The plot and story of Shakespeare’s Othello are taken nearly entirely from Giraldi Cinthio’s tale of The Moor of Venice, a novel that many consider to have been rescued from complete irrelevance solely by its connection to the highly acclaimed Shakespearean play. Proponents of simplicity and a focus on linear plotlines may argue that Cinthio’s novel is the “better” work, but the majority of theatre and literature enthusiasts value the detailed character development, poetic prowess, and vivacity of the story that Shakespeare was able to bring to the table.
The Moor of Venice served as a narrative skeleton for Shakespeare to fill with life, dignity, and beauty to produce the tragedy Othello. It seems that Cinthio’s intention in writing The Moor was plainly to narrate events, whether true or fictional, for the purpose of entertainment. This is the main aspect in which Shakespeare’s play deviates from the original novel: as evidenced by the obvious difference in length between the two works, Othello is far better developed and more relatable on an emotional level than Cinthio’s straightforward, factual novel.
Shakespeare’s poetic ability created the complex characters, allowed us to hear and understand their thoughts and actions, and brought the story to life while The Moor simply relayed events as facts and nothing more. Nevertheless, it was The Moor’s simple elements that inevitably attracted Shakespeare: the conflict and differences between the characters, the interplay of human passions, and the suggestive thoughts and motives seem to have been made specifically for his genius to mold and expand upon.
The most obvious similarities between the two works occur in the basic plotlines of each. Both have mostly the same characters and order of events, with a few minor inconsistencies. Brabantio, Roderigo, and several other minor characters are not found in The Moor, and Shakespeare’s Emilia takes part in the handkerchief plot while her counterpart in Cinthio’s novel does not. Also, in The Moor, the ensign lusts after Desdemona and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him, when no such thing happened with Iago in Shakespeare.
In addition, both Shakespeare’s opening scenes and the tender scenes between Emilia and Desdemona are only found in his tragedy. Even from these small departures we can see that Othello is more emotionally rich and has a more detailed, complex plot than the original story. A major difference separating the play from the novel is the poetic techniques that run rampant in the play and are conspicuously lacking in the novel. Shakespeare uses multiple symbols and motifs to artfully and subtly convey ideas.
The recurring dichotomy of sight and blindness is an incredible example of this poetic genius. Desdemona can ‘see’ past Othello’s skin color and history and into his true self: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honours and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (1. 3. 250–252); act II consists almost entirely of people gazing out to sea awaiting both friendly and unfriendly ships, and Othello is constantly being tormented and convinced by things that he does not and cannot see.
Much of the play revolves around different types of sight, and characters making decisions and actions based on things they do not see. Another example is Iago’s seeming obsession with animals and animal metaphors. He repeatedly compares characters to horses, rams, guinea hens, baboons, cats, swans, etc. These constant references are Shakespeare’s subtle way of suggesting to the audience that the events in the play are governed primarily by nature rather than societal laws and constraints.
Finally, although the handkerchief is present in both works, in Shakespeare’s it holds a greater symbolic meaning. It was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona, and he explained that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, and was used by his mother to keep his father faithful. This minor elaboration on the plot of the original story imbues the handkerchief with the symbolism of marital fidelity, faith, and chastity.
Such seemingly minor details give Othello a more creative, living feeling, with hidden meanings and recurring themes making the play warmer and more poetic. Desdemona, in both the play and the novel, is the picture of purity and honor. She is innocent, gentle, and unsuspecting. Her devotion to her husband is shown at many turns, including her delight at the honor paid to him by the Senate, her eagerness to accompany him in his summons, and, in the play, her numerous soliloquies during which she has the opportunity to explain how and why she loves him. So that, dear lords, if I be left behind A moth of peace and he go to the war, The rites for which I love him are bereft me, And I a heavy interim shall support By his dear absence. Let me go with him” (1. 3. 250). This sentiment is reflected in the original novel: “And in truth I should think you loved me little were you to leave me here in Venice, denying me to bear you company, or could believe that I would liefer bide in safety here than share the dangers that await you” (Cinthio, 3).
Desdemona is one of the few characters whose traits seem consistent in both works, showing that she plays an important role in each: she is a constant figure of wholesome goodness. While the plot of the play seems to be copied almost exactly from the novel, the characters that we see in Othello are the aspects of the story upon which Shakespeare has used his skill of poetic elaboration. Both the Moor and Othello are portrayed as incredibly passionate characters – sudden to suspect Desdemona, quick to take revenge.
Both characters still show unconditional love to her after they have been convinced of her guilt: “By heavens, I scarce can hold this hand from plucking out that tongue of thine, which dares to speak such slander of my wife! ” (Cinthio, 5). This line is mirrored by Shakespeare’s: “Othello: Give me the ocular proof; Or, by the worth of thine eternal soul, thou hadst been better have been born a dog than answer my naked wrath” (3. 3. 370).
Although the ardent love each character has for his wife seems to present itself in the same way in both works, the main difference between the two characters is that Moor’s revenge is ordinary, with the planned ruthlessness of an execution, while Othello’s punishment of his wife is not revenge, but rather a feeling of necessity to uphold justice, even as it goes against his natural tenderness and love: “yet she must die, or she’ll betray more men…For nought I did in hate, but all in honor” (5. 2. 6-308).
It is Shakespeare’s deep understanding of the human condition combined with his extraordinary power to manipulate words that makes Othello more relatable than its original counterpart. Shakespeare took Cinthio’s cold, emotion-lacking story and warmed it up by making the characters more realistic and emotionally expressive. In addition to the fact that the main characters seem to have had different emotional motivations behind their actions, the methods they each used to achieve revenge are almost completely different. In the play, Othello simply uffocates Desdemona, while Cinthio’s tale tells a much more gruesome story. In The Moor, the ensign is ordered to bludgeon Desdemona to death with a sock full of sand, the heroin pleading for her life between each gruesome blow. Next, the ensign and the moor place her body on the bed, smash her skull, and collapse the ceiling on top of her to give the impression of an accident. This difference from the original story is interesting, because in most cases Shakespeare has elaborated on the bare form of Cinthio’s novel, but in the case of Desdemona’s death, The Moor is more detailed.
For this reason, it seems that Cinthio’s novel is more centered on events and facts, describing major plot points with the most detail, while Shakespeare’s play focuses on emotions and the human aspect, placing more weight in Othello’s inner struggle surrounding the murder of his wife than the murder itself. The two authors also had different intentions in what overall message they were looking to convey. Cinthio’s Moor reflects many racial stereotypes of the time, shown in his lack of remorse or sympathy at his wife’s murder, and his weak tendency towards jealousy and passion. [Disdemona:] ‘But you Moors are of so hot a nature that every little trifle moves you to anger and revenge. ’ Still more enraged at these words, the Moor replied, “I could bring proofs – by heaven it mocks belief! But for the wrongs I have endured revenge must satisfy my wrath’” (Cinthio, 4). Othello, on the other hand, shows the same shortcomings, but Shakespeare took care to make him a clearly human character, with insecurities and doubts surrounding his wife’s infidelity, rather than blind fury: “O curse of marriage, That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites!
I had rather be a toad, And live upon the vapour of a dungeon, Than keep a corner in the thing I love For others’ uses. Yet, ’tis the plague of great ones …’Tis destiny unshunnable, like death” (3. 3. 269). Othello’s reaction to jealous doubt is more of a sad lament, something that more of the general population could relate to, as contrasted with Cinthio’s Moor and the ease with which he loses his temper. Additionally, the Moor refuses to confess his guilt after his brutal deed, while Othello recognizes his tragic mistake and compensates for it appropriately, earning the status of a hero in the audience’s eyes.
Another example of the authors’ differing intentions can be seen in the words and actions of Desdemona’s character in each work. In the original novel, she gives a message urging Italian women to obey their parents when they advise against marrying foreigners: “And much I fear that I shall prove a warning to young girls not to marry against the wishes of their parents, and that the Italian ladies may learn from me not to wed a man whom nature and habitude of life estrange from us” (Cinthio, 8). In the play, however, Desdemona expresses no such moral stance; she even refuses to implicate Othello when Emilia asks, “O, who has done this deed? she replies, “Nobody, I myself. Farewell” (5. 2. 123). Based off of these variations between the novel and the play, we can conclude that Cinthio’s was trying to convey a moral message to his audience: obey your parents, don’t marry foreigners, or bad things will happen. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, has a vague and flexible final message – it seems he presented moral issues but didn’t make it clear from his writing about where he stands on them. If anything, his final message might warn us to be wary of the “friends” in which you place your trust.
Cinthio’s story was not a drama, but a plain, straightforward narrative tracing a simple chain of events with dry normalcy. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, its structure is un-artful, with little consideration in the way it was arranged. Its only claim to merit is its consistency and truth to nature, along with the fact that it set up an empty frame for Shakespeare to manipulate and fill up with his clever words and poetic genius. The play offers an emotional, human element that makes it easier to relate to and more interesting to read than the stripped-down original.