OTHELLO: SHORT PLOT SUMMARY
The story of William Shakespeare's Othello is set in 16th-century Venice and Cyprus. Othello the Moor, a noble black warrior in the Venetian army, has secretly married a beautiful white woman called Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent senator, Brabantio. When he finds out, he is outraged, and promptly disowns her.
Othello’s ensign, Iago, harbours a secret jealousy and resentment towards the Moor, partly because another soldier, lieutenant Cassio, has been promoted ahead of him, and also because he suspects that Othello has had an affair with his wife. Intent on revenge, Iago hatches a devious plan to plant suspicions in Othello’s mind that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. He orchestrates a street fight, for which Cassio is wrongly blamed, and is then dismissed from his post by Othello. Desdemona takes up ...view middle of the document...
Iago is taken into custody by the Venetian authorities.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE STORY
Written against the backdrop of the bubonic plague and the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Othello is thought to have been completed sometime in early 1604. Shakespeare appropriated the basic plot and story from Geraldi Cinthio’s popular book, Hundred Stories, the first sentence of which reads, “There was a Moor in Venice”. There were also other books that he probably used to shape the plots details, such as John Leo Africanus’s Geographical History of Africa, published in November 1600, Lewis Lewkenor’s book on the Constitution of Venice, and Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s History of the World.
Peter Ackroyd, author of Shakespeare – The Biography, argues for an additional background source to the plot. He writes of a story about Philip II, the King of Spain, who was allegedly of a very jealous nature, and was said to have strangled his wife in bed after she had inadvertently dropped her handkerchief. If this tale is true, it is too close to the plot of Othello to be a coincidence.
Real life encounters also fed into the play’s storyline. Shakespeare would have come into contact with members of London’s African community, who would have figured in his daily life around the streets of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, Silver Street and Turnmill Street, where he lived and socialised. He would have interacted with them as servants, musicians, entertainers and even prostitutes. He would have been aware of their struggles within Elizabethan society, and the racism they endured.
In 1600 Shakespeare may also have met Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun — the olive-skinned Moorish ambassador to the Arab King of Barbary — who is often cited as the inspiration for Othello. He visited the court of Queen Elizabeth, and sat for a portrait. Some suggest that Shakespeare and his troupe perhaps performed for him.
THE SHAKESPEARE MASHUP by Ben Arogundade is out now.
The number of people worldwide who Google the term, “Othello plot” each month.