Know Before You Go: Othello
Shakespeare Royal Oak is proud to present Othello as this year’s Mainstage Show. Whether you’re new to Shakespeare or a veteran of the Bard’s work, we’ve provided a little cheat sheet to help you review all that Othello has in store. Join us as we explore Shakespeare’s classic story of romance and jealousy.
Othello – A respected Moorish general in the Venetian army, Othello has it all: power, intelligence, and the love of his wife Desdemona. However, he still falls prey to insecurities regarding his age, race, and station. “Moorish” is an archaic word referring to a person of African descent, Muslim faith, or both.
Desdemona – Othello’s wife and the daughter of the Venetian senator Branbazio.
Iago – Othello’s ensign who dreams of his demise, especially after Othello neglects to promote him to lieutenant.
Michael Cassio – A young, handsome, and loyal lieutenant under Othello. His high station inspires further jealousy from Iago.
Emilia – Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant.
Roderigo – A jealous young suitor of Desdemona who hopes Iago will help him win her hand.
Bianca – A courtesan who prefers Michael Cassio’s attentions.
Brabanatio – A Venetian senator, friend of Othello and father of Desdemona.
Duchess of Venice – The official authority in Venice, who holds great respect for Othello.
Montano – The governor of Cyprus before Othello arrives
Lodovico and Gratiano – Brabantio’s kinsmen and messengers of the Duchess
Setting: The play begins in Venice, Italy. The action is then moved to Cyprus, where Othello and his men await further command.
The play opens with an argument between Roderigo and Iago. Roderigo has been paying Iago to help him court the lovely Desdemona. However, Roderigo recently learned that Desdemona has married Othello, the Moorish general Iago serves. Iago hates Othello, who recently passed him over for a promotion to lieutenant, raising the inexperienced Michael Cassio to the position instead.
Iago and Roderigo alert Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to her disappearance, and together they go to the Duke of Venice to accuse Othello of stealing her through witchcraft. Othello and Desdemona defend their love and marriage, and the Duke takes their side, further angering Iago and Roderigo. Othello and his men are sent to Cyprus to aid in the defense against the Turks, and Desdemona insists on accompanying her husband.
Upon arrival on Cyprus, Roderigo is still upset, insisting that he has no chance of breaking up Othello and Desdemona. Iago disagrees. He begins weaving a web of lies, inventing an affair between his rival Cassio and Desdemona to sow seeds of jealousy between Othello and his wife. Will love stand up to Iago’s evil plot or will he be able to exact revenge on both of the men he despises?
The first recorded performance of Othello took place in 1604 on November 1st, All Hallows Day, exactly seven years before the first production of The Tempest. It was performed in the Banqueting House at Whitehall by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. It has remained a popular play in Shakespearean repertory since its inaugural performance.
Othello is set in Venice, probably in the late sixteenth century, and the war with the Turks in the play could be referring to the war Venice fought with the Ottoman empire between 1570 and 1573. Venice was known as a multicultural city with a wide diversity of races and religions, and would likely be a city in which a non-white, non-Christian man could be both accepted as a leader and distrusted for his differences.
The first actor to play the title role was Richard Burbage, who also originated the roles of Hamlet and King Lear. Burbage was white, and it is presumed that he wore some sort of blackface makeup to signify Othello’s race. Ira Aldridge was the first major black actor to play Othello in London 1825, and his performance brought a discussion of race and prejudice to the play. Since then, it has become increasingly common for black actors to play the role of Othello. The hatred Iago, who is often played by a white actor, feels for Othello in this more racially-conscious setting showcases the provocative nature Othello still has 415 years after its premiere.
Shakespeare Royal Oak will present William Shakespeare’s Othello in Starr Jaycee Park 8:00pm Thursday, Friday & Saturday evenings and 5:00pm Sundays July 26 – August 5. Tickets are $25/person and available online or at the park box office which opens one hour prior to show time. Please visit our website at http://shakespeareroyaloak.com/ for tickets and further information or call us at 248-399-3727 with any further questions. You can also visit us on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/shakespeareroyaloak/.