Page images


[ocr errors]


THELLO, with fewer of those deep, ethical reflec

tions, suggested by experience but generalized by

the intellect, which characterize the later works of Shakespeare, yet contains, more than any other, the evident results of accurate personal observation of human nature and intimate acquaintance with man's inmost being—his very “heart of hearts.” The emotions and passions it paints, are those which most powerfully agitate domestic life. If, happily, in modern civilized society, they rarely rise to the height of Othello's “ wide revenge,” they are yet too often found growing “ like a thick scurf o'er life” and embittering existence. They are, in themselves, such as cannot be reasoned out by the young Poet from his own mind, or depicted by any effort of his inexperienced imagination. RICHARD, and Romeo, and the TEMPEST, (whatever may have been their actual dates,) might have been the creations of youthful genius; but OTHELLO required actual experience, or close observation, of the workings of bitter passions, in however humble a form, yet, in actual life. This noblest of domestic tragedies, therefore, in my opinion, speaks for itself that its author had looked upon “human dealings" with as “learned a spirit” as lago; while, unlike him, he had been taught by the experience of his own heart a liberal and pitying sympathy with man's weakness and guilt, and a deep reverence for woman's virtues and affections. I should accordingly, upon this internal evidence, have been disposed to ascribe the composition of OTHELLO to some period when the author, no longer young, could draw upon the treas

ures of long (perhaps of sad) experience. In this view, Malone's theory that it was written in 1611, and that of Chalmers, who ascribed it to 1614, appeared probable; but later antiquarian inquiries seem to have fixed the date of its authorship about 1602. This was the thirtyninth year of Shakespeare's age,-a period of life something earlier than I should have supposed, theoretically; but in a mind like his, not incompatible with the views just expressed.

We now know from the “ Egerton Papers,” not long ago published by the Camden Society, that a play called “Othello” was acted for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth, (6th August, 1602,) at a visit to the residence of Lord-Keeper Egerton, by “Burbidge's players;" and Collier (the highest authority in matters relating to the history of the old English drama) adds that “the probability is, that it was selected for performance because it was a new play, having been brought out at the Globe Theatre in the spring of that year.” The late publication of “ Extracts from the Accounts of Revels at Court,” by the Shakespearian Society, gives official evidence that some piece called “The Moor of Venice” was performed at Whitehall Palace, in 1604. As there is no vestige or tradition of any other piece on this subject, this must have been Shakespeare's OTHELLO in some form or other. We know besides from the poetical tributes to the memory of Burbage, whose name is connected with the performance in 1602, that he was the original representative of Shakespeare's Othello, and with “that part his course began, and kept it many a year.” He died in 1619. In the lately discovered elegy upon his death, after enumerating his numerous characters, his admirer adds—

But let me not forget that chiefest part,
Wherein, beyond the rest, he moved the heart :
The grieved Moor, made jealous by a slave,
Who sent his wife to fill a timeless grave,
Then slew himself upon the bloody bed, -

All these, and many more, with him are dead.' Bat it is not improbable that the OTHELLO of 1602 may have been, like the original Hamlet, barely an outline, sufficient for dramatic effect, containing all the incidents and characters, but wa some of the heightened poetry and intense passion of the drama we now read. This conjecture, for it is no more, receives some support from the fact that the first printed copy of the play, (quarto, 1622,) published twenty years after the first representation, though substantially complete, still does not contain all the author's latest improvements; for, besides numerous slight variations of words and phrases, it appears that some of the most poetical passages were added

in the manuscripts from which the folio of 1623, and the second quarto of 1630, were printed. Besides, if the commentators are correct in thinking that one passage of the play contains an allusion to the creation of baronets, and another to the language and provisions of the English statute against sorcery, one of these passages must have been added after 1603, and the other after 1611. It may, therefore, be doubted whether this first quarto was not itself an improved version of the earliest OTHELLO, as performed in 1602 and 1604.

The first published edition of OTHELLO was in a quarto pamphlet, (1622,) the original of which has now become one of the scarcest of books, for which rich bibliomaniacs have paid thirty, forty, and even fifty-six pounds sterling. The copy contained in the first folio of the “ Tragedies and Comedies," perhaps then already printed, was not published until the next year. The folio differs not only in very many smaller variations of phrase, but in the addition of above one hundred and fifty lines, containing several of the most beautiful and touching passages. In 1630, another quarto pamphlet appeared, containing OTHELLO with all these additions. Johnson, Stevens, Malone, and most of the modern editors have formed their text on the first quarto, with the insertion of the added lines from the second. Mr. Knight's Pictorial, and other editions, are as usual founded entirely on the first folio, with slight corrections of probable typographical errors. The second quarto was considered of little value, and supposed to be merely a reprint of the folio. Mr. Collier was the first to observe that this second quarto was itself an original authority, and incontestably printed from a different manuscript from either of the original editions. This is very manifest from the inspection of Stevens's accurate reprint and collation of the original quartos. The edition of 1630 much oftener agrees in the slighter variations with the first edition than with the folio, and yet contains the folio additions, though varying enough to show that they were printed from some different manuscript. The present text is founded on the principle that there are three independent copies of the original text. In all the ininor variations, where there is no marked reason (from the sense or context) to prefer one reading to another, the folio is followed where it is supported by either of the others; but when the quartos agree, their reading has been preferred.

These variations are so numerous and so very unimportant, (beginning, for example, with the omission or insertion of the first word, “Tush !" with many longer but not more important differences in the succeeding lines,) that it has not been thought worth while to encumber the notes with the several readings and their authorities. It is sufficient to apprize the reader of the general rule of preference, that he may not impute any such variance from the text of Stevens on one side, or of Knight on the other, to any error of the printer, or capricious innovation of the editor. There are, however, some differences of readings affecting the sense or the poetical force of expression, and two or three are among the most vexed questions of critical discussion. In these cases, the internal evidence of sense, and that of contemporary use of language, are entitled to greater weight than mere preponderance of the evidence of printed copies. The reasons for preference in such cases, together with the differing readings, are given in original or selected notes.

With these few exceptions, the ordinary text is in a very satisfactory state; and the metrical arrangement has been little meddled with by modern editors, who have generally suffered the verses to stand as they were originally printed.

SOURCE OF THE PLOT. The plot is taken from the Hecatommithi, or Hundred Tales of Giraldi Cinthio, an Italian novelist and dramatist of the second class, in the sixteenth century. No English translation anterior to the date of the play has been discovered; but there was a contemporary French translation printed at Paris in 1584. Shakespeare must have read it either in this translation, or the original; for he has interwoven in his play too many of the minor and unessential circumstances of the story, to have derived his knowledge of it from any second-hand account of the plot.

The following is the outline of the original story; sufficient to enable the reader to judge of the extent of the English dramatist's obligations to the Italian novelist; which are much less than is commonly supposed by those who take their ideas of the Italian story from some of the critics, and suppose it to be a novel, filled with dialogue and sentiment, instead of a meagre tale, not longer than one act of OTHELLO.

There lived at Venice a valiant Moor, held in great esteem for his military talent and services. Desdemona, a lady of marvellous beauty, attracted not by female fancy (appetito donnesco) but by his high virtues, became enamoured of the Moor, who returned her love; and, in spite of the opposition of her relations, married her. They lived in great happiness in Venice until the Moor (he has no other name in the story) was chosen to the military command of Cyprus, whither his wife insisted on accompanying him. He took with him a favourite ensign, a man of great personal beauty, but of the most depraved heart,-a boaster and a coward. His wife is the friend of Desdemona. The ensign falls passionately in love with Desdemona, who, wrapped up in love of her husband, pays no regard to him. His love then turns to bitter hate, and he resolves to charge her with infidelity, and to fix the Moor's suspicions upon a favourite captain of his. Soon after, that officer strikes and wounds a soldier on guard, for which the Moor cashiers him. Desdemona endeavours to obtain his pardon; and this gives the ensign an opportunity of insinuating accusations against her, and rousing the Moor's jealousy. These suspicions he confirms by stealing from her a favourite worked handkerchief, and leaving it on the captain's bed. Then the Moor and his ensign plot together to kill Desdemona and her supposed lover. The latter is waylaid and wounded in the dark by the ensign. Desdemona is beaten to death by him also “with a stocking filled with sand;" and

then the Moor and he attempt to conceal their murder by pulling down the ceiling, and giving out that she was killed by the fall of a beam. The Moor becomes almost frantic with his loss,—turns upon the ensign, whom he degrades and drives from him. The ensign revenges himself by disclosing the murder to the captain, upon whose accusation to the senate the Moor is arrested, tried, tortured, and then banished, and afterwards killed by Desdemona's relations.

The tale has little beauty of style, power of narration, or vivid delineation of character. Indeed, none of the personages, except Desdemona, have any name, nor any distinctly and naturally drawn character ; nor has the narrative any of that charm of expression and sentiment which has made others of the Italian stories, through “old Boccaccio's lore or Dryden's lay,” a portion of the popular literature of every civilized nation. Its merit consists in the air of reality and apparent truth of the story; which, I can scarcely doubt, was in substance drawn from real events preserved in the traditionary or judicial history of Venice.

Shakespeare owes to it the general plan of his plot, and the suggestion of the first passion and the character of Desdemona, which, however, he has softened and elevated as well as expanded. The peculiarities and minuter incidents of the story give to the drama a character of reality, such as pure invention can seldom attain. He has also some obligation to Cinthio for the artful and dark insinuations by which Iago first rouses the Moor's suspicions. But all else that is essentially poetic or dramatic is the Poet's own. Cinthio's savage Moor and cunning ensign bave scarcely any thing in common with the heroic, the gentle, the terrible Othello, -or with lago's proud, contemptuous intellect, bitter wit, cool malignity, and “ learned spirit.” Cassio and Emilia owe to Shakespeare all their individuality: Roderigo, Brabantio, and the rest, are entirely his creation.

If, however, some of Shakespeare's English critics have overstated his obligations to the old novelist, that injustice, or rather carelessness, is more than compensated by the eloquent and discriminating criticism of a living French scholar and statesman. M. Guizot thus contrasts the Italian “ Moro di Venezia” with the English OTHELLO :

“ There was wanting in Cinthio's narrative the poetical genius which filled the scene with actors—which created the individuals—which gave each of them his own aspect, form, and character—which made us see their actions, and listen to their words—which unfolded their thoughts and penetrated their feelings :—that vivifying power which summons events to arise, to progress, to expand, to be completed :—that creative breath which, breathing over the past, calls it again into being, and fills it with a present and imperishable life:—this was the power which Shakespeare alone possessed, and by this, out of a forgotten novel, he has made OTHELLO.”

[graphic][ocr errors][merged small]
[graphic][merged small][merged small]

PERIOD OF THE ACTION, ARCHITECTURE, LOCALITY, AND COSTUME. Reed places the precise period of the action in 1570, from the historical facts mentioned in the play,—the junction of the Turkish fleet at Rhodes, for the invasion of Cyprus,—which it first threatened and then went to Rhodes. Whether or not this is the exact date, it is certain that the period must be taken somewhere between 1471, when the island first came under the sway of Venice, and was garrisoned by her troops, and 1571, when it was conquered by the Turks. The various references to customs, arms, government, etc., agree perfectly with this period. The first act is in Venice, in her day of splendour and power, of which the decaying monuments still remain. These have become familiar to the untravelled reader by beautiful and accurate paintings and engravings, from Canaletto to Prout, and by the not less vivid descriptions of Byron and Cooper. How they (and other Italian scenery) became familiar to Shakespeare, is a question which can be more appropriately examined in another place. All the allusions, however, to Venice and Venetian manners, have a character of reality, and no inaccuracy has been detected.

The rest of the action passes in Cyprus. The old copies do not mention the precise place; but Rowe, followed by all the editions until Malone, headed Act II. with “ The Capital of Cyprus.” He, with Hanmer, Theobald, and others, supposed that to be the place where the scene lay for the last four acts. But Malone showed that this could not have been Shakespeare's intention ; “Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, being nearly in the centre of the island, and thirty miles from the sea. The principal seaport town of Cyprus was Famagusta ; where there was formerly a strong fort and commodious haven, the only one of any magnitude in the island; and there undoubtedly the scene should be placed. "Neere unto the haven (says Knolles) standeth an old castle, with four towers, after the ancient manner of building.' To this castle, we find Othello repairs."

In this the later editors, of course, concur.

The costume of Venice in her glory has been preserved in all its details, in every form and degree of art, from the intellectual speaking portraits of Titian to the mere engravings of costume and armour. Some of them are transferred to this edition, and other authorities are easily accessible. The only question susceptible of controversy is as to the costume of Othello himself. Upon this point, painters and tragedians have differed from one another very widely; some attiring the Moor of Venice as a Mohammedan prince, while within some forty years, he was arrayed in an English major-general's uniform on the London boards. In historical strictness, it is very certain that the Venetian general, (who from motives of state policy as to their aristocracy, was always a foreigner, if not to Italy, at least to Venice,) wore an official dress, described by Vicellio, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, as a gown of crimson velvet, with loose sleeves; over which was a mantle of cloth-of-gold, buttoned over the shoulder with massy gold buttons. His cap was of crimson velvet, and he bore a silver baton like those

« PreviousContinue »