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Creator William Shakespeare
Play Othello
Date c.1601-1604
Source "Un Capitano Moro" by Cinthio (1565)
Role Jealous husband
Quote Put out the light, and then put out the light.
Notable Interpreters Richard Burbage
Edwin Booth
Ira Aldridge
Paul Robeson
Orson Welles
Laurence Olivier
James Earl Jones
Art Malik

Othello is a character in Shakespeare's Othello (c.1601-1604). The character's origin is traced to the tale, "Un Capitano Moro" in Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio. There, he is simply referred to as the Moor.

Othello is a brave and competent soldier of advanced years and Moorish background in the service of the Venetian Republic. He elopes with Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of a respected Venetian senator. After being deployed to Cyprus, Othello is manipulated by his ensign, Iago, into believing Desdemona is an adultress. Othello murders her before killing himself.

Othello was first mentioned in a Revels account of 1604 when the play was performed on 1 November at Whitehall Palacemarker with Richard Burbage almost certainly Othello's first interpreter. Modern notable performers of the role include Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, Richard Burton, James Earl Jones, Laurence Olivier and Lenny Henry.


Othello has its source in the 1565 tale, "Un Capitano Moro" from Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio. While no English translation of Cinthio was available in Shakespeare's lifetime, it is probable that Shakespeare knew both the Italian original and Gabriel Chappuy's 1584 French translation. Cinthio's tale may have been based on an actual incident occurring in Venice about 1508. It also resembles an incident described in the earlier tale of "The Three Apples", one of the stories narrated in the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Desdemona is the only named character in Cinthio's tale with his other characters identified as the Moor, the squadron leader, the ensign, and the ensign's wife.

While Shakespeare closely followed Cinthio's tale in composing Othello, he departed from it in some details, particularly in the tale's depiction of Desdemona's death. In Cinthio, the Moor commissions his ensign to bludgeon Disdemona to death with a sand-filled stocking. In gruesome detail, Cinthio follows each blow, and, when the lady is dead, the Moor and his ensign place her lifeless body upon her bed, smash her skull, and then cause the cracked ceiling above the bed to collapse upon her, giving the impression the falling rafters caused her death.

The two murderers escape detection. The Moor then misses his wife greatly, and comes to loathe the sight of his ensign. He demotes him, and refuses to have him in his company. The ensign then seeks revenge by disclosing to the "the squadron leader" (the tale's Cassio counterpart), the Moor's involvement in Desdemona's death. The two men denounce the Moor to the Venetian Seignory. The Moor is arrested, transported from Cyprus to Venice, and tortured, but refuses to admit his guilt. He is condemned to exile; Disdemona's relatives eventually put him to death. The ensign escapes any prosecution in Disdemona's death but engages in other crimes and dies after being tortured.

Role in Othello

He is an African Moor living in Venicemarker, and a general in the Venetian Army. His soldier, Iago tricks him into believing that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with one of his soldiers, Michael Cassio. He kills his wife out of jealousy, only to realize that his wife was faithful, at which point he commits suicide. Several scholars have taken note of Othello's African race, pointing out the way in which it is portrayed in the play.


"Othello and Desdemona" by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1829

Othello is considered the first black character in Western Literature, though the play is not very much concerned with racial difference, instead it adds to Othello's distinction compared to the Venetians.

Othello's race

There exists debate over whether Othello was a Barbary Moor or a Black Moor. It was previously common to depict him as a Barbary Moor rather than a Black Moor. In 1911, however, James Welton criticised this notion, arguing that racial prejudices had turned the character of Othello into "barbary" instead of "black." He argued that despite some evidence that he may have not been black, more evidence points to him being black, though Shakespeare's intention is unknown. He also adds that if Othello were not black, Brabantio would not have used the term "sooty bosom," a racial stereotype for blacks during this time, and would not have been compared to Dian, a famous Ethiopianmarker. He continues that accounts changing Othello from "black to brown" were the cause of racial prejudices during Reconstruction in America and contends that Othello is described using similar language in Titus Andronicus.

Virginia Mason Vaughan added to this criticism by arguing that Othello's racial identity as a Black Moor would have made more sense than a Barbary Moor, who were able to be accepted into society much easier than a Black Moor. She states that by 1604, racism against Africans had already blended with Elizabethian culture as they had already visited Europe before the time of the play, and accounts of Othello as Black were not uncommon. She notes Rodrigo's description of Othello having "thick lips" was a racial stereotype used by 16th century explorers for Africans.

By the late 20th century, social predispositions and/or prejudice among modern-day, typical readers and theatre directors have leaned more towards the "black" interpretation. In 1997, E.A.J. Honigmann criticized the notion that Othello is black. He cites various references such as the Moorish ambassadors from the Barbary Coast who stayed in Londonmarker for six months from 1600 to 1601, at the same time when Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, was performing there. He argues that Shakespeare modelled Othello after a portrait of one of the ambassadors, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud.

In his Arden edition of the play, Honigmann summarizes other contradictory evidence. He argues that the various uses of the word 'black' (for example, "Haply for I am black") do not help, since 'black' could simply mean 'swarthy' for Elizabethans. Iago twice uses the word 'Barbary' or 'Barbarian' to refer to Othello, apparently referring to the Barbary Coast inhabited by the Berbers and Arabs. Yet Roderigo also calls him 'the thicklips', which seems to refer to (perhaps) African physiognomy. Honigmann argues that since these comments are all insults, they need not be taken literally. He believes that Othello was intended as a North African Barbary Moor, chiefly because the places he names are in the Mediterranean and because of the Moorish embassy in England between 1600-1601, which may have been the only real exposure Shakespeare possibly had to Moors before writing the play.

Performance history


  1. Shakespeare, William. Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
  2. Bevington, David and Kate, translators. "Un Capitano Moro" in Four Tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Bantam Books, 1988.
  4. James Welton Psychology of Education. University of California: 1911, p. 403.
  5. James Welton Psycology of Education. University of California: 1911, p. 404.
  6. Virginia Mason Vaughan Othello: A Contextual History. Cambridge University Press: 1996, p. 51 - 52.
  7. Leo Africanus, "The inhabitants are extremely black, having great noses and blabber lips." "The History and Description of Africa", Robert Brown, ed., Trans. John Pory, 3 Vols (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1896), p. 830.
  8. E.A.J. Honigmann, ed. Othello. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997, 17.
  9. E.A.J. Honigmann, ed. Othello. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997, p. 15.
  10. Honigmann, 2-3.
  11. Oxford English Dictionary, 'Black', 1c.
  12. E.A.J. Honigmann, ed. Othello. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997, p. 15.
  13. E.A.J. Honigmann, ed. Othello. London: Thomas Nelson, 1997, p. 16.

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