Villainy, villainy, villainy!: Textual Criticism of Othello

Title page of the first quarto (1622)

When reading Othello it is hard to believe that the words that are on the page may the words that William Shakespeare originally wrote, but this may be the case. For experts there are two texts that are seen as the tests that may define what Shakespeare truly meant Othello to be. One of them is the earliest text of Othello, published in 1622 and the other is the second printing, a folio that was a collection of Shakespeare plays that was published a year later in 1623. It is the differences between these two texts as copy texts that form the basis of the controversy over the true text of Othello.

One of the most overlooked differences between these texts is the method of printing and binding used in the two texts. The first was a quarto, which is a binding method that in which the original sheet of paper is folded into quarters, creating eight pages and making the book smaller and rectangular. The second was a folio, which is a binding method in which the original paper is folded in half creating four pages and creating a larger book. Though this seems subtle this could possibly have changed the way the text was laid out including line length and the way the lines are arranged. Also the quarto would have been much longer due to the smaller page size and thus things may have been excised to keep the book to a reasonable length. As these factors affect the way that the text is read and were all deliberate choices, it is important that they not be ignored when textually criticizing Othello.

Another difference between the two possible seminal copy texts is probably the most important, the word choice itself. The second printing in 1623 had one hundred and sixty line not contained in the original quarto; also it lacked thirteen lines or partial lines present in the first printing. This is a significant amount of text not matter how you look at it, and it all gets back down to the important question; “Which one is Shakespeare’s writing?” Due to the vagaries of history it isn’t known whether the folio printing was an actual revision by Shakespeare or a third party revision which could completely change the meaning of the text. One of these most interesting textual differences is Act 5 Scene 2 Line 357 which is Othello’s final monologue before committing suicide. Our text is based on the first folio which uses the word Indian, as in savage or uncivilized while the quarto text used Iudean, meaning unbeliever or infidel. This single word change influences how Othello can be seen as perceiving himself in the end, as either an ignorant savage or an infidel and would have an influence on a psychoanalytic reading of the character of Othello in these moments before his suicide.

Taken as a whole these facts serve to show that textual criticism, though subtle, is something important to take into account especially when a text as old as Othello. Though it may never be proven whether the quarto or the folio should be used as a copy text, they both remain valid writings of Othello and can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.


Shakespeare, William, G. Blakemore Evans, and J. J. M. Tobin. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Kim F. Hall. Othello, the Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

7 thoughts on “Villainy, villainy, villainy!: Textual Criticism of Othello

  1. This is very interesting. What are the other one hundred and sixty lines that were changed in the play? It would be interesting to see exactly how they influence the character of Othello who I thought to be a unique character. It is very sad to watch how he goes from being such a loved man full of integrity and virtue to the bitter, angry, murderous miserable person he is at the end of the play. It would be interesting to see how these line changes would change the transformation or presentation of the character.

  2. So, to be frank, the thing that grabbed me first about this all was the fact that we have different copies of Othello. The idea that something that old had not one but two different versions still floating around is impressive, even if they were the works of the noted author Shakespeare.

    What I’m curious, though, about these two different blocks of writing is the relationship between Othello and Iago. I know, in the version we read, Iago has more lines then Othello. The only question: Is Shakespeare’s focus on the corrupter over the corruptee something that he had from the very beginning, or something that evolved gradually over time?

    Good information, however! And a great example of Textual Analysis.

  3. I too find it very interesting, how the first text was a quarto and the second text was a folio. This seemed to cause me to question myself and ask what other texts are written similar to this one. However, I think it would be more interesting if we take the two different texts of Othello and see how the changes of the lines have affected our reading and perspections of the characters in the play and how they contribute to the text as a whole.

  4. Isn’t it crazy to think of Shakespeare actively writing, sitting down at a desk, formulating the words that would last for centuries? I think it’s crazy. Anywho, I was mostly intererested in your analysis of the difference between Indian and Ludean. I’m not entirely sure how to think about the difference between the two, or how they change the text. In some ways, “Indian” might have more of racial implication, forming Othello as the “other” to the Europeans. But racial otherness also ties in with religious infidelity, as we read in the reading in Othello on the relationship between color diction and religious purity/sinfulness, and the association of racial non-whiteness with sacrilegion.

    • …….didn’t mean to post that comment yet. My point, though, is thinking about the words in this way might actually minimize the gap in meaning between them.

  5. As a huge Shakespeare fan, I was pretty sure I’d have something to say on this topic anyway. But I’m going to overlook the initial point I was going to make, in favor of asking for more clarification of the quarto vs. folio effect. How does the fact that Othello is the script of a play affect your argument? Since Othello is truly a play that is meant to be performed and seen (not necessarily meant to be analyzed as a group of words on a page), should we really spend too much time analyzing the arrangements of the words on a page? Arguably, Shakespeare’s theatrical audience doesn’t need to ever see a physical hard copy of the texts to interpret his authorial intent or reach their own conclusions about the implications of Othello’s larger themes. But it does make me sad to see that things may have been cut out simply because of printing limitations. I would like to think the words that were cut out would have been superfluous ones, but Shakespeare died in 1616, I guess we must be cognizant of the fact that it was someone other than him who would have made those decisions. But this is a well-written post, and I’m honestly going to have to go back to my copy and take another look for myself now!

  6. I think that the world of Shakespeare is amazing and it really tests the imagination in your head and the sense that it makes sense to you right now is magnificent. the only reason is why be Shakespeare? Shakespeare is probably a crazy writer that in his time made no sense but over the years our society started to look like his stories and that is my conclusion of why read is not red.

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