What is the importance of Othello

Summary of Othello

Elizabethan England and its theater

When William Shakespeare wrote Othello, King James I had just ascended the English throne and an important era had come to an end: the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. She ruled the kingdom for 45 years, from 1558 to 1603. During this time she experienced England experienced an impressive political and economic boom. The country replaced Spain as the strongest seafaring nation and became a major European power. The growing material wealth of the bourgeoisie also contributed to national self-confidence. William Shakespeare's London was a modern, lively and intellectually curious city of around 200,000 people. Elizabeth's father Henry VIII had broken with Rome as early as 1534 and founded the Anglican Church; in Elizabeth's time the country emancipated itself even more from Catholicism. Spiritual and religious tolerance were the result and had a stimulating effect on the Empire in many ways, especially in the fields of art and theater. Elisabeth was a great patron of art and drama. Under her reign, the venues became places of experience for broad sections of the population. There was a real theater boom, accompanied by an artistically fruitful competition between professional actors.


The tragedy Othello goes back to two sources: a real historical personality and a story from a cycle of novels that Shakespeare must have known. Cristofalo Moro, who went to Cyprus around 1505 to defend the island against the onslaught of the Ottomans, was not black at all. However, his surname has led to the fact that the legend has given him a dark skin color. Moro is said to have returned to Venice after three years - as a sad man because his wife died on the return journey.

The other, literary source is probably an English translation of a short story from the Italian cycle of novels Hecatommithi by Giraldi Cinthio from 1565. In this Italian work there is a short story about the “just” murder of a husband of his unfaithful wife, and as a contrast is immediately afterwards a jealous murder of a completely innocent woman is told. Here the perpetrator is already a black man who, against all the rules of society and against the resistance of her family, marries the Venetian Disdemona (which means: the unfortunate woman) and is then incited to commit jealousy by a rejected lover of his wife. Shakespeare added a number of new elements to this template. In addition to streamlining the plot from several months to a few days, the villain receives a variety of psychological motives for his act, including: Suspicion, envy, jealousy and an inner predisposition to abysmal malice. The game of intrigue remains undiscovered in the original, only the murder of the husband is cleared up, whereupon the black general is executed by Disdemona's relatives. Here Shakespeare changed the plot most clearly: Instead of denigrating Othello as a primitive black man, he shows him as a cultivated and morally upright person, as a tragic hero who is brought down by evil machinations. Cinthio's intention to warn against an inadmissible marriage between a white and a black was thus taken ad absurdum by Shakespeare.

Impact history

Othello was probably written around 1603/04 and performed at the court of Jacob I as well as in the Globe Theater and the Blackfriars Theater. The first print appeared in 1622 as a so-called four-high edition. The effect of the drama was strongly dependent on the respective background of the reception. If the topic did not suit you - and the love of a white person for a black person was indeed considered improper for a long time - even the poetic language could not comfort you. Nevertheless, until the 18th century, Othello almost never disappeared from the English stage; In London especially, apart from a seven-year hiatus, there were always theaters playing Shakespeare's tragedy of jealousy. This continued in the 19th and 20th centuries, even if the interpretation and portrayal of the black general fluctuated greatly. For example, in a modern performance starring Patrick Stewart, Othello was white while all other roles were played by black actors. There are three operatic versions of Othello: one by Gioacchino Rossini (1816), one by Giuseppe Verdi (1887) and a modern adaptation by Daron Hagen (Bandanna, 1999). The material was also used for around ten film adaptations. In addition to film adaptations with well-known Shakespeare interpreters such as Laurence Olivier (1965) or Kenneth Brannagh (1995), there are also a Soviet and a Hindi version. The adaptations and quotes from Othello are innumerable: Particularly original is an alternative ending that Christine Brückner wrote in 1983 in her book If you would have spoken, Desdemona: The author frees Desdemona from her stupor at the end of the drama and lets her in Othello's bedroom make a fiery speech in their defense.