That Shakespeare borrowed the main outlines of many of his greatest plays
is no secret. But, with the exception of closely reading the texts themselves, there is no better way to understand the true power of his original genius than to examine the ways in which his texts differ from their sources.
Shakespeare got the plot of Othello from Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommathi. He might have read the play in its original Italian, but more likely read an English translation.
Shakespeare changed Cinthio’s story by both adding and subtracting plot points. This post discusses each of the major additions and subtractions and attempts to explain the significance of Shakespeare editorial choices.
Shakespeare’s Additions to Cinthio
Here is a list of plot points and character traits Shakespeare added to Cinthio’s story:
1. Roderigo. The character of Roderigo provides Shakespeare with the opportunity to emphasize with greater intensity the evil and sadistic nature of Iago. For Iago, man is a means to an end, not an end in himself. From the beginning of the play, Iago is Roderigo’s puppet-master. There is simply nothing he can’t talk Roderigo into doing as long as Iago connects the act with Roderigo’s winning of the love of Desdemona.
2. War with the Turks. In Cinthio’s story Othello is deployed to Cyprus to command troops in peacetime. Shakespeare changes the assignment from a peacetime one to a wartime one and by doing so emphasizes the warrior-like nature of Othello. How this exemplary handler of troops in the field handles a wife in the home is a one of the major themes of the play.
3. Emilia. Shakespeare greatly expanded the role of Iago’s wife, Emilia, and in the process created one of the great female souls of the canon. Some have called Emila the first feminist in Western literature. This is difficult to refute after reading her speech to Desdemona about the way men treat women:
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
After this, it should come as no surprise that, in the end, Emilia disobeys her husband and exposes his guilt.
4. Cassio. In the very first scene of the play Iago, a battle-hardened soldier, complains to Roderigo that Othello passed him over and chose Michael Cassio, a “bookish theoric”, as his lieutenant. Here is how he describes his rival:
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine
(A fellow almost damned in a fair wife)
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Where in the toga’d consuls can propose
As masterly as he; mere prattle without practice,
Is all his soldiership.
Being passed over for promotion is one of several reasons Iago uses to justify his actions. But, as Coleridge said, he keeps searching for a motive because, in truth, he has none other than the desire to destroy. See Iago’s Motive below.
Shakespeare, by expanding the role of Cassio to emphasize his honesty, kindness and loyalty puts into relief the stark malevolence of Iago. Cassio, then, is the anti-Iago of the play.
5. Murder of Desdemona. Cinthio has his Ensign conspire with the Moor to beat Disdemona to death with sandbags and make it appear that the roof fell in on her. Thankfully, Shakespeare amends this silliness. In its stead he has Othello murder Desdemona alone and with his bare hands, rather than a bare bodkin, because the Moor doesn’t want to mar her porcelain beauty:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Aristotle said the objective of tragedy is to imitate action that arouses pity and fear. Aristotle would have had high praise for Shakespeare’s change here from the impersonal, and utterly ridiculous, joint-sandbagging of Desdemona, to her strangulation by her warrior husband because it intensifies and compounds the feeling of pity and fear.
6. Othello’s Race. Shakespeare improved Cinthio by making manifest Iago’s exploitation of Othello’s insecurities as a black man living in a prejudicial, white society. If everyone around you thinks you’re base, lustful and inferior, you are bound to think so yourself. In order to have believed the manipulating Iago, Othello must have on some level believed that he was unworthy of the love of a beautiful white woman. I would take this a step further and suggest that Othello doubted the sincerity of Desdemona’s love for him every bit as much as her father had. You’ll recall that Brabantio was so certain that his daughter would not have fallen in love with a black man that he assumed Othello had used witchcraft to beguile her.
Thus, even though Shakespeare is, as we all are, a product of his times and no doubt held many of the prejudices and bigotries prevalent then, he does something extraordinary and visionary with the fact of Othello’s blackness. He in effect overturns Plessy v Ferguson and the separate-but-equal doctrine, long before the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education did, by presenting in dramatic form the insidiousness of societal bigotry.
One of the most powerful pieces of evidence in the Brown case was a study conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark and his wife, Maime Phipps Clark:
In the “doll test,” psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used four plastic, diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven and asked them questions to determine racial perception and preference. Almost all of the children readily identified the race of the dolls. However, when asked which they preferred, the majority selected the white doll and attributed positive characteristics to it. The Clarks also gave the children outline drawings of a boy and girl and asked them to color the figures the same color as themselves. Many of the children with dark complexions colored the figures with a white or yellow crayon. The Clarks concluded that “prejudice, discrimination, and segregation” caused black children to develop a sense of inferiority and self-hatred.
Like the black children in Clark’s doll test, Othello had been primed by a racist society to believe the worst about himself. He was willing to believe Iago’s suggestion that a beautiful white woman could not truly love him only because he lived in a world that perpetuated the notion of his hideousness and inferiority, and, as a result, could not truly love himself.
Shakespeare’s Subtractions from Cinthio
Here is what Shakespeare removed from Cinthio’s story:
1. Iago’s Motive. In Cinthio, Iago (the Ensign) is motivated only by his lust for Desdemona (Disdemona). He can’t accept or believe that this beautiful white woman is in love with a Moor. In Othello, Shakespeare does not give Iago a single clear motive, but rather has him latch onto any plausible motive in order to convince himself that what he is doing is justified. Coleridge famously described this as the “motive-hunting of motive-less malignity.” Iago’s repeated excuse-making amounts to a confession that he has no motive other than to see others suffer. So, by removing Cinthio’s unrequited-love motive, Shakespeare makes Iago even more sinister. We by no means condone, but we understand, when a person murders for love, but when a person murders only for his own sadistic enjoyment, it causes our hair to stand on end like quills on the fretful porpentine.
2. Desdemona’s Doubts. Cinthio’s Disdemona, after the Moor begins to show suspicion of her, has reservations about her decision to marry a “hot-blooded” Moor. In Shakespeare, Desdemona’s love for Othello never wavers, not even after he has strangled her:
O, who hath done this deed?
Nobody; I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!
This scene alone is enough to make Desdemona, along with King Lear’s Cordelia (“no cause, no cause”), one of the two most saint-like creations in the Western canon. And it is this purity that makes Desdemona’s death at the hands of her beloved infinitely more tragic.
There are, of course, other differences between Cinthio and Shakespeare – Cinthio has his Ensign cut the Captain’s leg off, has Disdemona’s family torture Othello and has the Ensign tortured to death – but all of these were wisely disregarded by Shakespeare because their inclusion would have detracted from, rather than added to, the sense of pity and fear one inevitably feels when reading or watching a live performance of Othello.