William Shakespeare William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England’s national poet, and the “Bard of Avon”. His extant works, including collaborations, consist of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses, some of uncertain authorship. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.
Othello Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1603. It is based on the story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1604. The story revolves around four central characters: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; his beloved wife, Desdemona; his loyal lieutenant, Cassio; and his trusted but ultimately unfaithful ensign, Iago. Given its varied and enduring themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and repentance, Othello is still often performed in professional and community theatre alike, and has been the source for numerous operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
the Globe The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, on land owned by Thomas Brend and inherited by his son, Nicholas Brend and grandson Sir Matthew Brend, and was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613. A second Globe Theatre was built on the same site by June 1614 and closed by an Ordinance issued on 6 September 1642. A modern reconstruction of the Globe, named “Shakespeare’s Globe”, opened in 1997 approximately 750 feet (230 m) from the site of the original theatre. From 1909, the current Gielgud Theatre was called “Globe Theatre”, until it was renamed (in honour of John Gielgud) in 1994.
groundlings A groundling was a person who visited the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century. They were too poor to pay to be able to sit on one of the three levels of the theatre. By paying one penny, they could stand in “the pit”, also called “the yard”, just below the stage to watch the play. Standing in the pit was uncomfortable, and people were usually packed in tightly. The groundlings were commoners who were also referred to as stinkards or penny-stinkers.”pit” or “yard” – where the “groundlings” were – un-roofed space, surrounding the stage on three sides, enclosed by three tiers of roofed galleries. The yard cost less (general admission), the Gallery cost more.
tiring house A “Tiring house” at the rear of the raised platform – where the actors would wait and change.
Elizabeth & James His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men.
public & private theaters – indoor=private: – outdoor=public:
Christians vs. Muslims logical conclusion to draw seems to be that Othello was a Muslim and is now converted to Christianity. Othello is fighting the Turkish fleet, it seems more likely that he is Christian, as he is fighting for the Christian cause against the Muslims. Finally, if the play is indeed set after the 1400s, it is unlikely that a Muslim would be allowed a position of nobility in a Christian society, especially one that had recently rid themselves of Muslim control.
elevated stage
trapdoor About 1,500 audience members could pay extra money to sit in the covered seating areas, while about 800 “groundlings” paid less money to stand in this open area before the stage. The stage itself was divided into three levels: a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area in the back for “discovery scenes”; an upper, canopied area called “heaven” for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called “hell,” accessed by a trap door in the stage.
boy actors
intimacy Iago’s suggestions that Cassio and Desdemona are being intimate, causes Othello to become jealous and angry.
prose / poetry Othello, like Shakespeare’s other plays, is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). Prose: Not everyone in the play speaks in blank verse, which we’ve established is the elegant, high-class way of talking. Characters lower on the social scale don’t talk in a special poetic rhythm; they just talk.
blank verse The nobles typically speak in unrhymed “iambic pentameter” (also called “blank verse”). An “iamb” is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. “Penta” means “five,” and “meter” refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So “iambic pentameter” is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consists of five iambs per line. It’s the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats: ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM. Blank verse is typically reserved for the nobility and other important characters, since it’s kind of a formal way to speak.
couplets two lines of poetry which come next to each other, especially two lines that rhyme with each other and are the same length. Shakespeare uses the break in rhythm — from poetry to prose, or visa versa — to denote emphasis or a change in mood. Note Iago switches from the cynically playful tone of the rhymed couplet in the colloquy to the serious prose in the aside.
aside a comment that a character in a play makes to the audience, which the other characters are supposed not to be able to hear.
soliloquy a speech in a play in which an actor or actress speaks to himself or herself and to the audience, rather than to another actor.
1604 Othello (The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice) is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written in 1603. It is based on the story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1604. Othello was first performed in front of James I of England on November 1, 1604.
racial slurs Iago uses racist slurs when he wakens Brabantio with the news that his daughter, Desdemona (a white Venetian), has eloped with Othello (an older, black man). When Iago says an “old black ram” (Othello) is “tupping” (sleeping with) Brabantio’s “white ewe” (Desdemona), he plays on Elizabethan notions that black men have an animal-like, hyper-sexuality. This seems geared at manipulating Brabantio’s fears of miscegenation (when a couple “mixes races” through marriage and/or sex).
political errors
racial / sexual stereotypes Othello’s treatment of race and sexuality makes it one of Shakespeare’s most relevant and controversial plays. For some, the play’s portrayal of a black man who marries and then brutally murders a white woman in a fit of rage and jealousy makes Othello a racist play. For these critics, Shakespeare seems to endorse a xenophobic (anti-foreigner) attitude that was pretty common throughout England and other parts of Europe. After all, they say, the play is full of characters that express a blatant hatred of black men and foreigners, and these characters often refer to Othello as “thick-lips,” the “devil,” and the “old black ram,” who supposedly contaminates his white wife with his hyper-sexuality. Not only that, but Othello enacts a racist stereotype (that says black men are “savage”) when he strangles his wife on her bed. But for other critics, neither the action in the play nor the characters’ racist attitudes makes the play (or Shakespeare) racist. For some, Othello is a play that portrays racism in a way that provokes the audience into rethinking its ideas and attitudes about race. Many critics argue that Shakespeare’s play asks us to consider the tragedy of how Othello absorbs and internalizes the dominant racist attitudes that surround him. The idea is that Othello is a study of what happens when society tells a man over and over and over again that he is violent, savage, contaminating, and to be feared. In the case of Othello, the character begins to believe it’s all true and acts out a racist stereotype—that of a “savage” killer.
Othello A Moor (an African), a general in the defense forces of the city state of Venice. His successful profession brings him high status in Venice, but his foreign origins and color separate him from those with whom he lives and works. He is a military man, with a reputation for courage in battle and good judgment in military matters. Othello falls in love and marries Desdemona, but during the campaign against the Turks, Othello is tricked by Iago into believing that his wife has been unfaithful with his lieutenant, Cassio. Iago works on Othello’s personal and social insecurity until Othello believes the combination of Iago’s lies and flimsy circumstantial evidence. Inflamed with jealousy, he smothers Desdemona in her bed, only to find out too late that he has been misled and has killed the woman who loved him faithfully. In despair, he kills himself.
Iago Othello’s ancient (captain) in the Venetian defense forces. He had hoped for promotion, but Othello passed over him in favor of Cassio, and Iago works revenge on them both. He exploites Roderigo as a source of money and an unwitting accomplice in his plot to bring down Othello. When finally cornered and charged with his wickedness, Iago refuses to speak or to repent or explain his actions, and he goes to his punishment still surrounded by mystery.
Desdemona A noble Venetian lady, daughter of Brabantio. She organizes her life intelligently and shows courage, love, and loyalty in following her husband into danger. She accompanies Othello to Cyprus on the campaign against the Turks but finds him becoming distant and making wild accusations against her. She firmly believes that he will see that she is true to him, but when she realizes he is about to kill her, she can only feel despair and grief. She dies declaring her love for him.
Cassio Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio’s youth, good looks, and friendship with Desdemona to play on Othello’s insecurities about Desdemona’s fidelity.
Roderigo A jealous suitor of Desdemona. Young, rich, and foolish, Roderigo is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him win Desdemona’s hand. Repeatedly frustrated as Othello marries Desdemona and then takes her to Cyprus, Roderigo is ultimately desperate enough to agree to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.
Emilia Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband.
Brabantio Desdemona’s father, a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. As a friend of Othello, Brabanzio feels betrayed when the general marries his daughter in secret.
Bianca A courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. Bianca’s favorite customer is Cassio, who teases her with promises of marriage.
Montano The governor of Cyprus before Othello. We see him first in Act II, as he recounts the status of the war and awaits the Venetian ships.
Lodovico One of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, Lodovico acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in Act IV with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor.
the handkerchief The handkerchief symbolizes different things to different characters. Since the handkerchief was the first gift Desdemona received from Othello, she keeps it about her constantly as a symbol of Othello’s love. Iago manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to see it as a symbol of Desdemona herself—her faith and chastity. By taking possession of it, he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity. But the handkerchief’s importance to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, so, to him, the handkerchief represents marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries (dyed with virgins’ blood) on a white background strongly suggests the bloodstains left on the sheets on a virgin’s wedding night, so the handkerchief implicitly suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity.
black / white imagery Black and white are symbols of good and evil. They are also a pair, so without white as the symbol of good you cannot fully understand the idea of black as evil. In Othello Shakespeare plays with the traditional conception of black and white and good and evil in society and culture. Shakespeare assigns the ‘good’ character, Othello, black ethnicity and the ‘evil’ character, Iago, white ethnicity. Black and white imagery in Othello is incredibly prominent through out the play as Othello is the only black character we meet. Because Othello is black, he is an out-sider and it is through his colour that Iago manipulates his reputation within society. He basically uses Othello’s colour to say that he is an uncontrolled, lusty, mindless animal who cannot contain his emotions. This paired with Othello’s flaws of being ruled more by his heart than by his head gives for a rather dramatic deterioration of Othello’s character. Othello is black, Desdemona is white. This is powerful imagery, symbolizing the society’s opinion of interracial marriages as ‘good vs. evil’ where Othello (being black) is the ‘evil’. The quote ‘an old black ram is tupping your white ewe’ is a very strong metaphor where Othello is again degraded to evil due to his color. Othello is controlled by his emotions; he is very susceptible to manipulation as he is a very trusting man. Iago uses Othello’s colour to emphasize this making him seem incredibly ‘lusty’ as an old black man. The pure white of Desdemona versus his own ‘blackness’ is a source of insecurity for Othello, leaving him more open to jealousy.
Venice Early modern (c. 1500-1750) Venice is a prosperous Italian city and a symbol of law and civilization. It’s also full of white people, which makes Othello, a black Moor, stand out among the Venetians. Venice also happens to be renowned for its courtesans (prostitutes). When the English thought about Venice, they often imagined it to be a city chock full of promiscuous women.
Cyprus Eventually, action moves to a military encampment in Cyprus, an island sacred to Venus, the goddess of love. On the island of love, away from civilization and rationality, all hell breaks loose (When we say that “all hell has broken loose,” what we’re really saying is that things are going horribly wrong. This common idiom is derived from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.) and Iago is able to convince Othello that Desdemona has been cheating on him. At this military camp, Desdemona has lost any kind of support system she may have had in her hometown of Venice, so she’s vulnerable to the kind of violence associated with the world of men and military.
cuckold A “cuckold” is a man who has been cheated on by his wife, and “cuckolds” are frequently portrayed as having horns. one of the title character’s main fears is that he will be made a “cuckold.” In other words, he fears that his wife will have sex with him behind his back and perhaps even bear the children of another man.
ocular proof The handkerchief becomes Othello’s “ocular proof” of her dishonesty (III.iii.360). The handkerchief, to Desdemona, symbolizes Othello’s love, since it was his first gift to her. Othello thinks that the handkerchief, quite literally, is Desdemona’s love; and when she has lost it, so has she forsaken his love.
seizures Othello is now raving; his words come in an anxious jumble around “handkerchief,” and “confess” until he falls down in a faint. The overstressed mind seeks refuge in unconsciousness. Instead of pity or alarm, Iago only expresses satisfaction that his medicine (poison words) is working. Cassio suggests rubbing Othello about the temples, but Iago calmly waits for him to regain consciousness and takes the opportunity to tell Cassio that Othello has epileptic seizures and bouts of madness. Such a story is Iago’s insurance, in case Othello should later say something that Cassio finds strange. Othello has had an epileptic seizure and is clearly shaken, yet it is obvious that he is still in full possession of his mental faculties. His low self-esteem led him to believe in Desdemona’s betrayal, but his fierce warrior conceit will force him to make sure she pays dearly for her transgression.
miscegenation the intermixing of races via marriage and/or sex. ex) Othello and Desdemona. miscegenation wasstereotypically poor behaviour throughout the ranks of society, disrupting thesocial order of the great chain of being. The cultural view of Africans was thatwhite men feared inadequacy and therefore Othello was bound in tragedy.
animal imagery Beginning in Act 1, Scene 1, Iago introduces the animalistic imagery. According to Iago, there is something bestial and animalistic about Othello (“The old black ram”); he’s base and beastly, somehow beneath everyone else in Venice because of his North African heritage. The animal imagery permeates the play, often referring to Othello’s “otherness.”