1604—the year of the first recorded performance of Othello— was pivotal in English history. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth's forty-five year rule came to an end. Elizabethan England became Jacobean England with the accession of the new king, James I. It was a momentous period—a time of transition, uncertainty, and unsettled apprehension about England's future.
James I became the royal patron of Shakespeare's acting company, renamed "The King's Men." The most successful playwright was in 1604 at the height of his creative genius. Hamlet was written. King Lear and Macbeth were soon to follow. Othello takes its place among the "best" in a period of transition and historic change—from which it is said that great art is often born.
King James I
The traditional picture of a highly ordered, stable society—for centuries a romanticized view looking back upon Elizabethan England—is one that modern scholarship has essentially overturned. Instead, the turn of the seventeenth century is now understood to have been a time when old certainties and assumptions were undermined by a "new philosophy" that perceived values as no longer absolute, but relative and in flux. Fundamentally incompatible social thoughts stood uneasily side by side. One of the primary functions of drama has always been to mediate between such divergent and incompatible points of view within society.
Like Hamlet, Othello reflects the shifting values of a world once steeped in chivalry and honor, now fast learning the language of rationalism, commerce and imperialism. Don Quixote, published in 1605 just one year after Othello was perhaps first staged, marked a watershed. The Don, trying desperately to recreate a world of magic, inhabits a world in which things are not what they seem.
The Renaissance cosmos has dissolved. In its place the empire of fact is emerging and language is retreating into a special domain [of] literature.
—Mark Rose 1985
Othello, like the Don, speaks the language of chivalry; Iago speaks the language of commerce that is about to conquer the developing world.
Following the dissolution of the great monastic estates that began around 1535, about one-sixth of English land changed owners during the 1500s. Land shifted hands: out of the hands of the old nobility and clergy, into the hands of those who now possessed the money to buy it—the industrialists and merchants of an emerging capitalist society. Land was no longer a symbol of birth, but a symbol of wealth, something that could be obtained with enough money. "A medieval nobleman in good standing" writes James Calderwood (1989), "would no more have thought of selling his land than the governor of Connecticut would think of selling a few counties to the governor of Rhode Island." But all that was changing. Property, what one could own and possess, was fast becoming the cornerstone of identity.
Unlike many of his other works, Shakespeare does not distance his story of Othello to an earlier historical period. The Turkish attack on Cyprus, recounted in the play, took place in 1570—and in the memory of most of Shakespeare's theatergoers. By the time Shakespeare wrote Othello, the English had been exposed to Africa and Africans by continuous contact that stretched over more than half a century. By 1555, books appearing in English described the Moors of Africa. Also by the sixteenth century, the meaning of "black" included being "deeply stained with dirt," "soiled," "dirty," and "foul." Sixteenth-century writers referred to any dark North African as a Moor or "blackamoor." And though Shakespeare's contemporaries might not have differentiated a North African Moor who was "white" or "tawny" from an African who was "black" (as did many scholars and productions of Othello in the centuries to follow), the Moors as a whole represented "the other," the non-Christian, heathen world that lay outside the boundaries of Western and Christian civilization. Clearly, Othello was a modern story: a modern story, specifically, centered on the relationship between a black man and a white woman.
It is probable that Elizabethan England, prior to centuries of imperialist relations with Africa and without centuries of economic, political and sexual conflict in a competitive capitalist society, did not know racism as we know it now. But because of less association then between nations, those who fell outside the borders of the known, white world were viewed as "barbarians." The term "Moor" might have existed as a vague description in terms of color, but not in terms of its position of antithesis to the white, civilized Christian world. "Othello is a play full of racial feeling," writes scholar Michael Neill (1985):
perhaps the first work in English to explore the roots of such feeling; and it can hardly be accidental that it belongs to the very period of English history in which something we can now identify as a racialist ideology was beginning to evolve under the pressures of nascent imperialism.
Jerry Brotton explains that the ambivalent attitude of the Elizabethans towards the Moors “can be partly explained by the extensive and amicable relations that were established between Elizabethan England and the kingdom of Morocco.” It is not insignificant that Shakespeare’s own Moor of Venice made his appearance soon after the visit of the Moorish Ambassador, al-Annuri, to Elizabeth’s court. Writes Brotton:
Al-Annuri’s highly visible presence in London appears to have influenced Shakespeare in his portrayal of Othello—a charismatic, sophisticated but also troubling presence ... What this all suggests is that we can no longer see Othello as the simple, barbaric, jealous figure of 19th and 20th-century stage productions; the Elizabethans had a far more ambiguous and complicated understanding of the Moor than we have today, hampered as we are by contemporary ideas of racism and Islamophobia.
Still, by 1601, the numbers of Africans living in London prompted Queen Elizabeth's edict for the transportation of "negars and blackamoores which are crept into the realm" out of England. Clearly, their increasing numbers were causing alarm. There were additional domestic concerns contributing to the environment of upheaval in Elizabeth’s final years. In 1601, the Queen's one-time favorite, the Earl of Essex, staged an unsuccessful rebellion against the Crown, for which he was executed. Some scholars hold this event to have affected the nation more deeply than even the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1598. The mood of the country was uncertain. The mood of its artists and political thinkers was skeptical. Around this time a "paper war" against society was launched, and a "brutal examination of man's deepest commitments—personal, marital, sexual" (Rosenberg 1961) became the subject of dramatic and social discourse.
It is not by chance that Shakespeare chose Venice in which to set his story. To Shakespeare's countrymen, Venice embodied the height of Western civilization. It was the Italian city viewed as London's counterpart, the seat of art and commerce in a Western world growing ever more commercial. And, as A.J. Honnigmann notes in his introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition of Othello, “Students of Othello need to know one other fact that was taken for granted by Shakespeare—that Venice was the pleasure capital of Europe, especially in its sexual tolerance.” So in Venice, a city celebrated for its sexual permissiveness, a story of a "civilized" society excluding a nonmember, an Other from outside its borders, could be depicted and explored at a safe distance from the England of Shakespeare’s audience.
By 1604, when Othello first appeared in the Revels Accounts, London theater was permeated with skepticism and sensuality. It is perhaps no accident that Othello was one of the leading tragedies to hold the stage in the 1600s, and that it would be published eight times during that century.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department