Shakespeare often spun his stories from a fabric of old—and sometimes not-so-old—stories well-known to his audience which, though largely illiterate, was far better versed in a narrative heritage than we are today. In the Early Modern period when Shakespeare wrote, stories did not "belong" to an individual. There were no copyright laws and material was borrowed freely. But more important was the fact that stories were meant to be told and retold—as they had been for centuries before. Because so few people were yet literate (the printing press was invented only a century before Shakespeare's lifetime), much of history and the tales that people knew were communicated in speech and passed from one generation to another. Stories belonged, in a sense, to a common pool for all to reach into and create their own stories. Creativity was based not upon new stories but on new tellings and reworkings of the old stories.
Shakespeare never hesitates to alter a source—even the "facts" of history—to tell the story he wants to tell. Many of Shakespeare's later plays, including Othello, interweave stories from familiar folk tales and myth with contemporary Elizabethan topics. The primary source for the story of Othello appears to be Italian author Giraldi Cinthio’s 1565 collection of stories. (Shakespeare used Cinthio's stories for Measure for Measure, too.) In Cinthio's story, the "Moro," or Moor, was a distinguished soldier, highly valued in Venice. The young Venetian “Disdemona” (the only character to whom Cinthio gives a name) falls in love with the Moor. Despite her family's strong objections, they marry and live happily in Venice for some time. When the Moor is assigned to take command of the garrison in Cyprus, Disdemona pleads to accompany her husband.
In Cinthio’s tale, the Moor's Ensign is simply named "Alfiero," which means ensign or standard-bearer in Italian. The Ensign's Wife is Disdemona's closest friend. The Moor respects his ensign, unaware of his villainy. The Ensign desires Disdemona, but fearing the Moor, does not openly pursue her. When Disdemona rejects his advances, the Ensign imagines that she loves a young captain, the "Capo di Squadra," later to become Cassio in Shakespeare's story.
The Captain wounds another soldier while on guard, and is dismissed for his action by the Moor. Disdemona pleads on the Captain's behalf. The rebuffed Ensign suggests to the Moor that his wife, disgusted by his looks, is attracted instead to the dashing Venetian Captain. The Moor is deeply troubled by his Ensign's story, and demands ocular proof of his wife's infidelity. And so the Ensign steals Disdemona's embroidered handkerchief, a wedding present from her husband, and drops it in the Captain's bedroom.
The Ensign arranges to have a talk with the Captain in sight of the Moor, but out of earshot. He reports back to the Moor that the Captain admitted his adultery and the gift of the handkerchief. When the Moor questions Disdemona, she seems guilty to her husband. Disdemona confides her fears to her best friend, but the Ensign's Wife, fearing her husband, cannot divulge her husband's plan to Disdemona. The Ensign brings the Moor to the Captain's window to see a woman there copying the embroidery of the lost handkerchief. At the Moor's impassioned request, the Ensign attacks the Captain as he returns home from the house of a prostitute, but succeeds only in cutting off the Captain's leg, not in killing him.
The Moor considers stabbing or poisoning as retribution for his wife. But the Ensign suggests instead that she be beaten to her death with a stocking filled with sand. The men cover their tracks by staging the collapse of the ceiling upon the bed where they've placed Disdemona's body. Only after the murder does the grief-stricken Moor demote his ensign. In retaliation, the Ensign charges the Moor with the attack upon the Captain. The Moor is sentenced to torture but, denying all knowledge of the crime, he is banished from Venice. Disdemona's family murders him in exile. The Ensign, later imprisoned for another crime, dies from torture he receives in prison.
The similarities with Cinthio's story are striking, but are not as remarkable as the alterations Shakespeare made to tell his own story of Othello. While Cinthio's tale is a moralistic and forbidding sermon against an unacceptable marriage, Shakespeare's story is told with compassion, "as if," writes Marvin Rosenberg (1961), "Shakespeare had deliberately adapted this brutal murder tale to dare himself to find sympathy in the farthest extreme of human error." Cinthio mentions nothing about his Ensign's hatred for the Moor prior to Disdemona's murder. There is no mention of a passed-over promotion which fuels his hatred. The Turkish attack upon Cyprus and the violent storm are Shakespeare's additions to Cinthio's tale, as is the story Othello tells of the couple's courtship. Shakespeare has taken pains to place his dramatic story in "fast-time": a marriage that experienced years of happiness in Cinthio's tale lasts no more than weeks in Shakespeare's retelling. And of course, Desdemona’s murderer is Othello alone. In Cinthio’s tale, there is no Iago lurking (at least physically) at the death scene, and Roderigo, whom Shakespeare introduces into the story, is absent entirely from the original source.
Why does Shakespeare use such old stories—and then add, subtract and modify? We are left to speculate on what purpose Shakespeare had in mind in altering Cinthio’s tale. Such questions can only be answered by piecing together what we know about the playwright and his work. Searching for answers to these questions is what makes some knowledge of Shakespeare’s sources interesting. Like the clues of a good mystery, examining Shakespeare’s possible source materials and discovering contemporary events that shaped Shakespeare’s world allows us to piece together possible answers and to get a glimpse into Shakespeare’s creative process.
While all agree that Cinthio’s story is a main literary source for Shakespeare’s Othello (which some scholars think he may have read it in a French translation published in 1584), several other published works may have provided Shakespeare with political, social and geographical context for his play. Among these works, scholars frequently point to three sources: Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s translation of Contarini’s The Commonwealth of Venice, published in 1599; John Pory’s translation of Leo Aftricanus’ The Geographical History of Africa, published in 1600; and Knolles’ The General History of the Turks, published in 1603. All these works appeared in print in the years just prior to the first known performance of Othello, which is recorded in the Revels Accounts for the court on November 1, 1604, after Elizabeth’s death and following the accession of James I to the throne of England.
We don’t actually know when Othello was written or first staged, making it more challenging still to identify with certainty which written sources and current events may have influenced Shakespeare. The play was first published in 1622—six years after Shakespeare’s death—in quarto (a small volume about the size of a modern paperback) and again a year later in the first Folio (a large, atlas-sized collection) in 1623—nearly 20 years after the first known performance of the play at court. While scholars traditionally date the composition of the play to 1603 or 1604 (just prior to its appearance at court), some have convincingly argued that Shakespeare may have written Othello as early as 1601 or 1602, on the heels of the visit of the Moorish Ambassador for the King of Barbary to Queen Elizabeth in 1600. The ambassador stayed in London for six months, and Shakespeare and his company played before him during the Christmas season.
The visit of the Moorish Ambassador is not the only contemporary event Shakespeare incorporated into his work. As Peter Ackroyd, in Shakespeare: The Biography, points out:
There are other contemporary matters that must be seen in the context of Othello , if only because they would have been known to every member of the audience who witnessed the first production ...There was ... a well-attested story publicized throughout Europe that the previous king of Spain, Philip II, was an insanely jealous husband who had strangled his wife in her bed. What is more, he had become suspicious of her when she had inadvertently dropped her handkerchief. These parallels are too close to be coincidental. The fact that Cyprus becomes the scene of the tragic action of Othello is also explicable in these terms. Cyprus was once a Venetian protectorate but had had been occupied by Turkish forces for more than thirty years ... Othello was a very modern drama, refracting all the circumstances of the period.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department