2History of the play…First performed by the King’s Men at the court of King James I on November 1, 1604Set during the wars between Venice and Turkey that raged in the latter part of the 16th centuryW.S. borrowed the story of Othello from an Italian tale written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista.The basic premise of the play is that of Othello, the Moorish general of the Venetian military, is worried that his wife is being unfaithful. The story then turns to a conflict between black and white (racism).
3Setting of the play…The wars between the Turks and Venice in the 16th CenturyThe play starts in Venice and moves to Cyprus when the Turks invade.Venice is a prosperous Italian city and a symbol of law and civilization.The majority of the people in the city are white, which makes Othello, who is a black Moor, stand out.Eventually, the setting shifts to the island of Cyprus, where the characters are at a military camp.
4ThemesPrejudiceThe most prominent for of prejudice is racial prejudice. In the very first scene, Roderigo & Iago disparage Othello in explicitly racial terms, calling him, among other things, “thick lips” and “Barbary horse”.Many characters in the play also exhibit misogyny, or hatred of women, primarily focused on women’s honesty or dishonesty about their sexuality. Several times, Othello’s age is also a reason for insulting him.
5Themes Appearance vs Reality: This tragic plot hinges on the ability of the villain, Iago, to mislead other characters, particularly Roderigo & Othello, by encouraging them to misinterpret what they see. Othello is susceptible to Iago’s ploys because he himself is so honest & straightforward.As Iago puts it: “the Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; and will as tenderly be led by the’ nose/As asses are” ( )
6ThemesJealousy: Iago refers to jealousy as the “green-eyed monster”. As this metaphor suggests, jealousy is closely associated with the theme of appearance & reality. Othello’s jealousy impedes his ability to distinguish between reality & appearance.
7Themes Manhood and Honor: Various male figures seek to assert and protect their manhood and their honor. Othello has attained political power through his military might. There is also an indication of the importance of reputation. It is suggested that reputation is more valuable than anything in the world: “good name in man and woman…is the immediate jewel of their souls.” ( )When not in war, the primary means by which men define their honor is their ability to command the faithfulness of their women.
8Themes Womanhood and Sexuality: Two contrasting images of womanhood dominate the play: the virtuous and loyal woman, or Madonna, embodied by Desdemona; and the whore, embodied, to a certain extent by Bianca. Yet over the course of the play, it becomes clear that these two different ways of describing women don’t actually apply to real women – ideals that men want woman to fulfill, & roles that women therefore purposefully play for men.
9Motifs A usually recurring thematic element: a dominant idea or central theme Sight & Blindness: Works both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, Desdemona is the only one who can “see” the real Othello. Othello does not typically believe anything he cannot physically see.
10motifsPlants: Iago is preoccupied with plants and uses a lot of references to plants both literally and metaphorically. Many of these references are to poison; and, as the villain of the play, they tell us that he is literally poisonous to those around him.
11motifsHell, Demons & Monsters: Jealousy is a HUGE part of the play. The characters often refer to jealousy and each other as being monstrous, demonic or evil.
12symbolsThe Handkerchief: Means different things to different characters. Desdemona sees it as a symbol of Othello’s love; Othello sees it as a symbol of faithfulness and virginity; and Iago sees it as a means to manipulate them both.
13The Song “Willow”: The lyrics suggest that men and women are unfaithful to one another. To Desdemona, the song seems to represent a sad acceptance that she misses Othello’s affections, and singing it leads her to question Emilia about the nature and practice of faithfulness.
14animalsAnimals: The play is rife with animal metaphors. In particular, this language is used to describe Othello, the “Barbary Horse,” or the “beautiful creature” Desdemona. In each case, the animal language is related to prejudice. Describing a person or a group as being less than human, something that deserves to be humiliated and controlled.
15Main charactersOthello: The protagonist and hero. A Christian Moor and general of the armies of Venice, Othello is an well- spoken and strong, respected by all those around him. Insecure because of his age, his life as a soldier, and his race. Desdemona: Daughter of the Venetian senator Brabanzio. Desdemona and Othello are secretly married before the play begins.
16Main charactersIago: Othello’s “right-hand man”, and the villain of the play. Iago is twenty-eight years old. Is angry because Othello was named general ahead of him and is determined to see him completely destroyed in every way. Cassio: Othello’s lieutenant. Cassio is young and inexperienced and since his position is higher, he’s resented by Iago. Devoted to Othello, he’s ashamed after getting in a drunken brawl on Cyprus and losing his place as lieutenant. Iago uses Cassio to play on Othello’s jealousy over Desdemona. Emilia: Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant. A cynical woman, she cares about her mistress and is distrustful of her husband. Roderigo: Wanted to marry Desdemona. He is convinced that if he gives Iago all of his money, Iago will help him get Desdemona.
17Why is this play relevant? Think about it…how much are the following subjects part of our daily lives, the news or real life:Race – Either prejudice, or someone feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome because of their race or culture.Jealousy – Between friends, girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife, between enemies, etc. and what it can do to a person/couple.Envy – Wanting to be like someone or have something someone else has so badly you would do anything to get it.Uncertainty – Wondering what someone’s true intentions are with you; if they are being a sincere friend, or stabbing you in the back.