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Othello vs Hecatommithi, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 967

Essay

One of the most enduring of Shakespeare’s plays is Othello, the story of a general of Moorish descent in the Venetian Army. It is a story of an outsider being driven to commit a previously unthinkable act by the manipulative actions of another man. Shakespeare drew inspiration from the story largely from a short story entitled “The Venetian Moor” written by the Italian writer Cinthio in his collection Hecatommithi, which follows a similar plot and features obvious counterparts for most of the characters later found in Shakespeare’s version. However, there are some key differences. Shakespeare’s Othello is much darker, featuring a more ambiguously motivated, sociopathic antagonist and more racial undertones.

In the beginning of the play the titular character has just married Desdemona, the daughter of a senator from Venice. The plot is largely driven by the actions of Iago, who is upset with Othello for a couple reasons. Iago manipulates Othello and many other characters in the play with the end result of Othello murdering Desdemona and then taking his own life, but not before realizing that it was all orchestrated by Iago.  The short story does not give names to Othello or Iago, referring to them as The Moor and The Ensign respectively. It follows a similar plot until the end, where The Moor has The Ensign kill Desdemona instead of doing it himself. Also, The Moor was banished and lived his life with regret in Cinthio’s version as opposed to committing suicide in Shakespeare’s.

One of the main differences between the two stories is the motivations behind the actions of Iago and his counterpart, The Ensign. In the Cinthio version, he falls in love with Desdemona when the army is stationed in Cyprus, where the final acts of both stories take place. He becomes obsessed with having her, but is unable to make any progress in that goal.

“Now the wicked Ensign… fell passionately in love with Desdemona, and bent all his thoughts to achieve his conquest…He therefore sought in various ways, and with secret guile, to betray his passion to the lady; but she, whose every wish was centered in the Moor, had no thought for this Ensign more than any other man, and all the means he tried to gain her love had no more effect that if he had not tried them” (Cinthio).

These circumstances inspired him to seek revenge against Desdemona by convincing The Moor that she had an affair with a third character The Captain. In the Shakespeare version, it is less clear where these desires come from although some are mentioned. Specifically, they are the fact that Iago was passed over for a promotion and an alleged affair between Othello and Iago’s wife, Emilia. However, Iago seems to understand the consequences of the actions he undertakes, making it unlikely that he was willing to kill two people for these reasons. It is more likely that he is just an immoral character who seems to manipulate the actions of the story without true motivation.

A theme much more present in the Shakespeare version is that of race. The Moors were a group from Africa who had been at war in Spain for centuries before being driven out shortly before the play is set. This immediately makes Othello and his counterpart an outsider amongst the group of Venetians. Cinthio never directly touches the topic, while Shakespeare puts it extensively into the opening dialogue of the story, allowing it to set a tone for the rest of the play. “Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul; Even now, now, very now, an old black ram, Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise; Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (Shakespeare). This was a line in dialogue between Iago and Roderigo, who becomes a pawn in Iago’s later plot. The scene also features racial epithets for Othello such as “the thick-lips” and “a Barbary horse”. Most references to Othello’s race come either from Othello himself of from Iago. Iago’s references to his race make the reader wonder if he is prejudiced against Othello for belonging to a race of people who fought against The Spanish, who Iago may identify with. It is always plausible that Iago is at least partially driven by the race of Othello in his actions.

Some differences between the two similar stories are necessary just by the length of the stories themselves. “The Venetian Moor” is just seven pages, while Othello is a full five act play, meaning the latter is going to go more in depth into many topics. The main area where this occurs is with the main character himself. The Moor in Cinthio’s story has very little detail, just being described as a great general who is deeply in love with Desdemona before the actions of The Ensign destroy these feelings. While these characteristics are present in the play, they can be expanded on due to the increased length of the story. His gradual descent at the hands of Iago is more evident and the emotions present in him are much more detailed in the Shakespearian version. Also, his Moorish descent is used as the basis for great deals of character building, as he is presented as character whose exotic background is of great interest to Desdemona and many Venetian leaders.

The development between “The Moor of Venice” and Othello shows the genius of Shakespeare. Such an adaptation of a previous story could come off as an unnecessary version, yet Shakespeare crafts one of the greatest plays of all time.  He manages to go into greater detail with the main character making him much more rounded, while still leaving the true intentions of Iago and the full importance of Othello’s race up to a great deal of reader interpretation.

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