This lesson defines ‘setting’ in drama, focusing on how the setting affects a play in important ways. Then we’ll discuss how Shakespeare uses setting to influence audience reception in Othello, which takes place in early modern Venice and Cyprus.
Setting in Works of Drama
When you see a play, do you notice where and when it takes place? Would it matter if it were different? Famous Greek Philosopher Aristotle recommended that good drama maintain a unity of time and place, meaning that a play should take place in one spot and over a realistic span of time. Some plays do this, but many do not, scattering their events across diverse locations and time periods.The setting of a play is the location in place and time of its events.
The setting influences many important elements in a play. The location affects our expectations about things such as the kind of language used, clothing worn, and cultural conventions. Time period creates expectations about those same things and more, including available technology and the background of real historical events.
Setting in Shakespearean Works
Shakespeare sets his plays in a number of different time periods and geographical locations. Some, like Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus are set in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt.
Others, like Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure, are set in Italy closer to Shakespeare’s time. A large portion of his plays take place in England, especially his histories like the King Henry plays and Richard III, which take place during England’s bloody civil war. King Lear is also in England, but takes place even further back in the medieval period centuries before Shakespeare, as does the Scottish play, Macbeth.Evidence we have of performances in Shakespeare’s time, including the texts of the plays, sheds light on a number of anachronisms on Shakespeare’s stage. Anachronisms include props, speech elements, or references that demonstrably do not belong to the play’s time period or place.
A spectator’s sketch of Titus Andronicus on stage, for example, shows actors wearing thin rapiers as swords, which did not exist in ancient Rome. Whether Shakespeare deliberately inserted these elements or simply was not aware is not always clear, but the presence of certain anachronisms, like the rapiers, can certainly call attention to a heated political issue of the time.
Setting in Othello
Othello takes place in Venice, the famous Italian city, and Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea colonized by the Venetians at the time.
The play is set during the early modern period, roughly Shakespeare’s time in history.In this time, Italy was not a unified country, but a region that included many independent states, of which Venice was one. In the 1500s Venice fought a number of battles against the Ottoman Empire, located in what is now Turkey. The ‘Turks’, as they are called in the play, hotly contested Venice’s control of Cyprus, which is located near their coast.Othello is a seasoned general who has spent years fighting the Turkish forces for Venice. He comes most likely from northern Africa, since he is referred to as a moor, an ethnic and cultural term that the English used to describe a variety of predominantly Muslim peoples from the southern Mediterranean region, especially southern Spain and northern Africa.Since only white males performed on Shakespeare’s stage, Othello would have been portrayed by a white man in blackface.
This practice remained common in performances of the play even up until Sir Lawrence Olivier’s famous rendition in 1965.
Setting’s Significance: Venice
Both Venice and Cyprus carry symbolic weight for viewers in Shakespeare’s time. In England, many thought of Venice as a hub of prostitution and generally lax sexual restrictions, particularly for women. Iago plays on this reputation when goading Othello into believing that the Venetian Desdemona could be unfaithful:’I know our country disposition well.In Venice they do let God see the pranksThey dare not show their husbands. Their best conscienceIs not to leave ‘t undone, but keep ‘t unknown.
‘The use of the word ‘country’ is a pun here on the infamous derogatory word for female genitalia (a joke that Shakespeare often employs). Iago tells Othello that Venetian women have no moral problem with lewd behavior, only with letting their husbands find out about it. This contributes to a prominent theme of the play, which is the difference between external appearances and internal desire.
Cyprus also has connections to the theme of desire in the play.
It is considered in Greek mythology to be the birthplace of Aphrodite (or Venus), the Greek and Roman goddess of erotic love. Othello perhaps unwittingly prepares us for this association when he effusively praises the island to Desdemona:’Honey, you shall be well desired in Cyprus.I have found great love amongst them.
‘In both Venice and Cyprus, conventional structures of love and marriage seem threatened in the play by desire that is either sinful or unconventional. Desdemona’s father is furious that his daughter has not only eloped without his permission (a grave sin at the time), but she has also done so with a black man. The violation of this cultural divide would have been nothing short of scandalous at the time.When all arrive at Cyprus, Iago engineers a plot to completely destroy a happy marriage by tricking Othello into believing that Desdemona lives up to her Venetian reputation by sinfully desiring the suave Lieutenant Cassio.
Setting is the time and place of a work of drama. It can be useful in determining stage conventions and the kinds of cultural or technological possibilities available.
Shakespearean theatre often included anachronisms, or untimely features, that were able to draw attention to important social issues.In his play, Othello, Venice was well known in Shakespeare’s England for sexual promiscuity and loose morals, while Cyprus was associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.