Othello: A Guide to the Play

By Joan Lord Hall | Go to book overview

3
DRAMATIC STRUCTURE

THE TWO SETTINGS: VENICE AND CYPRUS

Othello is not built on the cosmic scale of Shakespeare's other major tragedies. 1 It has neither the supernatural dimensions of Hamlet and Macbeth, with their Ghost and Witches, nor King Lear's insistent questioning of "Nature" and the gods; yet it is the only one of the four plays to offer two separate countries as locations. After Act 1, the action of the play moves from the highly civilized world of Renaissance Venice to the island of Cyprus. Venice is home to all of the characters except Cassio, who comes from Florence (1. 1. 17), and Othello, the mercenary soldier who has lived in Venice for only the past nine months. Cyprus, unfamiliar to the Venetian city dwellers, is a more threatening milieu. Geographically, it was a military outpost on the edge of the Christian world, controlled by the Turks after 1570; symbolically, it represents a liminal area where apparently secure values may be challenged or overthrown. Whereas Antony and Cleopatra oscillates between Rome and Egypt, constantly modifying the audience's perceptions of each society, Othello's action remains on the island of Cyprus after the first act. Venice and Cyprus are divided by the ocean, and the sea storm that opens Act 2 severs crucial links with the city and foreshadows the violent personal upheavals that erupt on the island.

For the Elizabethan-Jacobean audience, the image of Venice was multifaceted. 2 As depicted in Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice, the city was a thriving Mediterannean seaport, a hub of commerce in sixteenth-century Europe. To protect its shipping routes with the East, Venice built up a strong military force (its Arsenal was noteworthy) 3 and maintained garrisons, such as Cyprus, throughout the Mediterranean. 4 The military side of Venice's trading empire features prominently in Othello, as does Venice's reputation as a free state, a commonwealth with an impressive judicial system and government. The sixteenth-century translator Lewis Lewkenor praises the "pure and uncorrupted" justice of the noble city. 5 Indeed, in

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Othello: A Guide to the Play
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Notes x
  • Journal Abbreviations xi
  • 1 - Textual History 1
  • Notes 8
  • 2 - Contexts and Sources 11
  • Notes 22
  • 3 - Dramatic Structure 29
  • Notes 57
  • 4 - The Major Characters 63
  • Notes 94
  • 5 - Themes 103
  • Notes 116
  • 6 - Critical Approaches 121
  • Notes 142
  • 7 - The Play in Performance 151
  • Notes 200
  • Bibliographical Essay 209
  • Index 217
  • About the Author *
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