Othello, written by Shakespeare in 1603, is set in Venice and Cyprus during the Renaissance period in the latter half of the 1500s. The action of the play is set against the backdrop of the Venetian-Ottoman war, a longstanding conflict between the Venetian Christians and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Cyprus came to play a central part in this conflict, with both sides vying for control. This context of war sets up a background of conflict and violence that will infect the whole mood of the play.
Setting proves to be an important element in the play due to the belief presented that place can shape people. The play’s initial setting of Venice, for example, is significant for its associations with lasciviousness and prostitution. This aspect is alluded to within the play itself when Iago describes the reputation of Venetian women:
I know our country disposition well.
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands.
When Iago invokes Venice’s seedy reputation as evidence for Desdemona’s deceitful nature, it shows the power of the contemporary belief of the importance of place and nationality. Such an idea also proves pivotal to the play’s exploration of race, with the characters constantly alluding to Othello's race as a Moor. The frequent references to Othello’s dark skin—“the old black ram,” “black Othello,” “you the blacker devil”— emphasize Othello’s role as outsider and highlight the racism of contemporary attitudes. The setting of Venice, a contemporary multicultural hub, also makes sense in this context.
Contemporary attitudes towards gender are also prominent in Othello, both through the championing of traditional feminine virtues such as purity as well as through the misogynistic condemnation of female sexuality. Desdemona’s innocence aside, the fact that death is considered an appropriate punishment for adultery in the play by Othello, who is at least initially presented as a reasonable and just man, highlights the extent to which female desire was vilified and condemned.
The move of the action in the play to Cyprus, an island at the center of the war, proves apt for the play’s central themes. Not only is Cyprus a representation of conflict, with it playing a central part in the war action of the play, but it is also a symbol of love. Birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Cyprus has ancient associations with romance and passion. The contradictory symbolism of Cyprus sets up the duality of love and violence that dominates the play.
The island setting of Cyprus is also of importance in that it isolates the action of the play and removes all characters from their native land. Away from their home lands, characters may not behave as they normally would, and their actions may be more rash, or perhaps more natural. By moving the action to an island, Shakespeare gives the sense of moving to new, unknown lands, ones where the characters may be more willing to forge their own rules and sense of justice. The sense of lawlessness that this aspect promotes proves apt in the chaos that ensues.
In a similar vein, the choice of Cyprus and Italy as Shakespeare’s setting for Othello, a play that would be acted to English audiences, may also have been motivated by a desire to create a sense of exoticism. The separation of these places from the everyday lives of his audience allows Shakespeare scope for grander as well as more provocative themes.