Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and
certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William
Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in
Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker,
Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded
no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had
three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to
London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success
quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular
playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career
bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled
1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted
Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them
with the status of “king’s players.” Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare
retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of
Shakespeare’s death, such luminaries as Ben Johnson hailed him as the
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in
the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his
reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well-established.
The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity
about Shakespeare’s life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information
has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery.
Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s plays in
reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford
are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is
overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must
be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name.
The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s
plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so
influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture
Othello was first performed in front of James I of England on
November 1, 1604. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies (written after
Hamlet but before King Lear and Macbeth), Othello is set against the
backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey, which raged in the latter
part of the 16th century. Cyprus, which is the setting for most of the action,
was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered by the
Ottomans the following year. Shakespeare’s information on the conflict
probably derives from The History of the Turks, by Richard Knolles, which
was published in England in the autumn of 1603–so the play was composed
at some point between that time and the summer of 1604.
Shakespeare’s choice of a black man was strikingly original. (Othello
is called a Moor, which can suggest Arabic descent, but the language of the
play insists that he is a black African.) Blackness in Elizabethan England was
a color associated with moral evil, decay, and death, and Moors in the theater
were usually stereotyped villains, like Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare’s early
play Titus Andronicus. Othello embodies none of the characteristics typical
of the “Moor”; instead of being lecherous, cunning, and vicious, he is a noble,
towering figure whose fall is therefore all the more difficult to watch.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello is derived from another
source–an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi.
The original story contains the bare bones of the tale: a Moorish general is
deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful. To Giraldi’s story
Shakespeare added supporting characters like the vainglorious Roderigo and
the unhappy Brabantio; he compressed the time-frame and set it against the
backdrop of military conflict; and, of course, he turned the ensign, a minor
villain, into the artist of evil whom we know as Iago.
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