The plot of Shakespeare’s Othello is largely taken from Giraldi Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, a tale of love, jealousy, and betrayal; however, the characters, themes, and attitudes of the two works are vastly different, with Shakespeare’s play being a more involved study of human nature and psychology. One of the major deviations from the source, is the motivation of the Iago figure. Cithio’s Iago was driven to revenge when Desdemona refused to have an affair with him; Iago’s motivations are not nearly so plain in Shakespeare’s version.
Othello also touches upon a major issue in Europe of this time period; the intermingling of Muslim religion and culture with the West. Written just a century after the Muslims were driven out of Spain as a part of the Reconquista, there are obvious threads of hostility within the play about Othello’s Moorish origins, and his differences in religion and culture. The hostility between the West and the East is also shown in the conflict between Venice and the Turks; the Christian Venetians want to protect Christendom from the influence of the Muslim Turks, and ironically, Moorish Othello is the one sent to complete this mission.
Othello is considered to be a prime example of Aristotelian drama; it focuses upon a very small cast of characters, one of the smallest seen in Shakespeare’s body of work, has few distractions from the main plot arc, and concentrates on just a few central themes. As such, it is one of the most intense and focused plays Shakespeare wrote, and has also enjoyed a great amount of popularity from the Jacobean period to the present day.
The character of Iago is a variation on the Vice figure found in earlier morality plays; he deviates from this model because of his lack of a clear motivation, and because of his portrayal as a very malignant figure. However, Iago is less of a character than a changeable device for the plot, and in this sense, he is a clear descendant of the omnipresent “vice” figure. Iago’s great cunning, manipulative abilities, and almost supernatural perception mean that he is a very formidable foe, and this makes Othello’s fall seem even more inevitable and tragic.
One reason for the overwhelming popularity of the play throughout the ages is that it focuses on two people who defied society in order to follow their own hearts. Shakespeare scholar Walter Cohen cites the popularity of Othello during times of great rebellion and upheaval; the play was most popular during the European wars of the mid-19th century, the fall of Czarist Russia, and also during World War II in America. These productions tended to emphasize the nobility and love of Othello and Desdemona, and made their fall seem more tragic and ill-deserved.
Taken from The Norton Shakespeare, introduction to Othello by Walter Cohen.
Othello was first performed by the King’s Men at the court of King James I on November 1, 1604. Written during Shakespeare’s great tragic period, which also included the composition of Hamlet (1600), King Lear (1604–5), Macbeth (1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606–7), Othello is set against the backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey that raged in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Cyprus, which is the setting for most of the action, was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered the following year. Shakespeare’s information on the Venetian-Turkish conflict probably derives from The History of the Turks by Richard Knolles, which was published in England in the autumn of 1603. The story of Othello is also derived from another source—an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio (usually referred to as Cinthio). The original story contains the bare bones of Shakespeare’s plot: a Moorish general is deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful. To Cinthio’s story Shakespeare added supporting characters such as the rich young dupe Roderigo and the outraged and grief-stricken Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father. Shakespeare compressed the action into the space of a few days and set it against the backdrop of military conflict. And, most memorably, he turned the ensign, a minor villain, into the arch-villain Iago.
The question of Othello’s exact race is open to some debate. The word Moor now refers to the Islamic Arabic inhabitants of North Africa who conquered Spain in the eighth century, but the term was used rather broadly in the period and was sometimes applied to Africans from other regions. George Abbott, for example, in his A Brief Description of the Whole World of 1599, made distinctions between “blackish Moors” and “black Negroes”; a 1600 translation of John Leo’s The History and Description of Africa distinguishes “white or tawny Moors” of the Mediterranean coast of Africa from the “Negroes or black Moors” of the south. Othello’s darkness or blackness is alluded to many times in the play, but Shakespeare and other Elizabethans frequently described brunette or darker than average Europeans as black. The opposition of black and white imagery that runs throughout Othello is certainly a marker of difference between Othello and his European peers, but the difference is never quite so racially specific as a modern reader might imagine it to be.
While Moor characters abound on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, none are given so major or heroic a role as Othello. Perhaps the most vividly stereotypical black character of the period is Aaron, the villain of Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus. The antithesis of Othello, Aaron is lecherous, cunning, and vicious; his final words are: “If one good deed in all my life I did / I do repent it to my very soul” (Titus Andronicus, V.iii.188–189). Othello, by contrast, is a noble figure of great authority, respected and admired by the duke and senate of Venice as well as by those who serve him, such as Cassio, Montano, and Lodovico. Only Iago voices an explicitly stereotypical view of Othello, depicting him from the beginning as an animalistic, barbarous, foolish outsider.