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The play in its time

Watch Dr Anjna Chouhan and Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall explore the context in which Othello was created and published.
Othello represents a triumph for Shakespeare and the company with which he worked. When Elizabeth I died in March 1603, all the theatres were actually closed because of mourning. But that wasn’t, in fact, the only tragedy to hit the nation that year, because the city of London was riddled with a particularly virulent outbreak of bubonic plague. And this meant that theatres remained closed from Elizabeth’s death until the following spring, in 1604. So, that’s an entire year without any public theatres. And that’s definitely bad news for Shakespeare. However, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were actually promoted by King James I and became The King’s Men.
So, as a member of this company, Shakespeare took part in the official procession of James I into London in April 1604. It would’ve been an astounding honour and an immense achievement for Shakespeare to have been part of the King’s procession through the city in the month of his own birthday. The end of the year proved to be even more fruitful. On November the 1st, 1604, the Revels accounts show that a play called The Moor of Venice, by one “Shaxberd,” was performed by the King’s Men at Whitehall Palace. This means that Othello made it to the most prestigious and influential locations in the country– the royal residence.
The first time Othello appeared in print in 1622, the printer gave some indication of the versatility of the play on the title page. So, the title reads, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. As it has been diverse times acted at the Globe, and at the Blackfriars, by his Majesty’s Servants. Written by William Shakespeare. So, as well as these two theatres, the Globe and the Blackfriars, and not forgetting Whitehall Palace, the King’s Men travelled outside of London with their work. And we know that Othello was performed in Oxford in 1610, for example. So, to audiences in the 1600s, the play of Othello was something familiar.
The evidence about performances of the play in the early 17th century seems to suggest that the play was versatile, engaging, and it remained in the repertoire of the King’s Men for many years. As we’ve heard, the play of Othello was probably first performed in 1604. It was not published, however, until after Shakespeare’s death. The first publication was the First Quarto of 1622. The word “quarto” refers to the page size of the text. A large sheet was folded four times to make a quarto. This was the standard size for playbooks in the period.
The second publication of Othello comes only one year later, in 1623, when two of Shakespeare’s colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published his plays in what is known as the First Folio. This book was entitled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. And the plays were divided into three categories, categorizations that have proved controversial ever since. Again, the word “folio” refers to the nature and size of the book. A book of around 15 inches in height in which the printed sheet is folded in half. The First Folio is about four times the size of a quarto. The folio format was, in general, only used for prestigious books. Works by leading theologians, philosophers, and historians.
Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, and Ben Jonson’s Works. So, it was quite an honour for Shakespeare’s plays to be published in this form. In the folio, Othello is listed as a tragedy and entitled, as in the First Quarto, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. In week 4, we will hear more about how it functions as a tragedy. Although we think of there as only being one play of Othello, the texts of the play, as published in the folio and quarto, different quite a bit. The folio has about 160 extra lines not present in the quarto, expounding on some scenes, including the willow scene.
It’s missing a few phrases that appear in the quarto, in addition to over 60 oaths and profanities, indicating that the folio text had been censored. The First Quarto is thought to derive from Shakespeare’s foul papers– his rough copy of the play– which was then copied out by a scribe before going to the printing house. The copy for the folio is also believed to be a scribal copy, but this time of a different authorial manuscript– one had been revised by Shakespeare. The folio is thus considered more authoritative in most cases than the quarto, although the quarto offers us a pre-censored play and may offer readings that correct errors is the folio.
Most editions, and, indeed, theatre productions, use a mixture of the two texts, choosing the word or phrase that seems more accurate or apt.
In this video Dr Anjna Chouhan and Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, who will be your educators in Weeks 3 and 4, explore the context in which Othello was created and published.
As you watch consider:
  • When and where the play was performed in the 1600s and what these original performances tell us about the play.
  • The differences between the quarto and folio editions published in 1622 and 1623.
Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:
  • Why might the differences between the quarto and folio be considered as significant?
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