Internet Shakespeare Editions

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  • Title: Additional Notes on Othello
  • Author: Jessica Slights
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    Copyright Jessica Slights. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Jessica Slights
    Peer Reviewed

    Additional Notes on Othello

    53TLN 53: Whip me such honest knaves!

    With this abrupt exclamation, Iago contemptuously dismisses a traditional model of service which, to his mind, relies on the compliance of menials in their own exploitation. On his account, those foolish enough to bow and scrape in service deserve to be whipped, a punishment usually reserved for those convicted of dishonest behavior. This elision of obedient service with criminality is particularly significant since it is expressed in punning language that is closely associated throughout the play with Iago's own role as untrustworthy servant to Othello. The phrase honest knaves sounds complimentary at first since honest = of good moral character and knave = male servant; however, honest was often reserved in the period as a vague and patronizing term of praise for a social inferior, while knave could refer to "an unprincipled man, given to dishonourable and deceitful practices" (OED Honest adj.3a, 1c; Knave n.2a. 3a). Echoes of this scornful attack on conventional ideals of service echo throughout the play as Iago himself is designated repeatedly and ironically by the epithet honest. See TLN 647, 1296, 1458, 3329, and 3430.

    70TLN 70: wear my heart upon my sleeve

    OED cites this as the first occurrence of the now proverbial expression "to wear one's heart upon one's sleeve" (Heart n. 54f). Honigmann notes that servants wore badges on their sleeves identifying the households to which they were attached. Sleeves, which were often separate articles of clothing, were also traditionally presented as love tokens to knights about to engage in combat. Iago mingles these conventional associations of sleeves with loyal hearts and, in keeping with his attack on feudal hierarchy and service, turns what ought to be a symbolic expression of fealty into an assertion of autonomous agency. For more on the cultural functions of the heart in the Renaissance, see W.W.E. Slights The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare.

    233TLN 233: Enter Cassio

    The early printed texts disagree on the precise timing of Cassio's entrance, though all three allow enough time for Othello and Iago to discuss the arrival before the newcomers are within earshot. This edition follows F1's positioning of the stage direction, which calls for Othello to spot the light from the torches carried by Cassio's group before the men walk on stage. Both Q texts place the entrance a line earlier, after worth. The implications of this change are not momentous, but it is worth noting that on the Q reading it would be possible for the audience to become aware of the new arrivals before Othello notices them. On the other hand, delaying the entrance until after Iago's I think no, as in the Ridley and Mowat-Werstine editions, denies the audience an opportunity to identify the group before their identities have been confirmed by Iago.

    364TLN 364: Ottomites,

    The Ottoman empire was established by Osman I (1258-1324) in northern Anatolia at the end of the thirteenth century, and was later expanded by his successors to include all of Asia Minor and much of Southeastern Europe. The empire's expansion was halted for several decades after the invasion of Mongol ruler Tamerlane in 1402, events explored in Christopher Marlowe's play Tamburlaine the Great (c. 1587). The expansion later picked up again, culminating in the capture of Constantinople in 1453. The power and influence of the Ottoman empire peaked in the mid-sixteenth century under the leadership of Suleiman I (1494-1566).

    528TLN 528: divided duty.

    Desdemona's notion of divided duty recognizes that as she is a recently married woman her social obligation is shifting from the requirement that she obey her father to the expectation that she obey her husband and thus connects the experiences of Shakespeare's fictional Venetian noblewoman to those of the real women among the play's first audiences. Like Desdemona, English women at the turn of the seventeenth century lived in a patriarchal society dominated by the institution of the family. Power resided primarily in male heads of households, who were expected to govern members of their family at home, and to represent them in the outside world. Wives were understood to share in the responsibility for managing the household, but to be subordinate to their husbands. Children were expected to obey their parents, and, when they were grown, to make decisions about marriage in conjunction with them. The Book of Common Prayer rite that bound couples together in marriage required that women vow obedience and service to their new husbands, and marriage made women the legal property of their husbands. While Desdemona and Othello's elopement could be seen as a challenge to this patriarchal system, it is worth noting that neither character seems committed to an agenda of socio-political change. Brabantio argues that his daughter's affection for Othello runs suspiciously strong and against the fashion, but Desdemona's only other minor rebellion—her refusal to agree to return to her father's house while Othello is on duty in Cyprus—appears motivated by love and duty, twin obligations of every new wife confirmed in the language of the marriage ceremony. Othello too demonstrates a notable commitment to social obligation as he seeks to address a divided duty of his own by preparing simultaneously to do his political duty to the Venetian state, to assume a new military command, and to meet his marital obligation to provide comfort for his wife.

    599TLN 599: storm

    Q1 has scorn here. A misreading seems likely given the ease with which both "t"/"c" and "m"/"n" might be mistaken for each other, but this does little to resolve the issue of which word to prefer here since, as Honigmann notes, "both scorn and storm of fortune were commonplaces." Neill argues for scorn on the grounds that Desdemona has yet to experience fortune's storms. This edition prefers F1's storm both for the rhetorical force offered by its pairing with violence, and in recognition that Desdemona might well understand being dragged out of bed in the middle night, brought before the Senate, publically disowned by her father, and learning that her new husband is to be deployed to a combat zone as tempestuous consequences of her marriage.

    602TLN 602: I saw Othello's visage in his mind,

    This line has occasioned extensive commentary but not a lot of agreement among scholars. Cavell suggests that "it is commonly felt that she means she overlooked his blackness in favor of his inner brilliance," and argues instead that "what the line more naturally says is that she saw his visage as he sees it, that she understands his blackness as he understands it, as the expression . . . of his mind" (129). Honigmann suggests that the line means "'I saw (the color of) Othello's face in (the quality of his mind)', i.e. his face was transformed, in her eyes, by his mind." Bristol claims the line as proof that Desdemona's "initial attraction to [Othello] was not provoked by his physical appearance" (11). Bullough notes a connection to the play's Italian source, Giraldi's Gli Hecatommithi: "he who wishes to form a true judgment of beauty must admire not only the body, but rather the minds and habits of those who present themselves to his view" (7.240).

    865TLN 865: [He kisses Emilia.]

    The early printed texts include no stage direction here, but both Cassio's reference to his bold show of courtesy (TLN 868) and Iago's response about his wife's lips and tongue (TLN 869-70) require that the lieutenant welcome Emilia with a kiss. The historical record suggests that this form of greeting would have seemed natural to early modern English audiences. One Greek traveler who visited in 1547 noted such "absence of jealousy" in the treatment of English women that "not only do those who are of the same family and household kiss them on the mouth with salutations and embraces, but even those too who have never seen them" (Nucius 10). For more on the cultural history of kissing in the period, see Turner "Adulterous Kisses."

    1054TLN 1054: choler,

    According to humoralism, a theory of human psychophysiology developed by classical physicians that dominated until the advent of modern medicine, a person's health and disposition is determined by a balance of four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Diseases and disabilities were held to result from an excess or a deficit of one or more of these four humors, each of which was identified with a particular temperament. Choler, a distemper resulting from an excess of yellow bile, was said to produce irascibility. Learn more about choler.

    1201TLN 1201-1208: King Stephen . . . thee.

    From an early ballad called "Take Your Old Cloak About You" or "Bell My Wife" that tells the story of a farmer who is eager to trade in his old clothes for the expensive attire of a courtier but finally convinced by his wife to swallow his pride and be satisfied with his lot in life. In The Tempest the jester Trinculo alludes to the same song when he punningly likens his companion, the drunken butler Stephano, to the yeoman who dreams of replacing his old cloak with courtly finery as the two men conspire with Caliban to usurp Prospero, magician-ruler of the island on which they are shipwrecked: "O King Stephano! O peer! O worthy Stephano! Look what a wardrobe here is for thee!" (Tmp 4.1.222-3).

    1834TLN 1834: I am bound to thee forever.

    This bold statement is primarily an acknowledgement of the debt Othello believes he owes Iago for his ostensible loyalty and honesty, and as such it represents an inversion of the traditional bond of obligation between commander and subordinate, or feudal master and servant, the model against which Iago consistently measures relations of service throughout the play. The phrase's hyperbolic dimensions also imply, as Neill notes, the existence of a stronger and more nefarious bond akin to the demonic pact dramatized in versions of the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. See, for instance, Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. The phrase's formulaic formality also evokes the exchange of vows at the heart of the marriage ceremony. See also Iago's vow at the end of 3.3.: "I am your own forever" (TLN 2135).

    1903TLN 1903: keep a corner . . . uses.

    That Othello's image is of adultery is clear, but its specifics are strange and disturbing. His language not only dehumanizes Desdemona by leaving her unnamed and then figuring her as a thing, a mere possession of her husband (a role to which early modern law reduced all women), but it also reifies her imagined role as adulteress by transforming her into a room or a building (perhaps some version of the dungeon of the previous line) whose dark corners might house illicit behavior inadvertently kept (= maintained; guarded) by Othello. Othello's language is also riddled with sexual slang: corner = vagina; thing = whore; use = sexual employment (Williams, Glossary 82; 307; 321).

    1954TLN 1954: [Iago snatches the handkerchief.]

    Since the early printed texts include no stage directions governing the exchange of the handkerchief between Iago and Emilia, all that can be said for certain is that it is in Emilia's hands when Iago orders her to give it to him, and that it is in Iago's hands by TLN 1957 when Emilia requests its return. This edition follows Rowe in including a direction for Iago to take the handkerchief from his wife when, instead of following his command, she demands to know why he wants it. This reading emphasizes not only Iago's impatience, but also Emilia's independent-mindedness, a trait even more fully in evidence during her analysis of sexual double standards in 4.3. Alternatively, the scene could be staged with Emilia obediently handing over the handkerchief at Iago's command, and asking only thereafter about the use to which it will be put, though such an approach demands a meeker Emilia than the tone of her retorts easily supports. The nature of the transfer of the handkerchief is, in any event, important for how it inflects the characters of both Emilia and Iago, and for what it suggests to audiences about the relationship between them.

    2032TLN 2032: Her name,

    The early texts each record this line differently: Q1 omits it altogether, while F1 reads my name and Q2 offers her name. Most editors adopt Q2's her, though, as Malone's gloss notes, my produces a plausible reading of the passage. Since either of the early readings is grammatically viable, this famous crux turns on matters of style and imagery, and it is Q2's her that best matches to the pattern of ethical opposition established in the passage's opening lines (honest/not honest; just/not just) a set of cultural oppositions (white/black; clean/dirty; woman/man) embodied in the differences between Desdemona and Othello. The allusion in the following line to Diana, goddess of women, chastity, and childbirth, also suggests that it is likely a transformation in Desdemona's reputation that Othello describes here.

    2042TLN 2042: supervisor,

    Q1's supervisor is preferable here since F1 and Q2's supervision implies an additional layer of watching that makes nonsense of Iago's reply. Iago's strategic response to Othello's call for ocular proof (TLN 2003) is surely to emphasize the voyeuristic potential of the general's demand that he see (be supervisor of) his wife's ostensible infidelity. Supervision would have to be understood as the object of gape on, a grammatical pairing that shifts the focus of Othello's jealous gaze from Desdemona's supposed adultery itself to some unspecified watcher.

    2169TLN 2169-2170: the sun where he was born . . . him.

    Early modern physicians held that the four humors believed to govern emotional and physical health were each associated with particular human qualities and characteristics. Some theorized, as Desdemona apparently does, that a hot climate extracts heat and moisture from the body, leaving southerners less likely to experience volatile emotions such as anger and jealousy. Others argued that southerners' passions were slower to stir, but more excessive once roused than those of people in cooler climates. See also TLN 1054 and note. Read more about the humors.

    2223TLN 2223: mummy,

    The handkerchief has traditionally been assumed to be white silk dotted with embroidered red strawberries, and scholars have explored at length the ocular impacts and symbolic dimensions of this crucial prop. The most influential of these readings has been Lynda Boose's association of the handkerchief's red-spotted whiteness with blood-stained bridal sheets ("Othello's Handkerchief"). However, Ian Smith's recent observation that cloth dyed in a bituminous liquid would likely darken has raised the possibility of a brownish or black handkerchief and thus unsettled what have become critical commonplaces about the play's symbolic shades and colors ("Othello's Black Handkerchief").

    2622TLN 2622: Fire and brimstone!

    Proverbial (Dent BB17). OED records the phrase's first use as a "strong ejaculation" in Twelfth Night (2.5.48). The biblical allusions are especially strong here given the play's fascination with adultery, its anatomizing of fear, doubt, murder, and deceit, and its references to sorcery and non-Christian beliefs: "The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone, and fire from the Lord out of heaven" (Genesis 19:24); "The fearful and unbelieving, and the abominable and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8). See also TLN 3579-80 and note.

    2790TLN 2790: Enter Emilia.

    There is disagreement among the early printed texts about the placement of Emilia's re-entry in this scene. Q1 calls for her to enter after saved at TLN 2784, though there is nothing specific in the dialogue to prompt her return at this moment. F1 places her entry much later, after mistress at TLN 2789, while Q2 marks her entrance after Venice at TLN 2788. Neill argues convincingly that Emilia must return in time to overhear Othello call his wife a whore at TLN 2788 since she recalls this later in the scene in conversation with Iago (see TLN 2821, 2827), and she must certainly be within hearing when Othello calls out to her at TLN 2789 and within reach when he hands her payments at TLN 2793.

    2990TLN 2990: unpin

    Social historians and editors now generally agree that Emilia is called upon to help Desdemona get undressed, though for much of the nineteenth century and in some twentieth-century productions, unpin is played as a reference to the letting down of Desdemona's upswept hair. Hankey notes that Ellen Terry, the famous nineteenth-century Desdemona, wrote "hair" in the margin of her copy at unpin me here (TLN 3005). Carol Chillington Rutter argues that the unpinning of Desdemona is "nothing less than sensational," marking the "dismantling [of] the Senator’s daughter, the general’s wife, the maid who 'paragons description and wild fame'" ("Unpinning Desdemona (Again)" 115). To view Rutter's fascinating analysis of attempts to recover the force the scene may have had in its earliest performances, see "Unpinning Desdemona - the Movie" [[ Invalid component ]].

    3465TLN 3465: charm your tongue.

    There is perhaps an echo here of the play's earlier associations among magic, talking, and women's behavior. In Act 1, when he imagines that Desdemona has been charmed into marriage by Othello, Brabantio introduces a masculinist fantasy in which women's actions are controlled not by their own desires but rather by magical forces under the control of men (see TLN 188-90, 291-3). In 3.4, the gendering of magical control is reversed as the "herstory" of the handkerchief is relayed and the figures of the Egyptian charmer and the Sybil are introduced (see TLN 2203-26). By this key moment in the play's fifth act, Iago's ability to charm his wife has clearly failed, and he resorts to commanding her to charm herself into silence, an order she feels bound not to follow, but to resist.

    3658TLN 3658: Indian,

    Q1 and Q2 read Indian, while F1 offers Iudean. One reading or the other is almost certainly an error given that the spelling of the two words is virtually identical, but this notorious crux is unlikely ever to be resolved definitively since the arguments for each are plausible and thus final decisions inevitably turn on more subjective interpretive matters. The textual evidence is fairly straightforward, if ultimately inconclusive: 1) the letter i was often substituted for the letter j in this period before spelling became regularized, thus either word might have started with an uppercase I; 2) similarly, the letters i and e were often used interchangeably in the period, thus either word may have ended -ian or -ean ; 3) also, the letters n and u are often impossible to distinguish in the handwriting of the period, thus the second letters of the words offer no guidance; 4) and finally, even if a compositor may have recognized in the manuscript from which he was working a clear n or u as the second letter, either letter could have been accidentally turned during the typesetting process, resulting in an inadvertent transformation of the word. While both Indian = native of India; aboriginal from the Americas, and Judean = inhabitant of Judaea were in use at the time, the former appears in print more often, and OED does not record the first appearance of the latter until 1652. For a detailed discussion of thus crux, see Richard Levin, "The Indian/Iudean Crux in Othello."