Othello will be the first tragedy this class will have studied together, and I am quite excited! I have never read or seen Othello until now, and from my first impressions when reading act 1, I can tell I have missed out! Othello is set in late sixteenth century Venice, during a time of warfare between the Italian City State and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. These wars play a part in the storyline of Othello, as a Turkish Fleet attempts to invade Cyprus. Historically this event occurred in 1570 and saw a decisive Turkish Victory against Venice and Her allies. (including an Austrian Prince known as Don John who led one of the few victories for the Europeans at The Battle of Lepanto.) The Ottoman Empire was at its height during the time Othello was first performed 1604, and was one of the most powerful Empires in the world. The empire was viewed with very cautious and curious eyes by the Christian West, with many exaggerated tales spreading across Europe about Turkish “Barbarism.” The mystery and danger the Turks represented certainly had the Elizabethan public’s attention as Othello was not the first play written which featured The Ottoman Empire. Earlier works include Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe. Overall Shakespeare’s use of the Turks is as a means to move the story along, with his danger and drama coming from characters and not this outward threat.
Othello himself is a Moor. Today the Moors are most known for invading the Iberian peninsula during the Eighth Century, they are of Arab-Berber descent and inhabit Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa. The term Moor was also used to refer to a Muslim in Western Europe, however this practice had largely stopped by the sixteenth century. There is still some debate over the ethnicity of Othello, was he an Islamic Moor or an African? While named a Moor, the descriptions given about him in the play would suggest otherwise, for instance in act 1 Scene 1: “What full fortune does the thick-lips owe.” (1.1.66) “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” (1.1.88) These lines, while feeling racist suggest that Othello was intended to be of African decent. It is most likely that Othello was intended to be from Sub-Saharan Africa, a region not many people would have been to in Elizabethan London.
Overall Othello’s ethnicity really isn’t that important, what is important is understanding why Shakespeare chose his titular hero to be a Moorish Venetian General. My best suggestion is that Othello adds to the exotic nature of the play. Venice, The Ottoman Empire and the Moors are all far flung lands and people only really known to the English through stories and word of mouth. Foreign lands will always be interesting to people, be it if they are from sixteenth century London or from twenty first century Britain.