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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds JACQUI O’HANLON: Professor Michael Dobson from the Shakespeare Institute is now going to talk to us about the importance of the play’s many different settings and their significance in interpreting the text.

Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds PROFESSOR MICHAEL DOBSON: It’s one of the great things about the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage that it can signify both a whole world and just a space as big as itself. We start off in this play gesturing to the entire map of the Mediterranean and this huge council chamber in Venice and people coming from all over the world and reporting on where they think the fleet is, where Cyprus is, where the galleys need to be. And gradually that stage just comes to indicate a space no bigger than itself, the space of that bedchamber where the murders are going to happen. The tragic loading of this bed becomes this very literal, confined space from which Othello is never going to escape.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds One of the things it means to have the globe is the people who come there are going to expect to see news from other places and visions of what’s happening elsewhere on the planet. Othello, the Moor of Venice, is going to give us a glimpse of conflicts happening overseas and it’s very helpful to understand that the topic of the Turkish takeover of the eastern Mediterranean was very much in the news for Shakespeare’s audience. They’d read a lot about it. They knew that the area of Europe that was Christian was getting smaller and smaller and the area of the Middle East that was Muslim under the Turks was getting bigger and bigger.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds So Othello sort of gives them false clues that that’s really what it’s all going to be about where it turns out that rather than being about war, it’s really going to be about war within marriage. This is a play that’s very keen to tell us it’s all about Venice. For Jacobean audiences, Venice is all about Venice, but it’s also partly about London. Venice is a Maritime trading city that’s governed by an oligarchy rather than by an absolute monarchy. It’s all about merchants as in The Merchant of Venice, so Venice looks like where London might be going.

Skip to 2 minutes and 20 seconds It’s also sympathetic to a Jacobean audience partly because it’s leading the Naval struggle against the Turks and partly because the Venetians were notoriously independent about religion. They were always arguing with the pope, which means the Protestant travellers from England tended to go to Venice first. That was the sort of acceptable bit of Italy. So it matters that Shakespeare tells us from the sir title almost, this is a play, the Moor of Venice, and in those first and second scenes, here we are being summoned to the Senate house. We’re seeing the command and control centre of the big Christian power in the Mediterranean. Cyprus is one of the places that Shakespeare’s audience knew had long ago fallen to the Turks.

Skip to 3 minutes and 6 seconds When we see a Venetian army going to cyprus, a Venetian Garrison on Cyprus, we know that whole enterprise is doomed. It casts a sort of prophetic shadow of tragedy over everything they’re trying to do there. And indeed, the only battle we see in Cyprus is actually a brawl among the soldiers themselves. Othello accuses them of turning Turk. Now, this sense that you can’t be sure that even your own side are on your own side is something that haunts that play and obviously, Othello can’t recognise Iago as his enemy and he eventually recognises himself as his own enemy when he kills himself.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds The Cypriot setting, this garrison, doomed Venetian outpost provides a sort of more claustrophobic place where those conflicts can be dramatised.

Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds JACQUI O’HANLON: Now, thinking forward, in the coming weeks, we will be touching on some of those ideas as we look in more detail at the themes we’ve chosen to focus on. As we do this, continue to consider how the different choices of setting impact on representations of race and women as well as how the progression from public to private spaces heightens the sense of tragedy at the end of the play.

Accessing the globe

In this video Professor Michael Dobson talks about Shakespeare’s plays as a way for his audience to connect with world affairs and to experience different places. As part of this he looks specifically at the different settings in Othello: the court of Venice and the war in Cyprus.

As you watch consider:

  • The significance of both Venice and Cyprus to Shakespeare’s audiences.

  • How the different settings compare with each other.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • How important is it for us to consider the settings of the play in context?

  • In what ways do the choices of place and setting impact on the narrative of the play?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham