Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Othello: Textual Introduction
  • Author: Jessica Slights
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-466-0

    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

    Textual Introduction

    The Date of the Play

    1It will probably always be impossible to determine with certainty a precise date for Othello, but we do know that the play must have been written sometime between 1601 and 1604. Confirmation of the latest possible date comes from records maintained by Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, who notes that "The Moor of Venice [by] Shaxberd" was performed at the court of King James I in 1604. Another early modern publication, this one a translation of a Roman work, marks the play's earliest possible date: Othello draws heavily in places on accounts of the natural world derived from Pliny the Elder, whose encyclopedic History of the World was translated into English by Philemon Holland and published in 1601, two years before the death of Elizabeth I. Attempts at establishing a more specific date for the play by analyzing patterns in its diction and metrics and comparing these to other Shakespeare plays whose dates are sometimes firmer have produced conflicting results. On balance, however, these studies appear to confirm a date near the middle of the possible range. Scholars who favor a Jacobean date for the play note that its Mediterranean setting suggests that Othellomay have been written to catch the imagination of a newly installed James I, who became King of England upon Elizabeth I's death in 1603. James's fascination with the long conflict between Christian Europe and the Ottomans was established in 1591 when he published a long poem detailing the defeat of the Turkish forces at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. While a London reprinting of James's Lepanto soon after his English coronation may have influenced, or even prompted, the creation Othello later that year, such contextual evidence can never be definitive.

    The text

    The first record we have of a printed text of Othello is an entry from 6 October 1621 in the Register of the Company of Stationers, the book in which the guild chartered by the crown with regulating of the nation's burgeoning publishing industry charged publishers a fee to list their right to print and sell plays and other works. Othello was added to the Stationers' Register by London publisher and bookseller Thomas Walkley, who then published the play in quarto format the following year, 1622, eighteen years after Othello's first recorded performance. Othello appeared in print again in 1623, when it was included among the thirty-six plays collected by Shakespeare's theater colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell and published in folio form in a volume called Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, a book now referred to by scholars as the First Folio. Seven years later, in 1630, a second quarto edition of Othello was published.

    The existence of three substantively different early print editions of Othello is good news for scholars since each text contributes valuable information about seventeenth-century literary, theatrical, and publishing practice, and because together these texts offer compelling evidence of the play's popularity in the period. Their existence complicates matters considerably for editors, however. The First Quarto of 1622 (Q1), The First Folio of 1623 (F), and the Second Quarto of 1630 (Q2) all present versions of the same play, but their publication did not begin until almost two decades after it was written, and there are over a thousand variations among the three. While many of these differences are so small that they probably make very little difference to most readers, others are substantive and have the potential to affect our understanding of the play's action and its characters. Where, then, ought a modern editor to start? It might seem desirable to choose as preferred copy text the oldest of the available editions, on the grounds that chronological proximity to Shakespeare must confer on a text some degree of authenticity. Editorial scholarship has taught us, however, that in the matter of texts, older is not necessarily better. We have learned too over the years that the reassuring concept of authorial authenticity is a notion about which we ought to be healthily skeptical. Such general principles are confirmed by the specifics of the Othello situation: Q1 may be the earliest of the texts, but it is also some 160 lines shorter than F, and many of its omissions appear to weaken rather than strengthen the play. Scholars are divided over whether the F1 lines are later additions or whether Q1 is a shortened version of a longer text, but it is worth noting that among the passages that appear only in F1 there are two from Act 4, scene 2 of particular significance to readings of the play's female characters: Desdemona's lovely willow song and Emilia's lucid opposition to the sexual double standard that predominates in her social world. If in the matter of the play's female characters F1 is clearly the fuller text, in others ways it could be considered the lesser since it includes neither the many oaths nor the more detailed stage directions found in Q1. Nor can Q2, the latest of the early texts, be ignored since it appears to be a careful emendation of Q1 based on F1, and provides a useful resource for editors committed to understanding better the relationship of the two earlier texts.

    Since I view the F1-only passages as deliberate additions to an earlier, less complete text from which Q1 was derived, the current edition is based on the text printed in the 1623 First Folio, though on certain occasions it incorporates readings from Q1, and, less often, it draws on emendations suggested by the anonymous editor of Q2, and by later editors as well. In broad terms, the editorial approach I adopt might best be characterized as pragmatic. In order to produce a genuinely readable and theatrically useful edition of the play I have dispensed with impractical notions of the inviolability of the copy text, but favor readings from F1 wherever these are viable, and draw on the Q texts primarily in order either to correct likely errors in F1 or to regularize the meter of verse lines. While noting every minor change is unfeasible, I comment briefly in the collation on issues of scansion, and offer details about corrections in instances when additional information seems likely to be of interest to readers. Where my editorial decisions about variants affect the sense of the text in substantive ways, I discuss them in the commentary that accompanies the online version of this edition available at the website of the Internet Shakespeare Editions ( The only consistent intrusions from Q1 that are not detailed in the notes are the many oaths and asseverations that do not appear in F1 but which seem likely to have enlivened the play early in its theatrical life. I have also silently modernized spelling, punctuation, and formatting throughout.

    5Act, scene, and line numbering follows conventional practice, and the Through Line Numbers (TLNs) used by the Internet Shakespeare Edition have been included at the top of each page in order to facilitate movement between the print and online versions of the text.