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The Publishing and Performance History of Othello

The play was written between 1601 and 1604. The first printed Quarto (Q) was published in 1622 by Nicholas Okes for Thomas Walkley. It was entered in the Stationers’ Register the previous year, 1621. The First Folio (F) was published in 1623. The second Quarto (Q2) was published in 1630. Q and F contain many differences: for example, the Willow Song appears only in F, but profanities were deleted from F.[1] Modern editions choose readings from both Q and F. [2]

The first recorded performance of Othello was in 1604, by the ‘Kings Maiesties plaiers’ in King James’ Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, according to the account book of the then Master of the Revels. There was a performance by the King’s Men in Oxford in 1610, at which Desdemona’s dying face ‘implored the pity of the spectators’; [3] in contrast, at a performance in 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys records that a woman in the audience ‘called out, to see Desdemona smothered’. [4] In the Restoration period, the female roles were taken by actresses for the first time: Desdemona was played by an actress in 1660 (possibly Margaret Hughes, who appears on a cast list in 1669). A prologue and epilogue were written by Thomas Jordan for the 1660 production, addressing the issue of whether actresses could perform without being thought to be loose women. Jordan’s epilogue assured the audience that the actress was ‘As far from being what you call a whore,/ As Desdemona injured by the Moor’. Jordan invited women especially to approve the actress playing Desdemona: ‘But ladies, what think you? for if you tax/ Her freedom with dishonour to your sex,/She means to act no more, and this shall be/ No other play, but her own tragedy’. [5]

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the play remained popular, often performed in cut and censored versions, [6] with famous actors of the day taking on the part of Othello, with varying success. Actors tended to emphasise either Othello’s thoughtfulness and introspection, or his explosive passions. [7] The play was turned into the librettos of two nineteenth-century operas, by Rossini and Verdi. Modern performances of Othello have seen the lead acted by Laurence Olivier in 1964 [8] and Anthony Hopkins (for the BBC) in 1981,[9] with famous Iagos including Olivier in 1938 and Richard Burton in 1956. However, as early as the 1960s, some critics found it odd to have a white actor playing Othello in dark makeup, with one complaining of the ‘by-now outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype’. [10]

The first black actor to play Othello was an American named Ira Aldridge, who performed the role in the late nineteenth century. Aldridge received critical acclaim, but was also the subject of racist attacks in the press: The Times of 11 April 1833 described a performance of Othello ‘by an individual, of Negro origin, as his features sufficiently testify,’ saying that ‘such an exhibition is well enough at Sadler’s Wells, or at Bartholomew Fair, but it certainly is not very creditable to a great national establishment’. Aldridge’s only advantage was that he could play the part ‘in his own native hue, without the need of lampblack’, and the Times writer commented, ‘Well might Desdemona’s father imagine that sorcery, and not nature, had caused his daughter to listen to such a wooer’. However, he had to admit that the performance was ‘extremely well received’. [11]

Another black actor to perform Othello was Paul Robeson, first at the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1930, and later on Broadway in 1943-4. A famous singer, Robeson played the part with dignity and emphasised Othello’s noble qualities. [12] More recently, James Earl Jones played the part on Broadway (1981-2), opposite Christopher Plummer’s Iago; Jones was also a commanding presence, as one critic puts it, ‘doing his Darth Vader voice from Star Wars’, and played Othello with a mixture of vulnerability and ‘military authority’. [13] In 1995 Laurence Fishburne became the first black actor to play Othello in a film version, [14] acting opposite Kenneth Branagh as Iago.

Karen Kay

 

1. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by E. A. J. Honigmann, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edn (London: Thomson Learning, 1997, 2004), p. 352. Return to text

2.A detailed exposition of some features of the textual problem is given in Othello (Arden), pp. 351-67. Return to text

3. From a Latin letter of 1610 by Henry Jackson, translated in Geoffrey Tillotson, ‘Othello and ‘The Alchemist’ at Oxford’, TLS (20 July 1933), p. 494. Another  translation of the letter, by Dana F. Sutton, is online at http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/jackson/ Return to text

4. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. by Norman Sanders, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: CUP, 1984, 1987), p. 39. Return to text

5. Reproduced in Edmond Malone’s Historical Account of the English Stage, (appendix to Malone’s The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, published in London in 1790 and 1821, and in Dublin in 1794) cited by James Henry Leigh Hunt, The Town: its Memorable Characters and Events (1848; reprinted London: Unit Library Ltd, 1903), online at http://www.cf.ac.uk/encap/skilton/nonfic/town/town06.html#_ftn11 Return to text

6. Cf. Othello (Arden), pp. 90-2. Return to text

7. Cf. Othello (Arden), pp. 94-6, and Othello, (New Cambridge), pp. 38-51. Return to text

8. Cf. Martin Wine, Othello: Text and Performance (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 52. Return to text

9. Cf. Wine, pp. 73-80. Return to text

10. Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 2 February 1966, reproduced in NYT Film Reviews, 5 (1959-68), 3594, cited in Patricia Tatspaugh, ‘The Tragedies of Love on Film’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, ed. by Russell Jackson (Cambridge, CUP, 2000), pp. 135-59 (quote from p. 151). Return to text

12. Cf. Wine, pp. 46-7. Return to text

13. Wine, p. 55. Return to text

14. IMDB (the Internet Movie Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114057/trivia Return to text

 

 

General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
Hamlet
King Lear
Othello
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
Cyprus
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
Venice
The Wife as Property in Othello