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How Shakespeare used his sources.
An examination of Othello and The Winter's Tale. By
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
he transformed it into great theatrical drama, inspired by the original
material but not hesitating to mold and change it to fit his imaginative
The stereotypical characters of Greenes Pandosto
became fascinating human beings,
is raised to a great tragic hero and a rather sordid, cautionary tale
transformed into epic drama.
In The Winters 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. Greenes
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.
Cinthios 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.
In challenging Cinthios 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.
The Moor and Desdemona essentially reverse
functions she becomes the victim of Iagos desire to destroy
Othello, whereas in Cinthio, the Moor is the victim of the Ensigns 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 Ensigns ends. Part of the power of Othello is created
through the apparent lack of clear motivation for Iagos actions
there are suggestions
but none developed as the primary moving
and Othello is the focus of Iagos
hatred from the start.
Shakespeare begins the action in the middle of an event, with
Iago and a new character, Roderigo,
discussing the elopement of Othello and
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. Iagos 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.
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
partially through his heightened language,
Most potent, grave, and reverend signors,
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 Shakespeares Iago is perceived,
through his language, to be a much lower status character than Othello.
That Cassio loves her
used. (Act 2,i, L277-303)
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,
using the cashiering of Cassio
, the pleading of Desdemona for his
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,
into a weak but honourable young man,
and the method of gaining the handkerchief to use as
proof of Desdemonas infidelity.
Adding drama and tension, Emilia only realises
Iagos true character at the end of the play and immediately reveals he
knowledge to Othello at the cost of her own life whereas the Ensigns wife
in the source is fully aware of her husbands plots, but too afraid of him
to speak. Challenging the relative unimportance of the military setting in
Cinthio, Shakespeares emphasis on the military setting of the play serves
to isolate Desdemona - and Emilia - in a predominantly male world, intensifying
the audiences sense of her vulnerability.
The ambiguity of the time structure in Othello is a
more serious challenge to Cinthios story in which it is clear that months
pass before arrival at Cyprus and certainly weeks during the unfolding of the
This would be unrealistic for the purposes
of the play,
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
and A.C. Bradley
suggests that Othello operates a
double time structure which an audience would be unconcerned with as they are
caught up in the performance.
Where necessary, the play creates a vivid
impression of the action preceding it through characters descriptions of past
From about half way through V, i
Shakespeare began his most serious challenge
to his source, moving into V, ii and the culmination of Iagos plots. The
murder of Desdemona is elevated to high tragedy rather than the sordid act of
malicious nastiness perpetrated by both Moor and Ensign,
with Disdemona dying proclaiming her
innocence and bewailing her fate.
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 Desdemonas dying attempt to
exonerate Othello, are very different from Cinthios story. The unmasking
of Iagos plots and Emilias murder add to the tragedy and
Othellos despair at the end of the play,
where his speech indicates his return to
Unlike Cinthios Moor, Othello behaves
with dignity, nobility and self-control, demonstrating his belief in justice,
subverting the source, where the Moor
escapes immediate punishment and denies involvement in the murder even when
accused and tortured.
Shakespeare needed an ending that was
dramatic, a climax that while tragic, would satisfy his audience. So, in a last
and drastic departure from Cinthios moralising ending, Othello commits
suicide in despair at his killing the thing he loved more than his
and Othello became the tragedy
of a man that loved not wisely, but too well.
Like Othello, The Winters Tale is
an exploration of the destructive effects of jealousy. In transforming
Greenes popular and well-known story into dynamic and dramatic theatre
Shakespeare shaped and restructured the somewhat pedantic and highly rhetorical
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.
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
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 Hermiones 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,
happy family man and loving father, two aspects of Pandostos 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
Hermiones 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,
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
Hermiones 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.
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,
the collapse and reported death of Hermione
and the collapse of Leontes. It is at this point that Shakespeare drastically
subverts Greenes story, which describes the embalming and burial of
Bellaria in great detail in Pandosto Bellaria is, very
definitely, dead. In The Winters Tale it is Paulina who
reports the death of Hermione. Shakespeare invented Paulina as a foil character
able to express the audiences indignation at Leontes actions and to
act as a support and advocate for Hermione. She is essential to the structure
of the plot and Shakespeares purpose assuming that he planned the
statue scene as the culmination of the action from the plays inception
- and in some ways replaces Mopsa,
the shepherds wife in the original,
though Paulinas role is much higher in status and significance.
Shakespeare constructs the abandonment of Perdita by Antigonus
on the shores of Bohemia
as a turning point in the play. Once the
child is safe,
it signals the possibility of a happy
ending, but Shakespeare adds the twist of the threat to Perditas 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.
Greenes 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 Winters Tale.
Shakespeare used the figure of Time to move events and the play
forward sixteen years, and launched the second part of The Winters
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
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.
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 shepherds revelation of her
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.
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 Winters 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!
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 Winters Tale, and the general absence of moralisation at
the end, forced Shakespeares 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.
© JH 2003
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