Othello Critical Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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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.

Act I Commentary

Scene 1
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 categorise the hated Moor. He continues its use to describe the sex act as an act of bestiality and to demean the woman involved. Iago also apparently knows Brabantio's weak spot. His abuse of the woman...

(The entire section is 6,909 words.)