Love, hate, and the green-eyed monster

A reflection on the origins and influence of Shakespeare’s legendary drama, Othello

One of Shakespeare’s most relentless and tightly compressed tragedies, Othello is the story of a Venetian army general tricked by his jealous standard-bearer into believing his wife has been unfaithful.

Like many Shakespearean tragedies, it explores the darker side of love and power, and famously ends with a terrible act of vengeance.

Sport for Jove's acclaimed production of Othello opens at the Seymour in June, so we thought we’d unearth some little-known facts about this iconic drama, and delve deeper into its profound and lasting influence on our culture.

Inspiration strikes

Othello was inspired by Un Capitano Moro, an Italian short story written in 1565.

Moved by the key themes of the story—like love, hate and jealousy; race, culture, and religion—Shakespeare built on the plot and deepened the narrative, introducing new characters and fresh dramatic arcs to create the play we know so well today.

The title of the play, however, remains a mystery: the name Othello never appears in Un Capitano Moro, and historians believe it is likely a uniquely Shakespearean creation, perhaps inspired by the Greek word otho, meaning ‘wealth’.

Shakespeare said it first

Do you know which two common phrases first entered the vernacular via Shakespeare’s Othello?

A cautionary tale about the destructive power of jealousy, it’s no surprise that the popular expression, ‘the green-eyed monster’, originates from this legendary play, with Othello’s traitorous standard-bearer, Iago, warning, ‘O beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ 

But it’s not all evil and envy. In a separate scene, Iago says, ‘I will wear my heart upon my sleeve, for daws to peck at’—and thus another famous idiom was born!

Women take the stage

Women were excluded from the arts for centuries, often forbidden from attending the theatre let alone performing on stage themselves.

This was especially true in medieval England, where female performers were banned by the church—until the 1660s, that is, when King Charles II decreed that female roles should exclusively be played by women.

This was a deeply significant moment for women in the arts, and soon after, Othello became the first English play to feature a female character actually portrayed by a woman. In December 1660, actress Margaret Hughes played Othello’s doomed wife, Desdemona, making her the first woman to legally set foot on an English stage.

The courage to look within

Although written 400 years ago, Othello continues to resonate with audiences today, offering valuable truths about society and the human condition.

Sport for Jove’s Artistic Director, Damien Ryan, agrees, saying, ‘Othello touches on dangerous fault lines in human behaviour, and it is a play that is screaming at us to communicate with each other openly, to have the courage to interrogate our prejudices and preoccupations more thoroughly, and to employ our trust in the right places.’

Find out more about Sport for Jove’s upcoming production of Othello here, and if you have any interesting titbits about this powerful play, let us know! We’d love to hear them.


Image credit: Seiya Taguchi

14 April 2022

Othello is easily Shakespeare's most relentless and tightly compressed drama. This is a rare chance for audiences across NSW to see this dark and brooding masterpiece in 2022. 


Related links