Othello - An Interpretation Critical Essays 39

To see the world in a grain of sand is, in editing Shakespeare, to inspect the implications of different pronouns at III, iii, 96-7 (TLN 1696-7), in the two earliest texts of Othello: “Did Michael Cassio / When [someone] woo’d my Lady, know of your love?”[1] The 1622 quarto reads “you”; the 1623 folio reads “he.”[2]  What is unusual about this difference is its treatment by recent editors of the play.[3]  All select F as their copy text, all emend F to Q, but none explains this emendation.

So this emendation is both strange and revealing—strange because unanimous, and revealing because silent.  By contrast, recent editors consider or contest other pairs of substantive differences between F and Q.  In some notable cases, decisions to emend F to Q involve aesthetic or ethical considerations, but the emendations, although they affect meaning, have limited effects on an interpretation of the play as a whole.  Until about 1985, editors unanimously abandoned F’s “kisses” (I, iii, 158; TLN 504) and adopted Q’s “sighes”; since then, they have divided on retaining or replacing F.  The few who explain their choice make clear that it has little to do with the texts, much to do with an estimate of Desdemona’s character.  Between 1970 and 2000, editors preferred unanimously Q’s “Indian” to F’s “Iudean” (V, ii, 356; TLN 3658).  These small differences—”n” or “u” and “i” or “e”—underlie explanations based on various textual and literary grounds, make all the difference in meaning, but make only a small difference to the meaning of the play.

Stranger and more striking is the willingness of editors to make the F: he-to-Q: you emendation without asking why other editors have made it or what it implies for the meaning of the text.  For the emendation is different from the sighes-kisses or Indian-Judean cruxes in suggesting different relationships among the characters.  Thus, it is far more substantive and far more significant than either of these more famous cruxes.  My purpose is to address this crux, to argue for retaining F: he if F is the copy text, and to show that and how F: he provides a clear clue to resolving the critical conundrum about Othello’s jealousy.[4]

The unanimous, silent decision of recent editors to emend F to Q begs an explanation.  I am not sure that I have one, but I sketch two provisional answers now and elaborate them later.  Less likely is an unspoken fear that F permits unsavory or bizarre interpretations.  If so, the collective silence reflects a for-the-good-of-all conspiracy to preclude them.  More likely is ignorance of important cultural knowledge assumed by F and relevant to Othello’s jealousy.  If so, the emendation obscures information which made his jealousy plausible to contemporaries.  These suggestions, to which I return later, are, I think, better than the stillness which attends this universal emendation.

But the more important challenge is how to relate this unanimous, silent emendation of Q to F, to editorial theory and practice.  At the least, I expect editors to explain major differences between texts and to identify and justify emendations which affect meaning, for my primary interest is the interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays.  For just this reason, because I understand—we all believe—that textual and literary issues often overlap, I take textual matters seriously.  I make a point of consulting different editions of the plays and of reading the more or less detailed accounts of the transmission of their texts.  I consult footnotes, appendices, and, in specific instances, the textual notes.  I occasionally dip into major works by earlier and later Elizabethan and Shakespearean bibliographers and know that they have done much work on Shakespeare’s text.  Still, as a consumer rather than a producer of edited texts, I am not sure how much of their work is relevant to my interests or even reliable for my work.  My discovery of this importantly signifying crux has done nothing to reassure me that editorial theory and practice actually do all which they should do to assist literary criticism after all.  Thus, to frame my discussion of this emendation, I start with one end-user’s dyspeptic overview of the enterprise of editing Shakespeare.

Readily available academic or commercial texts prepared by editors in the last half century reflect different editorial purposes and procedures.  Whatever the purposes, procedures differ somewhat between those which apply only to the plays which first occur in the 1623 folio and those which additionally apply to plays first occurring in quarto.  But this difference between the two sets of procedures is less important than the common ground between them: they apply only to printed texts.  For one fact above all others stands out: editors have only printed texts to edit; they have no manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays and nothing except six legal signatures and two words in his hand.[5]

This fact creates what seems to me to be an insurmountable methodological difficulty for editors.  Any feature of a printed text is an effect; anything leading up to it is a cause.  Arguing from effect to cause is ordinarily illogical—the fallacy is that of affirming the consequent—unless the effect results, and has been shown to result, from one and only one cause.  I know of no such exclusive nexus in any Shakespeare text.

For every printed text ends a different, complex, convoluted, sequence of events in a line of transmission from writing desk to printshop stall.  I refer to such sequences as either Q-lines, which lead to a text printed in quarto, or F-lines, which may include Q-lines and which lead to the printed folio.  Any of the Q-lines or F-lines include one or more various conjectured documents, the existence of some certain, of others more or less probable:[6] authorial manuscript (foul papers and sometimes fair copy), scribal copy (fair copy), prompt copy (based on foul papers or fair copy), and sometimes printed texts of earlier quartos (sometimes marked up).  Any of these documents and memorial reconstruction (perhaps aided by actor parts) may underlie a text in quarto; any except memorial reconstruction may underlie a text in folio.  Any of these documents, annotated or not, may underlie later printings.

So, throughout the transmission of a text, a manuscript accumulates more and more vagaries of authorial composition, scribal transcription, and theatrical revision.  In the Q- or F-line toward a printed text, different people for different reasons or none at all could and did make various changes—interlinear additions, deletions, or corrections; marginal contributions of text, casting, or directions; paste-ons and insertions; and, inevitably in this human enterprise, mistakes and random errors—in the course of making changes in rehearsal or after performance, and adaptations for different stages or for tours.[7]  A printing captures not only these vagaries, but also those of compositor competence and proclivities, and document or printshop conditions including hard-to-read handwriting or omitted or unclear instructions, eye skips, or worn or pied type.

Confronting imperfect, and, in half the Shakespeare canon, different imperfect, texts, editors try to understand their data in order to emend these imperfections and resolve any differences.  They have their work—really a mission impossible—cut out for them: an abundance of diverse data but a paucity of evidence because indeterminate causes are liable to different and indefensible interpretations.

The only reliable remedy would be a history, detailed in each and every particular, of the transmission of a text as it evolved from writer’s desk to printer’s stall.  The need for such a history, in the absence of the actual but unknowable facts, is clear in the editorial effort to adopt or develop a theory to explain the transmission of the Q-or F-line text.  However, such a theory depends on the very evidence created by the limited data interpreted according to the theory.  Aside from being circular, such a theory is no more than an elaborate conjecture.  The imputation of a cause to an effect has a probability; the aggregate of many imputations is less, not more, probable.  As a result, a theory of transmission merits less credence than the confidence of subscribing editors suggests.

A possible exception is data falling into discernable and explicable patterns, but they do not explain other data and may not apply to particular data.  A pattern of compositor preference for, say, capitalization, does not imply that in some instances the underlying manuscript did not capitalize specific words.  Differences in capitalization from play to play may reflect not only different compositors, but also different writers—author, actors, scribes—at different times.  After all, spelling of words, even of names, sometimes varied within a document, and from document to document.  Again, probability, yes; certainty, no.  A pattern of changes in meaning is another matter, for such a pattern is almost certain evidence of authorial intervention, but such patterns are rare.[8]

This overall and skeptical account prompts a number of unhappy reflections.  First, the nature of the printed texts of Shakespeare’s plays resists reliable interpretation of their data.  Second, since causes cannot be inferred from effects, editorial theories of transmission ultimately rely on fallacious reasoning.  Third, such theories in general cannot explain with certainty the specifics of word, phrase, line, or short passage within a text, or any particular verbal discrepancy between quarto(s) and folio.

Such a conclusion would be distressing if it were true that differences in editorial theories and practices have made much difference in edited texts.  But they seem not to.  Presumably, editors, guided by textual expertise, common sense, intuition, taste, or cultural knowledge—or some or all of these—apply their theories and practices to the text, ultimately to enhance an understanding of the play.  Actually, whatever their theories and practices, and to whatever degree they edit according to them, they produce texts of a play which resemble others in most matters large and small.  A few cruxes which affect local meaning elicit long and learned discussions but have not settled anything or, in the end, mattered much.  For some editors perhaps, such inconsequential differences in texts and futile conversations about cruxes may cause concern about the enterprise of editing Shakespeare, its purposes, approaches, or products; for others, a certain cynicism; for end-users, dismay.

For various reasons, many editors claim to be conservative in editing Shakespeare’s plays and to advocate greater restraint in editing texts and greater regard for their historical contexts.  In principle, they are retreating from the idea of an authoritative text conflating quarto and folio texts to ensure that it includes everything by the author.  In practice, they are still publishing such conflated texts but now take greater pains to distinguish passages not present in their copy text.  The result remains a text lacking a contemporary history of transmission or performance.  So a few editors are now turning to specific texts, quarto or folio, assumed to have made sense to those preparing or performing them.  Examples are separately edited quarto and folio texts of Hamlet and King Lear.  Vagaries of transmission and variants of publication aside, editors assume that each text has an integrity and intelligibility all its own, and that substantive changes reflect approved differences in meaning, by whomever and however prompted.[9]

So recent editorial theory implies a modest role for editors: emend obvious textual errors and explain obscure or uncertain matters.  Editors who accept and act in accord with this theory claim to correct a text only when it is manifestly corrupt or its meaning no less manifestly muddled.  One editor of Othello puts it simply and straightforwardly:

The present edition uses F as the copy text and attempts to maintain a relatively strict policy on substitution or emendation.  Thus, F’s reading is retained if it seems at all possible—i.e., if it can be made to make sense, even if Q’s alternative seems more appealing logically or artistically….  In cases where F is clearly corrupt or unintelligible, the Q reading (if available) has been accepted.[10]

Nevertheless, he makes the you-he emendation without comment.  So editorial theory outpaces editorial practice, and unequivocal statements of editorial practice in accord with editorial theory outpace performance.  For corruption and unintelligibility remain in the editor’s eye.

Corruption is not always a phenomenon self-evident since metrical irregularities and short lines may reflect intended dramatic, thematic, or performative factors.  So emending the text may be meddling in the name of improving it—the conventional euphemism is “modernizing” it—while obscuring or obliterating meaning.  An example occurs in Macbeth, a play thought corrupted in many places, when, just before Duncan’s murder, Banquo and Fleance enter.  The lines say that Banquo, though tired, cannot fall asleep because of forebodings; thus:

Banq.                                  A heauie Summons lyes like Lead vpon me,

And yet I would not sleepe:

Mercifull Powers, restraine in me the cursed thoughts

That Nature giues way to in repose. (TLN 579-82)


Almost all editors emend the lines to read:

Banquo:                  A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,

And yet I would not sleep.  Merciful powers,

Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature

Gives way to in repose. (II, i, 6-9)


But the shortened second line makes perfect psychological and dramatic sense.  Banquo, pensive and distraught, ruminates aloud; his pause gives time for tension to build and then be released by the apostrophe which follows.  Editors who regularize the lines allow no such development.  And editors who improve “Powers” to “powers” destroy meaning.  “Powers” refers to the fifth order of the angelic host, the order opposite to the fifth order of the demonic host, or witches; “powers” reduces the referent to an abstraction devoid of specific, and possibly any, religious import.[11]  Even in this minuscule instance, we can see that what may offend a later taste for regularity or reflect ignorance, indifference, or ideology Shakespeare likely intended and his audience understood.

In a related vein, editing Shakespeare need not be entirely textual, with literary implications ensuing; it can also be glossarial.  Decisions what to gloss depend on the usual considerations: purpose of text, space available (usually a function of cost), and the imagined or intended audience’s need for information.  A look at most editions of most plays suggests another: conformity to what other editors have or have not glossed.  My example is a single word “Godsonne” (II, i, 90; TLN 1030) passed over in all currently available edited texts of King Lear and in almost all literary criticism—which is odd for three reasons.  One, the word is unique in Shakespeare.  Two, it makes the only explicit Christian reference in the play.  Three, it establishes a direct link between Lear and Edgar before their joint appearance on the heath and even, in narrative time, before the start of the play.  Its significance is that Lear as godfather was responsible for Edgar’s moral and religious upbringing.  If so, then Edgar’s platitudes, much maligned by most critics, must be regarded as owing something to Lear, and Edgar’s chivalry at the end must be imagined as echoing Lear’s, of which we learn when Lear recalls his chivalric youth after rendering justice on Cordelia’s killer.  But this brief argument[12]  goes too far and fast for all but one purpose here, namely, to suggest my theme: editing Shakespeare is at least as much a literary as a textual challenge, and, to meet it, cultural knowledge is indispensable.

In sum, editorial practice lags editorial theory and its dicta of practice.  When they can, editors still conflate versions; change the copy text in light of another; and create yet another hybrid with most of the same readings and no historical warrant, since no contemporary wrote, read, copied, rehearsed, revised, or acted it.[13]  They still emend a text which contemporaries approved, violate their assumption of the integrity and intelligibility of the copy text; and thereby adulterate it.  For scholarly and pedagogical, if not commercial, purposes, the question is, or should be, not whether the text makes sense to us now, but whether it made sense to them then; if so, the answer urges textual and literary editorial humility as a matter of wise policy and smart practice.  Editors committed to either Q or F as their copy text—their cards to play, so to speak—should, if possible, make sense of it as it stands.  They should retain readings in the copy text in the absence of overwhelming argument and evidence of corruption or unintelligibility.   There is much editing to be done, but done much differently.

*   *   *

With these admonitory discussions in mind, I return to the play which contains the Q: you-F: he crux.  Othello presents Shakespeare’s editors with difficult choices in preparing a text having quite different quarto and folio versions.  Written in 1603 or 1604, the play is notorious for the numerous differences between Q and F: about 15 lines in Q but not F, more than 150 lines in F but not Q, and over a 1000 lesser changes.[14]  Most editors accept F as their copy text, probably because of its greater length and the odds of authorial intervention, and use Q to emend it.

The Q-line text antedates, the F-line text postdates, the anti-blasphemy legislation of 1606.  The Q-line, with language proscribed by that legislation but with other changes possibly made later, mysteriously survived for nearly twenty years.  Any account of its survival must be conjectural.[15]  In any event, the F-line text, suitably modified from a Q-line text to account for this legislation and likely changed in succeeding performances over the years, replaced a Q-line text on stage.  Nothing about these developments in the Q-line and the F-line texts helps an editor edit either text in light of the other.

At issue in this crux is the difference of a single pronoun in Iago’s question:

Did Michael Cassio

When he [F; Q you] woo’d my Lady, know of your love? (III, iii, 96-7; TLN 1696-7)

The question is whether F is corrupt or unintelligible.  Corruption is out: neither the word nor this line and a half nor their immediate context shows any sign of corruption, and no editor has regarded or treated either or both as corrupt.  So unintelligibility is in: universal acceptance of this emendation implies that all recent editors believe that Q ’s “you” makes sense and that F’s “he” makes no sense, or, literally, nonsense.[16]

Emendation on the basis of unintelligibility is problematic.  First, an assumption or assertion of nonsense offers a reason easy to declare but difficult to defend.  It requires arguing a negative and remains liable to the possibility of error, either from ignorance or misunderstanding.  For substantive changes which editors claim to be non-sensical may involve discounted or lost cultural knowledge.  My explication of this crux intends a cautionary tale about emending texts on the basis of what does or does not make sense to us.  Second, modern editors make this emendation without explanation.  They may believe the reason too obvious to require explanation—not a persuasive position, given explanations of obvious matters in other places.  But I believe that, in the back of many minds, is a fear of prompting interpretations which would impugn Cassio or Desdemona, or justify Othello.[17]  Regardless, I think their silence on this point is suspicious.  It implies one of two things: downright thoughtless for one reason or another, or a greater desire to avoid a defense of their decision than a concern to avoid doubts about their silence.

One exception is an article by a scholar now in the process of editing the play and calling attention to this crux.  Comparing Q and F at this point, he scorns F.  Unhappily, his mockery reflects a faulty paraphrase and a flawed argument:

But every now and then Q1 gives the sharper reading.  In act three of F, Iago asks Othello, did Cassio know your wife in the days when he wooed her? This makes no sense—of course Cassio knew her if he was wooing her.  But he didn’t woo her, did he? Othello was wooing her.  Q1 clears this up: did Cassio know your wife when you were wooing her, Othello.  The question not only makes sense, it promises trouble by hinting at an early relationship between Cassio and Desdemona, exactly what Iago wants to suggest.[18]

The paraphrase goes wrong in equating knowing “your wife” with knowing “of your love.”  Both Q  and F assert Othello’s affections for and attention to Desdemona.  Q is clear: Othello loved Desdemona, and what Iago asks is simple; did Cassio know that Othello was courting Desdemona?  F is also clear: Othello loved Desdemona, and what Iago asks is simple: did Cassio, while he was courting Desdemona, know that Othello was courting her.  Both Q and F show that Iago can, as he does, exploit the fact of Cassio’s knowledge of Othello’s courtship of Desdemona to insinuate more.  In this important but limited respect, Q and F make sense.  They differ only in Iago’s insinuation as a fact in F that Cassio courted Desdemona for himself.  The question is whether this insinuation makes sense (not, to prevent that murmur, whether it is true).

The argument also goes wrong—indeed, becomes simply absurd—in its mocking question “But he didn’t woo her, did he?” because it implies that what we know about Cassio’s courting Desdemona (or not) is relevant to what Iago says or what Othello hears.  What is relevant is what Othello learns, or thinks he learns, from Iago about it.  We know that Cassio never courted Desdemona, at least not for himself.  But what is known in the seats is different from what is known on the stage: a lie which can and, to be successful, must resemble truth; which Iago insinuates as truth; and which Othello accepts as truth.

*   *   *

What began as a textual problem has ended as a literary problem.  I know of no effort to explain the cause of this difference between Q and F, and I regard the congruence of a random accident and a radical shift of meaning as most unlikely.  I know of no effort to explain Iago’s insinuation that Cassio wooed Desdemona for himself, but I take authorial refinement as most likely.  I cannot explain both how a substitution of one pronoun for another could have occurred and, if it made no sense, how it could have survived rehearsal or performance.

Nevertheless, the implied justification for the emendation is that the change from Q forward to F is an unaccountable alteration for the worse, to nonsense, and, thus, the emendation from F back to Q, the restoration of sense.  For editors, it is enough that Iago’s insinuation, shared by Q and F, suggests some possible impropriety by Cassio.  The impropriety would be, not his knowledge of the love between Othello and Desdemona, not even a prior relationship with her, but his misconduct while acting in a trusted capacity as the agreed-upon go between during their courtship.  The difference between Q and F, then, is Iago’s insinuation in F that Cassio actually misbehaved.

But the matter cannot rest there; too many contemporaries understood F for too long.  I raise the matter in arguing that both Q and F make sense, but that F makes a different and more effective sense than Q, And that sense explains the cause of Othello’s jealousy or, more precisely, his susceptibility to Iago’s insinuation.

I begin with Q or, precisely, with the F-to-Q emendation.  Made unanimously and silently, it evades textual issues and enables critical ones.  Yet all modern interpretations of Othello’s jealousy assume it and must accept responsibility for assuming it.  The link between emendation and interpretation implicates them in guilt by association; they co-occur and work together.  Yet textual criticism has not justified the emendation, and literary criticism has not explained Othello’s jealousy.  Indeed, taken together in modern scholarship, they perpetuate, though they have not created, the problem of his jealousy.

In Q, Iago asks, “Did Michael Cassio / When you woo’d my Lady, know of your love?” Othello loved Desdemona, he wooed her, and his loving and wooing were simultaneous.  Although Q  makes sense, the subordinate clause adds little, if anything, to what the main clause already states because it virtually restates the gist of the main clause.

In terms of Othello’s jealousy, Q  leaves critics precisely nowhere.  In their efforts to get anywhere, they usually explain Othello’s jealousy in terms of his vulnerability to insinuation because of his nature or experience as—the list is long—an alien to Venice, a black or not-so-black-but-still-quite-dark man, an African, a Moor, a Mauritanian, a convert to Christianity, a rude and crude military man, a senior, a social naif, a sexual inept—and thus a man insecure in himself and unsure of his position in unfamiliar surroundings who suddenly finds himself in an unexpected relationship late in life with a young, white, beautiful, and much admired and desired woman.  Although many critics of recent vintage have emphasized matters of gender, race, and otherness, earlier critics stressed similar notions related to Othello’s psycho-social or psycho-occupational standing.  Rarely do they explain it in terms of mere theatricality, but frequently they assume or adopt some part of a formal analysis of Iago’s rhetorical craftiness.[19]

The primary approach still prevalent in different guises today, although it does not regard characters as true-to-life persons with an off-stage life, regards them as true-to-life within the limits of their on-stage existence.  So it assumes that dramatic characters act according to commonplace ideas of human motivations.  Thus, A. C. Bradley assumes a Victorian social standard to explain Othello’s jealousy: “any husband would have been troubled” [his emphasis] by “the warnings of so good a friend.”[20]  But he does not explain why Othello so easily distrusts his even better friend Cassio.  F. R. Leavis, moved by between-war disillusion with the military, explains Othello’s jealousy as a result of a soldier’s lack of social sophistication; his life in the field has not prepared him for the challenges of courtship or marriage in the sophisticated social milieu of Venice or even Cyprus.[21]  But the play nowhere gives an inkling that his life in the field unfits him for love in the big city.  Critics may be silent in embarrassment at Bradley’s chauvinism, but they remain vocal in agreement with Leavis’s anti-military sentiments.[22]  Well and good, but whether modern ideas of social or psychological behavior can help us understand characters as they conduct themselves in a play four centuries old is problematic.  Bradley’s and Leavis’s ideas turn out, not to be truths “for all time,” but the biases of their times.  More generally, however pursued, this approach patronizes Shakespeare; it values him most when, as we read him, he seems to conform to, and to confirm, our views by anticipating them.

The proliferation of more modern, more nuanced interpretations along this line suggests that they fail to persuade.  Everyone tries his or her hand at the problem, but no one succeeds where others have failed.  Of late, no one has suggested that perhaps the entire approach, though offering opportunities for socially enlightened discourse or scholarly erudition, is misconceived.

For, despite critics’ best efforts, the issue raised by the virtually instant and evidently implausible onset of Othello’s jealousy abides.  Curiously, factors which figure in today’s criticism figure in Othello’s efforts to rationalize his suspicion that Desdemona has left him.  Thus he ruminates,

“Haply, for I am blacke,

And have not those soft parts of Conversation

That Chamberers have: Or for I am declin’d

Into the vale of yeares (yet that’s not much)

Shee’s gone” (III, iii, 267-71; TLN 1894-8).

But he lacks conviction in any or all of these factors.  Focusing on the factors which do not work either for Othello or for them, critics overlook the import of “Or” and the parenthetical “(yet that’s not much).”  The former demotes these items to a grab-bag of possibilities, none of which carries much conviction with Othello, and the latter signals the intrusion of reality into the fantasy of his self-deception.  Nevertheless, critics have stressed the factors to which a shocked and confused Othello resorts and, I note, which the play earlier raises and rejects, in order to explain to himself Desdemona’s reasons for the infidelity which he imputes to her.

The only evidence for any of these factors comes tainted as the poisoned fruits of others’ prejudice and Othello’s after-the-fact rationalizing.  The antidotes are evident in the play.  First, there is the earlier normative touchstone in the play on these matters.  Once the Duke pronounces Othello “far more fair than black,” Venetian society at its best finds nothing incongruous or unfitting about the love and marriage of a black general of proven ability to a white daughter of a senator.[23]  Then, there is that same judgment in the second half of the play when others express their incredulity at Othello’s conduct.

The second approach is E. E. Stoll’s approach—Othello is his case-in-point—which invokes dramaturgic legerdemain, according to which Shakespeare sought to achieve the powerful effects of a radical contrast between a loving and a jealous husband, without regard for the plausibility of the sudden change from one state of being to another.  His diametric states are givens, and the link between them relies on the convention of the slanderer believed.[24]  The problem is that the convention is nowhere identified and does not address the fundamental issue: the slanderer’s credibility.  A convention involving belief implies something believed; the slanderer cannot talk nonsense, he must say something appealing or plausible to the hearer.  So Stoll’s appeal to this convention discourages closer scrutiny of the protagonist and thus avoids issues of susceptibility or plausibility.  His approach has long been rightly discredited because its stick-figure, stage-trick interpretations substitute sensationalism for significance.  Still, this approach had value.  It offered a corrective to the tendency to interpret characters as if they were people, and it stressed a fact, until then rarely admitted, that Shakespeare, in writing plays for the stage, owed a debt to the literary and dramatic conventions of his time.

Whatever the explanation of Othello’s jealousy, critics agree that it is unfounded and, given the dramatic representation of events, impossible.  Obviously, a night of elopement and trial in Venice, a week of separation, and an evening of civic and nuptial celebration allow neither time nor opportunity for the many sexual encounters between Cassio and Desdemona which Iago insinuates or the thousand fornications which Othello, once jealous, imagines.

Critics cope with this discrepancy between the short time represented by the action and the long time required by the conduct which Othello imputes to Desdemona and Cassio, in one of two ways.  Either they interpret the discrepancy as evidence that Othello’s jealousy, more than merely distorting, is actually delusional—a condition which, in matters of romance, is usually more comic than tragic.  Or, accepting that the disparity is too great for even someone delusional not to note its impossibility, they explain that Shakespeare wrote a play with two time schemes.  One critic argues that Shakespeare wrote Othello in two stages, the last three acts following Cinthio before the first two following his own imagination.  In the absence of external evidence for dating, the effort to determine compositional order from discrepancies is circular; it is also peculiar, for it implies that what Shakespeare wrote first he did not read again, and that neither he nor anyone else in his company noticed or corrected these slips.[25]  Again, these discrepancies depend on interpretations which make Iago’s rhetorical skills all-powerful to induce Othello’s jealousy.

The flaw with this approach is its entire reliance on dramatic time and its eschewal of narrative time.  It essentially ignores the information provided in Othello’s retrospective account of his courtship of Desdemona.  In it, he reports his presence in Venice for nine months (“some nine Moones wasted” [I, iii, 84; TLN 423]), his frequent visits to Brabantio’s house, his initiative in arousing her interest in his history, and, notably, her responses and his:

My Storie being done,

She gave me for my paines a world of kisses:

She swore, in faith ‘twas strange: ‘twas passing strange,

‘Twas pittifull: ‘twas wondrous pittifull.

She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d

That Heaven had made her such a man.  She thank’d me,

And bad me, if I had a Friend that lov’d her,

I should but teach him how to tell my Story,

And that would wooe her.  Upon this hint I spake,

She lov’d me for the dangers I had past,

And I lov’d her, that she did pitty them.

This onely is the witch-craft I have us’d. (I, iii, 157-68; TLN 503-14)

In context, “a Friend that lov’d her” is not a lover, not Cassio as a lover, although Cassio became the one whom Othello chose to tell his story in courting Desdemona for him as their agreed-upon go-between.

The moment critics consider this narrative time is the moment they overcome the limitations of dramatic time only.  For then they give Othello’s narrative the emphasis which its position and length warrant.  But, given this narrative, with its involvement of Cassio in a courtship presumably occurring over some considerable time, we confront two questions immediately.  First, could any misconduct have occurred? That is, is Iago’s insinuation possible, whether or not it is plausible or true?  Second, is Iago’s insinuation sufficiently plausible to Othello to render him quickly jealous; and, if so, how?

The answer to the first question is a simple one: yes, according to the background already discussed.  The crucial point is the fact of Othello’s nine months’ stay in Venice.  It may be an insufficient time for a thousand fornications, but it is sufficient time for a serviceable hyperbole by a jealous man.

The answer to the second question is a complex one: the plausibility depends on discarded or disregarded cultural knowledge of intermediaries in courtly love, an understanding shared not only by the audience, but also and notably by the characters themselves.  With its understanding of this tradition, the audience anticipated that intermediaries doom, or foreshadow the doom of, the love which they are to advance; or betray their function and woo for themselves; or are successfully wooed.  They are either disappointing or dishonorable.

Accordingly, the idea that Cassio wooed Desdemona for himself must have been plausible to both Iago and Othello.  Otherwise, Iago could not insinuate it, and Othello could not accept it.  Iago’s sexual innuendoes about Cassio’s role as go-between rely on this tradition.  Let me be clear: Iago insinuates, but nothing else in the play indicates, that Cassio, as Othello’s intermediary, is anything but honorable.

*   *   *

The intermediary appears rarely in English chivalric romances or later works under their influence, but, when he does, he usually portends an ominous development.  In Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus fails the lovers; in Le Morte D’Arthur, Tristram wins Iseult while wooing for Mark.  In Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589), Lacy woos Margaret for King Edward but, in a reversal of roles, she woos him, wins him, and then defends him from the king’s charge of treason.

Shakespeare shows himself familiar with the intermediary.  He knew these works, and he uses intermediaries in his plays.  In Twelfth Night (1601), Viola wins Olivia while wooing her on behalf of Orsino; general familiarity with this figure makes its use here an easy and enormously rich source of humor.[26]  In King Lear, Oswald fails in his role as the agreed-upon go-between Goneril and Edmund; he fails to deliver her letter, which, when Edgar finds it on his fallen body, reveals her adultery, exposes her plot for Edmund to assassinate Albany, and finally leads to the lovers’ defeat and death.

Such instances establish a literary history of the intermediary: a record of disparities between intended function and actual conduct or outcome.  This literary history known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries is also a part of the literary psychology of a knight wooing with the aid of an intermediary.  For knights who use intermediaries also know their propensities to either faithful or unfaithful courses of action.  In A Knack to Know a Knave (1592), Edgar reveals this knowledge when he, in appointing Ethenwald to woo Alfrida in his stead, admonishes him not to woo for himself.

Shakespeare shows us figures who understand intermediaries and their treacherous potentialities.  In the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), he prepares us for what ensues when the Duke tells Proteus that

“we dare trust you in this kinde [to woo Silvia in Thurio’s behalf],

Because we know…

You are already loves firme votary

And cannot soone revolt, and change your minde” (III, ii, 56-9; TLN 1501-4).

The Duke misplaces his trust in presuming that Proteus will be true to his love Julia, and Proteus establishes his villainy by wooing his friend Valentine’s love for himself.[27]

In short, the literary psychology of a knight wooing with the aid of an intermediary includes the recapitulated, internalized literary history of the type.  When a knight discovers an intermediary’s betrayal, his response is less surprise at an unexpected or extraordinary event than justifiable outrage at its moral, political, or social implications.

So it makes sense that, when Desdemona declares the fact of Cassio’s role as an intermediary, Iago seizes on and shades it with sexual innuendos in his immediately succeeding lines.  Iago has a clearly articulated and long-intended strategy to make Othello jealous by exploiting Cassio’s “Courtship” (II, i, 173; TLN 945) in order to impugn Desdemona’s fidelity.  What he lacks until this moment is the tactical information to implement it.  What he does not lack is the quick wit to exploit it when he acquires it.

In response, Othello accepts Iago’s slanders about Cassio and Desdemona far more because of the substance than the style of his insinuations.  As a knight who wooed a lady through an intermediary, he would be prone to suspect betrayal and need only intimations of betrayal, with associated suggestive, supporting, but unsubstantiated details, to believe them.  But the belief fabricates an altered perception of the people and the relationships involved, and generates evidence confirming those beliefs.  Thus, it takes only suspicion, not truth, to change rapidly from one perception to another.

Othello becomes suddenly jealous because Iago’s insinuation, as Iago pursues it, persuades Othello to see himself no longer as a chivalric knight who has wooed and won a beautiful, highborn damsel by virtue of his deeds of arms and with the aid of an intermediary, but as the old, black, and ill-suited husband cuckolded by a young wife with a more suitable young lover.  It is an old story, of course, but it appears to be a story forgotten and, despite the many clues given in the play itself, overlooked.  The action of Othello’s jealousy hinges on the role and reputation of the intermediary, a figure common enough in the Shakespeare canon but also forgotten or overlooked.

*   *   *

So both Q and F make good sense.  But whereas Q is insipid in its suggestions, F is inspired in its slanders.

Q is vague, indirect, non-committal.  Contemporary readers or audiences supplied the traditional suspicion of intermediaries.  Modern readers or audiences must rely on Iago’s wink-and-nod machinations in language or action, and still not understand the sudden onslaught of Othello’s jealousy.

By contrast, F is specific, direct, and shocking.  It is a trifecta of slanders intensely focused by imputed fact.  F means that Cassio wooed Desdemona, that Othello wooed her, and the both wooed her at the same time.  It means that Cassio accepted Othello’s request to serve as intermediary while he was wooing for himself and that Othello believed that he served honorably.  It means that Desdemona consented to concurrent solicitations by two men and so was the “whore” whom Othello later declares her to be.  The narrative time implied by F provides enough time to make Iago’s insinuations possible and Othello’s jealousy plausible.  If so, F eliminates the double-time problem and makes Othello’s intense jealousy reflect, not mental delusion, but moral outrage.

To an audience familiar with the figure of the intermediary in courtly love, F would have been far richer and more powerful than Q.  I believe, but cannot prove, that Shakespeare realized what this change would mean and what enormous effect it would have.  His dramaturgy points his intent.  When Cassio’s testimony would have easily exonerated Othello on trial for witchcraft, Shakespeare does not reveal Cassio’s role as intermediary.  Desdemona reveals it when she refers to his frequent visits: “many a time / (When I have spoke of you dispraisingly) / [Cassio] Hath tane your part” (III, iii, 72-4; TLN 1670-2).  This fact presents Iago with the opportunity for which he has been waiting and which, in F, Iago fully exploits.

F’s “he” makes sense.  Editors of Othello who use F as their copy text lack warrant to emend it in light of Q.  Worse, editorial emendation obscures cultural knowledge which enables informed readers or audiences to see Othello’s jealousy as something plausible, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw it.  In this case, but not likely only in this case, editing Shakespeare requires more knowledge rooted in literary history than editors may have realized.



[1] Some journal readers, silent about its “dyspeptic overview of editing,” reject this paper despite reporting that it presents a strong argument for the F rather than the Q reading.  Shakespeare Survey rejected it for the issue “Editing Shakespeare” with a suspect rationalization (see endnote 15).  Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America rejected it for “lacking enough bibliographical interest” for its readers.  Others object for obverse reasons.  Shakespeare Quarterly rejected it as “tendentious” on editing and not “persuasive” on the Q/F crux.  I offer it to those open to rethinking the relevant editorial and interpretive issues.

[2] My text is Charlton Hinman, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare, The Norton Facsimile (New York: Norton, 1968).  Line numbering follows Hinman for Through Line Numbering (TLN), and G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) for conventional lineation by act and scene.

[3] 1 have consulted the following editions: Ridley, 7th ed.  (Arden, 1965), Bentley in Harbage (Penguin 1969), Ribner / Kittridge (Ginn, 1971), Sanders (New Cambridge, 1984), Wells / Taylor (Oxford, 1988), Bevington, 4th  ed.  (Longman, 1997), Cohen in Greenblatt (Norton, 1997), Honigmann (Arden, 1997), Kermode in Evans, 2nd ed.  (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and McDonald in Orgel / Braunmuller (Penguin, 2002).  The Wells / Taylor Textual Companion (Norton, 1997) to their Oxford edition is also silent.

[4] The first published discussion of this crux may be Scott McMillin, “The Mystery of the Early Othello Texts,” in Philip C. Kolin, ed., Othello: New Critical Essays (New York: Routledge, 2002), 401-24.  His unknown to me, the second may be my own, in Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2003), 171.  This discussion greatly revises that one.

[5] I exclude three pages in Hand D occurring in “The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore” and attributed to Shakespeare.  The attribution is conventional but controversial, and its acceptance seems to have more to do with sociological dynamics than scholarly discourse.  See Michael L. Hays, “Shakespeare’s Hand in Sir Thomas More: Some Aspects of the Paleographic Argument,” Shakespeare Studies VIII (1975): 241-53; and Paul Werstine, “Shakespeare More or Less: A. W. Pollard and Twentieth-Century Shakespeare Editing,” Florilegium 16 (1999): 125-45.

[6] Shakespeare, unlike Milton for his later epics, had no known, and probably no, reason to dictate his plays, but even the most remote possibility of dictation cannot, strictly speaking, be ruled out.

[7] I do not exclude the difficulties of distinguishing dictated passages as prose or verse.  See McMillin.

[8] One example is Steven Urkowitz, Shakespeare’s Revision of King Lear (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); his case for authorial revision is compelling almost to the point of certainty.

[9] 1 use the cognates of “author” to mean any and all of those whose effect on the text was a change in meaning.  For the most part, since we lack evidence pointing to others, I mean Shakespeare.

[10] McDonald, 1400.

[11] In a personal communication, Paul Werstine notes that Compositor A capitalizes with abandon throughout the folio.  However, no one can be sure that Shakespeare did not capitalize this particular word, a proper noun, in this particular place, an apostrophe.  Some knowledgeable auditors might “hear” the capital.  Whether the irregular lineation is deliberate or not I cannot say, but it seems characteristic of, not anomalous in, Macbeth, and thus likely authorial.  More generally, in cases like this one, modernizing spelling also modernizes meaning.

[12] I make this argument in Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance, 202-5.

[13] Obviously, printed texts include changes made in the course of printshop preparation for publication and not tested on the stage, even if the changes would have been evident and likely approved there.  Still caution is required, as my examples suggest.  In the perhaps special case of “Powers” or “powers,” an informed audience including James I might have “heard” a capital “P,” whatever the manuscript had.

[14] For this summary of differences, I follow McDonald, 1400.

[15] My guess is the following: Given the legislation and its known influence on plays after 1606, the idea of a revival of the Q-line text in London is unlikely.  But the company retained it for use, though at some risk of trouble, on tours to areas of the country in which Catholic sentiments remained strong.  One problem with this guess is its implication that the cast learned the Q-line text for tour and then re-learned the F-line text for the London stage, also at some risk of punishment for making a mistake in performance.

[16] In a 20 February 2006 note to me, Peter Holland claims to summarize the “remarkably similar” reason of two readers for rejecting my paper: a conflict of meaning with a later line.  “Your argument that F locally makes good sense is a strong one but…  it does not grapple with the disjunction between F’s reading and its reading at 3.4.99: ‘I did not think he had been acquainted with her.’ It is one thing to make a case for reading ‘he’ at 94 but how is it possible to reconcile that reading with the later comment? How does an Iago who posits that Cassio doesn’t know Desdemona imagine that the same Cassio might have wooed the same Desdemona?”

This argument shows editorial reviewing or editorial reporting in a bad light.  First, Holland puts the second line about 485 lines “later” than the site of its actual occurrence, at III, iii, 99, a gap of only four lines (95-98).  Second, regardless of the size of the gap, he misreads both lines.  In l. 94, Iago does not imagine that Cassio wooed Desdemona; he learns from Desdemona’s earlier statement that Cassio came “a-wooing” (71); here, Iago assumes or insinuates that Cassio wooed for himself.  In l. 99, Iago does not say that Cassio did not know Desdemona; he says that he himself did not know that Cassio did know her.

[17] Just such a fringe idea exists, and such an instance justifies the fear.  W.  Holmes, “Othello: Is’t Possible?,” paper presented at the 1970 Midwest Modern Language Association, is a notorious instance of such views.

[18] McMillin, 402.

[19] For an extraordinary interpretation which makes Iago’s rhetorical skills all-powerful to induce Othello’s jealousy, see Brian Vickers, Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 152-162.

[20] A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd edn. (1905; New York: Macmillan, 1960), 192.

[21] F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero [1937],” The Common Pursuit (1952; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962): 136-159, esp. 159.  Leavis expressly states the underlying assumption: asserts the underlying psychological standard: “no development will be acceptable unless the behaviour it imposes on him is reconcilable with our notions of ordinary psychological consistency” (157).

[22] For Othello’s career, see C. F. Burgess, “Othello’s Occupation,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XXVI.2 (1975): 208-13.

[23] This approach has allowed silly or unseemly speculations about Othello’s sex life.  Some critics seem to assume that, by virtue of his life in the field or his first sex with a loved one, Othello is either a virgin or a naif.  But his and Desdemona’s remarks about the sexual pleasures in marriage seem entirely sensible, healthy, and robust.  That his jealousy occurs shortly after a delayed consummation serves only a post hoc, propter hoc argument.  No evidence in the play justifies a suspicion that sexual inadequacy or incompatibility is an issue.  As a result, we know nothing—indeed, have no basis for knowing anything—of such matters; less than we know or can know about the child whom Lady Macbeth claims to have nursed.  Thus, I do not consider that Othello is susceptible to Iago’s slanders because he has been disoriented by a first sexual encounter, or disappointed by a flawed or failed one, with Desdemona; or because he has been overwhelmed, surprised, or threatened by her sexually aggressive conduct, or unusual or insatiable sexual demands.

[24] E. E. Stoll, Art and Artifice in Shakespeare: A Study in Dramatic Contrast and Illusion (1933: New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), 6-55, first advanced this approach.

[25] Ned B. Allen, “The Two Parts of ‘Othello’,” Shakespeare Survey, 21 (1968): 13-29.  Minor discrepancies did escape notice, however.

[26] In Shakespeare, two characters pretending to serve as intermediaries exploit the role for money: Sir Toby in bilking Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, and Iago in bilking Roderigo.

[27] An occurrence in The Winter’s Tale shows that Shakespeare never tired of finding new ways to use the figure of the intermediary, even to the very end of his career.  After Leontes becomes jealous, he accuses Camillo of being a “Pandar” (II, i, 48; TLN 643) on behalf of Polixenes to Hermione, and asserts that “that false Villaine, / Whom I employ’d, was pre-employ’d by him” (50-1; TLN 645-6).  Without prompting, Leontes rationalizes his jealousy by retrospectively refashioning Camillo as an unfaithful intermediary serving his imagined rival.


Originally presented with same title at the  33rd Conference. Shakespeare Association of America (2005).

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Written by Michael L. Hays

Michael L. Hays is formerly an independent consultant in defense, energy, and environment; a full- or part-time teacher for the past 45 years under diverse auspices; a civic activist for public education as a columnist and blogger; and a retired independent scholar with his doctorate in English, specializing in Shakespeare.

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