Othello- Context

Race – Black people were seen as lower on the chain of being. – They possessed animalistic qualities and had a primitive nature.- Fit only to be slaves – However othello is high born and respected. Going against society’s expectations. (Othello says how he was sold to slavery and escaped)- Seen as exotic and mysterious but evil and savage.- Were often associated with witchcraft. – Seen as having an unnatural sexual appetite “lascivious” – The devil was portrayed as having black skin.- Black people were often villains in the plays however Othello isn’t??- In Cyprus Othello begins to conform to societal expectations of the time.- Desdemona as a white venetian gets sympathy, or would have from an audience at the time.- Black people were seen as having a physical disformity and it was the devils mark.- Because Iago looks honest because he’s white, Othello sees him as incapable of villainy.
Gender – Jacobean society was a patriarchal one.- Women were lower than men on the chain of being.- Desdemona pushes the boundaries of this by disobeying her father and marrying Othello.- Seen as objects of their husband and fathers “Look to your house, your daughter and your bags” “I won his daughter” object – prize- Most men assumed venetian women were promiscuous, which explains why female sexuality is a huge threat to males in the play.- Gender and race overlap a lot in the play and several characters in the play believe that black men sexually contaminate white women, including Othello.- Othello is easily convinced his wife is cheating on him. – Desdemona seems a strong female character at the start of the play and doesn’t seem threatened.- Desdemona understands societal expectations “I am bound for life and education” she is also at times in the play shown as being a submissive character.- Desdemonas murder – being suffocated by bed sheets – shows how she’s suffocated by her faithfulness. – Bianca’s a prostitute and therefore low on the chain of being. Seen as a “fallen woman”.
Religion – Jacobean (and elizabethan) society was an era of religious beliefs. – Battling the Turks – an era of religious war.- Othello’s concept of Hell was a real concern of the time.- Hellish language would have been shocking for a jacobean audience.- Many people believed that black people couldn’t be christian as they were not aligned with god. Therefore the tragic end was inevitable.- Women were viewed as untrustworthy because of Eve’s sin.
The Renaissance Man – The ideal man was well-balanced and in control of his emotions. Othello is portrayed as this at the start.- However this changes in Cyprus and progresses.
Venice – Known for its beauty, culture, civilisation and pleasure. – It was also known for its sexual freedom which is why venetian women were seen as promiscuous.
Seven Deadly Sins – foundation of morality. – Shakespeare employs them as a way of showing faults within protagonists and villains. – Othello-Wrath Iago-Envy- These sins are thought to lead to murder, as proved by Othello and Iago.
Jealousy and Chaos – Jealousy was seen as an infection with no cure or prevention. Evil Spirits.- Chaos was the undoing of gods creation, a return to darkness and the break of the chain of being.- Shakespeares contempories had a fear of the return to anarchy.- Othello and Iago are both overcome by jealousy and chaos.
Cuckoldry – This was a mans greatest fear becoming a horned beast, – This was a fear because it showed they couldn’t control there wife and had married someone with an unnatural sexual appetite.- Young beautiful wives would have captivated their husbands but were also seen as a target of other men, as Roderigo confirms.
Courtly Love – This is represented in Othello by Cassio, who is attractive. He uses poetic language and has a chivalrous manner.- The lady who he is devoted to is expected to have other suitors. – The courtly lover is a member of high society and concerned with the notions of honour and reputation.
Tragedy – The tragic hero has to be played by someone with some kind of power (king, or prince) and they make a mistake or have misfortune.- The tragic plot is that it must have a clear sense of plot and then a change in the heroes fortune from happiness to misery.- Anagnorisis is when the hero has a moment of realisation but can’t do anything about it as it is too late.- The audience experience catharsis through the heroes suffering and death.- 16th C critics said it was no longer than 24 hours, in only one place and no subplots but continuous action.- Shakespeare plays around with the convention as whilst Othello is primarily known as a tragedy it could also be a comedy.- The reign of James I was the most prolific period of english dramatic writing. – Jacobean tragedy’s revolve around an obsession with death, sexual passion and physical decay. Sin was always associated with sexuality.

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