Places: Othello

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1622; revised, 1623

First produced: 1604

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Early sixteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Venice

*Venice. OthelloNortheast Italian seaport on the Adriatic that is the setting of the three scenes of the play’s first act. This affluent Renaissance city was greatly admired by Elizabethans, and utilized by William Shakespeare in his earlier play The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596-1597). Ruled by a duke and a senate, Venice was an autonomous, powerful republic at this time, with a flourishing commercial economy. Venetian ships plied the seas from the Adriatic through the Mediterranean, trading wool, furs, leather, and glass. In the play, Iago cynically describes Venice as a place of moneybags, treachery, and promiscuity, and insinuates that a black man can never be other than an outsider. Playing upon Othello’s sense of alienation, he suggests that Desdemona’s choice of him was unnatural and thus temporary.

Before Brabantio’s house, Iago and Roderigo call out with shouts of alarm and obscene insinuations about his daughter Desdemona, which escalate almost into a brawl, until Othello appears to calm the fray. This outdoor setting, dark and noisy, creates a feeling of unrest and tension.

Duke’s council chamber

Duke’s council chamber. Awe-inspiring room to which Othello is summoned before the Duke and the special session of Senate. In this Venetian crisis, with the Turkish fleet now bearing down on the island of Cyprus, a possession of Venice, Othello’s services are necessary. However, he must defend himself first from the accusations of Brabantio, who claims that he has stolen Desdemona by witchcraft. Although alien to Venetian culture as a Moor, Othello has previously proven his worth to the state and he defends himself from Brabantio’s charges persuasively. Into this solemn chamber peopled with the powerful hierarchy of Venice, Desdemona appears to declare her love for Othello, which convinces the Duke to support the marriage and enlist Othello in the war against the Turk.

*Cyprus

*Cyprus. Important island trading post in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and a Venetian possession from 1489 to 1571. It provides the setting for the last four acts of the play and, symbolically, represents the edge of the civilized world; beyond is the Ottoman Empire, the enemy infidels. The second act of Othello opens at an open place near the quay of a Cyprus seaport. The tempest-tossed, Venetian seafarers reach safety. The location emphasizes the distance from their familiar world. Although the Turks have now drowned, Cyprus is a barren military outpost, a citadel, lacking many of the comforts of Venice. It is a masculine world, isolated and contained; Desdemona is at the mercy of the men around her.

Cyprus citadel

Cyprus citadel. Governor’s castle within whose soldiers’ quarters, orchard, and halls the remainder of the play unfolds. This citadel is the spot where civility and barbarity merge. There, Iago is free to advance his plans for Othello’s destruction, first by making Cassio drunk, leading to his dismissal, and then by using lies and insinuations to increase Othello’s jealousy. At a distance, Othello sees the encounter between Cassio and Bianca and his handkerchief pass between them; he is then convinced of the falseness of Desdemona. The isolation of the island from the civilized world contributes to the absolutism of the play.

The setting of Desdemona’s murder in her citadel bedchamber is cruelly appropriate. “Strangle her in her bed,” says Iago. The room brings together the sexual possessiveness of Othello, Desdemona’s innocence, and Iago’s passion for destruction. But it also represents a place in which the truth is revealed, where Venice, in the person of Lodovico, brings civility once more, and where Othello can feel remorse.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Seven essays that explore the issues of power and the difference between male and female roles and occupations. Holds that the play is at once tragic and comic. Includes helpful bibliography and Shakespeare chronology.Calderwood, James L. The Properties of “Othello.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Takes the theme of ownership as a starting point and provides an overview of Elizabethan property lines to set the stage for argument. Stretches the term property to include not only material and territorial possessions but racial, social, and personal identity.Heilman, Robert B. Magic in the Web: Action and Language in “Othello.” Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956. Extensive discussion of Iago’s manipulative rhetoric. Argues against Othello as a “victim,” presenting him as responsible, if only in part, for his own actions. A good resource for both general readers and students.Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. Chapter on Othello describes the two primary ways of looking at the Moor of Venice: as a man blinded by love, and as a man blinded by his tainted vision of that love. Chronicles the events leading to the protagonist’s downfall.Vaughan, Virginia Mason, and Kent Cartwright, eds. “Othello”: New Perspectives. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991. A collection of twelve essays that examine different theoretical approaches. Goes beyond a discussion of good versus evil to reveal a variety of nuances in the play. Traces readings and misreadings from the first quarto to the present.
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