In Othello, William Shakespeare creates powerful drama from a marriage between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona that begins with elopement and mutual devotion and ends with jealous rage and death. Shakespeare builds many differences into his hero and heroine, including race, age, and cultural background. Yet most readers and audiences believe the couple’s strong love would overcome these differences were it not for Iago, who sets out to destroy Othello. Iago’s false insinuations about Desdemona’s infidelity draw Othello into his schemes, and Desdemona is subjected to Othello’s horrifying verbal and physical assaults.
The authoritative edition of Othello from The Folger Shakespeare Library, the trusted and widely used Shakespeare series for students and general readers, includes:
—Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play
—Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play
—Scene-by-scene plot summaries
—A key to famous lines and phrases
—An introduction to reading Shakespeare's language
—Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vast holdings of rare books
—An essay by a leading Shakespeare scholar providing a modern perspective on the play
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About the Author
Barbara A. Mowat is Director of Research emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Consulting Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, and author of The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Romances and of essays on Shakespeare’s plays and their editing.
Paul Werstine is Professor of English at the Graduate School and at King’s University College at Western University. He is a general editor of the New Variorum Shakespeare and author of Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare and of many papers and articles on the printing and editing of Shakespeare’s plays.
Date of Death:2018
Place of Birth:Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom
Place of Death:Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom
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Cambridge University Press
0521618762 - Othello - Edited by Jane Coles
List of characters
|OTHELLO||A black army general in the service of the Duke of Venice|
|DESDEMONA||Othello's wife, daughter of Brabantio|
|IAGO||Othello's ensign (standard-bearer)|
|EMILIA||Iago's wife, companion to Desdemona|
|BIANCA||in love with Cassio|
|BRABANTIO||A Venetian senator, father of Desdemona|
|RODERIGO||A Venetian gentleman, in love with Desdemona|
|MONTANO||Governor of Cyprus|
|Senators of Venice|
|Gentlemen of Cyprus|
|CLOWN||Servant to Othello|
|Musicians, soldiers, attendants, servants|
The action of the play takes place in Venice and Cyprus.
Two men are in the middle of an argument. Roderigo accuses Iago of cheating him. Iago is angry about failing to gain the promotion that has gone instead to Michael Cassio.
1 A dramatic opening (in pairs)
In the theatres of Shakespeare's time there was no electric lighting and no stage curtain. The playwright had to signal the start of the play by means of a dramatic opening scene. Here, the noisy audience would be silenced by two men in the middle of a heated argument, with much swearing.
- Read this opening conversation (lines 1-34) aloud. Try reading it in several different ways to find which way sounds best. Discuss which words in the script gave you clues as to how it should be spoken.
- Film and theatre directors have chosen various ways in which to begin the play (see pp. 240-1 for a detailed activity exploring some of these). Think about ways in which you might want to set the scene, how you might have actors enter the stage, and what sound and lighting effects might suggest a street at night.
- The play opens half-way through an argument. Make up what you think Iago and Roderigo have been saying before the play begins. End your dialogue on the first line of the play.
2 Michael Cassio - why does Iago dislike him?
Iago explains why he believes he has not been promoted to the rank of lieutenant (lines 8-27). Look carefully at the way Iago describes Cassio (lines 19-26) and pick out four key phrases which suggest why Iago is jealous of him.
Othello, the Moor of Venice
Act 1 Scene 1
Venice A street at night
| Enter RODERIGO and IAGO. |
RODERIGO Tush, never tell me, I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine shouldst know of this.
IAGO 'Sblood, but you will not hear me.
If ever I did dream of such a matter,
| Abhor me. |
RODERIGO Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
IAGO Despise me if I do not: three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him; and by the faith of man,
| I know my price, I am worth no worse a place. |
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them with a bombast circumstance,
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,
And in conclusion,
| Non-suits my mediators. For 'Certes', says he, |
'I have already chosen my officer.'
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
| A fellow almost damned in a fair wife, |
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the devision of a battle knows
More than a spinster, unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
| As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice |
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election,
Iago continues to complain about 'the Moor' and the system of promotion. He says he pretends to be a faithful officer, but follows Othello only to serve his own purposes.
1 First impressions of Iago (in small groups)
Read the page of script aloud several times, sharing out the lines.
On a large plain piece of paper, write IAGO in the centre (see the diagram below) and collect together any key things Iago seems to say about himself. Include anything that reveals something about his character or motivation. On the outer layer of the diagram explain in your own words what you believe each quotation might indicate about him.
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When you have finished, join together with other groups and compare your sheet with theirs. Explain how and why you chose your particular words/phrases/lines.
Pool your ideas to produce one final diagram for display on your classroom wall.
| And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof |
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be lee'd and calmed
| By debitor and creditor; this counter-caster, |
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship's ancient.
RODERIGO By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.
IAGO Why, there's no remedy. 'Tis the curse of service;
| Preferment goes by letter and affection, |
Not by the old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first. Now sir, be judge yourself
Whether I in any just term am affined
To love the Moor.
RODERIGO I would not follow him then.
|IAGO O sir, content you. |
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
| That doting on his own obsequious bondage, |
Wears out his time much like his master's ass
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
| Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves, |
And throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them; and when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,
And such a one do I profess myself.
| For, sir, |
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago;
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
| But seeming so for my peculiar end. |
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
|For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.|
Iago suggests a way of taking revenge against Othello. They shout in the street outside Brabantio's house, and tell him the news that he has been 'robbed'.
1 'BRABANTIO [appears] above at a window ' (in pairs)
Turn to page 186, where you will find an illustration of an Elizabethan theatre. It has a deep 'thrust' stage, with two exits at the back and a balcony above. Some of the audience stood crammed in 'the pit' (the 'groundlings'), others sat in tiers of seating around the walls, and a few even sat on the stage.
Talk together about how you would stage lines 68-93:
- on the Elizabethan stage
- on a modern acting space.
Think about use of lighting, and any props which seem appropriate.
2 Iago's role (in groups of three)
Take parts and read lines 68-143 (to 'Light, I say, light!'). Notice the differences in the way the three characters speak. Do Iago and Roderigo take an equal share in giving information to Brabantio? Now look more closely at the way Iago speaks:
- Identify each occasion on which Iago uses the imperative form of a verb (lines 68-74).
- Find any times Iago uses animal imagery between lines 68 and 92. What kind of animals are they and what are they doing? (This activity is continued on p. 8.)
- On the previous page Iago has talked a good deal about himself - count how many times he uses the first-person pronoun in approximately ten lines of script (see lines 57-66).
Discuss what Shakespeare's use of language suggests about Iago and his relationship with the other men at this point in the play.
|RODERIGO What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe, |
If he can carry it thus!
IAGO Call up her father:
Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the street, incense her kinsmen,
| And though he in a fertile climate dwell, |
Plague him with flies: though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such chances of vexation on't
As it may lose some colour.
RODERIGO Here is her father's house; I'll call aloud.
|IAGO Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell, |
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.
RODERIGO What ho, Brabantio! Signior Brabantio, ho!
IAGO Awake! What ho, Brabantio! Thieves, thieves!
| Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags! |
BRABANTIO [appears] above at a window.
BRABANTIO What is the reason of this terrible summons?
What is the matter there?
RODERIGO Signior, is all your family within?
|IAGO Are your doors locked? |
BRABANTIO Why, wherefore ask you this?
IAGO Zounds, sir, you're robbed; for shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst; you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
| Awake the snorting citizens with the bell, |
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!
Brabantio suspects the two men are drunk. He learns Roderigo's name, but not Iago's. Iago obscenely tells him that Desdemona and Othello are having sexual intercourse and that his descendants will be mere animals.
Read through the script on pages 7 and 9. Identify any references to animals or insects in the dialogue. It may help you to know that a 'Barbary horse' is a North African breed, 'coursers' are racehorses, and 'jennets' are a breed of small Spanish horse.
Write down which characters make the comments, and what significance the choice of each animal image carries for you. Discuss what effect this choice of language might be intended to have. You will find further examples of this type of imagery on page 229.
2 Verse and prose
Brabantio and Roderigo speak in verse. When Iago interjects (at line 109), the script switches to prose. Read 'Verse and prose' on page 228, then suggest why Shakespeare gives Iago prose here.
3 A different perspective (in pairs)
Imagine you are two servants in Brabantio's house, intrigued by the commotion outside. What can you make of the rag-bag of information shouted by the two men in the street? Improvise a 'below-stairs' scene between the two servants.
|BRABANTIO What, have you lost your wits? |
RODERIGO Most reverend signior, do you know my voice?
BRABANTIO Not I; what are you?
|RODERIGO My name is Roderigo. |
BRABANTIO The worser welcome;
I have charged thee not to haunt about my doors;
In honest plainness thou hast heard me say
My daughter is not for thee. And now in madness,
Being full of supper and distempering draughts,
| Upon malicious bravery dost thou come |
To start my quiet.
RODERIGO Sir, sir, sir -
BRABANTIO But thou must needs be sure
My spirit and my place have in them power
To make this bitter to thee.
RODERIGO Patience, good sir.
|BRABANTIO What tell'st thou me of robbing? This is Venice; |
My house is not a grange.
RODERIGO Most grave Brabantio,
In simple and pure soul I come to you.
IAGO Zounds, sir; you are one of those that will not serve God if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.
|BRABANTIO What profane wretch art thou? |
IAGO I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
|BRABANTIO Thou art a villain. |
IAGO You are a senator.
Roderigo tells Brabantio that Desdemona has run away to live with Othello. Brabantio leaves to check if the story is true, saying he has already dreamt of such a happening.
1 Desdemona's flight (in groups of three)
Read Roderigo's report of Desdemona's secret departure from home (lines 119-36).
Mime her flight, using captions taken from Roderigo's story. Share your version with the rest of the class.
2 '. . . a gross revolt' (in small groups)
Desdemona has run away from home to marry a man of whom her father disapproves. There are several of Shakespeare's plays in which young people rebel against their parents' wishes (most famously Romeo and Juliet). Generally speaking, in Shakespeare's comedies the young people are eventually forgiven; in tragedies the situation ends with disaster for them.
Talk together about other stories you have read or films you have seen which include a similar plot element. How is the family split resolved in those stories?
3 Word association (in pairs)
In lines 119-39 Roderigo refers to Desdemona in positive terms (e.g. 'fair'), whereas he uses derogatory language to refer to Othello (e.g. 'gross clasps'). Identify all words/phrases he uses to talk about Othello and Desdemona. Discuss with your partner why you think he makes this distinction.
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