A Guide to Othello
Characters • • • • • • • •
Othello, the Moor: A general in the Venetian military. Desdemona, Othello's wife and daughter of Brabantio Iago, Othello's ensign and Emilia's husband. Antagonist. Cassio, Othello's lieutenant. Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant Bianca, Cassio's lover Brabantio, a Venetian senator, Gratiano's brother, and Desdemona's father Roderigo, a dissolute Venetian, in love with Desdemona
Plot synopsis Othello is a black soldier who starts out the novel being accused of stealing his soon-tobe wife Desdemona. However, Desdemona loves Othello very much and the two are to be married much to the dissatisfaction of Desdemona's father. Iago, Othello's right hand man, is angered at the fact that Othello picked a man by the name of Cassio to be more important to him. Iago comes up with a plan to bring down Othello but eventually leads into the downfall of most of the characters. During a fight, Cassio is striped of his replacement markings and has to try to please Othello. Because Othello does not care anymore, he goes to Desdemona to seek help. Iago uses the meeting between Cassio and Desdemona against them and tries to make Othello believe that they are seeing each other. Iago plants a handkerchief in Cassio's room and begins to tell Othello about what he has "seen" Cassio do. Othello becomes increasingly jealous throughout the story and eventually comes to a boiling point when he believes Cassio to be talking about his wife. Othello and Iago come up with a plan to kill Cassio and Desdemona. As Othello tries to kill Desdemona, Emilia who is Iago's wife comes in and tells Othello the truth about Iago. However, it is to late and Desdemona dies. When Othello confronts Iago, the villian kills his own wife and tries to run but is captured by some guards. Othello then proceeds to kill himself because of all the horrible doings that he has done.
Literary sources for the story Shakespeare's primary source for Othello was Un capitano moro ("A Moorish Captain"), one of one hundred short stories in the collection Gli Hecatommithi, published by the Italian, Cinthio. Cinthio's story provides the backbone for Shakespeare's plot, although Shakespeare introduces some minor new characters (such as Brabantio and Roderigo) and other alterations—for instance, in Cinthio's version, Iago's motive for revenge against Othello is that he formerly loved and was rejected by Desdemona. There are also similarities between Othello, "A Moorish Captain," and a story by the name of "The Three Apples" narrated by Scheherezade in the Thousand and One Nights.
Historical background From the eleventh to the fifteenth century, Catholics battled to re-conquer Spain from the Islamic Arabs and Berbers, or Moors, who had successfully occupied it since the 900s.
A Guide to Othello
The struggle inspired intense prejudice and suspicion that lasted well after the Moors were overthrown. Philip III of Spain expelled 300,000 "Moriscos" from the Iberian (Spanish) peninsula not long after Shakespeare finished Othello, in 1609. In England during Shakespeare's time, views regarding "Moors" were slightly more complex because of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in England and English fears of invasion by the Spanish. In fact, England maintained independent trade relationships with "Moorish" Northern Africa, despite Spanish and Portuguese protest. The English slave trade also brought blacks to Europe, from mid-sixteenth century onward. Queen Elizabeth herself founded The Barbary Company, formally institutionalizing this trade; in addition, she received a delegation of Moroccan diplomats in 1600. However, the English still felt a strong suspicion of Islam: Elizabeth issued a degree expelling Moors from Africa and Spanish "Moriscos" from the boundary of England in 1599 and 1601.
Social Background Early17th-century English attitudes toward non-Europeans were largelyshaped by the government's diplomatic policies and, to a lesserextent, by exotic stories brought back by travelers overseas.The term “moor” was derived from the name of the country Mauritania but was used to refer to North Africans, West Africans or, even more loosely, for non-whites or Muslims of any origin. North and West Africans living in Elizabethan England were frequently singled out for their unusual dress, behavior and customs and were commonly referred to as “devils” or “villains.” Moors were commonly stereotyped as sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and generally wicked. The public associated “blackness” with moral corruption, citing examples from Christian theology to support the view that whiteness was the sign of purity, just as blackness indicated sin. Although Queen Elizabeth granted the Moors “full diplomatic recognition” out of gratitude for their help in conquering Spain, in 1601 she deported them, citing concerns about their irregular behavior and a fear that allowing them to stay in England would lead to overpopulation. Blacks were not typically associated with slavery at that time, since the slave trade would not be fully established until the late 17th century. Instead, the Elizabethan portrait of the dark-skinned “other” clearly established him as a bestial force, dangerous because of his sexuality, temper and magical powers.
Political background Elizabeth died in 1603 at the age of 69. Her closest male Protestant relative was the King of Scots, James VI, who became King James I of England in a Union of the Crowns. Several assassination attempts were made on James, most famously on 5 November 1605, by a group of Catholic conspirators, which caused more antipathy in England towards the Catholic faith. Upon taking power, James immediately made peace with Spain, and for the first half of the 17th century, England remained largely inactive in European politics. In 1607 England built an establishment at Jamestown This was the beginning of colonialism by England in North America. Many English settled then in North America for religious or economic reasons. About 70% of migrants from England who came between 1630-1660 were indentured servants. By 1700, Chesapeake planters brought in
A Guide to Othello
about 100,000 indentured servants, more than 75% of all European immigrants to Virginia and Maryland. The English merchants holding plantations in the warm southern parts of America then resorted rather quickly to the slavery of Native Americans and imported Africans in order to cultivate their plantations and sell raw material (particularly cotton and tobacco) in Europe. The First English Civil War broke out in 1642, largely as a result of an ongoing series of conflicts between James' son, Charles I, and Parliament. The defeat of the Royalist army by the New Model Army of Parliament at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 effectively destroyed the king's forces. Charles surrendered to the Scottish army at Newark. He was eventually handed over to the English Parliament in early 1647. He escaped, and the Second English Civil War began, although it was a short conflict, with the New Model Army quickly securing the country. The capture and subsequent trial of Charles led to his beheading in January 1649 at Whitehall Gate in London, making England a republic.
Staging over the years Throughout history, productions of Othello have changed to reflect not only actors' and directors' insights into the play, but also the pervading social thought of the time. Few other plays have caused as much furor over the actors playing key roles or as much emotional discomfort over the subject at hand. The role of Othello has been played by a number of famous actors in history. The first was Richard Burbage, one of the leading actors listed in the First Folio. At the time, Shakespeare's stage was a model of flexibility and efficiency. A special edict from King Charles II allowed women to appear on the English stage for the first time, causing a furor among many of the all-male acting companies, not to mention the more conservative sectors of the population. It was the role of Desdemona that was first played by a professional actress in England. By the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Othello became a battle flag for the Romantic Movement, for the play fell victim to severe cuts that eliminated all its "indecencies." Rather, the role of Othello allowed the actors to suffer the intensity of a full range of emotions before their audience. Edmund Kean, who played the role in the early 1800s, is considered to have given the greatest English interpretation of his century. Many theaters on the European continent could not accept Othello, and in fact it was banished entirely from the French stage throughout the 1700s.
A Guide to Othello
References: • • • •
http://www.chicagoshakes.com/main.taf?p=2,17,9,1,5 http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/plays/othello/othstage.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/othello/