Fun facts about Shakespeare’s classic tragedy
1. Othello has given us some very famous phrases. Whether we’re describing jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’, talking of sexual intercourse as ‘the beast with two backs’, or wearing our heart on our sleeve, we’re quoting Shakespeare’s Othello when we do so.
2. Quite where the name ‘Othello’ came from remains something of a mystery. Probably derived from the name Otho, the name Othello doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s source for the play, the short story ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (‘A Moorish Captain’, i.e. Othello; indeed, Desdemona is the only named character in the source text; every other character is referred to by his rank). ‘Othello’ was, then – like, it has been suggested, the name Imogen – a Shakespearean coinage.
3. That source text was written by an Italian author who was a disciple of Boccaccio, the celebrated author of the Decameron. This author, Cinthio (real name Giovanni Battista Giraldi), lived in the sixteenth century and wrote ‘Un Capitano Moro’ as part of his Hecatommithi or Gli Ecatommiti, a book which also furnished Shakespeare with the plot for Measure for Measure.
4. Indeed, the relationship between Shakespeare’s play and the source text has been used as an exemplary instance of Shakespeare’s genius. Both Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World have argued that Shakespeare’s genius for character can be observed in what the Bard does with the character of Iago. In the source text, the (unnamed) ‘Ensign’ – who hatches a plan to send the Othello character mad with jealousy until his jealousy leads him to kill Desdemona – makes his motive very clear for plotting evil. He thinks the Othello character has slept with his wife! But in Othello, Shakespeare puts a number of plausible motives into Iago’s mouth, so we cannot be sure whether any of them is actually his true motivation. This led Coleridge to describe Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’. What makes Shakespeare’s Iago a far more villainous and unsettling character is precisely that we never discover why he is doing what he’s doing. It’s as if the Bard knew that the motives we often demand of the characters – especially the nasty ones – in plays and novels is too simplistic and fails to capture the complexity of human character.
5. The first professional actress to appear on an English stage was a woman who played the role of Desdemona. At least, Margaret Hughes’ (or was it Anne Marshall‘s?) performance as the doomed Shakespearean heroine, in a production acted by Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company that opened on 8 December 1660, is widely thought to have been the first time a professional actress had taken to the English stage. 1660 was also the year that the English theatres were reopened following the Restoration.
If you enjoyed these interesting Othello facts, you can continue your Shakespearean odyssey with our curious facts about Macbeth. For more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: Portrait of Ira Aldridge playing Othello, by William Mulready, 19th century; Wikimedia Commons.