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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds NICK WALTON: In this section, we’re going to be thinking about Shakespeare’s world and exploring some of the ways in which the playwright incorporated some of his own society’s common assumptions, viewpoints, and even deep seated fears into his writing. In Shakespeare’s time, Moors were understood to come from ancient Mauritania, which would correspond geographically today to Morocco and Algeria. And they were known to be Mohammedans. That is to say, they were Muslim. To an Elizabethan theatregoer, a Moor was an exotic figure whose religious belief, skin colour, and clothes marked them as different, alien, an other, to London audiences. Shakespeare was writing throughout an age of discovery.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds As soldiers as voyages returned with stories from their travels, people began to develop a growing impression of the worlds and people beyond their own shores. Whilst voyages brought fresh knowledge, it also brought with it misunderstandings and misinterpretations which could easily be passed on from person to person and soon be taken as truth. One common misunderstanding concerned skin colour. In some writings from the period, it suggested that darkness of skin was a physical defect. At the worst, some writers mistook dark skin as a sign of a person being cursed, which led some people to associate dark skin with sin and wickedness. The Moor was essentially a dramatic character before he even reached the stage.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds In one of his earliest and bloodiest plays called Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare created a villainous Moor called Aaron, who lived up to the Moor’s popular reputation for devilry. Aaron the Moor encourages the rape of a young girl. And when he is captured at the close of the play, he reels off a long list of many other villainous acts he has enjoyed, such as digging up dead men from their graves and setting them upright at their dear friends’ door. He says that he’s killed men, ravished maids, set fire to barns and haystacks, and set deadly enmity between two friends. Sounds like a nice guy.

Skip to 2 minutes and 39 seconds Shakespeare is clearly playing up here to what had become a terrible caricature of Moorish people during his lifetime. Would playgoers have hissed, as they might today, at a pantomime villain? Or would they have thought that Shakespeare had written this description of a monstrous Moor with his tongue firmly in his cheek? Some of the playgoers who watched Titus Andronicus in the 1590s may well have had the opportunity to see a famous Moorish person for themselves some years later when the ambassador to the kingdom of Barbary visited England in 1600. The Moorish ambassador stayed in London for six months and would have drawn a lot of attention from Londoners.

Skip to 3 minutes and 26 seconds We know that Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, performed at court during the Moorish ambassador’s visit. So it’s tempting to imagine that the dramatist could have been watching this striking figure very closely. Is this how Shakespeare pictured Othello in his mind’s eye? His turban, his sword, and the flowing robes would’ve set him apart as an exotic other to Elizabethan society. Over time, Othello’s race or heritage has been a subject over which many people have disagreed. As I’ve already mentioned, Othello refers to himself at one point as being black and Brabantio makes reference to his sooty busom. But the Moor, or barbarian as they were often called, were ordinarily associated with North Africa.

Skip to 4 minutes and 20 seconds So perhaps Shakespeare had an Arabian Moor in mind when picturing Othello. He is Ben Kingsley’s Othello, dress deliberately to resemble the Moorish ambassador. Is this how you’ve been imagining Othello’s appearance when reading the play? Around the same time as the ambassador’s visit, a translation of a book about the history of Africa by Leo Africanus was published. This book contained further the descriptive snapshots of Moorish figures which would have done more to fuel popular imaginings of this figure. We are told in the book that inhabitants of the city of Barbary are very proud, wonderfully addicted to wrath, void of good manners, and will believe matters impossible which are told to them.

Skip to 5 minutes and 15 seconds So the idea that a Moor would kill his wife on the skimpy evidence of a handkerchief might not seem so far fetched to audiences of the time. Shakespeare didn’t have to invent derogatory phrases with which to introduce the Moor. The terms had already been coined and had perhaps even being used in reference to people with dark skin by some of his spectators.

Shakespeare’s world

In this video Nick looks at the social contexts surrounding Shakespeare’s play. As you watch consider:

  • The significance of social, cultural and historical influences upon Shakespeare’s writing.

  • Shakespeare’s awareness of the world around him.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • How do you imagine the actor playing Othello on Shakespeare’s stage would have been dressed for the role?

  • To what extent does an understanding of the social and cultural background to Shakespeare’s own times enhance your understanding of Othello as a play?

Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the Comments.

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham