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Contextual Factors in Othello

By barden95 Mar 12, 2011 713 Words
How do the contextual factors of Othello shape your understanding of the play? Shakespeare’s Othello encompasses a wide variety of contextual factors which shape my understanding of the play. These contextual factors include historical, cultural, political and social factors. Othello is believed to have been written between late 1603 and early1604 during the period of time known as the “Elizabethan” Period (1580-1625) in which, the great works of the age were produced; it was also during this time that the Renaissance, which began in Italy in the 14th century, reached England. The Renaissance spirit was fuelled by the rediscovering of many classical texts as well as many significant literary, scientific and geographic developments such as: the discovery of America, Copernicus’ and Galileo’s views on the universe and the reformation of the Church. In regards to historical context, Shakespeare’s work was written to question common beliefs, assumptions and politics upon which Elizabethan Society was founded (in a true renaissance way!). As a ‘modern’ reader and with regards to historical context, one can understand why Shakespeare’s Othello challenges the ‘norms’ of society. In early 17th century England, people’s attitudes towards non-Europeans were shaped by the government policies and (to a lesser extent) by exotic stories brought back by travellers overseas, such as Richard Eden’s book ‘Decades’ written in 1555 which included accounts of voyages to Africa with explicit descriptions of ‘moors and negroes’. North and West Africans living in Elizabethan England were outcasts, frequently being singled out for their unusual dress, behaviour and customs. They were ultimately branded with terms such as “devils” or “villains” and were commonly stereotyped as being sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and wicked by nature. In Othello , Shakespeare draws from his Cultural context and incorporates the racial stereotypes into his dialogue, assigning them to characters such as Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio an example of this can be seen in Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 89-90 when Iago says to Brabantio “even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”. At the time of writing this play Queen Elizabeth I held power in England. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England which caused divisions in society which were still felt when Elizabeth fell to power. In saying this, Elizabeth sought after peace and stability in her Kingdom with a middle ground approach to religious life. Shakespeare expresses this aspect of peace and stability through political context in Othello by giving a fresh view on the character of Othello whom is black. Othello is a noble figure of great authority, respected and admired by the senate of Venice as well as by those who serve him, such as Cassio and Montano. With relation to social context, life in Elizabethan society was dramatically different to life in 21st century society. For example, marriage was not seen as a close and intimate union between two lovers. More often than not, marriage was seen as a business deal in which a woman (usually) would marry above her own class in order to guarantee security for her life. Marrying for love was unlikely, however not unheard of and if a woman could ‘score’ love and wealth together, she was considered very lucky. In Othello, Shakespeare creates a love between Desdemona and Othello that many would envy, including Iago the plays main antagonist who is in a loveless marriage. Shakespeare also reflects his cultural context in the play through the use of a black main character and the relationships that this character has with other characters. In Othello, Shakespeare’s Venetians reflect the mores of English society and reflects his cultural context. It follows that Venetian society would admire Othello for his valour and leadership but still recoil at the notion of his marrying into its families, especially those of social standing. Shakespeare’s writing of Othello is influenced by many different contextual factors such as political, historical, cultural and social factors. As a reader, through understanding the contextual factors which influenced Shakespeare’s writing we can gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in the play and also a deeper understanding of the themes and underlying messages being communicated to the audience.

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