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
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 contrasts starkly to "heart" and "soul" used to describe Brabantio's loss, thus revealing that the woman sleeping with the Moor is very close to Brabantio. The sexual value of this woman is a core issue for the old man.
When Roderigo addresses Brabantio, we learn that Roderigo has been banned from Brabantio's house as an unsuitable marriage candidate. Roderigo, however, tries to calm Brabantio. Iago finally interrupts with the news that "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (I.i.114-116). Once again, Iago is crude and unyielding, incensing Brabantio who begins to search the house for his daughter. Abruptly, Iago tells Roderigo that he must leave since he cannot bring such an open accusation against the Moor.
At first we may find this scene amusing, that Iago, having made the accusation, cannot make the accusation. On consideration, we discover what a great psychologist Iago actually is. He has put forth a truth: the Moor is sleeping with Brabantio's daughter. He has, however, omitted the details and context of the truth, thereby altering its reception and perception. It is not what it is. Iago will do this "truth-bending" throughout the play until we ourselves question what the truth is.
As Iago leaves, an irate Brabantio confronts Roderigo with the fact that his daughter is indeed missing. He wonders if she is married; if so, perhaps she was charmed into it by magic. Brabantio thanks Roderigo and leads his household into Venice's dark streets.
In this scene, we meet the Moor who has apparently kidnapped Brabantio's daughter. His first line is a telling one. When Iago tells Othello that he had wanted to kill a man (possibly Roderigo or Brabantio), Othello responds: "Tis better as it is" (I.ii.6). In 186 lines, Shakespeare has subtly given us the entire play:
I am not what I am.
'Tis better as it is.
We will discover that if Othello had left things as they were, he would not have met tragedy. But for now, Iago informs Othello that he faces an annulment or jail for marrying "the gentle Desdemona" (I.ii.25). Othello responds that he is not afraid of whatever Brabantio may do because of the service he has done for Venice. He tells Iago that his reputation as a general is such that only for his love of Desdemona would he even consider compromising it.
Othello's lieutenant arrives with officers from the Duke of Venice and the Senate. Othello is summoned to the Senate on an urgent matter concerning Cyprus. Othello prepares to leave, and while he does, Iago tells the lieutenant that Othello is married. As the men leave, Brabantio, Roderigo, and others draw their weapons to attack Othello. Brabantio is furious and demands 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"...
(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...
(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.
(The entire section is 1172 words.)
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!"...
(The entire section is 773 words.)