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 Globe. What details pique his interest as a playwright? How will he change them to make the story more effective?

Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, (111,7) 

Part One:

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 him. (Sigh)

Part Two: 

The focus then shifts to Cinthio's characterization of his villian, the Ensign.
  • What details of this characterization might have immediately appealed to Shakespeare?
  • 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.

Part Three: 

  • What event takes place which allows the Ensign to set his plot in motion?
  • How does the Ensign plant the 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 drama? How?)
  • Look at the moment when Disdemona pleads for leniency from the Moor for the Captain. (How will Shakespeare alter this scene?)
  • How does the Ensign go in for the kill once the Moor has begun to doubt Disdemona's faithfulness? (Again how will Shakespeare change this detail?)

Part Four:

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 Cinthio's original?)
  • (Note: when finally confronted about the lost handkerchief, Disdemona lies to the Moor. Will Shakespeare's Desdemona ever lie to Othello?)

Part Five:

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?)

Part Six:

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?)



  1. Why is the Moor living in Venice?
  2. Why does Disdemona marry the Moor? (Do not say "love".)
  3. Why does the Moor marry Disdemona?  (Do not say "love".)
  4. Where does the Signoria send the Moor?
  5. What is the first great crisis of their marriage?
  6. What motivates the Ensign to try to destroy the Moor's marriage?
  7. When does he get his opportunity to do just that?
  8. How does the Ensign plant the seed in the Moor's mind?
  9. What does Disdemona say that enrages the Moor?
  10. What proof of Disdemona's supposed infidelity does the Ensign provide?
  11. What does Disdemona say which finally convinces the Moor of her guilt?
  12. How is the Captain injured?
  13. How do the Ensign and the Moor kill Disdemona?
  14. How did they plan to get away with it?
  15. How does the Ensign finally betray the Moor?
  16. How does the Moor die?
  17. How does the Ensign die?