The Moor of Venice: the Skeleton of Shakespeare's Othello

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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...
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