The first reference to ‘Othello’ is obtained from the records of
the Master of Revels in the Court of James I. The play was performed in front of the King on 1st November 1604. It was known that the King was very interested in Turkish history during the 16th Century, and that country’s conflict with the Venetian Empire. This is what perhaps prompted Shakespeare to research this subject in order to please his patron. The source of Othello comes from a tale written by the Italian author, Giraldi Cinthio, which was translated by the French scholar, Chappuys in 1584.
It is thought that Shakespeare drew from both these sources in
reforming the story of Othello. Although his finished play has many similarities to the original Italian work, there are also significant changes involving new characters and embellishments to the
original short tale.
Shakespeare’s work provides much greater depth and quality over the original work. Cinthio characterized Iago as a shallow person lusting after Desdemona. Shakespeare provides him with a more plausible motive for his hatred, providing the audience with an acceptable tale as to why he hates Othello.
Whilst much of Cinthio’s work was fiction, the story of Othello
was based on a true historical figure.
The depth that Shakespeare provides in his work comes mainly
from the creation of a new character Roderigo who becomes Iago’s tool of evil.
Later on in the story, Iago will also manipulate Cassio.
The central figure of the story is, of course, Othello, and
Shakespeare is at pains to emphasize his nobility and charisma. Othello is an adventurer and somewhat mysterious, highlighted by the fact that he is of a different race from those around him.
The race issue is used with great dramatic effect by Shakespeare and is the main departure from the original work. There has been some debate over the years as to exactly what race Othello was
from, but it is clear by the various descriptions within the play that the Moor was black, not of sallow or brown complexion, but sooty black.
When first viewed by the Jacobean audience in England, who at that time were fairly insular, this play would have aroused much excitement and controversy. At this time in history there was an influx of blackamoors (Negros) into the city of London, and this caused speculation among the English regarding the mysterious Dark Continent. Historically, the Venetian Empire frequently used mercenaries in their wars extending over the Eastern Mediterranean. It is safe to assume, therefore, that Othello’s origins are from North Africa. He would wear Arab robes, hence his title of Moor, from which the modern day country of Morocco originates.
In contrast to the physical and adventurous Othello, we have the
Venetian, Desdemona, who is spiritual and passionate. The play revolves around these two key characters. One of the reasons why this play has been performed so often is that these two parts
provide great challenges for the actors. Unlike ‘Romeo and Juliet’, this love story is full of power and the goal for the actors is to try to live up to the lines that Shakespeare has written.
There have been many notable performances of this play
throughout the centuries.
It is said that the performance of ** as Othello, reduced his audience to tears. The key for playing Othello is to realize that the character is larger than life, and his black complexion emphasizes this. Notable performances in the 20th Century have been the 1930 production with Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft, 1942 with Frederick Valk, and 1964 with Laurence Olivier. There were also other memorable performances by Orson Wells, Anthony Quayle and Richard Burton. Perhaps Paul Robeson’s portrayal of Othello had the most impact for up until that time; English audiences had seen Othello played by white men using black make-up. His performance is the one most vividly remembered by his contemporaries. He was able to portray a blend of physical power and gentleness, and the audience could fully appreciate Robeson’s origins and his aptitude in playing the part. He was also fortunate in playing opposite one of the finest actresses ever to play Desdemona, Peggy Ashcroft, who complemented him well.
Commercially one of the most successful performances of Othello
was the production involving Laurence Olivier. He produced a virtuoso solo performance, making full use of his captivating voice.
In conclusion, Othello can be regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest
lover. Whilst other plays have waxed and waned in popularity, Othello has remained universally acclaimed since its first performance back in 1604.
It is, therefore, regarded as one of the finest literary works,
and Shakespeare’s greatest play.