The Truth Behind Shakespeare’s Othello

The sophomores at my school are currently reading Othello, and I’ve been enjoying discussing it with them. I’m not their teacher for the classes that are reading it, but just for fun, I made a brief PowerPoint listing some of the Venice locations related to the play. This is not an exhaustive list. Check out the book Shakespeare in Venice by Shaul Basso and Alberto Toso Fei for details.

The Source:

The source for Shakespeare’s Othello was probably Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio’s novella Gli Hecatommithi (1565): “There once lived in Venice a Moor, who was very valiant and of a handsome person; and having given proofs in war of great skill and prudence, he was highly esteemed by the Signoria of the Republic, who in rewarding deeds of valor advanced the interests of the State.”

Othello’s House and “Moors” in Venice:

Cinzio’s Desdemona and Othello are a mixed-race couple. So this makes it harder to figure out if there was a real “Othello,” a Venetian general who killed his wife. Some say it could be Cristoforo Moro, a soldier posted to Cyprus, and that Cinzio changed the race and name to protect this noble family from potential scandal with his story.  He married a woman nicknamed Demonia Bianco (white devil) that some say could have morphed into the name Desdemona. Moro’s family home is in the Campo dei Carmini, and many guidebooks point to this house as “Othello’s.”


But that supposition would ignore the mixed-race marriage. Others say “Othello” could have been Nicola Contarini, a dark-skinned trader who was known to be very jealous of his wife, but, instead of killing her, he was murdered.

There are statues of “moors” in the Piazza San Marco on top of the clock tower, and in northern Venice is a Campo dei Mori named for brothers from Morea. The term “moor” is misleading and confusing in Venetian usage and may not mean “someone from Morocco.”

Palazzo Contarini-Fasan or “Desdemona’s House”

This palace on the Grand Canal is quite beautiful and has many legends attached to it, including the story that it was the house where Desdemona lived. Alas, this seems to be an old gondolier’s tale.


The “Sagittary”

“Send for the lady to the Sagittary” = people have thought this referred to Desdemona’s house, or maybe the name of an inn where she stayed (which would have been odd since her father was a nobleman).

“Vicus Saggitarius” is the ancient Venetian name for what is now called the Frezzeria, a shopping district and street. Frezze were arrows, which were originally made and sold here, and in the 1300s all Venetian men used to be required to practice the crossbow.

Sala dei Pregadi where the Senate met: Interior

The scene where Othello makes his speech to the Doge and Senate to defend himself.


Photo credits:–-the-house-of-othello-a-response-to-graham-holderness

About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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2 Responses to The Truth Behind Shakespeare’s Othello

  1. Nancy says:

    What great resources! I suddenlt want to teach the play just so I can use them.

  2. Now I’m plotting offering a mini-lecture after school on Venetian marriage practices and roles for women….

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