In common with other playwrights of the Elizabethan age, Shakespeare habitually took the stories of his plays from other sources, although he transformed them by the touch of his great dramatic skill and poetic imagination More than one source has been discovered for most of Shakespeare’s plays.
The major source of Othello is one of the stories in a collection called Hecatommithi (A Hundred Tales) published in Venice in 1662, There is good reason to believe that Shakespeare had read this story and derived material from it. The original story is in Italian. The major characters in it are anonymous except only for the heroine who is named Desdemona which signifies misfortune. Cinthio’s counterpart of Othello is simply named the Moor while the equivalents of Cassio and Iago are also given the descriptive titles of the Captain and the Ensign. This anonymity is only a reflection of the generally, unimaginative nature of Cinthio’s story.
Roderigo and Bianca are complete inventions by Shakespeare. Desdemona, who is rather insipid in the original, and Othello, who lacks dignity, are transformed. Cassio remains much as he was, though his actions are different, and he becomes human, not merely a Captain. The story makes no bones about Iago : he is introduced straightaway as a scoundrel of very handsome appearance. His motives are not ambiguous ; he is not concerned with promotion, but, having fallen deeply in love with Desdemona, and having had no success, conceives that Cassio is his rival, and henceforward hates both bitterly. Emilia, in the story, is described as a beautiful and honourable young woman, who is greatly loved by Desdemona, so that they spend most of the day together. She is, however, aware of the plot to kill the lady, for Iago had wished to use her to further it. She is too afraid of him to warn Desdemona ; and so, when Desdemona, troubled by her husband’s changed demeanour, asks her to find out from Iago what the matter may be, she can only give her general good advice about her conduct.
In transforming the crude story of his source into a play. Shakespeare gives an unmistakable proof of his matchless dramatic skill and intense poetic imagination. The whole of Act I is Shakespeare’s own invention. In the source, Othello and Desdemona marry against her parents’ wishes, but live in happiness for some time. Shakespeare is responsible for making Desdemona motherless, for making her father love Othello and invite him to the house, for making Cassio a party to his wooing, and for the whole brutal arousing of Brabantio. The elopement, coinciding with the Turkish crisis, is not in Cinthio. There are no Turks and no military urgency, and therefore no Council scene by night, in the story. Nor is there a storm on the way to Cyprus : all the characters travel in the same ship, and arrive without trouble.
Events in Cyprus
From this point onwards, right to the plot to murder Desdemona, Shakespeare follows his source more closely, but there are still many differences. Cassio’s degradation is not arranged by Iago he is cashiered for striking a soldier in anger. Shakespeare’ riskiest scene (Act IV, Scene I), where Othello most obviously’ appears a gull, has only a slight basis in Cinthio. Since Cinthio’s story has no Bianca, her appearance in the play, flaunting the handkerchief, serves as apparently a crushing proof of Desdemona’s lightness. As in the play, so in the story, the handkerchief is planted in Cassio’s bedroom, but Cassio, having recognized it, as Desdemona’s, tries to return it to her by the back-door of Othello’s house when he knows him to be absent. Here the story makes reference to Iago’s luck, which’ is so conspicuous in the play : at the very moment of Cassio’s knock, Othello returns and hears it, looks out of the window, asks who is there, and runs downstairs. Cassio runs away, but Othello suspects that it is he, and that his wife knows about it. This episode, no doubt, is the source of Cassio’s apparently furtive disappearance at the approach of Othello in the play of Shakespeare which gives Iago his first opportunity with Othello. Later on, in the story, Cassio gives the handkerchief to a sempstress, lodging in his house, to reproduce the design, and Iago leads Othello past the window where she is accustomed to do her embroidery, when Othello sees it in her hand. Of the transformation that has been made here, these are several things to say : one is, that story-time has been made into drama-time ; another, that the backdoor, the running downstairs, and the motiveless suburban suspicion are alien to the tone of the play ; and that Shakespeare’s invention, Bianca, brings to dramatic life what is flat in the story.
The additions and alterations made by Shakespeare greatly enhance the interest. In the source there is no Roderigo, and therefore, the attack on Cassio is much less exciting. Iago makes the attack alone, after being heavily bribed. This attempt on Cassio is not connected in time with Desdemona’s murder. Shakespeare makes her mourning for Cassio’s supposed fate occur on her own deathbed, when it is misunderstood by Othello as evidence of her guilty love. In Cinthio, her grief is one of the matters which anger Othello, and leads him to plot her death with Iago. It is here that Shakespeare rejects his source most decisively. Iago devises a plot which involves neither knife nor poison, and which will leave both unsuspected. The tone of Shakespeare’s source here is plebeian. Othello and Desdemona are in bed together. Iago, in his hiding-place near by, makes some pre-arranged noise. Othello tells her to get out of bed and see what it is. She does so, and is sandbagged by Iago. She does not die immediately, but calls to Othello, who gets out of bed to stand over her and tell her that this is what wives who cuckold their husbands deserve. While she prays, Iago finishes her off, with Othello watching. They put her body on the bed, break her skull, and bring down a beam down the rotten timbers of the house upon her head. After this careful arrangement of innocence, Othello runs into the street, proclaiming the dreadful accident which has lost him his beloved wife.
The plot of Othello is in every way a vast improvement on the story in Cinthio. In Cinthio’s tale also, the Moor for all his later barbarity and vulgarity, had loved Desdemona, and he now begins to hate Iago. He cannot have him done away with for fear of the inexorable justice of Venice, but he deprives him of his rank in the Army. Thereupon, Iago tells Cassio of such parts of the plot as exonerate himself, including the lie that it was Othello who wounded him (Cassio). Cassio, now equipped with a wooden leg, as the result of Iago’s bungled attack, brings a charge before the Signiory ; Othello is arrested, and brought to Venice and tortured. He will not speak, is condemned to banishment, and is finally killed by Desdemona’s relatives. Iago continues his contrivances in other directions, is eventually convicted of perjury, and dies after torture. Nothing is more striking, among the differences between story and Play, than the prudential and unheroic behaviour of the personages of the former. In Cinthio, Iago needs a good sum of money to be persuaded to kill Cassio ; his pretence of virtuous indignation, and his assumption of indifference to all but justice for Othello, are Shakespeare’s invention. He is vulgarized by the source, made more psychologically unusual and also intellectual in the play. The Emilia of the source, though she is loved by Desdemona, and apparently loves her, is aware of her husband’s designs, but is afraid to betray him. It is all the more puzzling, therefore, that she is said to be honourable. In the play, Emilia’s honour is of a different sort, though she pretends to nothing socially, and not much morally. Othello in the source, is the most vulgar of the lot : he takes good care to safeguard himself over Desdemona’s murder, and is afraid, later on, when he has repented of his crime, to kill Iago.
Race and Complexion
Cinthio only makes a bare mention of Othello’s race and colour. Cinthio’s Ensign tells Iago that perhaps Desdemona wishes Cassio to be reinstated because she is now bored with his own blackness. Shakespeare makes more of the matter, but never through the mouths of unprejudiced speakers, unless we may count Roderigo’s apparently casual exclamation, “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe I” as in this case only, a neutral comment. Of more far-reaching consequences are Brabantio’s shock and anger at the marriage, which eventually broke his heart. The question does not arise for Othello until Iago has made it one. The only reference to race in Cinthio is made by Desdemona herself, when she tells Othello, ‘You Moors are so hot, that the merest trifle excites you to anger and revenge.’ Shakespeare’s Desdemona says almost the opposite _of this
I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him.
Absence of Moral
As usual with Shakespeare, the moral of the story in his source is left out by him, or at the most, made only implicit and general. Cinthio puts his moral into Desdemona’s hand when she thinks she has lost Othello’s love, and tells Emilia that the ladies of Italy will take her as an example not to marry a man whom Nature, Heaven, and manner of life separate us from. These sentiments are not a part of Shakespeare’s Desdemona, but are divided, in effect, between Brabantio, where they are sincere, Iago, and Othello, after Iago has contaminated him. Shakespeare and Cinthio come closest together when Cinthio tells us that she fell in love ‘attracted not by feminine appetite, but by the qualities of the Moor’ about which, however, Cinthio is silent. In Shakespeare’s play, we have an admirable portrait of Othello as a man, before Iago poisons his mind.