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.

Sources:

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.