Historical background

Shakespeare’s source material for Othello was Un Capitano Moro in 1565 by the Italian writer Cinthio, also known as A Moorish Captain.

In the original text, Desdemona is the only character named, while Othello is referred to as ‘The Moor’, Iago as ‘The Ensign’ and Emilia as 'The Ensign’s Wife.’ It is believed that the name ‘Othello’ may be Shakespeare’s own invention. Shakespeare didn’t follow the exact plot of the original, and Cinthio’s story is a racist and didactic tale, warning European women to obey their parents, and not to marry men of different races.

Most scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Othello between 1602 and 1604. According to the Master of the Revels’ records it was first performed on Hallowmas day (1 November) 1604 for King James I in the banqueting hall at Whitehall Palace.

Unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s plays there is much evidence of Othello’s early performance history. Records show performances at the Globe, Blackfriars, Hampton Court and, most notably, at the wedding of King James’s daughter Elizabeth. Apart from the theatres closing between 1635 and 1660 due to Puritan rule, scholars have records of the play being performed every decade for 400 years.

The famous early-modern actor Richard Burbage played Othello in the original production, and the first recorded performance of Iago was by Joseph Taylor, a member of the King’s Men in 1616. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Othello was one of the first plays performed when the theatres were reopened. It was a new era. King Charles II proclaimed that women could legally perform and a December production of Othello that year at the Vere Street Theatre, starring Margaret Hughes as Desdemona, marks the first recorded performance of a woman treading the boards of the English stage.

The play was first published by bookseller Thomas Walkley in quarto format in 1622, before it was included in the publication of the First Folio the following year by Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell. The differences between the two publications have caused much scholarly contention. The Folio version contains around 160 lines that are not in the Quarto, and it lacks about a dozen lines found in the original publication. The Quarto is likely to be a dictated version due to its peculiar punctuation and profanities, whereas the Folio is most likely from a licensed copy of the script that had been reviewed by the Master of the Revels, as it adheres to the 1606 ‘Act to Restrain Abuses of Players’; the profanities have been removed.

Othello was hugely popular throughout the 17th and 18th century and is one of the few Shakespearean plays never altered during the Restoration period. However, over the 19th and 20th centuries various interpretations of the play emerged in response to changing notions of race and sexuality. In 1826, Ira Aldridge was the first African-American to play the role of Othello in London. He played the role many times on European stages. In 1938, Royal Shakespeare Company director Tyrone Guthrie consulted the Freudian psychologist Ernest Jones about the relationship between Iago and Othello. As a result, Laurence Olivier’s Iago was portrayed as repressing his sexual attraction to the Moor. In 1985 Ben Kingsley and David Suchet’s depiction of Othello and Iago also stressed the latter’s unrequited homosexual longing. This was the last RSC production to cast a white actor in the role of Othello. In 1997 Jude Kelly and the Folger Library produced a version of Othello in which British actor Patrick Stewart played the title role as a white actor in a cast of 22 African-American performers. This production is referred to as a ‘photo negative’ production and certainly shone a fresh light on the notions of race and minority. In 2015, Iqbal Khan directed Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which, for the first time in the Company’s history, a black actor was cast in the role of Iago (Lucian Msamati).

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