Social Context of "Othello" Essay

664 Words Apr 21st, 2016 3 Pages
On November 1, 1604, King James I and his court were the first to watch a production of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The famous playwright was in the midst of his tragedy period, penning such classics as “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Macbeth.” The story of “Othello” has its roots in the historical events and cultural atmosphere of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

It was a common practice of playwrights at the time to borrow or lift plot ideas from other preexisting stories, and Shakespeare was no exception to the rule. The plot of “Othello” most closely resembles a 1565 story by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio: a Moorish general is tricked by one of his officers into thinking his wife has been unfaithful.
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Iago regards Othello with hateful, stereotypical language, warning Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.87-8). While Othello’s military prowess and noble character earn him his peers’ respect, the fact of his race remains an undeniable issue of conflict. In Shakespeare’s time, racial tension was an acknowledged fact, with uncertainty toward interracial marriages prevalent. The fact that Iago described Othello’s blackness in carnal and animalistic terms was as shocking and provocative then as it is now.

Even Othello’s exact race remains a mystery. Today the word Moor describes the North African Islamic Arabs who took over Spain in the eighth century. In Shakespeare’s day, however, the term was used more loosely to describe people of various African backgrounds. Even people of swarthy or brunette complexion with no African ancestry were called “black” in Elizabethan times. Whether Othello is an actual Moor—that is, a Muslim—is uncertain. Iago calls him a “Barbary horse” (1.1.110), referring to the well-known Arab horse breed and also playing on the word “barbarian” and its savage connotations.

Shakespeare raises the issue of Othello’s blackness throughout the play. While Othello is an outsider because of his race and creed, Shakespeare paints him as a noble, sympathetic character. Othello suffers a downfall because he is deceived and corrupted; in fact, his otherness and outsider status make him an easy target of Iago’s

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