Othello: versions (Quarto v. Folio)

A couple of plays back, when we were deep into that ol’ Prince of Denmark, we discussed at some length the different versions of the play, Quarto vs. Folio. For this play, Othello, the differences aren’t as widespread or structural as in Hamlet, but they are of some note.

For those who need a refresher between the formats: Quartos had their sheets of paper folded twice to create four leaves with eight printed pages. Folios were folded once to create two leaves with four larger printed pages. Folios were seen as more prestigious.

Othello was first put into the Register of the Stationers Company on 6 October 1621, by Thomas Walkley. The following year, Nicholas Okes printed the First Quarto version of the play. The cover page for that edition read:

“Tragedy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diuerse times acted at the Globe, and at the Black-Friers, by his Maiesties Seruants. Written by William Shakespeare. London. Printed by N. O. [Nicholas Okes] for Thomas Walkley, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Eagle and Child, in Brittans Bursse, 1622.”

The year following that publication, the First Folio of the collected Shakespeare plays (“Comedies, Histories, & Tragedis”). The plays’ scripts were compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors in The King’s Men. This time around, the printers were Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount. Isaac’s father, William, who probably had a hand in the publication, died a month before the November 1623 release, and is not mentioned in the cover text.

As for Othello, the Folio version is some 160 lines longer, but is missing a little over ten partial and full lines that are in the Quarto version. As there is no historical record, the discrepancy has been explained in a variety of ways:

  • The Quarto version suffered from the memory of its compiler(s)
  • The Quarto version was edited down at publication to fit a predetermined page-length
  • The Quarto version was based more on an acting script than a written manuscript (as it contains more stage direction)
  • The Quarto version was an earlier version of the play (as the Folio has removed some language that could be construed as profane and thus would have been subject to the “Act to Restrain Abuses of the Players,” a law passed in 1606)

This last possibility is intriguing, as it has caused some critics to propose a “two-text” theory for Othello (just as there is for our next play, King Lear): that the Quarto version was revised (and improved) for the Folio version.

Regardless, most of the editions we find today follow the Folio, with the occasional swapping out for Quarto spellings or specific diction.