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THE SOURCE OF OTHELLO
Shakespeare delighted in taking old stories, adding his own particular brand of genius, and creating something new-and better.
He based Othello on a story in a collection of tales, called Hecatommithi, written in 1565 by Giraldi Cinthio, an Italian. A short synopsis of the original story gives some indication of how Shakespeare merely borrowed stories and made them his own.
The heroine, called Disdemona, falls in love with a Moor. Her family agrees reluctantly to her marriage with him, and the couple lives together in Venice for awhile.
The Moor (given no name) is sent to command the troops in Cyprus. The Moor and Disdemona travel there together, and it's in Cyprus that the ensign (Shakespeare's Iago) plots against them. The ensign is in love with Disdemona. He feels that her rejection of him comes from her love of the captain (Shakespeare's Cassio). Therefore, the ensign's plot is against Disdemona, not the Moor.
The captain loses his job when he attempts a fight with another soldier; he isn't drunk, and the character of Roderigo has no counterpart.
The ensign steals Disdemona's handkerchief (while she is holding his child) and places it in the captain's house. The captain finds it and tries to return it to Desdemona, but he leaves quickly when he hears the Moor's voice.
Together, the Moor and the ensign kill Disdemona by hitting her on the head with a sandbag, and then making the roof collapse to make it look like an accident.
The Moor is eventually killed by a relative of Disdemona, and the ensign is tortured to death for another crime. The ensign's wife has known the story all along.
By making the Moor the center of his tragedy, Shakespeare created a character of nobility and sympathy. (The Moor in the Cinthio tale is unsympathetic.) He transformed an ugly little tale of sexual jealousy into a character study of a good man who, for all his virtue, is caught in a trap of evil and can't escape. It was Shakespeare's genius to take the stuff of melodrama and transform it into tragedy of the highest order.