Date of Writing
There has been a considerable difference of opinion about the date of the writing of Othello. An egret view was that the play was written in 1611 but an entry, in the. “Revels Accounts” later came to light, which showed that the pray was acted in 1604. Although at one time a question was raised about the genuineness of this entry, it is now taken to be genuine enough. Tests like those of versification would also make 1604 far more probable than 1611. The Revels entry referred to above speaks of a play called “The More of Venice” performed, in the Banqueting House at White Hall by Shakespeare’s company, which bore the name ‘the King’s Majesty’s Players’, on
November, 1, 1604.
It is not certain that this was the first Performance of Othello, because several early plays of Shakespeare were also staged there during the same period. Critics have also found echoes in Othello of some books published in 1601 and known to have been read by Shakespeare. Thus, although the autumn of 1604 is the outside limit, it is quite likely that the play was actually written’ in 1603 or even 1602.
The source of the plot is the seventh novel, of the third decade of stories in Cinthio’s Hecatommithi. Most probably Shakespeare read the story in the original Italian. The play has come down to us in three texts, the First Quarto printed in 1622, the First Folio, printed in 1623, and the Second Quarto, printed in 1630, which seems to have had the benefit of consulting both the earlier editions. Chambers has the following comment to make on the tests of the play
Q. [First Quarto] and F. [Folio] are both good, and fairly well-printed texts ; and they clearly rest substantially upon the same original ... The purely verbal variants are very numerous. Sometimes the divergence is greater than mere misreading will explain. There are some traces of sophistication by the F. editor. But I think there must be perversion in Q There are a good many passages in which more than one word is varied, and here Q. often seems to have attempted an emendation of language or metre, or of a phrase found Unintelligible, or to have started with a misreading and altered the context to suit it. These features suggest a transcriber rather than printer, and the relation becomes intelligible if we regard F. as printed from the original and Q. from a not very faithful transcript, without a few passages cut in representation.
Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian senator, Brabantio, has secretly married the Moor. Othello, a gallant general in the service of the Venetian state. Called before the Duke, Othello is accused by Brabantio of carrying; off his daughter. Simultaneously comes news of an impending attack on
by the Turks, against whom Othello is needed : to lead the Venetian forces. Desdemona sides with Othello and Brabantio reluctantly hands, his daughter over to the Moor, who at once sets out for Cyprus with Desdemona to follow him. Othello had lately, promoted to the lieutenancy Cassio, a young Florentine whom be trusted. By this promotion he bad deeply offended Iago, an older soldier who thought he had a better claim, and who now plots his revenge, By a trick he first discredits Cassio, who is deprived of his lieutenancy. He instigates the latter to ask Desdemona to plead in his favour with Othello, which Desdemona warmly does. At the same time he craftily instils in Othello’s mind suspicion of his wife’s fidelity, and jealousy of Cassio. Finally by another trick he arranges that a handkerchief given by Othello to Desdemona shall be found on Cassio. He stirs Othello to such jealousy that the Moor smothers Desdemona in her bed. Shortly afterwards Cassio, whom Iago had set Roderigo, one of his associates and dupes, to assassinate, is brought in Wounded. Roderigo has failed in his purpose, and has been killed by Iago to prevent discovery of the plot. On him have been found letters revealing the guilt of Iago and the innocence of Cassio. Othello, thunderstruck by the discovery that he has murdered Desdemona without cause, kills himself from remorse. Cyprus
‘Othello’ and Other Shakespearean Tragedies
Othello is in several ways, inferior to other great tragedies of Shakespeare, though it is perhaps dramatically the greatest of them. It does not have the variety or the depth of Hamlet, none of the overwhelming power of King Lear, none of that ‘atmosphere’ which in Macbeth keeps us awfully hovering on the confines of a world outside that of our normal experience, none of the sweep and exultant power of Antony and Cleopatra; nor has it that range in time which marks all the other four. But its grip upon the emotions of the audience is more relentless and sustained than that of the others. The plot is completely simple, with no rub-plot and no distractions ; the number of characters presented is small ; above all, from the moment of the lauding n Cyprus the action moves fast, and he, tension steadily mounts, with hardly an instant’s relaxation, till the moment at which Othello kills himself. This is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays which resembles domestic tragedy.
Distinctive Features : The Plot
The plot of Othello is simpler than that of any other Shakespearean tragedy. We may say that, the core of it is that an ensign, expecting promotion to a vacant lieutenancy, is exasperated when his general appoints another man over his head. He determines to revenge himself on the general and secure the dismissal of his rival. By a series of adroit moves he convinces the general of the adultery of the general’s wife with the lieutenant. As a result the general kills first his wife and then himself, but the: ensign fails in the second part of his design, since the plot it disclosed, the lieutenant receives yet further promotion, and he himself faces trial and torture. Nothing could be simpler, and when a story is that of a ‘plot’ in the sense of a scheme, proceeding by a series of linked moves towards a designed end, it provides ready-made a ‘plot’ is the dramatic sense. And when the scheme is largely, concerned with one of the strongest and most distressing of human emotions, the plot is likely to be a powerful one. 1n none of the other tragedies of Shakespeare do we have ‘implication’ followed by ‘explication’ which Aristotle thought one of the features of great tragedy, and of which, incidentally. Shakespeare was himself a master in another kind of play. The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure have all theatrically effective plots. But Shakespeare used this form only once in high tragedy, and this is where Othello differ in structure and in effect from the others. This is not to say that Othello is either ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others ; but it belongs to a different order of play, that order of which, ever since it war written, Oedipus Tyrannus has been justly held to be the greatest example.
Swiftness of Pace
The action of Othello has a rapidity which, in the theatre, tides most of its improbabilities. We may, look upon Act I, as being in the nature of a Prologue, and the remaining acts have a remarkable unity of time and place. The action in
occupies something a little lea than thirty-six hours, and sins some eight of these hours are compressed into one scene, the audience’s impression is of even shorter time. There is also the unity of action in the classical sense, for the presence of the clown is brief and easily dispensable, and therefore there is almost no ‘comic relief’ in this play. All this makes Othello extremely effective on the stage. Cyprus
In keeping with its tight scheme of action, Othello, also has a smaller number of characters than other tragedies of Shakespeare. A large number of characters who play a significant part in the play would have tended to distract attention and impair the intensity of the play. Taking into consideration such characters only, Othello has only 7 (in all 13), whereas Hamlet has 25 characters in all, of whom at least 12 are significant characters.
There are no kings, queens and princes among the principal characters of this play, the most eminent of them bearing ft. title of general but being, in effect, no more than a very competent mercenary employed by the Venetian state. The ‘Duke’ of the f play is no more than a figurehead and, in any came, he is not one o the important characters. This makes an important difference in impression. It is no doubt true, as Johnson said, that Shakespeare, though he deals with kings and queens, thinks only on men ; but, none the less, very high rank does, if only subconsciously, diminish our feeling of intimacy, lessen our feeling of identification, and thereby make the impact not less great but less immediate. Further, in the other tragedies we are made aware that the fates of the characters, though they affect us by sympathy for theme as individual men and women, affect also the destinies of kingdoms and peoples. It is noteworthy that all these other tragedies end with the reestablishment of ordered government. This is not true of Othello. It is no doubt an inconvenience for the Venetian. state to be deprived of the services of its greatest general, but there is no more to it than that, and so we are left free to follow simply the disastrous fortunes of people like ourselves, and one of them caught in the cruel grip, of an emotion to which we are all liable.
The opening of Othello is different from that of all other tragedies of Shakespeare. His aim here seems to be that of creating suspense right at the start. In the other four tragedies, we are introduced to the main figure quite early, either by name and comment or by his own entrance, and, further, what comment is made creates expectations which are in accord with the impression produced by the character himself. The opening of Othello shows two men on the stags, who are discussing something which is vaguely alluded to as “this” and “such a matter” and is never further defined. They pass to the discussion of an equally indeterminate person alluded to as “he” and “him”. We can infer from “make me his lieutenant”) that “he” is an officer of high rank, and we are told later that’ be is a “Moor”. The soldier, who by now has a name, draws a singularly unflattering picture of him. The Moor is said to love his own pride and purpose, he uses ‘bombast circumstance’, he stuffs his speech with epithets of war, he makes a thoroughly bad appointment out of favouritism, he is an old black ram and a Barbary horse, he is lascivious, and an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere (these last two items come from Roderigo). All we have to set against this is an inference of our own that “he” is a man who knows his own mind, and an admission by Iago that the state cannot with safety cast him, since they have no one else of “his fathom”. It is true that Iago is clearly suffering from a rankling sense of injury, which is not calculated to make him fair, but the picture which we get, is surely that of an efficient, perhaps even great, but blustering and erratic, soldier of fortune, of no morals and of unsound judgement.
After 184 lines of these preliminaries, Othello at last enters ; and the whole picture at once falls to pieces. The only bits of it that remain are his pride, though even that is of a different kind from that suggested by Iago, and his importance to the state. Otherwise he is quiet, courteous, and controlled Now Shakespeare, being so assured and so skilful a craftsman, did not introduce his hero in this unusual way by accident ; he was aiming at something, and it is our business to find out, if we can, what this something was. He makes us distrust Iago even more than we should do in any case from his account of himself. We are forced, when “be” does enter, to make our own picture of “him” for ourselves by the mere fact that the picture which we may have been inclined to accept is so manifestly a caricature,
An interesting innovation in Othello is the use of ‘double time’. It is as though Shakespeare had two clocks working according to different criteria of time, before him when he wrote this play. However, the double time in the play works imperceptibly and with a wonderful effectiveness. The main action moves fast, with the exception of one interval which is irrelevant to its movement. The first act represents a period of time very little longer than that occupied on the stage. Between Acts I and II there is an interval of any length we choose ; all we know about it from the text is that it some says, longer than “sennight” though we can, if we care to, work out from a map how long it would take a sailship to complete a tempestuous voyage from
to Venice . But the supposed duration is quite unimportant because of the distribution of the main characters during the voyage, and as Shakespeare is at pains to stress this distribution we may reasonably assume that he made it deliberately. Othello sails in one ship, Cassio in a second, Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia in a third. They meet again for the first time, and within half an hour of one another, in Cyprus . The represented time from tin to, the end of the play, is some thirty-three hours. Between Acts III ant IV is the only one place, where an interval can be credibly inserted. When once Iago has Othello on the rack it would be undramatic to alto a respite. From the beginning of Act IV there is no possibility of an interval. The messengers from Cyprus arrive and are invited to supper “tonight”. This supper ends at the beginning of IV. iii. Later in the evening Cassio is attacked and Roderigo killed, and very soon after this Othello kills Desdemona. Venice
This rapid continuity of movement is not only, from the point of view of dramatic tension, desirable, but also, from the point of view of credibility, imperative. If Iago’s plot does not work fast it will not work at all. If Othello meets Cassio and asks him the question which be asks too late, in the last scene, the plot will be blown sky high. And Iago is acutely aware of this–– “the Moor may unfold me to him ; there stand I in peril.” But this rapidity of movement, from one point of view inevitable, from another point of view makes nonsense of the whole business. After the arrival in
there is no point of time at which the supposed adultery could have occurred ; and even Othello’s credulity cannot be supposed to accept blank impossibilities. Nor has there been any opportunity before the arrival, since Othello sails on the day after his marriage, and Shakespeare has been at pains to preclude the possibility of its occurrence during the voyage. Something therefore had to be done, to make the whole progress of the plot credible_ And Shakespeare does it by a number of indications of so-called ‘long time’. Cyprus
Use of ‘Long Time’
Shakespeare used ‘long time’ to persuade the audience that the .adultery, which was rendered impossible by his cutting out the period of married life in Cinthio’s tale, had nevertheless taken place. ‘Long time’, therefore, consists in effect of a series of references to the duration of time, d which the married life could have occurred, and, we are led to suppose, actually did occur. Where it had been spent Shakespeare is careful not to say : sometimes he seems to sanest that Desdemona might have begun her intrigue with Cassio in
, at others w e are given the impression that weeks or more may have elapsed since the arrival in Venice . He is of course careful too that the hints of long time should never dash in any obvious way with those of short time. Cyprus
Brilliance of Effect
Shakespeare achieves an impressive brilliance of effect by the employment of ‘double time’. When we feel like blaming Othello for crediting Iago’s preposterous story, there is ‘long time’ to tell us that in the theatre, it would not sound so preposterous. On the other hand, when we hear Desdemona’s protestations of absolute innocence, we believe her, because ‘actual time’ is entirely in her favour.