Shakespeare drew from two main sources in composing Othello, with one contributing the play’s story and the other contributing to the characterization of Othello. The story of Shakespeare’s Othello comes from the Hecatommithi, a collection of tales published in 1565 by Giraldi Cinthio. Cinthio in turn had been influenced by the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Although Shakespeare replicates Cinthio’s story very closely, he makes a couple of key changes. Most crucially, he shifts the focus from Desdemona (the only named character in Cinthio’s tale) to Iago and Othello. In doing so, Shakespeare abandons Cinthio’s cautionary emphasis on young women who disobey authority and develops a tragedy with greater emotional nuance. Shakespeare also renders Iago with greater complexity. No longer motivated solely by a desire for Desdemona, Iago’s treachery becomes much less straightforward.
Other changes Shakespeare made include the addition of new characters such as the gullible Roderigo. Finally, he provided a greater political charge by setting the play against the background of war. Taken together, these changes preserve the essential dynamics of Cinthio’s original plot while also complicating the story to amplify its dramatic tension.
Whereas Shakespeare adopts Cinthio’s basic story, his source for the characterization of Othello was likely A Geographical Historie of Africa, written in 1550 by the North African diplomat known as Joannes Leo Africanus. This work, which John Pory translated into English in 1600, provided more than just a geographical survey of Africa. The book makes observations on the African character that have had a profound influence on how Europeans from the early modern period onward imagine Africa and its peoples.
Scholars suspect that Shakespeare’s characterization of Othello draws from the account Leo Africanus gives of Africans’ virtues and vices. Of their virtues, Leo Africanus writes that Africans are supremely honest and noble-minded people. Of their vices, he writes that Africans are “so credulous that they beleeve matters impossible which are told to them.” Their credulousness makes them unusually “subject to jealousie.” Not only does Shakespeare’s Othello bear all of these stereotypical traits, but the character also shares telling characteristics with Leo Africanus himself. Both men were born into Islam and later baptized into Christianity. And just as Leo Africanus survived, in Pory’s words, “manie thousands of imminent dangers,” so too did Othello make many “hair-breadth ’scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach” (I.iii.).
Othello has enjoyed a lively performance history in the centuries since its premiere, and to this day the play continues to influence cultural perceptions of both race and gender. In the twentieth century, for example, significant debates have raged with regard to actors both on stage and in film who have played the title character in blackface. These debates have paved the way for more actors of color not just to play Othello, but also to enter and thrive on the Shakespearean stage more generally.
These same debates have also led to a number of radical rewritings of Shakespeare’s play that critique its race and gender dynamics. Toni Morrison’s 2012 play Desdemona is perhaps the best-known rewriting. In this play, a dead Desdemona tells her side of the story directly to the audience. Other significant adaptations include Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (1994) and Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet (1997). Both of these works reimagine Othello from radical black feminist perspectives that turn Shakespeare’s stereotypes about race and gender on their head.