Date and text - Othello, The Moor of Venice

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Date and text
Othello, The Moor of Venice


On October 6, 1621, Thomas Walkley entered in the Stationers’ Register, the official record book of the London Company of Stationers (booksellers and printers), “The Tragedie of Othello, the moore of Venice,” and published the play in the following year:

THE Tragoedy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties Servants. Written by VVilliam Shakespeare. LONDON, Printed by N.O. [Nicholas Okes] for Thomas Walkley, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Eagle and Child, in Brittans Bursse. 1622.

This text of this quarto is a good one, based probably on a scribal transcript of Shakespeare’s working manuscript, although it is some one hundred and sixty lines shorter than the Folio text of 1623, mostly in scattered small omissions. The Folio text may have been derived (via an intermediate transcript) from a revision of the original authorial manuscript, in which Shakespeare himself copied over his work and made a large number of synonymous or nearly synonymous changes as he did so. These papers, edited by someone else to remove profanity as required by law and introducing other stylistic changes in the process, seemingly became the basis of the playbook and also of the Folio text. E. A. J. Honigmann (The Texts of “Othello” and Shakespearian Revision, 1996) proposes that Ralph Crane prepared a transcript to serve as copy for the Folio text, though not all scholars have agreed.

The textual situation is thus complex. The Folio text appears to contain a significant number of authorial changes, but it was also worked on by one or more sophisticating scribes and by compositors whose changes are sometimes hard to distinguish from those of Shakespeare. The quarto text was printed by a printing establishment that was not known for careful work but does stand close in some ways to a Shakespearean original. Editorially, then, the Folio is the copy text, and its readings are to be preferred when the quarto is not clearly correct and especially when the Folio gives us genuinely new words, but the quarto’s readings demand careful consideration when the Folio text may be suspected of mechanical error (e.g., the shortening of words in full lines) or compositorial substitution of alternative forms, normalizations, and easy adjustments of meter. There are times when the Folio’s compositor may have been misled by nearby words or letters in his copy. And, because the Folio’s stage directions are probably scribal, attention should be paid to those in the quarto.

According to a Revels account that was suspected of being a forgery soon after its publication in 1842 but is now generally accepted, the earliest mention of the play is on “Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar,” 1604, when “the Kings Maiesties plaiers” performed “A Play in the Banketinge house att Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis.” Possible echoes of Othello in The Honest Whore, Part I, by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton (1604) and in Richard Knolles’s History of the Turks (1603) help fix a forward date of composition. Francis Meres does not list the play in 1598. On stylistic grounds, the play is usually dated in 1603 or 1604, although arguments are sometimes presented for a date as early as 1601 or 1602.