Sunday, 11 May 2014

10 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare's Othello

Othello is one of Shakespeare's
most popular plays
Written in around 1603, Shakespeare's Othello is one of the Bard's most popular and frequently performed plays. Here are just a few interesting facts surrounding the work, its characters and its performance history.

1. In Shakespeare's source material, the only character with a name is Desdemona

Like many of Shakespeare's plays, Othello didn't come exclusively from the playwright's imagination. 

In fact, he 'pinched' the basis for the play from a tale called Un Capitano Moro. It was a short story and, in it, all of the characters are known by their rank or title...except Desdemona, whose name means ill-fated.  

2. The character of Roderigo doesn't exist in Cinthio's Un Capitano Moro

Despite lifting some the plot, it can't be said that Shakespeare didn't add his own spin on the story. For instance, the manner of Desdemona's death is vastly different in Cinthio's original. 

Another of his additions was a whole new character: Roderigo. Click here for more on why the Bard may have chosen to include a comic foil for Iago.

Iago has more lines than any other character in the play

3. Iago is by far the most verbose character of the play

Although Othello is the tragic hero, he doesn't have the lion's share of the words - not by a long shot. With 1098 lines of dialogue, Iago far surpasses Othello's paltry 887. 

Iago also speaks some of the most memorable lines; ones that have worked their way into everyday language: "The best with two backs," (Okay, maybe not every day!), and "Wear my heart upon my sleeve."

4. The name 'Othello' means wealth

It's not difficult to see why Desdemona is called Desdemona, it's calling a spade a spade. 

However, dubbing Othello 'Othello' isn't quite so obvious. But maybe it's not so much of a mystery when we consider that, when Shakespeare Christened Othello, there was probably no such name. And although it is taken to be a variant on the old Germanic name Otto, Shakespeare may, in fact, have taken it from an ancient Roman Emperor nicknamed Otho.

If you're interested in learning more on Othello's name, its origins, and why Shakespeare may have chosen it, check out David Shajer's thoughts on the subject, here

5. The subject of interracial marriage wasn't tackled again in mainstream entertainment until 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was
groundbreaking, but Shakespeare took
on interracial marriage over 350 years earlier

I think it's easy to overlook just how ahead of it's time Othello was. Keep in mind, Shakespearean theatre was the Hollywood of its day. It made big bucks and it drew in the masses; it wasn't just for the educated and/or wealthy. 

The fact that the subject of interracial marriage wasn't really touched upon in the same way for more than 350 years, tells us just how radical it was.

6. The word 'honesty' or variants thereof are used 52 times over the course of the play

And with wonderful dramatic irony, it is said most often by, or about, Iago.

7. The play was first performed in 1604 at Whitehall Palace

Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, there is a known record of Othello's premiere: it took place on the 1st of November as part of the 'Hallamas Day' (aka All Hallows or All Saints' Day), festivities. In the record, "The Moor of Venis" was said to be written by a "Shaxberd". 

8. Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, Othello wasn't adapted during the Restoration period

"The problem with this tragedy is it's just too tragic..."
Nahum Tate
During the Restoration and the eighteenth century, most of Shakespeare's plays were tweaked (and in some cases rather severely altered), to appeal to a more sensitive and sedate audience. 

For example, click here for a taste of how Nahum Tate took a whopping pair of garden shears to King Lear

Othello, though was not subject to similar treatment. Testament to the play's brilliance? Maybe, but does that mean King Lear is less brilliant? 

In any event, Othello did remain unmolested by the likes of Tate. 

9. The first film version of Othello was made in 1909 and shot in Venice

Directed by Ugo Falena, Otello (as it was originally titled), was shot on location in Venice - and it's thought by some that this was the first Shakespeare play to be filmed in the play's actual locale.

10. There are currently 20 film versions and adaptations of the play, including:

Stuart Burge's 1965 adaptation

Oliver Parker's 1995 offering

And Tim Blake Nelson's O from 2001

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