Original Source Short story by the Italian writer Cinthio Giambattista Giraldi (1504-1574), who included it in a collection titled Hecatommithi, published in 1566. A handful of lines from Shakespeare's text recall phrases from the Italian and French versions, suggesting that he may have read it in both languages. The plot of Cinthio's story centers on four characters, all of whom Shakespeare borrowed for his tragedy: the Moor, the Ensign, the Captain and the Moor's wife, Disdemona.
Original Source The events and key players are similar, but important differences emerge with respect to the characters' actions and each author's intent. Cinthio's Moor - racial stereotypes (proclivity toward jealousy and passion) Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to establish Othello's heroic qualities alongside his blind spots, and also gives him a name. Cinthio's Disdemona urges Italian women to obey their parents when they forbid them to marry foreigners. Shakepeare's Desdemona takes no such stand, opting not to implicate Othello Cinthio's Moor refuses to confess his guilt, but Shakespeare's Othello earns his place as a tragic hero by recognizing his tragic mistake and atoning for it.
Early 17th-century English attitudes Attitudes toward non-Europeans were largely shaped by the government's diplomatic policies and, to a lesser extent, by exotic stories brought back by travelers overseas. The term “moor” - derived from the name of the country Mauritania but was used to refer to North Africans, West Africans or, even more loosely, for non-whites or Muslims of any origin.
Early 17th-century English attitudes Queen Elizabeth granted the Moors “full diplomatic recognition” for their help in conquering Spain 1601 - deported, “irregular behavior” & “allowing them to stay…overpopulation” Blacks - not typically associated with slavery at that time (slave trade not be fully established until the late 17th century)
Early 17th-century English attitudes Once Othello enters, the audience must judge him —his calculated actions and eloquent speech—not in the abstract, but in person. Shakespeare helps the public see his protagonist in three dimensions: 1.the Moor from Cinthio's story transformed from an exotic and passionate stereotype into a tragic figure in flesh and blood. 2.depth of affection shared by Othello and Desdemona, the enchanting power of the general's poetry 3.Iago's easy manipulations of collegial and marital trust. Through the treachery of a surprising white devil, Shakespeare challenges his audiences to spot the true color of villainy.
Othello’s Uniqueness Small cast of characters (compared to other Shakespeare plays) –Concentrates on Othello, Desdemona and Iago no subplots! Iago –type of vice character, like Richard III –Iago’s motives –why does Iago do what he does? –what does Iago say?
Iago Iago’s strategy Makes Othello imagine the act vividly 1. “were they as prime as goats as hot as monkeys 2. “lie in bed not meaning any harm” Teases with bits of truth 1.“she did deceive her father marrying you.” 2.she did deceive her father Advice to Cassio Play on Othello’s fears, acting hesitant & virtuous, which frightens Othello more Improvises Iago wins the play –his last lines are defiant –“I am betrayed by my own treachery”
Othello Always at extremes - makes everything big and extreme Uses exalted language when killing Desdemona Thinks in big terms –“It is the cause” –“execution” –“Methinks there should be a huge eclipse of sun and moon” Uncomfortable with ambiguity –wants things to be clear, but has to deal with ambiguity Jumps to conclusions - she’s either chaste or a whore –“I think my wife be honest” –“to be once in doubt is once to be resolved”? –“better to be much abused than to know it a little” –excellent wretch
We are with Iago/We are like Iago We are with Iago –his asides are to us –he shares his plans with us –we’re his buddies –dominates the play We are like Iago –we know the whole plot –we understand more than anyone else in the fiction –we know as much as he knows, more than everyone else in the play –we’re about as smart as he is (smarter than Cassio, less ignorant than Othello) We have something invested in Iago’s plot succeeding –perverse delight in his plot –the people who we identify with morally are not like us –Desdemona is our superior in every way
Shakespeare’s Genius Shakespeare, as in Merchant of Venice, calls on his audiences to consider the person before them, complex as he may be, rather than judging him by inherited assumptions used to dismiss a maligned people in the abstract. Shakespeare makes the stage a venue for closer examination, a place where audiences may begin to relate to “others,” not all at once, but one extraordinary example at a time. In adapting Cinthio, Shakespeare sets up familiar stereotypes to explode them and to teach his audiences compassion for those whom society uses but never fully embraces as countrymen.
Echoes Sound of “O” Persuasion –Various forms of persuasion –Othello persuades council Desdemona us –Iago persuades Othello Roderigo –Emilia persuades Othello –Desdemona tries to persuade Othello Violation - ears –“I never yet did hear the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.” –“abuse Othello’s ear” –“pour this pestilence into his ear.” Disbelief –“is’t possible”
group work You will be discussing either passage 1or 2 (I’ll tell you which) in a small group. You should try to come up with answers to as many of the questions as time will allow. But I am more concerned with your having a fruitful discussion than with the quantity of your answers. Get in close to the language of the passage. Every group must answer the first question; after that I’ll assign you another question. Be sure to take notes. We will be discussing what you discovered. Passage 1: IV.i.1-109 (“Will you think so?.... Will you withdraw”). Passage 2: IV.i.188-231 (“How shall I murder him?... Excellent good”).
ALL: Explore the multiplicity of an audience’s reactions to your passage. How does the passage create a complicated audience experience? How do reactions conflict with each other or with aspects of other scenes? What aspects of your passage seem odd? Get in close to the words and sentences. Pick out phrases to support your points. “A” group What elements of your passage echo with other parts of the play? What thematic echoes can you find? What incidental echoes are there (ones that have nothing to do with anything meaningful in the play. Look for words, phrases, actions, objects, etc.). How do these echoes contribute to the play? “B” group How does your passage help to define the characters of Othello and Iago? What lines seem characteristic of their speakers and why? What do the things Othello and Iago say tell you about their relationship? “C” group How does your passage further the development of the plot? Does it? What elements of the passage do not further the plot? How do these elements contribute to the play? “D” group 3.Pick out some lines from your scene that you like. Why do you like them? What makes them good lines?
The Four Humours A traditional theory of physiology in which the state of health - and by extension the state of mind, or character - depended upon a balance among the four elemental fluids: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. These were closely allied with the four elements (air, fire, water, and earth). Their correspondence is described as follows…
The Humours SANGUINE: Blood –Hot and moist; (Air) –Amorous, happy, generous MELANCHOLIC: Black Bile –Cold and dry ; (Earth) –Gluttonous, lazy, sentimental PHLEGMATIC: Phlegm –Cold and moist; (Water ) –Dull, pale, cowardly CHOLERIC: Yellow Bile –Hot and dry; (Fire) –Violent, vengeful
The Humours The "humours" gave off vapors which ascended to the brain; an individual's personal characteristics (physical, mental, moral) were explained by his or her "temperament," or the state of that person's "humours." The perfect temperament resulted when no one of these humours dominated. By 1600 it was common to use "humour" as a means of classifying characters; knowledge of the humours is not only important to understanding later medieval work, but essential to interpreting Elizabethan drama.
Questions –Does Cassio love Desdemona? –Did Desdemona deceive her father? –Is Othello a deep character? what makes him deep?