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When Was Othello Written?

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William Shakespeare is believed to have written his tragedy Othello between 1603 and 1604. Actually, it is impossible to determine the exact year. So, scholars use the date of Othello’s first performance as the main evidence for their educated guess.

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In the times of William Shakespeare, plays were meant to be staged and performed as soon as they were finished. The copies of a play included dialogues and stage directions and were meant to be used only by actors. Therefore, nowadays, it is impossible to name the exact date when Othello was written. However, we know that it was first performed on November 1, 1604. This fact allows scholars to believe that the famous play was written in 1603-1604. It was published as a book only in 1622 by Thomas Walkley.

Othello’s premiere took place at the court of King James I. The event happened in the banqueting house at Whitehall under the name The Moor of Venice. The play’s events are set in Cyprus during the times of war that occurred between 1570 and 1573 as one of the stages of a bigger conflict between Christian Venice and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Cyprus was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered a year later. In the play, Shakespeare describes the importance of this historical event:

“When we consider
The importancy of Cyprus to the Turk,
And let ourselves again but understand,
That as it more concerns the Turk than Rhodes,
[…]
We must not think the Turk is so unskilful
To leave that latest which concerns him first,
Neglecting an attempt of ease and gain,
To wake and wage a danger profitless.”
(Act 1, scene 3).

The play’s plot is focused on its two central characters:

  • Othello, a Moorish general serving in the Venetian army
  • Iago, Othello’s junior officer.

The plot was borrowed from Un Capitano Moro – an Italian novel written by Giraldi Cinthio. Shakespeare made the play more dramatic. How? He introduced some new details and compressed the action to the modern English public’s tastes.

This plot’s choice is supposedly explained by Shakespeare’s desire to impress King James I, who came to power in 1603. The king was interested in Turkish culture and despised witchcraft. So, Othello conquered the monarch’s heart. However, the main themes and issues that the playwright is dealing with come from the Elizabethan age.

Othello is a social commentary on the mistrust towards the Ottoman empire and hatred towards war. Moreover, the play also dwells on developing varied themes and topics of philosophic nature:

  • love
  • jealousy
  • betrayal
  • race
  • religion

Written more than four hundred years ago, Othello remains relevant to the present-day public. Thus, the play is often performed around the world. The roles of Othello and Iago have become significant milestones for many actors. The most famous “Otellos” are Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, Richard Burton, William Marshall, Laurence Olivier.

The play has become the basis for multiple artistic, musical, film, and literary adaptations. Among the most critically acclaimed movies is Orson Welles’ adaptation. It won Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival and Oliver Parker’s 1995 film. Also, it became the first major cinematic production of Othello that casted an African American actor to play the Othello’s role.

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