Preface to the Critical Commentary
Shakespeare's plays as we read them today are not as they appeared in his lifetime. Some plays were printed in quarto version before being printed in the First Folio of 1623. A quarto was produced by folding a sheet of printing paper into four sections. Our modern paperbacks approximate a quarto. A folio was produced from folding a sheet of printing paper in two. Today's large "coffee table" books are a rough equivalent to a folio. Once the paper size was decided, the type for the printing press was set up by hand by men known as compositors. Working from a handwritten, or scribal, document, the compositors would often misread a word or change words so that the print made sense. Since spelling and punctuation rules had not yet been established, there was no consistency in these two areas. These and a variety of other production problems meant that in order for a modern reader to understand the text of Shakespeare's plays, an editor will attempt to put the language of the plays into a more literate format.
When an editor tackles a play like Othello, he is dealing with a play that exists in both quarto and folio versions. By comparing the two versions (texts), an editor chooses what he considers to be the best reading. The edition which results from this process is known as a "conflated" text. Many copies of Shakespeare's plays that we use today are conflated texts.
This analysis has used: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, E. A. J. Honigmann, ed. Walton-on-Thames, England: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. (The Arden 3 Series), 1997.
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Act I Commentary
Like other Shakespeare plays, Othello opens with a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the play. The playwright is intentionally vague in the details of the conversation between two men with one exception: line 2 reveals that one of the men is called Iago. We arrive in media res, literally in the middle of things.
The first man is complaining that Iago has spent his money freely and is very upset that Iago knows about "this" (I.i.3). As the conversation continues, we learn that Iago hates "him" (I.i.6) because "he" has passed over Iago for promotion to lieutenant, choosing instead "Michael Cassio, a Florentine" (I.i.19) and "a great arithmetician" (I.i.18). Who is this "he," and why does Iago hate him so much? After a lengthy list of complaints, Iago throws us a slight hint: "And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship's ancient" (I.i.32). Iago's sarcasm is distilled into a single epithet, "Moorship." Not only is the man under verbal attack Iago's superior, he is a Moor, an outsider to the world of Venice.
Speaking logically, the other man tells Iago that if he were in Iago's place, he would quit. Defensively, Iago explains that he only serves him to get even eventually. Iago assures his companion, Roderigo, that
… I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.
As with his other plays, Shakespeare puts the whole play before us in a few lines. Iago is not what he is. As we will see, neither is anyone else. The key to this play is the effect of real and/or imagined deception: things are not what they are.
Roderigo, at Iago's urging, yells up to Brabantio's window, rousing the house from their sleep. Iago wastes no time in putting his plot for revenge against this Moor into action. He informs Brabantio:
Zounds, sir, you're robbed; for shame, put on your gown!
Your heart is burst, you have lost your soul,
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe!
Here Iago not only informs Brabantio of a matter that is of obvious importance, but he also reveals a lot about himself and the people with whom he deals.
Iago begins a speech pattern he will continue throughout the play, especially when he is speaking about women. He uses animal imagery to...
(The entire section is 2213 words.)
Act II Commentary
Act II opens with Signior Montano and his friends discussing the weather and its effect on the sea that surrounds Cyprus. The Turks are attempting an invasion, but with most of their fleet wrecked by a storm, their attack is aborted. The storm, however, has not affected the Venetian ship on which Cassio sailed. He arrives safely in Cyprus, and is nervous about Othello's safe arrival. Iago arrives soon after with Desdemona and his wife, Emilia. Othello has yet to land.
While the company waits for the general, Desdemona engages Cassio, Iago and his wife, Emilia, in a word game that reveals Iago's disdain of women so intensely that Desdemona comments, "O heavy ignorance, thou praisest the worst best" (II.i.143-144). Cassio takes Desdemona's hand, and Iago decides that it will be by such simple actions that he will trap Cassio.
Othello's ship pulls in, and Desdemona greets her husband with a kiss, a very private action in a public forum. Othello announces that the Turks are drowned, and that the war is over. When Othello and Desdemona leave, Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, but it takes a while to convince him. Ultimately, Iago brings Roderigo around to believing the lie, and they agree to meet later.
This scene poses several perplexing questions. Othello's commission is to fight the Turks and protect Cyprus, but the war is over when he arrives. So, what is this play about? Iago tells Roderigo a deliberate lie. What is he up to? Why does Roderigo believe him? Why does Roderigo stay in Cyprus? Othello and Desdemona are happy newlyweds. How will Iago get his revenge with their love so obviously, and publicly, strong?
The key to these questions can be found in Iago's soliloquy at the end of the scene. He plans to
put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgement cannot cure.
Iago is a supreme judge of human nature. By seizing on Othello's and Cassio's weaknesses, and by colouring Othello's interpretation of what he sees, Iago will be able to manipulate these people any way he wants.
Othello's Herald reads his proclamation for celebrating the defeat of the Turks and his wedding for six hours from 5-11 PM. This scene provides the transition from Iago's plan to Iago's action.
(The entire section is 883 words.)
Act III Commentary
To relieve some of the tension already established and perhaps to distract us a little, Shakespeare brings in musicians and a clown to begin this scene. The more practical purpose is to get the Clown to relay a message from Cassio to Emilia, Iago's wife. As Cassio waits for Desdemona, Iago himself comes by to check on the humiliated lieutenant. Cassio is touched to the point where he exclaims: "I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest" (III.i.40-41). Emilia comes to tell Cassio that Othello and Desdemona are discussing the situation and that Desdemona is on Cassio's side. Cassio asks Emilia to arrange a private meeting between Cassio and Desdemona. She agrees.
Once again the word "honest" is used to describe Iago, but Cassio does so in the context of identifying Iago as a fellow as good as any Florentine. Italian city-states were fiercely separatist and patriotic. For Cassio, a Florentine, to praise an outsider like Iago as kind and honest' "as a Florentine is a high compliment indeed, and, as such, underlines the dramatic irony of the statement. Iago is obviously far from kind, definitely not honest, nor eager to be classified as a Florentine. Furthermore, Iago draws his innocent wife into his web of intrigue.
This six-line scene between Othello, Iago, and some gentlemen allows us to see Othello dispatching his duties as a general. It is also apparent that Iago has replaced Cassio. In addition, we learn that Othello will be on official public business, which becomes important in the following scenes.
Scene 3: Desdemona assures Cassio that she will do her best to get him reinstated with Othello. Emilia adds that her husband is worried too. Desdemona pledges before Emilia that she will persist in Cassio's cause. Cassio leaves hurriedly when Othello and Iago approach.
Iago comments to Othello that he does not like the young man's leaving at the sight of Othello. Desdemona begins her suit on behalf of Cassio. Having completed some official business and having more to do, Othello tells Desdemona that now is not the time to discuss Cassio. Desdemona, however, continues, unwilling to stop talking even when Othello concedes. Finally Desdemona leaves.
Iago questions Othello about Cassio's role as a go-between between Othello and Desdemona when they were courting. Othello is furious at Iago's insinuation that Cassio courted Desdemona for...
(The entire section is 1600 words.)
Act IV Commentary
This scene illustrates how strong a hold irrational jealousy has on Othello. Iago pushes Othello so far that the general "falls in a trance" (IV.i.43, stage direction) or epileptic fit. Cassio comes in at this point, but Iago sends him away. When Othello recovers, Iago tells him that Cassio came by, and that, while Othello observes, Iago will question the young man.
Iago then engages Cassio in conversation about Bianca, while Othello watches, thinking Desdemona is the topic. When Bianca arrives with the handkerchief, Othello realizes it must be the one he gave Desdemona. Cassio goes after Bianca and Iago goes after Othello. Othello means to kill both Desdemona and Cassio.
Desdemona arrives with Lodovico, who has a letter from Venice. As Desdemona tells Lodovico of the rift between Cassio and Othello, Othello strikes her. Lodovico cannot believe that such behavior has happened publicly right before his eyes. Othello further humiliates Desdemona and leaves in a rage. Left alone with Iago, Lodovico is told that Othello is not in his right mind. Lodovico takes "honest" Iago's word for the truth, commenting, "I am sorry that I am deceived in him" (IV.i.282).
The entire scene clearly illustrates Othello's inexperience with women. He too quickly ascribes the qualities of a loose woman to an innocent woman. Rather than confront Desdemona with Iago's accusations, Othello chooses to believe his "friend." This may seem strange to us, but when we consider that the army has been Othello's life, it becomes easier to understand. On the battlefield, Othello is only as good as the troops under his command. Within a military structure, discipline is handled by a strict, universally observed, code, which may include striking a soldier. Because of the ever-present threat of death, soldiers learn quickly to be co-dependent on each other. Therefore, Othello has no valid reason to doubt a man with whom he would entrust his life, however obvious Iago's lies may seem to us.
Othello opens the scene by questioning Emilia about her observation of Cassio and Desdemona. It may seem a small glimmer of hope, but when Emilia leaves to fetch Desdemona, Othello completely discounts Emilia's story. His mind is made up.
He calls Desdemona "whore," "public commoner," and "impudent strumpet," terms that would never have crossed his mind had they stayed in Venice, and words which were...
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Act V Commentary
The last two scenes of the play bring all the plot elements together in the final spiral of destruction of most of the people we have had under observation for four acts. Iago has convinced a reluctant, and we might think hopeless, Roderigo to kill an unsuspecting Cassio with his help. To Iago, however, Roderigo is the one who must be killed in addition to Cassio, because Iago has robbed Roderigo of a fortune that Iago cannot possibly repay. Furthermore, if Cassio lives, Iago risks being exposed to Othello for the conniving villain he is.
Roderigo attacks Cassio, but misses. Cassio stabs Roderigo, and Iago follows suit, wounding Cassio in the leg. When Othello hears Cassio cry "Murder! Murder!" (V.i.27), he is convinced that Iago has slain Cassio as promised. Othello goes off to kill Desdemona.
Lodovico and another Venetian, hearing the commotion, think it is a trap; however, Iago comes upon the scene like an innocent, concerned bystander. Iago fatally stabs Roderigo, binds up Cassio's leg wound, and pretends to be overly concerned in front of the two Venetians. He then tries to implicate the innocent Bianca in the proceedings.
Iago is now in a most precarious situation unless Cassio also dies. But as a prologue to the final scene, Shakespeare sets up the audience well. According to Lodovico, "it is a heavy night" (V.i.41), meaning that it is foggy and dark, but it is also a heavy night because of the number of deaths and the violence that is yet to come. Throughout the play, Shakespeare has been playing with the motif of light and darkness: Othello is black, Desdemona white; Iago wakes Brabantio at night and furthers his plan by day; Othello will soon debate Desdemona's death in terms of light and dark.
In addition, Iago is acting more impulsively without a thought for the consequences. Although his primary concern was the murder of Cassio, he slays Roderigo and does not have the opportunity to follow through on his pledge to Othello. Weighed one against the other, the murder of Roderigo is of less consequence to Iago than that of Cassio. Iago's schemes are beginning to disintegrate.
As Othello comes in to his and Desdemona's bedroom, he has reverted to "civilized" language, unable to mention Desdemona's supposed sin to the "chaste stars" (V.ii.2). He compares Desdemona's life to the light he carries, and realises that once he snuffs out her...
(The entire section is 773 words.)