Othello: Some First Impressions.

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.

Alistair Stanley

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5 thoughts on “Othello: Some First Impressions.

  1. Karen Barba

    It’s interesting to see Shakespeare include the genre of history in his plays as well as tragedy. Which makes me wonder if Shakespeare was saying something about history always being a tragedy because for the most part, Shakespeare’s historical plays usually end up in tragedy.

    Reply
  2. gerouc1

    Othello is my favorite tragedy and I am so excited to see that there are some who are experiencing this play for the first time.
    I feel like a bad actor for not looking more into the history surrounding the events in the play, especially when I love it so much, so thank you for your brief explanation on the historical aspects of the events surrounding the world of the play.
    I think I see what you mean in saying that Othello’s ethnicity isn’t important to certain aspects of the overall play, but I think it is more then just that Shakespeare wanted to add Exotic flavor to the story. If anything, I think Othello’s ethnicity surged the events of the play to the point where Iago felt the absolute need to put the events in motion. If it had been another Venetian, I don’t feel that Iago would have acted the same way.

    Reply
  3. sielittrell

    I really like how you talked about the historical context in which this play was written, or what it was written about. It adds another level to the understanding of the text. Also, I like how you have examined Othello’s ethnicity. I agree that it doesn’t really matter exactly where he was from, or if he was muslim. I take it more that he is an outsider, maybe even one that is considered threatening simply because of his Moor-ness, and what that means to the play and how the audience perceived him.

    Reply
  4. sabrinabyrne

    I am in love with your blog post because you included so much detail about the history of when this play is taking place. This is very useful because there may be things that we are unfamiliar with throughout the play and that could be attributed to the time it took place. Shakespeare is constantly using some of the same concepts in his works. In this one he is bringing an outside source, Othello, into a village. This often is an upset to someone in the town, Roderigo, which causes inter turmoil. I am interested to see where the play is going to end up

    Reply

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