Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Othello, The Moor of Venice
Shakespeare’s main source for Othello was the seventh story from the third decade of G. B. Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565). Cinthio was available in French but not in English translation during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The verbal echoes in Shakespeare’s play are usually closer to the Italian original than to Gabriel Chappuys’s French version of 1584. Cinthio’s account may have been based on an actual incident occurring in Venice around 1508.
Shakespeare is considerably indebted to Cinthio’s story for the essentials of the narrative: the marriage of a Moorish captain to a Venetian lady, Disdemona, whose relatives wish her to marry someone else, the mutual attraction to noble qualities of mind in both husband and wife, their happiness together at first, the dispatching of the Moor to Cyprus to take charge of the garrison there, Disdemona’s insistence on accompanying her husband through whatever dangers may occur (though the sea voyage, as it turns out, is a very calm one), the ensign’s treachery and resolve to destroy the Moor’s happiness with Disdemona, her begging her husband to reinstate the squadron leader whom the Moor has demoted for fighting on guard duty (although no mention is made of drunkenness or of the ensign’s role in starting the trouble), the ensign’s insinuations to the Moor that his wife is cuckolding him because she is becoming weary of her marriage with a black man, the ensign’s difficulty in providing ocular proof, his planting of Disdemona’s handkerchief in the squadron leader’s quarters and his showing the Moor that the handkerchief is now in the squadron leader’s possession, his arranging for the Moor to witness at a distance a conversation between the ensign and squadron leader that is, in fact, not about Disdemona, Disdemona’s confusion when she is asked to produce the handkerchief, the attack on the squadron leader in the dark, the murder of Disdemona in her bed, the Moor’s deep regret at the loss of his wife, the eventual punishment of both the Moor and the ensign, and the telling of the story publicly by the ensign’s wife, who has heretofore kept silent because of her fear of her husband.
Although these correspondences in the story are many, Shakespeare has changed a great deal. He provides Desdemona with a caring and saddened father, Brabantio, out of Cinthio’s brief suggestion of family opposition to her marriage, and adds the entire opening scene in which Iago arouses the prejudices of Brabantio. Roderigo is a brilliantly invented character used to reveal Iago’s skill in manipulation. Cinthio’s ensign, though thoroughly wicked, never expresses a resentment for the squadron leader’s promotion and favored treatment by the Moor; instead, the ensign lusts for Disdemona and turns against her and the Moor only when his passion is unrequited. In his complex portrayal of a consuming and irrational jealousy in Iago, Shakespeare goes far beyond his source, making use as well of the inventive villainy of the Vice in the English late medieval morality play. In Cinthio’s account, the ensign filches the handkerchief from Disdemona while she is hugging the ensign’s three-year-old daughter; the ensign’s wife is uninvolved in this mischief, though she does unwillingly learn of her husband’s villainy (since he has an idea of using her in his plot) and later feels constrained to hold her tongue when Disdemona asks her if she knows why the Moor is behaving so strangely. (As is usual in prose narrative, the passage of time is much more extended than in Shakespeare’s play.)
In the later portions of the story, the changes are more marked. Cinthio relates an episode in which the squadron leader, finding the handkerchief in his room, takes it back to Disdemona while the Moor is out but is interrupted by the Moor’s unexpected return home; Shakespeare instead has Cassio approach Desdemona (earlier in the story) to beg her assistance in persuading Othello to reinstate him. Cinthio tells of a woman in the squadron leader’s household who copies the embroidery of the handkerchief before it is returned and is seen with it at a window by the Moor; here, Shakespeare finds a suggestion for Bianca, but her role is considerably augmented, partly with the help of a passing remark in Cinthio’s account that the squadron leader is attacked and wounded as he leaves the house of a courtesan with whom he occasionally takes his pleasure. In the absence of any character corresponding to Roderigo, the Cinthio narrative assigns to the ensign himself the role of wounding the squadron leader. The manner in which Disdemona is murdered is strikingly different. Cinthio has nothing equivalent to the tender scene between Desdemona and Emilia as Desdemona prepares to go to bed. Cinthio’s Moor hides the ensign in a dressing room next to his bedroom and commissions the ensign to bludgeon her to death with a sand-filled stocking, after which the two murderers cause the ceiling of the room to collapse on her and create the impression that a rafter has smashed her skull.
Cinthio also treats the aftermath of the murder in a very different way. The Moor, distracted with grief, turns on the ensign and demotes him, whereupon the ensign persuades the squadron commander to take vengeance on the Moor as his attacker (according to the lying ensign) and killer of Disdemona. When the squadron commander accuses the Moor before the Seigniory, the Moor keeps silent but is banished and eventually killed by Disdemona’s relatives. The ensign, returning to his own country, gets in trouble by making a false accusation and dies as the result of torture. Cinthio sees this as God’s retribution. The ensign’s wife lives to tell her story, unlike Shakespeare’s Emilia.
The changed ending is essential to Shakespeare’s play. Emilia becomes a more complex figure than the ensign’s wife: Shakespeare implicates her in the stealing of the handkerchief but also accentuates her love for Desdemona and her brave denunciation of her husband when at last she knows the full truth. Othello’s ritual slaying of Desdemona avoids the appalling butchery of the source story. Shakespeare’s ending is more unified, and brings both Othello and Iago to account for the deeds they have committed in this play. Most important, Shakespeare transforms a sensational murder story into a moving tragedy of love.
(A HUNDRED TALES)
By Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio
Translated by David Bevington and Kate Bevington
THIRD DECADE, SEVENTH NOVELLA
A Moorish captain takes as his wife a woman who is a citizen of Venice. An ensign in his company accuses her to her husband of adultery. The husband undertakes to have the ensign kill the supposed adulterer. The captain kills his wife. Having been publicly accused by the ensign, the Moor does not confess but is banished nonetheless on clear evidence of guilt. The villainous ensign, thinking to harm still other persons, brings on himself a wretched death.
There once lived in Venice a Moor, a very brave man, who, by virtue of his personal qualities and by having given proof in war of great prudence and energetic ability, was highly regarded by those signors who, in rewarding honorable actions, ever advance the interests of the republic. Now it happened that a virtuous lady of marvelous beauty, called Disdemona, drawn not by a woman’s appetite but the innate qualities of the Moor himself, fell in love with him. And he, vanquished by her beauty and nobleness of mind, similarly burned with love for the lady. Their love was so well-disposed and mutual that, although the lady’s relatives did what they could to get her to choose some other husband, the two were united in matrimony. And they lived together in such peace and harmony, while they were in Venice, that nothing but affectionate words ever passed between them.
Now it happened that the signors of Venice made a change in the garrison they maintained on Cyprus, and they chose the Moor to command the troops they dispatched there. He, although greatly pleased by the honor thus offered him—since such a distinguished rank is conferred only on men who are noble, mighty, and loyal, and who have shown themselves to be unusually brave—was not so happy when he considered the length and dangers of the voyage, thinking that Disdemona would be distressed by it. But the lady, who had no other happiness on earth than the Moor and was greatly pleased with the testimonial to his merits that her husband had received from so powerful and noble a republic, eagerly awaited the hour when her husband, with his men, should set forth on his way, and she accompanying him to such an honorable post.
It grieved her to see the Moor troubled. And so, not knowing what the reason could be, she said to him one day as they sat at dinner: “Why is it, my Moor, that you, who have been promoted to such a distinguished rank by the Seigniory, are nevertheless so depressed?”
The Moor said to Disdemona: “The love I have for you troubles my contentedness with the honor I have received, because I see that one of two things must necessarily happen: either I must take you with me over the perils of the sea, or I must leave you in Venice to avoid this hardship. The first of these cannot help but weigh heavily on me, since every fatigue you endured and every danger we encountered would make me extremely anxious. The second of these, having to leave you behind, would be hateful to me, since in parting from you I should be parting from my very life.”
Disdemona, hearing this, said: “Alas, my husband, what thoughts are these that are going through your head? Why do you give in to such vexing ideas? I want to come with you wherever you go, even if I should have to walk through fire in my chemise rather than going by sea in a perfectly safe and handsomely furnished ship. If there are going to be dangers and fatigues, I want to share them with you. I would think you didn’t love me very much if you thought of leaving me in Venice rather than taking me to sea with you, or persuaded yourself that I would prefer to stay here in safety rather than be with you in such danger. I want you to get ready for the voyage with all the cheerfulness your seniority of rank deserves.”
The Moor threw his arms joyfully around his wife’s neck and said with an affectionate kiss: “May God keep us long in such love, my dear wife!”
Soon after that, putting on his armor and making everything ready for the expedition, he went on board the galley with his lady and all their followers, hoisted sail, and got under way, and, favored with a perfectly tranquil sea, they made their journey to Cyprus.
Among the officers of the Moor’s company was an ensign, a man of handsome appearance but of the most depraved nature in the world. He was much in favor with the Moor, who didn’t have the slightest idea of his wickedness. For although his mind was utterly vile, he concealed that villainy in his heart with such high-sounding and noble speech and such pleasing demeanor that he made himself out to be a veritable Hector or Achilles. This rascal had also taken his wife, a beautiful and virtuous young woman, to Cyprus, and being of Italian birth, she was much loved by the Moor’s wife, who spent the greater part of the day with her.
In the same company there was also a squadron leader of whom the Moor was very fond. He went often to the Moor’s house and frequently dined with him and his wife. And so the lady, knowing how much he meant to her husband, gave him proofs of the greatest kindness. This greatly pleased the Moor.
The villainous ensign, not heeding at all the vows he had made to his wife or the friendship, loyalty, and duty he owed the Moor, fell head over heels in love with Disdemona and bent all his thoughts to see if he could enjoy her, but he didn’t dare show his passion openly for fear that, if the Moor should notice, he would quickly be a dead man. And so he sought various ways, as guilefully as he could, to let the lady know that he loved her. But she, who was so entirely taken up with the Moor, never gave a thought to the ensign or anyone else. Everything he did to kindle passion in her toward him had no more effect than as if he hadn’t even tried.
Then he took it into his head that this neglect was the result of her being in love with the squadron leader, and he began to wonder how he might remove this person from her sight. Not only did his mind turn to this, but the love he had for the lady changed into the bitterest hatred, and he gave himself entirely to the study of how he might bring it about that, once the squadron leader had been killed, if he himself could not enjoy the lady, the Moor would not be able to enjoy her either.
Turning over in his mind various ideas, all of them villainous and evil, the ensign finally decided to accuse her of adultery to her husband and to make him believe that the adulterer was none other than the squadron leader. But, knowing the single-hearted love the Moor had for Disdemona, and the friendship he had for the squadron leader, the ensign recognized clearly that, unless he could dupe the Moor with some clever fraud, it would be impossible to get him to listen to either accusation. For which reason he set himself to wait until time and place should open up a way for him to begin his villainous project.
Not long afterward, it happened that the Moor, because the squadron leader drew his sword on a soldier while on guard duty and wounded him, demoted him in rank. This distressed Disdemona greatly. Many times she tried to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and him. At this the Moor said to the villainous ensign that his wife was putting up such a fuss on behalf of the squadron leader that he feared he would be constrained at last to reinstate the officer. The villain took this opportunity to set in motion the deception he had planned, and said: “Perhaps Disdemona has good reason to look so kindly on him.”
“And why would that be?” said the Moor.
“I have no desire,” answered the ensign, “to come between husband and wife, but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see for yourself.”
Nothing the Moor did could persuade the ensign to go beyond what he had said. Nevertheless, his words left such a sharp, stinging thorn in the Moor’s mind that he gave himself up to thinking intently what these words could mean, and he fell into a deep melancholy.
One day, when his wife was trying to soften his anger toward the squadron leader, beseeching him not to consign to oblivion the service and friendship of so many years for a mere peccadillo, especially since matters had been patched up between the squadron leader and the soldier he wounded, the Moor burst into a rage and said to her: “There must be some extraordinary reason, Disdemona, that you should take so much trouble over this man. He isn’t your brother, after all, or even a kinsman, to be so near your heart.”
The lady said, courteously and humbly: “Please don’t be angry with me. Nothing prompts me to do this except that it saddens me to see you deprived of such a dear friend as I know, by your own testimony, the squadron leader has been to you. He hasn’t done anything to deserve so much hatred from you. But you Moors are so naturally hot-tempered that every little thing provokes you to anger and revenge.”
The Moor, made still angrier by these words, answered: “Anyone who doesn’t believe this can easily find proof that it’s true! I will be revenged for the wrongs done to me! I will be satisfied!”
The lady was frightened at these words, and, seeing her husband to be inflamed with anger against her, quite beyond his usual self, she said humbly: “I have only the best of motives in speaking to you about this. But, not to give you any cause to be angry with me, I won’t say another word about it from now on.”
Seeing the earnestness with which his wife had pleaded anew on behalf of the squadron leader, the Moor guessed that the words which the ensign had spoken to him signified that Disdemona was in love with the squadron leader. And so, deeply depressed, he went to the villainous ensign and tried to get him to speak more frankly. The ensign, bent on doing injury to the unfortunate lady, after pretending not to want to say anything that might displease the Moor, gave the appearance of being brought around by the Moor’s urging and said: “I can’t deny that it pains me terribly to have to say anything to you that must disturb you extremely. But since you insist I tell you, and since the concern I ought to have for your honor as my commanding officer also spurs me on to tell you, I will not now refuse to obey your request and my own sense of duty. You must realize, then, that your lady’s only reason for being unhappy to see the squadron leader out of favor with you is that she takes her pleasure with him whenever he comes to your house. That’s how she consoles herself for the disgust she feels about your blackness.”
These words penetrated to the very core of the Moor’s heart. But, in order to know more (though he now believed what the ensign had told him to be true, through the suspicion that had already been born in his mind), he said, with a fierce expression: “I don’t know what keeps me from cutting out that audacious tongue of yours, which has had the effrontery to offer such an insult to my lady.”
Then the ensign said: “I didn’t expect, Captain, any other reward for my friendly service. But, since the duty I owe you and the care I have for your honor have brought me thus far, let me repeat to you that matters stand just as you’ve heard. And if your lady, with her show of affection for you, has blinded your eyes to such an extent that you are unable to see what is right in front of you, that doesn’t at all mean that I haven’t been telling the truth. Believe me, this same squadron leader, being one of those people who don’t think their happiness complete until they have made someone else acquainted with it, has told me everything.” And he added: “If I hadn’t feared your anger, I should, when he told me this, have given him the recompense he justly deserved by killing him. But since, by letting you know what concerns you more than any other person, I have earned for myself such an unbefitting reward, I wish I had kept silent and thus avoided falling into your disfavor.”
Then the Moor, in torment, said: “If you do not make me see with my own eyes what you’ve told me, rest assured that I will give you reason to think you would have been better off to have been born without a tongue.”
“It would have been easy enough,” answered the scoundrel, “when he used to come to your house. But now that you have driven him away—and, I must say, not for any compelling need but for the most trivial of reasons—it’s bound to be difficult for me, for, even though I feel sure that he enjoys Disdemona whenever you give him the chance, he must do so much more cautiously than before, now that he sees he has fallen into your disfavor. Still, I do not lose hope of being able to make you see what you are so unwilling to believe.” And with these words they went their own ways.
The wretched Moor, as if struck by the most piercing of arrows, went home to await the day when the ensign would make him see that which would make him forever unhappy. But the ensign meanwhile was no less troubled by the chaste behavior with which he knew the lady to govern herself, since it seemed to him impossible to discover a way of making the Moor believe what he had falsely told him. And so, turning this over in his mind in every possible direction, the scoundrel hit at last on a new piece of cunning.
As I have told you, the Moor’s wife often went to the house of the ensign’s wife and spent the better part of the day with her. Whereupon the ensign, seeing that she sometimes carried with her a handkerchief which, he knew, the Moor had given her, and which had been embroidered with an intricate Moorish design, and which was especially dear to the lady and no less so to the Moor, he devised a scheme to take it from her by stealth and thereby prepare her final ruin. He had a young daughter, three years old, and much beloved of Disdemona. One day, when the poor lady had gone to pass the time of day at the villain’s house, he took up the little girl in his arms and presented her to the lady, who took the child and hugged her to her breast. The traitor, who was very quick in sleight of hand, lifted the handkerchief from her sash so adroitly that she took no notice. And so, glad at heart, he took his leave of her.
Disdemona, unaware of what had happened, went home and, busy with other considerations, never gave a thought to the handkerchief. But a few days afterward, when she went to look for it and couldn’t find it, she was terribly afraid that the Moor would ask her for it as he often did.
Meantime the villainous ensign, taking a suitable occasion, visited the squadron leader in his room and, with crafty malice, left the handkerchief at the head of the bed in such a way that the squadron leader took no notice until the following morning when, as he got out of bed, and the handkerchief by this time having fallen to the floor, he put his foot on it. Not being able to imagine how it had gotten into his house, knowing it to be Disdemona’s, he determined to give it back to her. And so, waiting until the Moor had gone out, he went to the back door and knocked.
Fortune seemed to have conspired with the ensign to bring about the death of the poor woman, for at that very moment the Moor came back home. Hearing a knock at the door, he went to the window and very angrily shouted: “Who is knocking?” The squadron leader, hearing the Moor’s voice and fearing that he would come downstairs and do him some harm, without answering a word took to his heels. The Moor ran downstairs and, opening the door, went out into the street and looked around but found no one. Then, going back inside, filled with spite, he demanded of his wife who it was that had knocked at the downstairs door. The lady answered truthfully that she didn’t know. But the Moor said: “To me it looked like the squadron leader.” “I don’t know,” she said, “whether it was he or someone else.” The Moor held in his fury, though he burned with wrath.
He didn’t want to do anything before he had spoken to the ensign, and so he went to him immediately and told him what had happened, and begged him to find out from the squadron leader what he could about the business. He, delighted with the way things were going, readily agreed to do so.
And so one day he spoke with the squadron leader while the Moor was standing in a place where he could see the two of them in conversation. As they talked of all sorts of things having nothing to do with the lady, the ensign laughed with huge gusto and made as if to show great surprise, gesturing a lot with his head and hands as if he heard some incredible tale. The Moor went to the ensign as soon as he saw the two separate, in order to know what the other had told him. The ensign, after making the Moor beg for a long time, finally said to him: “He hasn’t hidden a thing from me. He says that he has enjoyed your wife every time that you’ve given him opportunity by being away. And, he says, on the last such time he was with her, she gave him the handkerchief which you gave her as a gift when you married her.” The Moor thanked the ensign, and it seemed to him obvious that if the lady no longer had the handkerchief in her possession, all must be as the ensign had said.
And so one day, after they had dined, as he discussed various things with his lady, the Moor asked for the handkerchief. The poor woman, who had been so afraid of this question, turned all red in the face, and, in order to hide her blushes, which the Moor had already taken good notice of, she ran to her chest and pretended to look for it. After she had searched a good deal, she said: “I don’t know why I can’t find it now. Do you have it, by any chance?” “If I had it,” he said, “why would I be asking you for it? But you will look for it more easily and comfortably some other time.”
And, leaving her, the Moor began to think how he might kill his lady and the squadron leader at the same time in such a way that the guilt for her death would not be laid at his door. Thinking of this day and night, he couldn’t prevent his lady from noticing that he was not the same toward her as before. She said to him several times: “What thing is bothering you? What is troubling you? You, who used to be the merriest person on earth, are now the most melancholy person alive.” The Moor found various excuses in replying to his lady, but she was not at all easy in her mind.
Even though she knew that no misconduct on her part could have troubled the Moor so greatly, she feared nonetheless that through the excessive amount of lovemaking he engaged in with her, he had become bored. Sometimes she would say to the ensign’s wife: “I don’t know what to make of the Moor. He used to be so loving to me, and now, in I don’t know how short a time, he’s become quite another person. I’m greatly worried that I shall prove a warning to young women not to marry against their parents’ wishes, and that Italian ladies will learn by my example not to be linked in marriage with the kind of man who is separated from us by nature, Heaven itself, and an entire way of life. But because I know he is on good terms with your husband and shares with him his most private affairs, I beg of you that, if you’ve learned anything from him that you can tell me about, you won’t fail to help me.” And as she said all this she wept uncontrollably.
The ensign’s wife, who knew everything (since her husband wished to use her as a means to the death of the lady, though she had never willingly consented), did not dare, for the fear she had of her husband, to say a word of this thing to Disdemona. She said only: “Take care not to give your husband the least suspicion, and strive as hard as you can to make him realize your love and loyalty to him.” “Why, so I do,” Disdemona said, “but nothing helps.”
The Moor, meanwhile, sought every way of confirming more certainly the very thing he did not want to discover. He begged the ensign to arrange matters in such a way that he could see the handkerchief in the squadron leader’s possession, and, although this request put the scoundrel rather on the spot, he promised the Moor nonetheless to make every effort to give him the proof he desired.
The squadron leader had a woman in the house who made the most marvelous embroidery on fine linen. She, seeing the handkerchief and hearing that it belonged to the Moor’s wife and that it was to be given back to her, undertook to make a copy of it before it was returned. While she was doing this, it struck the ensign that she had placed herself next to a window from which she could be seen by whoever passed by in the street. He made sure that the Moor saw this, who accordingly held it for certain that his utterly chaste lady was in fact an adulteress.
The Moor came to an agreement with the ensign to kill her and the squadron leader, and as the two of them discussed between them how it was to be done, the Moor implored the ensign that he would agree to be the one to kill the squadron leader, promising to remain eternally obliged to him for doing so. Although the ensign at first refused to undertake such a difficult and exceedingly dangerous thing, since the squadron leader was no less skillful than valorous, after having been begged repeatedly and bribed with a sufficient quantity of money, he was at length induced to say that he would undertake to tempt fortune.
One evening after these matters had been settled, as the squadron leader was leaving the house of a courtesan with whom he liked to solace himself, the night being dark, the ensign accosted him with sword in hand and directed a blow at his legs to cause him to fall, and in so doing cut the right thigh entirely through so that the poor man did indeed fall to the ground. The ensign was instantly upon him to finish him off. But the squadron leader, who was brave and accustomed to blood and death, drew his own sword and, wounded though he was, put himself on guard to defend his life and shouted in a loud voice: “Help! Murder!”
At this the ensign, hearing people running toward him, and among them some soldiers who were billeted in the neighborhood, took to his heels so as not to be taken there, and then, doubling back on his tracks, made it appear that he also was running toward the noise. Blending in among the others, and seeing the leg that had been lopped off, he judged that the squadron leader, if not virtually dead already, would die in any case of such a wound. And, although he rejoiced to himself at this, he nevertheless offered condolences to the squadron leader as if he had been his brother.
Next morning the news was all over the city, and came too to the ears of Disdemona. She, loving as always, and not thinking that she might suffer harm from it, showed the greatest sorrow for what had happened. The Moor put the worst possible construction on her behavior. He went to find the ensign and said to him: “Do you know that my fool of a wife is in such a state about what has happened to the squadron leader that she is very nearly out of her mind?”
“What else could you expect,” said the ensign, “since he is her very heart and soul?”
“Heart and soul, you say?” answered the Moor. “I’ll tear her heart and soul right out of her body! I couldn’t think myself a man if I didn’t rid the world of such a depraved creature.”
As they went on discussing alternatives, whether the lady should die by poison or the knife, and not coming to an agreement between them on one or the other, the ensign said: “A way has come into my head that should satisfy you and lead to no suspicion. Here it is. The house you occupy is very old, and the ceiling in your room is full of cracks. My idea is that we pummel Disdemona with a stocking filled with sand until she dies, since this way there will appear on her body no sign of a beating. Once she is dead we can cause part of the ceiling to cave in, and we can break the lady’s head in such a way as to make it appear that a falling rafter smashed her skull and killed her. This way no one will suspect you, supposing instead that her death came about by accident.”
This cruel advice pleased the Moor, and he waited only for a convenient opportunity, some night when he would share his bed with Disdemona. First he concealed the ensign in a dressing room that opened off their bedroom. Then the ensign, according to the plan they had made between them, made some sort of noise in the dressing room. Hearing this, the Moor said very suddenly to his wife: “Did you hear that noise?”
“Yes, I did,” she said.
“Get up and see what it is,” the Moor rejoined.
Poor Disdemona got up. As soon as she had come close to the dressing room, the ensign rushed out and, being strong and muscular, gave her a terrible blow in the small of her back with the stocking he had ready, so that the lady fell immediately, hardly able to draw her breath. With the little voice she had left she called on the Moor to help her. But he, leaping out of bed, said to her: “You most wicked of women! This is the reward for your unchastity. This is what they get who, pretending to love their husbands, put horns on their heads instead.”
The poor lady, hearing this and sensing that her end was near—since the ensign had landed another blow—said that she called on divine justice to attest to her fidelity, since earthly justice failed to come to her aid. And as she called on God to help her, she was struck by a third blow and lay dead, slain by the impious ensign.
Then, putting her on the bed and smashing her skull, he and the Moor caused the ceiling of the room to cave in as they had planned between them, whereupon the Moor began to cry for help, that the house was falling down. At which cry the neighbors came running, and discovered the bed, and found the lady dead under the rafters. All were amazed and grieved at this, because her life had been so good.
On the following day Disdemona was buried with deep grieving on everybody’s part. But God, the just examiner of all human souls, did not wish that such monstrous evil should go without suitable punishment. He decreed that the Moor, who had loved the lady more than his own life, seeing himself deprived of her, should begin to have such an intense longing for her that he went about like one who was out of his mind, searching for her in every imaginable place in the house. And coming to the conclusion that it was the ensign who had caused him to lose, along with the lady, every joy of his life and indeed his very being, he came to loathe the villain so intensely that he couldn’t even bear to look at him. If he had not been afraid of the inviolable justice of the Venetian Seigniory, the Moor would have killed him right out in the open. But since he couldn’t do so safely, he instead demoted the ensign and refused to let him serve any longer in his company, whereupon was born such a bitter enmity between them that it would be impossible to imagine one more immense or deadly.
On this score the ensign, that worst of all villains, turned all his thoughts to doing harm to the Moor. Seeking out the squadron leader, who had recovered by now and who got about on a wooden leg in place of the one that had been cut off, the ensign said to him: “The time has come for you to be revenged for your cut-off leg. If you’ll come with me to Venice, I will tell you who the malefactor was. I don’t dare talk about it here for many reasons. And I will testify for you in court.”
The squadron leader, knowing himself to have been deeply wronged but not understanding the real truth of the matter, thanked the ensign and accompanied him to Venice. When they had arrived, the ensign told him that the Moor was the one who had cut off his leg because of an idea he had gotten into his head that he, the squadron leader, had lain with Disdemona, and that for this same reason the Moor had killed her and afterward spread the report of her having been killed by the falling ceiling.
The squadron leader, hearing this, accused the Moor before the Seigniory of having cut off his leg and of having killed the lady, and he called as his witness the ensign, who said that both things were true, which he knew because the Moor had told him everything and had tried to induce him to commit both crimes; and that, having then killed his wife, impelled by the bestial jealousy that had come into his head, the Moor had told to the ensign the manner in which he had done her in.
The Venetian Seigniory, upon learning of this cruel deed perpetrated by a barbarian foreigner on a Venetian citizen, issued orders for the Moor to be arrested in Cyprus and brought back to Venice, where through numerous tortures they tried to find out the truth. But he was able to endure all the tortures with his mightiness of spirit and denied everything so steadfastly that they could not get anything out of him. And although by his steadfastness he escaped death, he was, after being confined many days in prison, condemned to perpetual exile. There he was finally put to death by Disdemona’s relatives, as he deserved.
The ensign went back to his own country, and, not being inclined to change his ways, accused a companion of his of having tried to get him, the ensign, to kill one of this fellow’s enemies, a person of good birth. On the basis of this accusation the fellow was taken and put to the torture. When he denied the truth of what his accuser had said, the ensign too was put to the torture in order that their stories might be compared. There he was so badly tortured that his internal organs ruptured. Afterward he was released from prison and taken home, where he died a miserable death. Thus did God avenge the innocence of Disdemona. And now that he was dead, the ensign’s wife, who knew the whole story, told what had happened just as I have told you.
Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio was first published in Italy in 1565. This new translation is based on the edition of 1566.