Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright.
Public and critical success uickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of “king’s players. ” Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two.
At the time of Shakespeare’s death, such luminaries as Ben Johnson hailed him as the Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well-established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery.
Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare’s plays in reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford re the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense.
A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture Othello was first performed in front of James I of England on November 1, 1604. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies (written after Hamlet but before King Lear and Macbeth), Othello is set against the backdrop of the wars between Venice and Turkey, which raged in the latter part of the 16th century.
Cyprus, which is the setting for most of the action, was a Venetian outpost attacked by the Turks in 1570 and conquered by the Ottomans the following year. Shakespeare’s information on the conflict probably derives from The History of the Turks, by Richard Knolles, which was published in England in the autumn of 1603–so the play was composed at some point between that time and the summer of 1604. Shakespeare’s choice of a black man was strikingly original. Othello is called a Moor, which can suggest Arabic descent, but the language of the play insists that he is a black African. )
Blackness in Elizabethan England was a color associated with moral evil, decay, and death, and Moors in the theater were usually stereotyped villains, like Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus. Othello embodies none of the characteristics typical of the “Moor”; instead of being lecherous, cunning, and vicious, he is a noble, towering figure whose fall is therefore all the more difficult to watch.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello is derived from another source–an Italian prose tale written in 1565 by Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi. The original story contains the bare bones of the tale: a Moorish general is deceived by his ensign into believing his wife is unfaithful. To Giraldi’s story Shakespeare added supporting characters like the vainglorious Roderigo and the unhappy Brabantio; he compressed the time-frame and set it against the backdrop of military conflict; and, of course, he turned the ensign, a minor villain, into the artist of evil whom we know as Iago.