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Creation of the play

Othello has been dated to between mid-1601 and mid-1602. One important source for Othello was Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny, Historie of the World, published in 1601. There are several echoes of Othello in the first quarto of Hamlet, published in 1603. These suggest that Othello must have been written by early 1603, and probably before July 1602 when Hamlet was entered on the Stationers’ Register.

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto, published in 1622, states that the play ‘hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties seruants’. Othello was played at court by the King’s Men on 1 November 1604. The play was given in Oxford in 1610. The title role was originally played by Richard Burbage, with Joseph Taylor as Iago.

Publication in quarto and folio

Othello appeared in four editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1622. Believed to have been printed from a scribal transcript of Shakespeare’s foul papers. Othello is the first of the ‘good’ quartos of Shakespeare’s plays to divide the text into acts. The text is also among the few to have page numbers.
  • First folio, 1623. Believed to have been printed from a scribal transcript (probably by Ralph Crane) of Shakespeare’s fair copy of the play.
  • Second quarto, 1630. Printed from the first quarto, with amendments probably derived from the first folio.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

Othello was entered by Thomas Walkley on the Stationers’ Register on 6 October 1621. The first quarto was printed by Nicholas Okes for Walkley and appeared in 1622. Walkely transferred his copyright in Othello to Richard Hawkins on 1 March 1628. The second quarto was printed by Augustine Mathewes for Hawkins and appeared in 1630.

British Library copies of Othello contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Several sources were particularly important for the creation of Othello.

  • Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi, De gli Hecatommithi (1565). Shakespeare used the 7th novella from the 3rd decade of Cinthio’s collection for the outline of the plot and much of the detail in Othello. He may have used either the Italian original, a French translation by Gabriel Chappuys published in 1583, or perhaps an English translation which has not survived.
  • Leo Africanus, translated by John Pory, A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600). This work perhaps influenced the character of Othello, and supplied Shakespeare with details for Othello’s description of his early life.

    Map of Africa. Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa
    Map of Africa. Leo Africanus, A Geographical Historie of Africa, translated by John Pory, 1600. British Library, G.4258, plate. Larger image

  • Pliny the Elder, translated by Philemon Holland, The Historie of the World (1601). Shakespeare possibly used this work for the exotic details of Othello’s experience.
  • Gasparo Contarini, translated by Sir Lewis Lewkenor, The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice (1599). Lewkenor’s work drew on a Latin text by Cardinal Contarini. Shakespeare used Lewkenor for his depiction of Venice and its ruling nobility in the first act of Othello.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Othello is set first in Venice, and then on the island of Cyprus.

(Act 1) Iago, ensign to Othello, complains that he has been passed over as Othello’s lieutenant in favour of Cassio. He and Roderigo tell Brabantio, a Venetian senator, that his daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello, the general of the Venetian army and a Moor. Othello and Brabantio appear before the Venetian Senate, and Othello describes how he courted and won Desdemona. When she enters and takes her husband’s side against her father, Brabantio is forced to accept the marriage. Othello is posted to Cyprus, to defend the island against the Turks. Desdemona is allowed to accompany him. Roderigo, in love with Desdemona, despairs. Iago persuades him to follow her to Cyprus, and suggests he will be able to cuckold Othello.

John Gielgud as Othello, 'Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors',
Listen  Othello, Act 1, Scene 3. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 2) Desdemona arrives in Cyprus, escorted by Iago, his wife Emilia, and Roderigo. Othello, delayed by a storm, arrives shortly afterwards and greets Desdemona lovingly. Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona loves Cassio, and incites him to challenge Othello’s lieutenant. He plies both Roderigo and Cassio with drink and sets them fighting. Othello enters, and Iago tells him that the quarrel was begun by Cassio. Othello demotes Cassio. Iago advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead his case with Othello.

(Act 3) Othello comes upon Cassio asking Desdemona for her help. Iago suggests to Othello that Cassio and Desdemona may be lovers. When Desdemona appeals to Othello to help Cassio, she drops the handkerchief which was her first and greatly valued gift from her husband. Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago. Othello, growing ever more jealous, demands that Iago give him proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago tells him that she has given the handkerchief to Cassio. When Desdemona renews her pleas on behalf of Cassio, Othello asks for the handkerchief and she denies it is lost. Cassio finds Desdemona’s handkerchief in his room and, not knowing it is hers, he gives it to his mistress.

(Act 4) Iago reminds Othello that Cassio has Desdemona’s handkerchief, and suggests again that they are lovers. Othello falls in an epileptic fit. Othello looks on unseen as Iago talks to Cassio, and Desdemona’s handkerchief is returned to Cassio by his mistress. When Cassio has gone, Iago incites Othello’s jealousy further. Desdemona renews her pleas for Cassio, and Othello strikes her. Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona, but Emilia declares she is honest. When he questions Desdemona, she swears her innocence. Iago incites Roderigo against Cassio. Othello sends Desdemona to bed, and she prepares sadly for sleep.

(Act 5) Iago sets Roderigo on Cassio. They only wound each other, and Iago kills Roderigo to silence him then declares that the murderer is Cassio. Othello joins Desdemona in her bedroom. She is asleep, but wakes when he kisses her. He questions her faithfulness, but she again declares her innocence. He smothers her. When Emilia calls from outside, Othello lets her in. Desdemona stirs briefly and dies. Othello confesses that he has murdered her, and tells Emilia of Iago’s insinuations. Emilia cries out for help. When Iago enters, she accuses him of lying and tells Othello the truth. Iago kills Emilia and flees. He is captured and, when he is brought back, Othello wounds him. Cassio tells Othello of Iago’s villainy. Othello stabs himself and dies. Iago is taken away to face justice.


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