Welcome to the Othello study guide! Our team of writers has thoroughly explored the play and answered the most crucial questions about it. The author of Othello, William Shakespeare, was the most famous playwright of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It affected the play’s themes and setting. Thus, knowing Othello’s historical context is essential for understanding the tragedy, as you’ll see here. From other articles in the study guide, you’ll learn about the story’s plot, characters, symbols, and more!
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💁 All You Need to Know about Othello
The original title of the play is Othello, the Moor of Venice. Yet, similarly to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, another famous Shakespeare’s play, it’s shortened to the name of the main character.
William Shakespeare wrote the Othello play. It’s known as one of his most influential and unusual works due to the black protagonist in particular, which wasn’t typical for the time.
Othello by William Shakespeare was written approximately in 1603. The story reflects the time period and its racial and political tensions.
The play was published in 1622, long after it was written and staged. It was usually the case for Shakespeare’s plays.
🗺️ Othello Study Guide: Navigation
A short summary of the play with overall analysis and pictures that illustrate each act.
A summary and analysis of the first scene of the play. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the second scene of the play. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the third scene of the play. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the first and second scenes of Act 2. Active themes and characters.
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A summary and analysis of the third scene of Act 2. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the first and second scenes of Act 3. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the third scene of Act 3. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the fourth scene of Act 3. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the first scene of Act 4. Active themes and characters.
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A summary and analysis of the second scene of Act 4. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the third scene of Act 4. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the first scene of Act 5. Active themes and characters.
A summary and analysis of the last scene of the entire play. Active themes and characters.
All the characters from the play explained – from Othello and Desdemona to Iago and Emilia.
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Racism, sexism, jealousy, and deception explored as themes of Othello.
All the key symbols (the handkerchief, The Willow Song, and more) analyzed along with the play’s imagery and language.
What Shakespearean Tragedy is and what it represents for the time period explained.
The most important quotes by Iago, Othello, and others examined.
Original ideas to write an essay or research paper on Othello.
Free and helpful essay samples on Othello from other students.
Who William Shakespeare was and how he influences English literature and plays in particular.
The most popular questions about the play answered with explanations.
🔑 Othello: Key Facts
|Full Title:||Othello, the Moor of Venice|
|Type Of Work:||Play|
|Where does Othello take place?||Venice (Act 1), Cyprus (Acts 2-5)|
|When does Othello take place?||Around the second half of the 16th-century|
|How many acts are in Othello?||There are five acts in Othello.|
|Main Themes:||Racism, deception (contradiction between reality and appearance), jealousy, and misogyny|
⚔️ Historical Context of Othello
William Shakespeare was the favorite of both monarchs who ruled at the time, Elizabeth I and James I. Most of his famous plays were written at that time. Othello was written around 1603, during the Elizabethan era and Shakespeare’s significant tragic period.
Since the mid-fifteenth century and until the beginning of the seventeenth century, the religious tensions between Christian Venice and Muslim Ottoman Empire were ongoing. Shakespeare situated Othello in the latest conflict, known as the War of Cyprus. It began with the order of Sultan Selim II to invade the island, which the Republic of Venice controlled. The Ottoman Empire spent several months invading the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia, successfully.
The events of Othello are placed one year after the invasion of Cyprus. The author’s choice to set the events of the play during this period is significant. The Battle of Lepanto ended with the defeat of the Ottomans. It restored Christian control over the region. As a former Muslim, Othello proves his loyalty to Christianity. The Ottoman-Venetian war continued into the eighteenth century. The domestic issues in Othello mirrored the conflict between the two states.
Othello was created using not only historical facts. Shakespeare based his play on the prose tale Un Capitano Moro by Cinthio. The original story tells about a Moorish general, whose ensign tells him about the unfaithfulness of the general’s wife. Shakespeare complemented the story by adding different characters and setting the actions against the military conflict.
The question of whether Othello is black is still up for debate. In the play, he’s been referred to as “thick lips” and “old black ram,” which sound like racial descriptions. Let’s see first what a Moor is in Othello.
The word Moor used in the play now refers to the Islamic Arabic inhabitants. However, at that time, people used the term broadly and applied it to African Americans. Although Othello was referred to as a “black Moor,” the meaning in the context was hard to grasp. Early modern Europeans maintained a color prejudice from two perspectives. First, the climate and the exposure to the sun resulted in darkened skin. Second, the discrimination came from the story of Noah’s cursed son Ham, who was “black and loathsome.” However, in the last example, it is more referred to his behavior and sins rather than his skin color.
So, why is Othello called the Moor in the play? Even though the main character never provided the information of his birthplace, we assume that he is indeed dark-skinned. By calling Othello the Moor, Iago emphasized their difference in skin color. His “blackness” is used symbolically in the play. Actors at the time would darken their skin with coal to indicate the Moorish roots. Yet, the audience would perceive the main character’s dark skin as representing his evil nature.
Before Shakespeare, actors would perform wherever they could. Then, the Common Council passed the law that required the licensing of theaters in London. Performances in Elizabethan England’s theaters took place during the day to ensure good lighting. One peculiar characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays is that they were published after the performance rather than before. Most of the time, plays were a record of what happened on stage instead of what should have happened.
🕵️ Origins of the Play
As previously mentioned, Othello was based on the prose tale Un Capitano Moro. The story tells about an unnamed Moor who married Desdemona, despite her parents’ disapproval. Moor is appointed as the commander of the troops sent to Cyprus, and he takes his wife with him. Commander’s ensign falls in love with Desdemona, who only notices her husband. The ensign then imagines that she loves the captain and plots to revenge himself on both. He hints at Moor that his wife is unfaithful, to which the commander asks for proof.
The ensign steals Desdemona’s handkerchief and puts it on the captain’s bed. He comes back to return it to the commander’s wife but runs away as he sees the Moor. The commander asks his wife to show the handkerchief, but she cannot. Then, he plots with the ensign to kill the captain and the wife. The ensign wounds the captain on the leg with the sword. Then, he and the Moor beat Desdemona to death with sand-filled stockings and make it appear as the falling roof had killed her.
The ensign accuses Moor of killing Desdemona as they are back in Venice. His wife’s family kills the commander. In the end, the ensign is arrested and died after torture.
Shakespeare dramatized the original story. The antagonist, Iago, had different motives for destroying Othello. Roderigo was a means for Iago to create his wicked plans and demonstrate his ability to manipulate. Besides, Shakespeare changed the story ending significantly. Othello murders his wife alone, face-to-face while struggling with his love for her.
🎞️ Most Famous Movie Adaptations of Othello
William Shakespeare is the most filmed playwright of all time. His play was adapted into movies countless amount of times. Here, we’ve listed some of the well-known and worth watching Othello movies:
Main cast: Orson Welles
The movie was filmed for three years, as the production would stop periodically to raise funds to continue production. The original plot is closely followed in the film. However, some parts were restructured. The original material was also shortened to a little more than 90 minutes of the movie, then 3 hours. Despite the difficulties during production, the Othello movie received a high evaluation from critics.
Main cast: Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith
Although Laurence Olivier appeared in blackface on screen, his performance was described as spectacular. The Othello film used enlarged duplicates of the stage setting. The movie kept most of Shakespeare’s original play with no change of the scene order. However, there were some lines cut. This is the only movie in which the whole Othello cast was nominated for Oscars.
Main cast: Laurence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh, Irène Jacob
This movie is the first to be released by a major studio with an African-American playing the main character. Laurence Fishburne’s Othello was highly evaluated by critics. The movie is a straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play with a lot of great performances. Specifically, the performance of Kenneth Branagh in Othello was positively reviewed and described as outstanding.
Main cast: Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston, Keeley Hawes
The movie is a modern adaptation of the original Shakespeare’s play. The characters of the movie are relatively up-to-date characters. Iago is a corrupt police detective, Othello is a black policeman, who is about to become a Commissioner, Desdemona is a wealthy white woman. The adaptation of Othello of 2001 also suggests that the relationship between Iago and Othello is of repressed homosexuality.
Main cast: Carlo Rota, Matthew D. Matteo
The present movie is one of Othello’s adaptations. To keep the runtime under two hours, the director had to cut the material. That resulted in a quite rushed and hard-to-understand story. The movie also had differences in settings. However, the performance of the actors received positive comments from the audience.
Main cast: Hugh Quarshie, Lucian Msamati
This is the video version of the theater performance of Othello. The production is the first in history performance to cast a black actor to play Iago. The performance of the actors is outstanding. It also reveals Othello’s readiness to torture Iago to provide the details of Desdemona’s infidelity.
Main cast: Jupitora Bhuyan, Arup Baishya
The movie is an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. It is an Assamese language drama film. As claimed by a screenplay writer, this is the first Assamese movie to have a call girl as the lead female character.
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