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The Renaissance

Renaissance means 'Rebirth'. It was a revival of artistic and intellectual endeavor. First seen in England in the writings of Sir Thomas Moor and Sir Thomas Wyatt. A new confidence in human reasoning and human potential over social structure (love transcending social standards). Classical texts and the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome were rediscovered. The Renaissance is often called the 'golden age' of English literature


Order in Shakespeare plays

Because of the Renaissance, Shakespeare's plays always question the beliefs, assumptions and politics of Elizabethan society. His plays always conclude with a restoration of order and stability


Traditional values

The play subverts traditional values. The main character is a black man. The heroine is an assertive young woman.



Because of censorship of the strict Elizabethan society, any criticism Shakespeare made about people in authority, or questions he raised about race or gender, were muted or covered up by setting the play in another country. Such as Venice or Cyprus


John Leo's influence on 'Othello'

1600: a translation of John Leo's/Leo Africanus' 'A Geographical Histoire of Africa' is published in England. Very popular. Leo was a black man who had been brought up in Barbary. He spoke about how he and 'his people' would "rather lose their lives than put up any disgrace in the behalf of their women." It is widely speculated that Shakespeare knew Leo, and that Othello is based off of him



Renaissance dramatists were heavily influenced by a Roman playwright called Seneca. A Senecan Tragedy was characterized by long narrative accounts and long reflective soliloquies. The tragedies would also explore the theme of revenge, and we're full of violence. 'Othello' is clearly influenced by this



The nationalism of the Renaissance Era was reinforced by Protestantism. In 1530 King Henry had moved away from the Catholic state church, so it was replaced by an independent Protestant church. Shakespeare's plays were able to be free of overbearing religious sentiment, but thy had Protestant undertones.



Protestantism encouraged something called introspective = looking inside yourself and your own emotional and mental processes. We see s lot of introspection in Act3 scene iii, when Othello is alone on stage and begins to doubt his attractiveness as a husband, how he is an old black man.


Elizabethan patriarchy

Patriarchy = male controlled and dominated society. Women had few legal rights, entitles to inherit property, but if they married, everything they owned passed to their husbands instead of them. Fathers chose husbands for their daughters. Intellectually woman were supposedly inferior to men, and incapable of rational thought. They were rarely educated past stitching, singing, and domestic work.


Social punishment of women

Assertive or argumentative women would be literally punished in Shakespeare's time. Punishments: the ducking stool (women ducked into lakes or rivers), the scolds bridle (iron framework around the woman's head), carting (being carted around town and mocked publicly)


Female freedom in England

Women in England had more freedom than women abroad. Shakespeare's wife owned property and a home herself for 20 years while Shakespeare pursued his career in London. Much of the audience to 'Othello' and other Shakespeare plays were women, with no segregated seating. Strong female characters = Desdemona, Emilia



It is unconfirmed whether or not a white man in blackface, or a black actor played Othello in the original play, but it was probably blackface. In the Restoration period, Othello was played by a a white man in blackface. In 1981 the BBC tv production of 'Othello' had Anthony Hopkins in blackface



Italianate settings usually suggested secret love affairs and revenge. Foreign courts usually stereotyped as being full of villainy and sexual perversion


Venice reputation

Reputation as a city of wealth and sophistication, but also if loose morals and sexual deviance. Iago is Italian but Othello is not, which helps establish Othello as an outsider



The "warlike island" (Act2 scene i) is full of conflict and danger which reflects the tragic events of the play


Mirroring in Cyprus

Mirroring is when one event mirrors/mimics another in the text. Cyprus, the island of love, is threatened by the Turks = Othello's love life is threatened by Iago. Othello is sent to Cyprus to restore peace = Othello's marital and social peace is destroyed.


Isolation in Cyprus

The isolated setting is psychologically appropriate because Othello feels isolated as a black man, as a non Italian, because he is being cheated on


The Italy stereotype

Many Jacobean plays set in Italy featured courtesans and adulteresses. Venice was renowned for sexual sin. The Jacobean audience would have immediately associated Italy with sexual deviance. This is shown in Emilia's description of adultery as a "small vice"


Venice women

Iago tries to suggest to Othello that because Desdemona is a sexually suggest


Racism and Christianity

Christian traditions of the Renaissance said that Africans were descendants of Noah's son, Ham, who was cursed by his father. The Africans were therefore seen as a cursed race


Origin of 'Moor'

The Moors were Islamics from Northern Africa who had conquered Spain. When Christians recaptured Spain, many Moors adopted a European culture. Some, like Othello, became Christian


The 'melting pot'

In 1600 Venice = major trading port. It was a 'melting pot' of many foreigners of different waves and religion. Othello' military position wasn't unusual


Othello has "boarded and land carrack"

"land carrack" means a treasure ship/pirate ship, but was also slang for a prostitute. This shows how Iago sees Desdemona as an object or as a treasure.


Brabantio's last lines

Brab's last lines are a rhyming couplet on the subversion of the natural order. In Jacobean plays this symbolized trouble ahead


Cyprus the island of love

In Greek mythology, the goddess of love Aphrodite rose out of the sea on the coast of Cyprus. Cyprus has been celebrated in literature as the island of love


Danger in Cyprus

Elizabethan audiences would associate Cyprus with danger. It was often the site of war between Muslims and Christians for control of the Renaissance


Outward appearances

It was an Elizabethan belief that you could tell of someone was evil or not because of their outward appearance. Othello is evil because his skin is black. Iago is believable because he looks normal



Handkerchiefs were important symbols of status. In the 15th century a Venetian was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment after taking a lady's handkerchief. Possession of a lady's handkerchief was seen as proof of adultery


Reputation as a married man

As a married man, your reputation was based on your wife's. If she cheated on you, you would also be publicly shamed and ridiculed. Some men were even demoted at work



Suicide was a sin against Christianity, but the ancient Greeks and Romans saw it as very noble because it allowed you to preserve your honor. Suicide was common in Ancient Greek or Roman plays