Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature andcertainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, WilliamShakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon inWarwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker,Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceededno further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and hadthree children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled toLondon to work as an actor and playwright.
Public and critical successquickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popularplaywright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His careerbridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James grantedShakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by endowing themwith the status of “king’s players.” Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeareretired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time ofShakespeare’s death, such luminaries as Ben Johnson hailed him as theShakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions inthe century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century hisreputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well-established.The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosityabout Shakespeare’s life; but the paucity of surviving biographical informationhas left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery.
Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s plays inreality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxfordare the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim isoverwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by manyIn the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare mustbe 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’splays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming soinfluential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and cultureOthello was first performed in front of James I of England onNovember 1, 1604. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies (written afterHamlet but before King Lear and Macbeth), Othello is set against thebackdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey, which raged in the latterpart 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 theOttomans the following year. Shakespeare’s information on the conflictprobably derives from The History of the Turks, by Richard Knolles, whichwas published in England in the autumn of 1603–so the play was composedat some point between that time and the summer of 1604.Shakespeare’s choice of a black man was strikingly original.
(Othellois called a Moor, which can suggest Arabic descent, but the language of theplay insists that he is a black African.) Blackness in Elizabethan England wasa color associated with moral evil, decay, and death, and Moors in the theaterwere usually stereotyped villains, like Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare’s earlyplay Titus Andronicus. Othello embodies none of the characteristics typicalof 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 anothersource–an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi.The original story contains the bare bones of the tale: a Moorish general isdeceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful. To Giraldi’s storyShakespeare added supporting characters like the vainglorious Roderigo andthe unhappy Brabantio; he compressed the time-frame and set it against thebackdrop of military conflict; and, of course, he turned the ensign, a minorvillain, into the artist of evil whom we know as Iago.
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