The setting and cultural climate in which Shakespeare’s Othello is based and contributes largely to many thematic elements of the play as well as directly to the events that occur within it. A question that is often raised by literary researchers and audiences alike is the significance of the setting in correlation to the course of action that transpires throughout the play; that is— how impactful are factors such as ideology, racial attitudes, and gender roles of the time to the storyline of the play? Could tragedy have been avoided if perhaps these characters were placed in a different era and/or location? It is undeniable that the time period and applicable societal perceptions of Othello are incredibly important themes to consider when reading, but there are also many other contributing factors and active components of causation within the play that should not be dismissed.
To accurately appraise the impact of this prominent characteristic of the play, it must be analyzed not only as its own entity but also in relation to other contributing factors that result in conclusions such as Othello’s demise and the death of almost all major characters.
The racial attitudes of the early 16005 were obviously not in Othello‘s favor regardless of the ambiguity of his actual ethnicity, it can be clearly ascertained that Othello is considered to be an inherent ‘outsider’ from the Caucasian Venetians with whom he is surrounded. Upon this premise, two inferences can be made: The first is that the cultural setting in regards to the subject of race enhances the significance of Othello’s successes and triumphs, amplifying his initial characterization as a valiant hero.
The reverence he warrants from the general community bears more weight and displays more respect than it would if Othello were a white, affluent Venetian.
The second is that Othello’s race places him at a predisposed disadvantage when faced with the plot against him. Firstly, the racial attitudes harbored by characters such as Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio, result in prejudice and disdain against Othello which gives them the arbitrary motivation to work against him Iago’s hatred for Othello would most likely not have been as intense if Othello were not of foreign racial descent, nor would Roderigo or Brabantio’s swiftness and willingness to believe the worst of him (and then act accordingly) have been such a catalytic factor. In addition to this, Othello’s eventual spiral into irrationality and vehemence was also affected by the stereotypes of the time. If Othello had been white, his violence, rashness and eventual murderous actions would have been considered completely deranged.
However, because Othello is not white, these actions are rather seen as a fulfillment of the stereotype Othello had incredulously defied previously. To an audience during the play’s debut, Othello’s susceptibility to Iago’s manipulation and his subsequent actions would attest to the widely accepted perception that non-Caucasians were by nature violence, lascivious, and of lesser intelligence, despite any superficial accolades they may have attained. In these ways, the setting of Othello appears to be an incredibly impactful component of the play; one so influential that without it the transpiration of tragedy may never have occurred. However, I do not agree that the hypothetical changing of time periods would have resulted in the avoidance of any major plot points. If Othello was set in a westernized society in 2016, there would be nothing preventing the plotline of the play from progressing almost identically to the way that it does in 16005 Venice.
There is nothing about modern-day society that would prevent either of the two previous inferences from manifesting themselves just as intensely as they do in the actual setting of the play. The significance of Othello’s triumphs and successes would still be enhanced by his race whether he attained these achievements in the 1900s, 2000s, and probably even in the 21005 and beyond. The quintessential narrative of a disadvantaged ethnic individual rising to valor despite racial factors working against them is still common today. Despite both ideological and practical progressions of racial issues that have been made since Shakespeare’s time, people are still surprised and “proved wrong” by the success of the underprivileged and people of color: Despite any alternate perceptions, racial prejudice still makes it harder for POCs to achieve the same things as their caucasian counterparts.
Likewise, the downfall or incrimination of an ethnic person is not viewed equally to that of a Caucasian person. Evident in the justice system and small-scale settings alike, prejudices against ethnic people predispose their opposition to judge and act arbitrarily against them. Society is always quick to believe that a black or Hispanic person has committed a crime or acted immorally than they are to believe the same of a white person, similar to Roderigo and Brabantioi In some cases, feelings of negativity or hatred are intensified by or even based upon a person’s race, similar to Iago, and much like the reaction to the downward spiral of Iago, society today views the downfall of successful POCs as an inevitable event, or even the revelation of the true immorality of their character which had been deceitfully concealed prior. An example of this would be the media’s depiction of POC criminals vs. white criminals.
When a white person is convicted for a large»scale crime such as a mass shooting, society will often rally behind this individual and say that their actions were the result of a mental illness or some other form of victimization. Contrastingly, a black person does not receive the same throng of excuses and support. If Othello had been white, Shakespearean audiences perhaps would have blamed his demise on Iago and the other factors working against him. However, because Othello was not white, audiences would have viewed this rather as a consequence of his mental and characteristic deficiencies due to his race. This would not be different in a future society and/or different country.
The setting of Othello is undoubtedly an instrumental factor in the overall story of the play. Almost all of the events and plot points that occur throughout the story are influenced (if not fueled) by cultural attitudes and perceptions of the time. However, in regards to the question of how a different setting would change the overall story, I believe that neither changing the time period nor the location of the play would prevent racial prejudices from affecting the transpiration of events Perhaps the reaction of the audience and meaning of the work in itself would be altered if Othello was to debut on Broadway tomorrow, but if the storyline itself is being appraised objectively, it would hold the equally legitimate potential of occurring either in the 16005 or today.