Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, an Italian source for Othello and Measure for Measure


This collection of short Italian tales explores the pros and cons of different kinds of love, especially within marriage. The author Giovanni Battista Giraldi (1504–1573) was a poet, dramatist and prose writer who was commonly known by his nickname Cinthio (also written as Cynthius, Cintio or Cinzio).

The book is arranged into 10 sections or decades, each one made up of 10 stories. Two tales – ‘Disdemona and the Moor’ and the story of ‘Epitia’ – seem to have inspired Shakespeare when writing Othello and Measure for Measure. However, there is some debate over whether Shakespeare would have read the tales in Italian or in translation.

Gli Hecatommithi was first printed in this edition of 1565 and translated into French by Gabriel Chappuys in 1583. In Othello, critics have noted direct verbal echoes of both Chappuys’s French and Cinthio’s Italian, suggesting that Shakespeare might have seen either version. Measure for Measure seems more closely based on an English adaptation of Cinthio – a play by George Whetstone called Promos and Cassandra (1578).

Cinthio as a source for Othello (decade 3, story 7; Part 1, p. 571)

Cinthio tells the tale of Disdemona and a Moorish Captain duped by his villainous Ensign (or standard-bearer). This clearly gives Shakespeare the framework for his tragedy of Othello and his Ensign, Iago. In Cinthio’s story, the virtuous and beautiful Disdemona is the only character to be given a name. Against the advice of her relatives, she marries the gallant Moor, not through lust but for love of his valour.

In recognition of his loyal service, the Moor is made commander of the Venetian forces in Cyprus. He sails there with Disdemona, as well as the deceptive Ensign, the Ensign’s young wife (Shakespeare’s Emilia) and a Corporal (Shakespeare’s Cassio).

The Ensign falls in love with Disdemona and, stung by her rejection, plots to convince the Moor that she has been unfaithful with the Corporal. When the Corporal is stripped of his rank for wounding another soldier, Disdemona appeals to her husband on his behalf, and the Ensign seizes his chance to accuse them of an adulterous affair.

The Moor demands ‘ocular proof’ (Othello, 3.3.60, or, in Cinthio, ‘vedere cogli’ occhi quello’, p. 577). So the Ensign shows him a handkerchief stolen from Disdemona and planted in the Corporal’s house. The Ensign is then bribed by the Moor to kill the Corporal, but only wounds him as he comes away from a courtesan’s house. Together they also scheme to murder Disdemona by beating her with a stocking filled with sand, and then disguising it as an accident caused by the ceiling falling down.

After her death, the Moor and Ensign turn against each other. The Moor is tortured, exiled and killed by Disdemona’s relatives. The Ensign, continuing his villainy, is finally imprisoned for another crime and dies as a result of torture.

How does Shakespeare adapt Cinthio's tale in Othello?

  • Shakespeare’s Ensign, Iago is not driven by lust for Desdemona, so his motives are more ambiguous.
  • Shakespeare introduces new characters, the credulous Roderigo and Desdemona’s father Brabantio.

Cinthio as a source for Measure for Measure (decade 8, story 5; Part 2, p. 415)

This moral tale was widely popular in 16th-century Europe, appearing in a number of different forms. At the start of Cinthio’s version, the Emperor appoints Iuriste (Shakespeare’s Angelo figure), as governor of Innsbruck and commands him to impose strict justice.

A beautiful and eloquent woman called Epitia (Shakespeare’s Isabella) comes before Iuriste to plead for the pardon of her 16-year-old brother Vico (the Claudio figure). Vico is condemned to death for raping a woman who he says he loves and is willing to marry. Iuriste agrees to the pardon, but only if Epitia has sex with him. But in fact he breaks the agreement by executing Vico beforehand.

When the Emperor realises what has happened, he condemns Iuriste to death but forces him to marry Epitia first. She then pleads for her new husband’s life, and the Emperor shows mercy by agreeing to spare Iuriste.

How does Shakespeare adapt Cinthio’s tale in Measure for Measure?

  • In Shakespeare’s version, Claudio’s crime is not rape, but mutually consensual sex outside marriage.
  • Isabella has a religious vocation as a nun. This could have been prompted by Cinthio’s use of the Italian word ‘la Sorella’, which meant ‘sister’ but also ‘nun’ (as shown in John Florio’s Italian–English dictionary of 1598).
  • Isabella keeps her virginity through a bed-trick in which she is replaced by Mariana.
  • Claudio is allowed to survive, while the head of a pirate named Ragozine is sent instead to Angelo.

Full title:
De gli Hecatommithi di G. Gyraldi Cinthio ... parte prima (-seconda, nella quale si contengono tre dialoghi della vita civile).
1565, Mondovì, Italy
Book / Octavo
Giovanni Battista Giraldi
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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