What are the contextual factors important to the study of 'Othello'?
To Elizabethan society in the late 16th century Italy meant ‘crime rather than art, the devious head rather then the simple heart’ - What are the contextual factors important to the study of 'Othello'? introduction. Italian women were seen as ‘very lewd and wicked’, with many thousands paying ‘monthly unto the pope for the sinful use of their bodies’, a quote from a Londoner around the time that Shakespeare wrote ‘Othello’. It had become very popular on 16th century English theatre to set plays in Italy.
To the Elizabethans the culture of Italy would have seemed very different to their own, and with travel writing becoming very popular it is clear that the were interested to learn about countries other than their own. Therefore, by setting the play in Italy Shakespeare made sure it would be attractive to the audience. In the 16th century Venice was a powerful city state built on the new wave of capitalism that had entered Europe. Venice was also the protector of Christianity against the Barbarians, or the Turks.
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Elizabethan views of Venice were that it was ‘a place full of tight political plots and loose women’, and it was believed that it was full of ‘Venetian Cortezans… at the least twenty thousand’. ‘Venice was also a byword for exotic vices and unbridled passions’, according to one writer. However it was also thought that Venetian society was far more law-abiding than that of Cyprus and so Shakespeare may have used this as a contrast. Cyprus is the setting for the most part of ‘Othello’, it was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570, and conquered the following year.
Cyprus was seen as the isle of love in the 16th century, as it was said to be the birthplace of Venus, Love’s Goddess, it is therefore ironic that Shakespeare sends his lovers here to die. As mentioned above, Cyprus was far less stable than Venice at this time. With ‘Othello’, Shakespeare extended the traditional view of black characters as stage villains or mindless exotics, used at times in his earlier plays. Elizabethans would have encountered most black people as slaves or entertainers, as they were regularly brought to England from Africa from the 1570s onwards for this purpose.
Therefore in ‘Othello’ it would have been unusual for them to see a black man with power. It would also be extremely unusual for a white woman to marry a black man and so this would also shock the Elizabethan audience. Also, Venice was regarded as a ‘racial and religious melting pot’. Elizabethans believed that ‘southern men are hot, lascivious and jealous… and subject to prodigious lust’, this fits with both the way Shakespeare portrays the character of Othello and how other characters see Othello.
In the time Shakespeare was writing ‘Othello’ there were very clearly defined gender roles, and the woman’s was defined by her role within the family and the man had complete control over her. This is why Brabantio would have been so shocked at Desdemona’s betrayal when she married Othello. This would also have shocked the Elizabethan society, as it was socially unacceptable for a woman to disobey her father in this way. The qualities of a perfect women according to many at the time were chastity, silence and obedience, or ‘to be mild, timorous, tractable and benign’.
Most of the women characters in ‘Othello’ seem the embodiment of these qualities, excepting perhaps Emilia. However, it was also said at the time that ‘wives are slippery, often unfaithful to their husbands but to old men most treacherous’. This view may have been what worried Othello and what Iago played on to arouse his jealousy. A woman in Elizabethan times was always considered inferior to a man, and this is shown when Othello believes Iago over Desdemona. In ‘Othello’ reputation is important to many of the characters, especially to Othello himself.
Reputation would have been very important to men in the 16th century, both in business and in their family life. Othello has a great reputation as a general and Cassio also has a good reputation for his part in the army. It is Cassio’s reputation in his business that Iago intends to destroy, but Othello’s reputation as a husband. In Elizabethan times if a man found out his wife was cheating on him he had two options. The first was to live as a ‘cuckold’, meaning they should wear the metaphorical horns of a foolish husband, or he could publicly pronounce her.
Othello clearly is afraid of living as a cuckold, he evens believes Iago can see the horns on his head and this is very damaging to his precious reputation. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are described as tragedies, and most of the plays written at the time would have followed Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, including ‘Othello’. Aristotle outlined his ideas in ‘The Poetics’, he defined tragedy as ‘the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, of a certain magnitude, dramatically presented rather than in narrative form; through pity and fear affecting the purgation of these emotions’.
The tragedy should be centred on a hero, who will suffer a change in his fortunes in the course of the play, produced by a fatal error of judgement, his hamartia. Shakespeare was clearly following these guidelines when writing his plays. Elizabethan tragedies were also influenced by the Roman writer, Seneca. This led to developments including the five-act drama in a neo-classical manner, as in Othello, and to the revenge tragedy which was very popular in Elizabethan times. One other thing that distinguished tragedies from this period was the idea of mingling comic elements with the tragic.