of his sorrow.

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