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Othello /

An Introduction to This Text: Othello

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

The play we call Othello was printed in two different versions in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. In 1622 appeared The Tragœdy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties Seruants. Written by VVilliam Shakespeare, a quarto or pocket-size book that provides a somewhat shorter version of the play than the one most readers know. The second version to be printed is found in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. Entitled simply The Tragedie of Othello, the Moore of Venice, the Folio play has about 160 lines that do not appear in the Quarto. Some of these cluster together in quite extensive passages. The Folio also lacks a scattering of about a dozen lines or part-lines that are to be found in the Quarto. These two versions also differ from each other in their readings of hundreds of words.

Usually twentieth-century editors of Shakespeare made the decision about which version of a play to prefer according to their theories about the origins of the early printed texts. In the case of Othello, however, there has emerged no consensus among editors about what kind of manuscripts can be imagined to lie behind the two early printed texts. Therefore almost all recent editors have relied, for the basis of their editions, upon what they regard as the more accurate text, namely, the Folio’s. (Following a recent fashion in Shakespeare editing, some editors have speculated that there were once two distinct Shakespearean versions of the play. According to this view, the Quarto offers Shakespeare’s unrevised version, the Folio his revised version. Since these editors are led by their hypothesis to prefer the Folio, their speculations have made little difference to the kind of editions they have produced.)

For the present edition we have reexamined these early printed texts. This edition is based directly on the Folio printing of Othello rather than on any modern edition.1 But our text offers an edition of the Folio because it prints such Quarto readings and such later editorial emendations as are, in our judgment, necessary to repair what may be errors and deficiencies in the Folio. The present edition also offers its readers the lines and part-lines and many of the words that are to be found only in the Quarto, marking them as such (see below).

Quarto words are added when their omission would seem to leave a gap in our text. For example, in the first scene of the play, a half-line found in the Quarto, “And in conclusion,” seems to have been dropped from the Folio between the lines “Horribly stuffed with epithets of war” and “Nonsuits my mediators”; we have added that needed half-line. We also add Quarto words when they are oaths or interjections (“O God,” “Zounds,” etc.) that may be missing from the Folio through censorship. When the Folio lacks Quarto words that appear to add nothing of significance, we do not add these words to our text. For example, the Quarto’s “O, then” in the line “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself” (3.3.319) and the Quarto’s “did” in the line “That I did love the Moor to live with him” (1.3.283) seems only to regularize the meter without adding anything of significance. Both of these lines can be read without the Quarto additions as potent iambic pentameter lines. We have therefore chosen not to alter the Folio reading.

Occasionally Quarto readings are substituted for Folio words when a word in the Folio is unintelligible (i.e., is not a word) or is incorrect according to the standards of that time for acceptable grammar, rhetoric, idiom, or usage, and the Quarto provides an intelligible and acceptable word. (Examples of such substitutions are the Quarto’s “pains” for the Folio’s “apines” [1.1.171], Q’s “sometimes” for F’s “sometime” [1.2.4], and Q’s “these” for F’s “this” in the line “There’s no composition in these news” [1.3.1].) We recognize that our understanding of what was acceptable in Shakespeare’s time is to some extent inevitably based on reading others’ editions of Othello, but it is also based on reading other writing from the period and on historical dictionaries and studies of Shakespeare’s grammar.

We also prefer the Quarto reading to the Folio’s when a word in the Folio seems to be the result of censorship or “damping down” of an oath or solemn interjection, and the Quarto provides a stronger oath or interjection (for example, when the Quarto reads “God” in place of the Folio’s “Heaven” or Q reads “By the Mass” in place of F’s “in troth”). And, finally, we print a word from the Quarto rather than the Folio when a word in the Folio seems at odds with the story that the play tells and the Quarto supplies a word that coheres with the story. (For example, the Folio has Othello report that Desdemona gave him “a world of kisses” before he had declared his love and they had discussed marriage, while the Quarto has him refer to a “world of sighs” [1.3.183]. Like almost all modern editions, we here adopt the Quarto reading.)

In order to enable its readers to tell the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions, the present edition uses a variety of signals:

(1) All the words in this edition that are printed in the Quarto version but not in the Folio appear in pointed brackets ( ).

(2) All full lines that are found in the Folio and not in the Quarto are printed in square brackets ([ ]).

(3) Sometimes neither the Folio nor the Quarto seems to offer a satisfactory reading, and it is necessary to print a word different from what is offered by either. Such words (called “emendations” by editors) are printed within half square brackets ( ).

By observing these signals and by referring to the textual notes, a reader can use this edition to read the play as it was printed in the Folio, or as it was printed in the Quarto, or as it has been presented in the editorial tradition, which has combined Folio and Quarto. (This tradition can be traced back, ultimately, to the anonymous editor of the Second Quarto of 1630.)

In this edition whenever we change the wording of the Folio or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change. We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the Quarto or Folio does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change the wording of the Folio or Quarto, or change the punctuation so as to affect meaning, we list the change in the textual notes. Those who wish to find the Quarto’s alternatives to the Folio’s readings will be able to find these also in the textual notes.

For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of both the Folio and the Quarto. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, when a means “he,” we change it to he; we change mo to more and ye to you. But it is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

We correct or regularize a number of the proper names, as is the usual practice in editions of the play. For example, the Folio’s spelling “Rodorigo” is changed to “Roderigo,” and there are a number of other comparable adjustments in the names. We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance. Thus stage directions are written with reference to the stage. For example, the stage direction for Brabantio’s first entrance is based on the Folio, “Enter Brabantio above” rather than on the Quarto, “Enter Brabantio at a window.” While in the fiction of the play we are no doubt to imagine the old man appearing at a window in the upper story of his house, there is little evidence that there were windows in the gallery of early-seventeenth-century theaters. We reproduce the stage direction more likely to have reference to the stage rather than to the story. Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of characters in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, placed so that they immediately precede the characters’ participation in the scene, even though these entrances may appear somewhat earlier in the early printed texts. Whenever we move a stage direction, we record this change in the textual notes. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the -ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the past two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 Are your doors locked?
BRABANTIO  Why, wherefore ask you this?

However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the First Folio provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.