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Context and Background - Othello

Shakespeare’s World

Shakespeare lived in both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a dynamic period of change, expansion, exploration and enlightenment, yet his view of the world (Weltanshaung)  was quite different from ours.

Though Copernicus had died 21 years before he was born and he was born in the same year as Galileo, his world was still geocentric rather than heliocentric; that is most people still believed that the earth was the centre of the world with the sun and planets revolving around it. 

His was a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one ruler – a monarch, one church – Anglo-Catholic/, one economic system – feudalism, and a conformist outlook in life. 

His was a profoundly Christian society, believing in sin, an afterlife of heaven or hell, yet also easily influenced by pagan ideas of fortune, the stars and supernatural spirits, ghosts and goblins.  Fortuna, the pagan goddess with her wheel of fortune is prominently referred to in his plays.

He believed in order; a place for everything and everything in its place, especially in matters of governance. The monarch is supreme and his plays are strongly critical of improper succession of monarchs which give rise to chaos or anarchy.

He believed in hierarchy – the order of degrees in society.

Finally he believed in the Great Chain of Being with God, the Angels, Man, Animals, Vegetable and finally the inanimate.   Man exists in a state between the Angels and was capable of transcending to the level of Angels but also prone to descend to the level of animals.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values.   The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates a wide, diverse form of life styles. We also generally accept responsibility for our own destiny.  To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic and distressing.

Racism in Medieval times was quite acceptable socially. The movement of people around the world was more limited.   The “other” was considered foreign and there was no stigma attached to disparaging them and adopting superior attitudes.  Note the denigrating names used by some for Othello.  Miscegenation (mixed marriages between different races) was then and until recently considered a taboo.

Feminism is also an issue as individual women have always asserted their independence and autonomy.

Italy is at this time not yet a nation state, rather a collection of City States with Venice one of the more powerful ones.  Venice represents the centre of power, civilisation, culture and order.  Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean is one of its colonial outposts under threat from the Turks and represents insecurity, danger, uncivilised society.


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