Othello By William Shakespeare The Moor of Venice
Written in 1603. • Set in Venice and Cypress. Venice Cyprus
The Moors • Descriptive term, not cultural. • Specifically – medieval Muslim people from NW Africa (Morocco, Algeria), the Iberian peninsula (Spain, Portugal, French Riviera), and some islands. • Generically – anyone from Africa. • Skin color varied – not necessarily black. • Othello has a darker complexion and is of the north African region, an outsider regardless
Key Information • Issues of jealousy, suspicion, reputation. • First major play to deal with race, racism, interracial relationships. • Othello is first major black protagonist in Western literature. • Due to segregation and miscegenation laws, Othello was played by a white man in blackface. • Paul Robeson, a son of slaves, was first black man to play Othello in 1930… major scandal.
Iago’s Treacherous Tongue • Iago is one of the most famous villains in Shakespeare’s writings. • He’s complex in his motivations, his actions, and his reactions. • He’s a master liar and manipulator, skilled with words, and he’s a nasty Character.
Othello • Othello is the protagonist. He is well-travelled, been a slave, escaped, and become a respected war hero in Venice. As the play opens, he has just married Desdemona, the white daughter of a Venetian senator. • He is thoughtful, a loving husband, and a story-teller. He is both insider and outsider: a Christian who is honored for his battle skills but also a black Moor and a foreigner subject to overt racism and hostility.
Iago • Othello’s “ancient” (personal ensign or attendant) and the primary antagonist. • Iago is jealous and bitter because he has been passed over for a promotion (it went to Michael Cassio). He is manipulative, two-faced, and a plotter, creating a cruel web of suspicion and tarnishing reputations for the seeming fun of it. He prides himself on his schemes and often reflects on his cleverness. • Unlike other major characters in Shakespeare, whose motivations are clear, Iago’s is left ambiguous and incompatible.
Desdemona • Beautiful, rich debutante who rejects her father’s proscribed role and social convention to marry the older, black Othello. • Adventurous and erotically attracted to her husband, she follows him to Cypress, but she is also rather naïve about marital relationships and propriety. She doesn’t see any danger in her behavior or what it suggests.
Emilia • Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid-servant. She is older than her mistress and cynical about marriage, contrasting Desdemona’s innocence and naivety. She’s bitter about her marriage to Iago, who regularly abuses her verbally, but she wants to please him.
Michael Cassio • Othello’s lieutenant (second in command) in Cypress. He’s a tactician, not a warrior, and his promotion has frustrated Iago. He’s flirtatious and charismatic, but he is prone to rash action and shallow views of women. He becomes a target of Iago’s ploys.
Roderigo • A rich, jilted suitor of Desdemona’s who becomes a puppet of Iago’s. He thinks he can buy Desdemona’s affection with gifts. • Wearing a disguise of a beard, he follows Othello and crew to Cyprus in the hopes of winning Desdemona back.
Other Characters • Brabantio – Desdemona’s father and a Venetian senator. He likes Othello but would not have agreed to the marriage. • Bianca – a Venetian courtesan (read: prostitute) and Cassio’s “girlfriend.” Acts as a foil for Desdemona. • Lodovicio – a Venetian gentleman and Desdemona’s cousin who remains as witness to the events of the play. • Montano – former governor of Cyprus. • Gratiano – Desdemona’s uncle