Othello is set in Venice, presumably sometime in the latter half of the sixteenth-century. Venice was at war with the Ottoman empire between 1570 and 1573, so the play’s reference to the threat of an attack on Cyprus could reflect a setting sometime during this period. Venice was well-known as an early example of what might later be called a multicultural city, boasting a much greater diversity of ethnicities and religions amongst its inhabitants than most other European cities could. Othello is identified in the play’s subtitle as a “Moor”: a term most typically used in this period to signal someone who was either of African descent, Muslim faith, or both. Whatever the precise details of Othello’s racial and religious identity, they are clearly enough to provoke anxiety when Iago torments Brabantio by referring to Othello as “an old black ram” (1.1.) and a “Barbary horse” (1.1.). While Brabantio is outraged that his daughter has married a man marked as an outsider, Othello has also clearly gained a significant amount of prestige and respect in Venice since the Duke trusts him with the crucial military defense of Cyprus. As a setting, Venice serves Shakespeare’s needs of a place where a non-European, and potentially non-Christian, man could both hold significant authority but still be distrusted.
A second factor which may have informed Shakespeare’s decision to set his play in Venice was the city’s reputation as a hub of prostitution. While prostitution existed everywhere, a number of visitors to Venice in the early modern period published accounts of an established courtesan profession. Venetian prostitutes were often well-educated and lived in relative luxury, and as long they obeyed state-determined rules about when and how they practiced their trade, they were relatively free to conduct their business. The Venetian state tolerated prostitution as another feature of the city’s bustling commercial life, and the city gained a reputation as a place potentially loaded with sexual innuendo. Shakespeare’s incorporation of the prostitute Bianca, “a huswife that by selling her desires / Buys herself bread and cloth” (4.1.), was likely more plausible to contemporary audiences in a play set in Venice. Moreover, Othello’s fears that his bride could rapidly slide into sexual promiscuity seem linked to a belief that the line between virtuous wives and common courtesans is dangerously thin.