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Social Context of "Othello"

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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. Shakespeare took the basic plot points of this tale and embellished them for dramatic effect, adding characters like Roderigo and Brabanzio and more fully developing the character of the villain, Iago. To heighten and speed up the drama, “Othello” takes place over the span of a few days.

The backdrop of “Othello” has its origins in the real-life conflicts between Turkey and Venice that occurred in the late 16th century. The action of the play takes place in Cyprus, a Venetian military outpost that was conquered by the Turks in 1571. A contemporary study of these wars was “The History of the Turks,” written and published by Richard Knolles in 1603—just a year before “Othello” premiered. It is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare, like anybody of the time who kept abreast of recent historical events, would be familiar with Knolles’ work.

“Othello” is notable for the development and treatment of its title character. For perhaps the first time, a fictional character of African descent was portrayed in a non-stereotypical manner. In fact, Othello is a noble figure, respected by the leaders of Venice and admired by the men who serve…...

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