Shakespeare set Othello against the epic backdrop of an ongoing religious conflict between Christian Republic of Venice and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. This conflict had raged off and on since the mid-fifteenth century, and by the time the play premiered at the beginning of the seventeenth century, four Ottoman–Venetian wars had already taken place. The most recent bout of violence, which occurred between 1570 and 1573, was known as the War of Cyprus.
Shakespeare situated the events of Othello in the midst of this war. In doing so, he made a significant change from his main source material, Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi. Like Giovanni Boccaccio’s earlier Decameron, the Hecatommithi contains one hundred individual tales. However, unlike the work of his predecessor, which was framed by the historical nightmare of the Black Plague’s arrival in Florence, Cinthio’s tales are not united by an overarching frame narrative. In other words, his tales lack an obvious connection to historical reality. Thus, by setting his adaptation of Cinthio’s tale during the War of Cyprus, Shakespeare has amplified the tensions of an intimate drama by placing them in relation to a political crisis from recent historical memory.
The War of Cyprus began when Sultan Selim II ordered the invasion of Cyprus, an island situated in a part of the Mediterranean Sea near Turkey. The Republic of Venice had controlled Cyprus since 1489. The Venetians profited from the island’s production of exports like sugar, cotton, and wine, and they had a longstanding arrangement with Egyptian rulers who protected Venetian interests on the island from Ottoman invaders. However, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire’s holdings had expanded to encompass a greater swath the Mediterranean, including the Levant (comprised of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan) as well as Egypt. Cyprus therefore became the natural focus for subsequent Ottoman expansion. But the Ottomans would have to wait until the middle of the century for the right conditions. The Ottoman Empire had been engaged in a protracted war with the Hapsburg Empire that did not come to an end until 1568. It was thus not until 1570 that Selim II had gathered sufficient men and resources. In the summer of that year, the Ottoman fleet set sail for Cyprus. Selim’s army fought for several months before successfully capturing Nicosia, the island’s capitol.
The action of Othello likely takes place one year after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, during the Battle of Lepanto. This battle brought together the vast majority of all galley ships that then existed in the Mediterranean region, and the results of the engagement were decisive. The Venetians, along with their allies in the Holy League, amassed a fleet of nearly 200 ships, which they pitted against 300 Ottoman vessels. Despite the Ottoman advantage in terms of ships, the two fleets were well matched in terms of men. The Holy League won a decisive victory, destroying most of the Ottoman fleet and ending their three-decade naval dominance.
Shakespeare’s choice to set Othello during the Battle of Lepanto is significant. The victory helped restore Christian control of the region, and in leading the charge against the Muslim fleet, the former Muslim Othello cements his allegiance to Christian Europe. However, Othello’s victory also enflames Iago’s jealousy, and the celebrations that follow Othello’s achievement provide Iago with an opportunity to set his plan in motion. The continued instability in the play’s domestic drama may be said to mirror the tensions between the Venetians and Ottomans, which continued well into the eighteenth century.
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