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How Shakespeare used his sources.
An examination of Othello and The Winter's Tale. By JH

To transform stories into plays requires skill and a radically different method of presentation, moving the focus from the descriptive and essentially passive exposition to a dynamic presentation of character and action. To challenge and to subvert the source narrative demands more, it requires a dramatic imagination combined with an understanding of the complexities and psychology of human nature. Shakespeare did more than just dramatise a story (1), he transformed it into great theatrical drama, inspired by the original material but not hesitating to mold and change it to fit his imaginative purpose. (2) The stereotypical characters of Greene’s ‘Pandosto’(3) became fascinating human beings, Cinthio’s Moor (4) is raised to a great tragic hero and a rather sordid, cautionary tale transformed into epic drama. (5)

In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and ‘Othello’ Shakespeare followed the storyline of his sources quite closely, but radically changed their endings – his main subversion of both Greene and Cinthio. Within the dramatic action of the plays however, he consistently challenges much of the originals in terms of character, suspense, time and motivation. What had been plain, straightforward and didactic in the source becomes complex, questioning and ambiguous in the plays. Greene’s ‘Pandosto’ was one of the earliest forms of novel, a new departure in the technique and style of storytelling, but it was still linear, pedantic, and lacking suspense, working towards a known conclusion. The characters were two-dimensional, representative of set functions, and predictable. Cinthio’s cautionary tale of ‘The Moor of Venice’, set up a moral debate over the issues of marrying against parental wishes, credulity, the evils of gossip, and the problem of interracial marriage. From these narrative and didactic sources Shakespeare used his skill and understanding to create subjective, emotional, tense drama adding the essential elements of suspense and surprise. (6)

In challenging Cinthio’s story, Shakespeare isolates the characters of the Moor and the Ensign , trapping them in the grip of their opposing obsessions on the relationship of love with sex. (7) The Moor and Desdemona essentially reverse functions – she becomes the victim of Iago’s desire to destroy Othello, whereas in Cinthio, the Moor is the victim of the Ensign’s plot to destroy Disdemona. To achieve this reversal Shakespeare excised the single, clear motivation for revenge of the Ensign, who in the story, falls in love with Disdemona, is spurned, as he believes, for the young captain and therefore plots to destroy them both. The Moor is the dupe whose credulity will further the Ensign’s ends. Part of the power of ‘Othello’ is created through the apparent lack of clear motivation for Iago’s actions – there are suggestions (8) but none developed as the primary moving force (9) and Othello is the focus of Iago’s hatred from the start.

Shakespeare begins the action in the middle of an event, with Iago and a new character, Roderigo, (10) discussing the elopement of Othello and Desdemona, (11) excising the months of happy marriage of the source narrative and raising the issue of honesty and deception which will become a major theme of the play. Iago is presented to the audience as a witty and realistic cynic, whereas the source informs the reader of his wicked nature from his first appearance. Iago’s initial attraction for the audience adds to its sympathy with Othello as he, in turn, is deceived by his outward appearance and fails to perceive the reality. (12) Shakespeare adds romance – the secret marriage – and urgency, with the imminent threat of the invasion of Cyprus by the Turks, both absent in the source. He raises the status of Othello (13) partially through his heightened language, (14)

“Most potent, grave, and reverend signors,
……………………………….won his daughter.”
(Act 1,iii, L76-94),

and partially through the reports of his actions by others with the emphasis on his importance and service to the state of Venice and their need for him to defend Cyprus against the Turks, challenging the source where his promotion to Cyprus is not in any circumstance of threat. In the source the Moor and Ensign are similar types, but Shakespeare’s Iago is perceived, through his language, to be a much lower status character than Othello. (15)

“That Cassio loves her………
………………………….till used.” (Act 2,i, L277-303) (16)

The conflict of love and sex in ‘Othello’ also challenges the source. The question of whether the consummation of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona took place is left unanswered. This was not an issue in the source, but adds dramatic tension to the play. Desdemona and Othello travel to Cyprus on separate ships and Shakespeare engineered a storm to disperse and destroy the Turks, which also allows Desdemona to arrive and disembark before him. From the arrival in Cyprus, (2, i, L.211) Shakespeare adhered fairly closely to the Cinthio story, (17) using the cashiering of Cassio (18), the pleading of Desdemona for his reinstatement (19) and the loss of the handkerchief. However, the psychology of the characters and the timing of the events become ambiguous. Minor though important challenges to the original included the raising of the status of Cassio (20), into a weak but honourable young man (21), and the method of gaining the handkerchief to use as proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. (22) Adding drama and tension, Emilia only realises Iago’s true character at the end of the play and immediately reveals he knowledge to Othello at the cost of her own life whereas the Ensign’s wife in the source is fully aware of her husband’s plots, but too afraid of him to speak. Challenging the relative unimportance of the military setting in Cinthio, Shakespeare’s emphasis on the military setting of the play serves to isolate Desdemona - and Emilia - in a predominantly male world, intensifying the audience’s sense of her vulnerability.

The ambiguity of the time structure in ‘Othello’ is a more serious challenge to Cinthio’s story in which it is clear that months pass before arrival at Cyprus and certainly weeks during the unfolding of the Ensign’s plot. (23) This would be unrealistic for the purposes of the play, (24) where the action seems to happen over the space of two or three days, intensifying the dramatic impact of the sense of events being propelled inexorably toward a tragic culmination. There are hints and anomalies that suggest more time has passed than is suggested by the speed of the unfolding events on stage (25) and A.C. Bradley (26) suggests that ‘Othello’ operates a double time structure which an audience would be unconcerned with as they are caught up in the performance. (27) Where necessary, the play creates a vivid impression of the action preceding it through characters descriptions of past events. (28)

From about half way through V, i (29) Shakespeare began his most serious challenge to his source, moving into V, ii and the culmination of Iago’s plots. The murder of Desdemona is elevated to high tragedy rather than the sordid act of malicious nastiness perpetrated by both Moor and Ensign, (30) with Disdemona dying proclaiming her innocence and bewailing her fate. (31) In the play, Othello commits the murder alone, and in great agony of mind, knowing that he is destroying himself as he destroys her. The entry of Emilia and Desdemona’s dying attempt to exonerate Othello, are very different from Cinthio’s story. The unmasking of Iago’s plots and Emilia’s murder add to the tragedy and Othello’s despair at the end of the play, (32) where his speech indicates his return to sanity. (33) Unlike Cinthio’s Moor, Othello behaves with dignity, nobility and self-control, demonstrating his belief in justice, (34) subverting the source, where the Moor escapes immediate punishment and denies involvement in the murder even when accused and tortured. (35) Shakespeare needed an ending that was dramatic, a climax that while tragic, would satisfy his audience. So, in a last and drastic departure from Cinthio’s moralising ending, Othello commits suicide in despair at his killing the ‘thing he loved more than his eyes’ (36) and ‘Othello’ became the tragedy of a man that ‘loved not wisely, but too well’. (37)

Like ‘Othello’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is an exploration of the destructive effects of jealousy. In transforming Greene’s popular and well-known story into dynamic and dramatic theatre Shakespeare shaped and restructured the somewhat pedantic and highly rhetorical linear narrative (38) through compressing and playing with the time frame, changing the order of certain events and introducing new characters to enrich and complicate the drama. Working against the source to add elements of surprise, suspense and tension, Shakespeare involved his audience in a play focussed on forgiveness, rebirth and redemption. (39)

In ‘Pandosto’ the reader is given a detailed description of the events leading up to the gradual onset – with possible cause – of his jealousy. The reader is told very emphatically that Bellaria is innocent, and therefore knows how to judge the ensuing events. This leisurely pace and didactic tone was unsuitable for a stage play and, as in ‘Othello’, Shakespeare dropped his audience into the action in the middle of events, at the point of Polixenes’ proposed departure, using his characters to report and impart any necessary background information. He then had to build the jealousy of Leontes very quickly, and with no obvious justifiable cause. (40) The removal of any obvious motivation for Leontes’ jealousy – similar to his removal of the motivation for Iago – while making it more dramatic, meant that Shakespeare had to convince his audience of Hermione’s innocence and virtue through her speech and actions, leaving it to make its own judgement. To emphasise the destructive effect of Leontes jealousy and intensify the tragedy of his loss, Shakespeare shows Leontes interacting with Hermione and his son, Mamilius, (41) as a happy family man and loving father, two aspects of Pandosto’s character that Greene had no interest in demonstrating or exploring.

The character of Hermione represents a fixed point of reference in the play. She symbolises Grace, and it is important that the audience believe in her virtue. Unlike Bellaria, she is introduced already in an advanced state of pregnancy - adding to the evidence of her innocence - and her removal to gaol in this condition arouses audience sympathy for her plight. In the source Bellaria does not discover her pregnancy until after her imprisonment and her self-pitying laments at her situation compare unfavourably with the dignity of the heightened language given to Hermione. In enhancing Hermione’s status Shakespeare made her the daughter of the Emperor of Russia, (this was Egistus’ wife in the source). He compresses the two trials of Bellaria into one to avoid slackening dramatic tension, and though it is Bellaria who demands the judgement of the Oracle in ‘Pandosto’, in the play it is Leontes, totally convinced that he is in the right (42), who sends for the judgement.

Shakespeare further challenges ‘Pandosto’ by holding his audience in suspense over the judgement of the Oracle; like Leontes, it hears the proclamation for the first time when it is read out in public at Hermione’s trial. This adds suspense and tension, as unlike in ‘Pandosto’ the audience have not been given a categorical assurance that Hermione is virtuous and the outcome is not necessarily certain. (43) Act 3,ii moves with a swift pace, propelling the play forward to the tragedy of the death of Mamilius, caused by Leontes’ initial denial of the truth of the Oracle (44), the collapse and reported death of Hermione and the collapse of Leontes. It is at this point that Shakespeare drastically subverts Greene’s story, which describes the embalming and burial of Bellaria in great detail – in ‘Pandosto’ Bellaria is, very definitely, dead. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ it is Paulina who reports the death of Hermione. Shakespeare invented Paulina as a foil character able to express the audience’s indignation at Leontes’ actions and to act as a support and advocate for Hermione. She is essential to the structure of the plot and Shakespeare’s purpose – assuming that he planned the statue scene as the culmination of the action from the play’s inception (45) - and in some ways replaces Mopsa, (46) the shepherd’s wife in the original, though Paulina’s role is much higher in status and significance. (47)

Shakespeare constructs the abandonment of Perdita by Antigonus on the shores of Bohemia (48) as a turning point in the play. Once the child is safe (49), it signals the possibility of a happy ending, but Shakespeare adds the twist of the threat to Perdita’s safety by the appearance of the bear and the death of Antigonus. It is not until the child is rescued by the shepherd that the audience can relax slightly. Greene’s novel lacks these excitements and also lacks the joy of life and, with no clown figure, the humour expressed so vividly in the second half of ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

Shakespeare used the figure of Time to move events and the play forward sixteen years, and launched the second part of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ with a huge, joyous, exuberant sheep shearing feast, a celebration of life the more effective as it so radically contrasts everything that has happened previously. It is totally unrecognisable as anything present in the source. (50) He cut the long and rather tedious courtship of Fawnia and Dorastus by making the love affair between Perdita and Florizel an already established fact. He followed the storyline with Polixenes displeasure at the relationship, signalling that the conclusion of events must take place in Leontes’ court and the lovers fled to Sicilia using the Franion figure, Camillo, to help and advise them - and without abducting the shepherd! Fate does not play any significant role here as in the story, when the couple land in Sicilia due to a storm blowing them off course. (51) Shakespeare ignored the rather nasty incident of Pandosto falling in love with his – unrecognised - daughter and threatening to rape her, and his insults and sentence of death as unworthy to be the wife of Dorastus, saved only by the shepherd’s revelation of her true identity. (52) He focused on the redemptive elements, the two fathers reconciled through their children, touchingly described by courtiers and the revelation of Perdita as Leontes’ daughter, not tainted by the stigma of incest. As the expected ending, the audience at this point might also anticipate the standard speeches of reconciliation and forgiveness, but Shakespeare then challenged them – and Greene – with a totally unexpected event, the resurrection of Hermione, his most fundamental and dramatic subversion of his source. (53) This coup de théâtre removed the need for the ‘tragical stratagem’ of Pandosto, who, like Othello, slew himself in remorse for his terrible deeds at the end of the novel, and moved ‘The Winter’s Tale’ into a tale not only of forgiveness and reconciliation, but also into a story of redemption. Leontes regained friend, daughter and, miraculously, wife.

The Eighteenth century novelist, Charlotte Lennox, commented that when Shakespeare dramatised from his sources he was bad, and when allowed to be inventive, worse! (54) From a novelist viewpoint this may be justifiable criticism, but Shakespeare was not a novelist. He was a playwright. Between those disciplines lies a world of difference. Removing the clear motivation of Leontes and Iago at the beginning of ‘Othello’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’, and the general absence of moralisation at the end, forced Shakespeare’s audience to concentrate on the action and the development of character; to concentrate on plot, theme and incident and the interaction of characters on stage. His source material inspired Shakespeare, opening his mind to the possibilities of challenging and subverting it to create exciting and dramatic action; to create Theatre.


(1) A modern comparison might be the work of Andrew Davies in dramatising ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

(2) He “hunted for plots rather than themes” Kenneth Muir: Shakespeare the Professional. Shakespeare Survey 24, ed. Kenneth Muir, Cambridge, (Cambridge University Press, 1971) p.41

(3) Robert Greene: ‘Pandosto: The Triumph of Time’. (1588, 1592, and 1595)

(4) Giraldi Cinthio: Disdemona of Venice and the Moorish Captain (Or The Moor of Venice) Seventh Novella, Hecatommithi (1565)

(5) No single voice tells the story in the play, many voices interact to make the story clear. We are not told, but shown through the information given to us and to each other, by the characters taking part in the action.

(6) Jonathan Bate suggests that whereas in the source characters tend to be two-dimensional and fixed, in Shakespeare there is a fluid exposition of character through their actions. There is immediacy. Bate, Jonathan, The Genius of Shakespeare, (London: Picador, 1997) p.151

(7) “In reconstructing and re-imagining the Othello story for his play Shakespeare had to divorce love from sex as a logical result of separating the romantic nobility of Othello from the underworld intrigue of Iago” Only the women in the play seem to have a healthy attitude in recognising love and sex as part of a unified whole. Bayley, John, Shakespeare and Tragedy, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981) .p.209

(8) Cassio’s preferment, the suggestion that Othello may have had sex with Emilia, keeping Roderigo as a source of finance – a comparison may be made here with the character and function of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in ‘Twelfth Night’, and Justice Shallow in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.

(9) One of the major characterisations of Shakespeare’s handling of sources is a removal of obvious motivation – Iago and Leontes are compelling stage presences exactly because we cannot pin one single motive upon them. Bate, Jonathan, The Genius of Shakespeare, (p 151)

(10) Roderigo cp with Andrew Aguecheek – 12th Night and Shallow in Merry Wives of Windsor

(11) The beginning of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, is comparable.

(12) In Cinthio, the reader is told that the Ensign’s outward demeanour hid a dark interior – there is no opportunity for audience fascination, or reluctant admiration for his style, though not his actions as with Iago. The story may have appealed to Shakespeare’s fascination with the theme of appearance and reality and possibly partly inspired him to write ‘Othello’.

(13) Johnson: …the fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless, and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution and obdurate in his revenge.” Introductio to The New Penguin Shakespeare edition of Othello. Ed. Kenneth Muir, (Penguin Books, 1996). P 35.

(14) Othello uses metaphor in his speeches, with classical references, and the speech structure is of the grand style. This reflects his position in the state, and his own belief in that position – his ethos.

(15) Iago tends to speak using similes and Othello metaphors.

(16) Quoted from the New Penguin Shakespeare (1996) edition of ‘Othello’.

(17) See Appendix for comparative

(18) In the play engineered by Iago though not in the source.

(19) Again presented by Shakespeare as part of Iago’s plotting whereas in Cinthio, she pleaded for him without being asked!

(20) The Captain of Cinthio’s story

(21) In the source he visited prostitutes!

(22) Shakespeare removes the Ensigns young daughter from the story.

(23) The Moor in Cinthio waits for days for the final proof of his wife’s infidelity.

(24) Time is subservient to action, pace and tension.

(25) Bianca complains that she has not seen Cassio for a week, Roderigo needs time to squander money.

(26) A.C. Bradley’s double time theory – long and short time scheme and the way the time schemes operate - is explained in A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, (London, 1905) p.424-5

(27) Reading the play the problem of the time structure becomes more apparent.

(28) Kastan, David Scott, ‘Narrative’, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language – A Guide, p.103-4: describes the effect of the narrative description of Othello’s courtship of Desdemona

(29) With the attempted murder of Cassio, plotted by Iago and using his dupe, Roderigo, rather than a bribe to do the deed himself by the Moor as in Cinthio.

(30) In Cinthio from the moment the Moor is convinced of Disdemon’a infidelity, the story descends into the messy, violent and sordid. The Moor bribes the ensign to kill the captain, he fails and the captain spends the rest of the story limping around on a wooden leg! The two then plot the murder of Disdemona together, hitting her over the head with sandbags, then pulling down the roof of the rickety house in which the Moor and his wife are lodged to make it appear an accidental death. They are believed and Disdemona is buried. Only after this does the hatred between the Moor and the Ensign develop, and eventually the Ensign persuades the captain to accuse Othello of the murder. The Moor refuses to confess even under torture and is released. Reported almost as incidental is his own killing by members of Disdemona’s family. The Ensign is never suspected and dies under torture while embroiled in a new plot. His wife then relates the truth.

(31) a lesson to all those disobedient young women who marry against the good advice of their families!

(32) The revelation of Iago’s machinations and real character happens after both his and Othello’s death in the source and the wife lives to make the revelation.

(33) Othello’s last speech to the representative of Venice – Ludovico – balances his first, it is 18 and a half lines reminding us of his service to the state using a similar style of language indicating his return to his former nobility of mind. ( Act V,ii, 334-52. New Penguin edition)

(34) It has been argued that this speech is hollow, an attempt at recovering lost status, self-deceiving, but it is argued by S Adamson in ‘The Grand Style’, Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language, p.47-8, that the mix of high language, using imagery and words from classical sources, mixed with the ordinary, and the fact that Othello acts on the biblical ‘smote’ by committing suicide, removes it from bombast and reinstates Othello as a true tragic hero.

(35) Although he is eventually killed by Disdemona’s family in revenge, he dies ignorant of the Ensigns deception and her innocence.

(36) Cinthio, The Moor of Venice, quoted in Othello, Arden Shakespeare, Appendix 3, p.384.

(37) Shakespeare, William, Othello Act (V,ii, L342.) Arden Shakespeare, Third Edition, 1997.

(38) ‘Pandosto’ worked as mimesis. An exploration of motives and justifications where characters conduct internal debates over the ethics of their actions – for example, Franion (Camillo) over loyalty to his King set against personal ethics. Told in the third person, the reader is expected to be detached, not involved with the characters in the story.

(39) “If we envisage ……. a dramatist working on a certain body of plot material we may see it …….as a splendid response to the demands and limitations of the material as they are revealed in the working.” Rees, J, : Revenge, Retribution, And Reconciliation. Shakespeare Survey 24, ed Kenneth Muir, Cambridge, (Cambridge University Press, 1971) p. 33.

(40) Charlotte Lennox thought that the jealousy of Leontes in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was “much less absurd and ridiculous” in Greene’s ‘Pandosto’, as, though extravagant in both, it was better accounted for in the novella. (Charlotte Lennox: Shakespear Illustrated: or the Novels and Histories on which the Plays of Shakespear are Founded. (1750s) Quoted in Bate, Jonathan, The Genius of Shakespeare, p.146.

(41) 1,i

(42)A minor adjustment to the source as Pandosto is not quite so convinced of his case and has bribed false accusers.

(43) Particularly those that were not familiar with the original story.

(44) He has no problem believing the Oracle, thinking that they kill his son, Garinter, in mistake for him

(45) Some critics argue that the statue scene was a later addition as it was not mentioned in a contemporary account of an early performance and such an obvious coup de théâtre would have been!

(46) Mopsa appears as a very minor character in Bohemia – only the name is a reminder of the shepherd, Porrus’, wife in ‘Pandosto’.

(47) It is her husband – another new character – who is to be responsible for abandoning the baby, box, parchment and chain, on the shores of Bohemia (Sicilia in the source).

(48) Shakespeare reversed the setting of ‘Pandosto’, Sicilia in the source became Bohemia in the play, and the Bohemia of Greene, became the Sicilia of Shakespeare.

(49) In the play the baby is set adrift on the orders of Pandosto, in a tiny boat. Wrapped in a rich mantle with a purse hidden in its folds and with a chain around her neck she is left to the whims of Fate. When rescued by the shepherd in the play she has not only a chain around her neck (as in the source) but there is a box with a parchment in it as well.

(50) Fawnia is mentioned, in passing, as presiding over a Shepherdesses function!

(51) There are two storms in Pandosto where Fate plays an active part in the development of the story, and only one storm in The Winter’s Tale’ – two might have been considered dramatic overkill and their impact would be lessened.

(52) Greene tells us that she was overjoyed to have found such a father – straining credulity somewhat!

(53) Argued by Derek Traversi in Shakespeare: The Last Phase. (London: Hollis and Carter, 1954) p.105

(54) Charlotte Lennox: Shakespear Illustrated: or the Novels and Histories on which the Plays of Shakespeare are Founded. (1750s) quoted in Bate, J, The Genius of Shakespeare, (Picador, 1997) p.146.


Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare, Picador, 1977.

Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1981.

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy, London 1905.

Cinthio, Giraldi. Disdemona of Venice and the Moorish Captain (Or The Moor of Venice) Seventh Novella, Hecatommithi (1565) Translated by T.J.B. Spencer: Elizabethan Love Stories, Penguin Shakespeare Library, 1968.

Greene, Robert. Pandosto: The Triumph of Time. (1588, 1592, & 1595) (Reprinted in ‘The Winter’s Tale’,William Shakespeare. ed. J.H.P. Pafford, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd ed. 2002.

Jones, Emrys. Scenic Form in Shakespeare, Oxford, OUP 1971.

Muir, Kenneth. ‘Shakespeare the Professional’. Shakespeare Survey 24, gen. ed. Kenneth Muir, Cambridge, (Cambridge University Press, 1971)

Rees, Joan. ‘ Revenge, Retribution, And Reconciliation’. Shakespeare Survey 24, gen. ed Kenneth Muir, Cambridge, (Cambridge University Press, 1971)

Joan Rees. Shakespeare and the Story: Aspects of Creation, , University of London, The Athlone Press 1978.

Shakespeare, William. Othello, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. E.A.J. Honigman, (gen. eds, Proudfoot,R; Thompson, A; Kastan, D.Scott) Third Edition: 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale, Arden Shakespeare, ed. J.H.P. Pafford, (gen eds. Proudfoot, R; Thompson, A; Kastan, D. Scott) 1963. Third edition, 2002.

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Last Phase, , London, Hollis And Carter 1954.


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