Critical consensus is that Othello is based on “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”), by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio, which appeared as one of the stories in his collection called The Hecatommithi, in 1565. If that name sound familiar, your memory is pretty good: Cinthio’s Hecatommithi was also one of the sources behind our last play, Measure for Measure.
Because there was no English translation of the Cinthio “Othello” tale–and because Shakespeare seems to use Cinthio’s original Italian more than the English translation in the case of Measure for Measure–it seems that Shakespeare was very familiar with the Italian original (I say, original even though some believe that Cinthio’s story is at least influenced by one of the tales in One Thousand and One (Arabian) Nights, “The Three Apples.”
In the Cinthio, the major male characters are named only by their identity or position (“the Moor,” the “Squadron Leader,” the “Ensign”), while Desdemona is named (the Emilia character is referred to as “the Ensign’s wife”). And while it does tell a tale of sexual jealousy instigated by the vengeful Iago character, it’s actually quite stunning how different the original is:
- There are no Brabantio nor Roderigo characters (nor does the tale start in Venice; Cinthio begins his story in Cyprus).
- The Emilia character plays no role in handkerchief plot.
- While the Iago character is looking for revenge, there’s a sexual component to it, as he had been romantically spurned by Desdemona.
- The Moor doesn’t kill Desdemona himself; instead, he has the Iago character beat her to death. They then cover up the crime by making it look like a building collapse; and it works. The two have a falling out, however, and the Moor is betrayed by the Ensign, and after the Moor is banished from Venice, he his hunted down and killed by Desdemona’s family.
It seems that Cinthio’s original is quite the xenophobic rant against marrying outside your race or culture. While that aspect survives in some characters’ actions and words in Othello (cough, Brabantio, cough, Iago, cough), Shakespeare’s changes make the characters’ motivations and psychologies more complex. Iago not only manipulates Othello, but Brabantio, Roderigo, and Cassio, as well; this makes Othello not only a jealous monster, but a victim of an evil mastermind as well. Othello is more lyrically verbal in Shakespeare, making Desdemona’s love (or at least the motivation behind it) more believable, but also adding irony, as it’s Iago’s words that bring down this articulate general.
So Willy the Thief pilfered from Cinthio (no surprise there). But why?
There were some Moorish Moroccan delegations from the King of Barbary to Elizabeth at the turn of the 17th century; the popularity of these exotic visitors–especially the ambassador, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun–very well could have inspired Shakespeare to adapt the Cinthio story for the stage.