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About the Play: Othello

About the Play: Othello

Like every great writer, Shakespeare didn’t only rely on his own ideas to weave a good story. Around 1603 when Shakespeare was searching for new material it seems he turned to the Italian author Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. This book of 100 moral stories was first published in 1565. The tale of an unnamed Moor must have captured his interest, but in writing his own play, Othello, Shakespeare made several important changes. The original paints the tragedy around the poor victim “Disdemona,” who, in following her heart, instead of her father’s wish, is eventually given cause to believe, “I fear that I shall prove a warning to young girls not to marry against the wishes of their parents, and that the Italian ladies may learn from me not to wed a man who nature and habitude of life estrange from us” (a 1855 translation by J. E. Taylor found at

This not so subtle statement served as a moral admonition for headstrong Italian daughters everywhere. Shakespeare artfully manages to supplant the focus of the play from the dangers of Desdemona and Othello’s unsanctioned love by creating of one of the most shameless, clever and duplicit villains ever imagined.

Iago’s manners and motives throughout the play are disconcertingly simplistic and brutal. He is the person we fear the most: likeable, subservient, and unfailingly honest to the beholder, while vicious, cunning, and remorseless within. In the original story this nameless “artful fraud” plots the death of the captain, who Shakespeare named Cassio, without any assistance, and later participates in Disdemona’s violent murder. Shakespeare’s Iago manages all of his dirty work by ruthlessly twisting the minds of others, thus maintaining his unsullied reputation. Little wonder that the Bard’s masterful and timeless telling has been popular in performance ever since its first production in the Palace of Whitehall for the new King James I.

Since their creation, the roles of both Iago and Othello have been among the most coveted and performed by nearly every great actor. In many productions the roles have been shared on alternate performances between the two leading men. Such was the case in 1955 at the Old Vic theatre in London when Richard Burton and John Neville took on the play.

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Moor of Venice has been adapted for film and television famously by Orson Wells (1952), Laurence Olivier (1965), Trevor Nunn (1990), and more recently Kenneth Branaugh (1995). In 2006 Othello was adapted by popular Bollywood director Vishal Bharadwaj. His film Omkara received enormous critical acclaim. In early 2008 a London production starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor at the Donmar Warehouse set unofficial records with tickets on the internet going for a reported £2000.