Shakespeare adapted Othello from Giraldi Cinthio's "Hecatommithi," but he altered the original story. The central point of Cinthio's story is that one should look for marriage partners from the same ethnic and cultural background, whereas Shakespeare's play explores the relationship of the lovers, as well as the villain's plans to destroy that relationship.
The opening act of Othello takes place in Venice, but the primary setting is Cyprus. Venice is a city-state of enormous wealth and the center of Christian resistance to the Turks, Venice was an important port, like London, and there was commercial competition between the two. Its trade was being blocked by the growing power of the Turkish Empire in the 16th Century, which extended into Europe, Asia and Arabia. It had an ethnically mixed population and a reputation as the sex capital of Europe. The city's women were considered loose so it is easier for Iago to plant doubt in Othello's mind. Cyprus was important because it was a strategically located island, which yielded substantial harvests. In Shakespeare's time the Ottoman Turks brought Cyprus under its control.
A major issue in Europe of this time period is the intermingling of Muslim religion and culture with the West. Moores were increasingly visible and living in England when Othello was being performed. It is obvious that there is hostility within the play about Othello's Moorish origins, and his differences in religion and culture. The hostility between the West and East is shown in the conflict between Venice and the Turks; the Christian Venetians want to protect Christianity from the influence of the Muslim Turks and Othello the Moor is the one selected to complete this mission.
Venice was exotic to Elizabethan audience but appropriate for establishing a character that was unusual and something of "the other." Venice was a suitable choice of setting for Othello's generalship because the Venetian republic, by law had to have a foreigner as a general of the armies.
Othello, a Moor, is a soldier, a military leader, who, after much battlefield experience, is currently employed by Venice as the Governor-General of Cyprus. He is both a captain and a general. He holds a high position and is greatly respected. In Act I, he is sent by the Venetian government to defend Cyprus against and impending attack by the Turks. The play is vague about Othello's exact origin. He displays heroic qualities of courage and strength. He is physically impressive and passionate. What set him...