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Shakespeare: Othello

1. Introduction

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In this module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes, focusing in particular on: (i) when and where it was written and first performed; (ii) Shakespeare’s source for the play, and the parts of the play that are his own invention; (iii) the importance of the drinking-song scene in Act 2, Scene 3, where (the Italian) Iago makes a point of mentioning that the song is from England, and that the English are a nation of heavy drinkers; (iv) the other ways in which Othello (the play) evokes England: the similarities between the Turkish fleet in the play and the Spanish Armada of 1588, and the fact that both England and Cyprus are England nations; (v) the importance of the longer title of the play in the first quarto edition (1622) – ‘The Tragedy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties Seruants’; (vi) the extent to which the two theatres mentioned on the front page of the first quarto edition of the play evoke some of the play’s key themes: the Globe Theatre the idea of global travel and politics, the Blackfriars Theatre the ideas of race and religion.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Othello. In the first module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes. In the second module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in the play before turning in the third module to the theme of religious conversion in the play – the idea of “turning Turk”. In the fourth module, we look in more detail at the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, while in the fifth module we provide an overview of the critical history of the play, from the focus on the character of Desdemona in the earliest criticism to the exploration of race and gender politics (and their intersection) in the most recent criticism.

Note: We use the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, January 04). Shakespeare: Othello - Introduction [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Othello – Introduction." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 04 Jan 2021,

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