Shakespeare's Major Source
As is well known, Shakespeare's major source for Othello was the 1565 Italian book Hecatommithi, which literally means "110 stories." The story of the "Venetian Moor" appeared in decade three, story seven of the work. The author of the Hecatommithi, Giovanni Battista Giraldi (known also as Cinthio), was a university professor and also a poet, novelist and dramatist. Though not translated into English until 1753, the Hecatommithi was rendered into French in 1584 by Gabriel Chappuys. We do not know whether Shakespeare was familiar with the Italian or French version. Act V was dependent on a story by Bandello of an Albanian captian who killed his beautiful wife lest anyone should enjoy her after his death. This account was translated into English from a French account by Geoffrey Fenton in Certain Tragicall Discourses (1567). I only refer to Cinthio's story in this mini-essay.
Shakespeare follows the outline of Cinthio's tale quite closely. An unnamed Venetian Moor, skilled in war and highly esteemed by the Duke, takes Disdemona as his wife and is assigned to battle in Cyprus. His unnamed Ensign, a man of "handsome figure, but of the most depraved nature in the world," fell passionately in love with Disdemona and "bent all his thoughts to achieve the conquest." He had no success in convincing her to respond to his blandishments, and the Ensign concluded that his ill success was attributable to the Captain of the troop. Thus he devised a scheme to plot the death of the Captain and to divert the affection of the Moor from Disdemona.
The Captain soon fell from grace, and Disdemona tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the man and her husband. Seeing an opportunity, the Ensign approached the Moor and began to plant doubts in his mind regarding his wife's fidelity. The Moor confronted his wife, who deined that she had any illicit love designs for the Captain. Seeing his opportunity, however, the Ensign tried to point out what Disdemona would consider the Moor's inadequacies, including his blackness.
Not wanting to leap to conclusions, the Moor required the Ensign to give him proof of his wife's infidelity. The Ensign knew that Disdemona was fond of a finely embroidered handkerchief given to her by the Moor and he arranged, through a ruse with his three year-old daughter, to get the handkerchief from her, whereupon he gave it to the Captain. After some intrigue, the Moor discovered the whereabouts of the handkerchief, and he was so incensed that he prevailed upon the Ensigh to kill the Captain as well as Disdemona.
The Ensign sequestered himself in the Moor's house and killed Disdemona by striking her repeatedly with a bag filled with sand and then arranged her in bed with a ceiling timber across her body to make it look like a ceiling collapse had killed her. "But Heaven, the just rewarder of all hearts, willed not that so wicked a deed should go unpunished." The Ensign died a miserable death and teh Moor was condemned to perpetual banishment.
While Shakespeare followed the flow of the narrative with great precision and fidelity, he changed several important details, gave context to others and provided his incomparable insight into human nature by making jealousy the emotion which Iago seeks to exploit. Three special points deserve mention.
First, Shakespeare, as is his wont, makes SEX, SEX, SEX much more prominent than Cinthio. Iago is sexually obsessed, Othello seems to demonstrate extreme sexual reserve, Cassio is a ladies' man. Love overlays Shakespeare's awareness of sex, though Desdemona's love for Othello seems to be different than his love for her.
Second, Shakespeare places far more emphasis on Othello's race than Cinthio. The latter has but one reference to it, while 1.1 of Othello is replete with references to race. After 1.1, however, few allusions to Othello's blackness appear but, in a sense, the "damage" is done. The whole world knows by the end of the first 150 lines that race will be a factor, even if unspoken, that affects the flow of the drama.
Third, Shakespeare is wonderfully inventive, both with respect to Othello's exotic past and the deep human emotions that come to the surface in the play. Cinthio's tale is, in a word, "flat." It is a pleasant narrative, told without comment, about heavenly justice that is meted out to an evil designing Ensign and the Moor. But Othello is so much more than that. It explores jealousy, betrayal, blind rage, resentment and the gradual way that a human psyche can be destroyed. In addition, Shakespeare shows his dramatic genius by inventing an exotic past for Othello and for the handkerchief, a past that makes him enchantingly mysterious as well as a faithful military man.
Minor differences are evident throughout, such as the mode of Desdemona's death, the supposed love of Cassio (not Iago) for Desdemona and the way that the handkerchief scene unfolds. All in all, however, Shakespeare was remarkably faithful to and superior to his source. A study of the sources of Othello is one of the clearest ways to get a direct view into the literary and dramatic genius of William Shakespeare.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long