Shakespeare's Source for Othello:
Imagine yourself as Shakespeare. He wanted to do a
play about the problem of racism he saw emerging in Europe in
the early 17th century... Hmmmm.... what to do? what to do?
And with his great superb theatrical instinct he
recognized that the problem of race was mysteriously related to the
problems between man and wife in marriage!
Now, imagine yourself as Shakespeare reading Cinthio's
story and weighing in his mind how to make it work on the stage of the
details pique his interest as a playwright? How will he change them to
make the story more effective?
|Cinthio's Moor, a valiant mercenary in the service of
the Venetian nobility, and Disdemona, the daughter of a rich
nobleman, fall in love and marry (despite her parents'
objections), and they settle down to live in wedded bliss. Then the
first great crisis in their relationship arrives: the Signoria has
ordered the Moor abroad to command an outpost on Cyprus, near the
Ottoman Empire itself. (see map) The Moor must decide whether to take Disdemona with him on this dangerous mission, and in an
affecting scene, she convinces him that she cannot live apart from
|The focus then shifts to Cinthio's characterization of
his villian, the Ensign.
details of this characterization might have immediately appealed to
- What motivates Cinthio's Ensign to
destroy Disdemona and Othello? (How will Shakespeare
alter the villain's motivation?)
- Describe the seamy plot that the
Ensign devises to impugn Disdemona.
- What event takes place which allows the Ensign to set
his plot in motion?
- How does the Ensign plant
seed of jealousy in the Moor's mind? (Shakespeare expand
this idea and use it to create one of the greatest scenes in all world
- Look at the moment when
pleads for leniency from the Moor for the Captain. (How will
Shakespeare alter this scene?)
- How does the Ensign go in for
kill once the Moor has begun to doubt Disdemona's faithfulness?
(Again how will Shakespeare change this detail?)
|The Moor demands that the Ensign provide proof that
Disdemona has been unfaithful.
- How does he accomplish this task? (In
Shakespeare's hands, the handkerchief
scene will be absolutely riveting! What changes will he make to
- (Note: when finally confronted about the lost
handkerchief, Disdemona lies to the Moor. Will Shakespeare's Desdemona
ever lie to Othello?)
|Once Disdemona has recognized the Moor's unhappiness,
she tells her friend, the Ensign's wife, that she has drawn a quick
conclusion about the mistake
she has made.
- What is it? How will Shakespeare
alter this scene?
- (Note that the Ensign's wife already
knows everything about her husband's plot. How will
Shakespeare alter this character in his play?)
|Once the Moor has convinced himself of Disdemona's
guilt, he resolves to kill her.
- How do he and the Ensign plan to carry
out this fell deed? What do you make of Cinthio's intentions in devising such a despicable plot? (How will
Shakespeare alter the climax of the tragedy?)
- In Cinthio's story, how do the villains get brought to
justice? (What will happen to
Shakespeare's tragic hero? And what will happen to the play's villain?)
- Why is the Moor living in Venice?
- Why does Disdemona marry the Moor? (Do not say
- Why does the Moor marry Disdemona? (Do
not say "love".)
- Where does the Signoria send the Moor?
- What is the first great crisis of their marriage?
- What motivates the Ensign to try to destroy the
- When does he get his opportunity to do just that?
- How does the Ensign plant the seed in the Moor's
- What does Disdemona say that enrages the Moor?
- What proof of Disdemona's supposed infidelity does
the Ensign provide?
- What does Disdemona say which finally convinces the
Moor of her guilt?
- How is the Captain injured?
- How do the Ensign and the Moor kill Disdemona?
- How did they plan to get away with it?
- How does the Ensign finally betray the Moor?
- How does the Moor die?
- How does the Ensign die?