The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice was entered into the Stationer’s Register (SR) by Thomas Walkley on October 6, 1621, one day after Ben Jonson was appointed Deputy Master of the Revels (DMR), and ten days after the death of Mary Sydney, Countess of Pembroke on 25th September. Othello is the only one among the 36 plays in the Canon to have been registered after William Shakespeare’s death and before the appearance of the First Folio. These and other facts lead me to believe that Marlowe re-wrote the text of The Moor of Venice, turning it into the First Quarto Othello (1Q) in the spring/summer of 1621, and revised it almost immediately after the Countess died, adding 160 lines, most of which are dedicated to Emilia, including the scene of her death.
There are two points to be made here: 1) That the text of Othello is not the same as the old Moor of Venice, by Shaxberd,2 and 2) that the 1Q is not a “cut” version of the First Folio, as most scholars maintain because this would be the only explanation for those 160 lines, had they been originally written by William Shakespeare before 1616. I will deal now with the first point and leave the second for the next chapter.
When the 1Q Othello was printed, early in 1622, it included, as we know, a villain called Iago. This villain’s name could not have been in The Moor of Venice that was performed in the court of King James in November 1604. There are two Briton kings, Jago and Iago, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain; King James descended from the Briton kings, was proud of the fact, and reading one’s family history is a universal foible. But that is not all. The name Iago derives from Iacob, and its variants in different languages include James, Iacob, Jacques, Jaime, Jacobo, Diego and Iago, these last four in Spanish.
Even if neither the King nor the Master of the Revels had ever read Monmouth’s History linking the name Iago to a Briton king, we must remember that in those days many official documents were written in Latin. In those documents, James’ name would appear as Iaco., or Iacob., both short for Iacobus; the sound of these abbreviations is phonetically almost identical to Iago. The name of Othello’s wicked lieutenant spoken in a play would have sounded to an educated audience (such as the audience at court) exactly like the Latin abbreviation of the King’s name.
As I say, Iago is one of the variants of the name of St. James the Elder. According to an Arian3 legend, James (or Iacob) was Jesus’ eldest brother who fled from Jerusalem after the crucifixion. He settled down in the northwest corner of Spain, in the place that is now known as Santiago de Compostela, a famous place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, well-known to Shakespeare.4 The Arian Goth5 kings who had ruled Spain for four centuries, converted to Catholicism at the time of the Arab invasion in 711 AD; eventually, Saint Iago graduated from an Arian prophet to a Catholic saint by “performing a miracle” at the battle of Clavijo (844 AD) against the Moors. He thus became the patron saint of Spain and to this day his nickname continues to be Saint Iago the Moor-killer (Santiago Matamoros).6
It would be wilfully self-deceiving to believe that King James and his courtiers would not have recognized the Spanish name of Saint Iago the Moor-killer so appropriate for Othello. The coincidence, if it were a coincidence, would be of pig-flying standards. The Peace Treaty between England and Spain was signed on August 28, 1604, and when The Moor of Venice was performed at court, in November, the court was still full of Spaniards.
In a letter to Sir Ralph Winwood (January 1604/5), Dudley Carleton, that indefatigable chronicler of court gossip, writes: "On Twelfth Night… we had the Queen’s Maske at the Banquetting House…The Spanish and Venetian Ambassadors were both present and sate by the King in State …"7 The name of Saint Iago the Moorkiller could not possibly have passed unrecognized by the Spanish Ambassador if he were also present during the performance of The Moor of Venice. Such a name, given to a villain, would be a major political and diplomatic blunder.
But even if we allow for the uncanny nature of coincidences, and even if the author pleaded ignorance, he would have been ordered to change the name. If the whole range of Shakespearian scholars propose that the name of Sir John Oldcastle was changed to John Falstaff in order to spare the feelings of the Brooke family, are we to believe that the Master of the Revels decided to ignore a name that was offensive to the King and to his guests? The author’s idea of using a Venetian story in a play to be performed in the presence of the Venetian Ambassador was probably a good one, as King James was obviously making an effort to flatter the Venetian Ambassador; but it would have been daft to flatter the Venetian Ambassador while insulting the Spanish one, by giving to the villain of the play the name of Saint Iago Matamoros.
Which, of course, means that those names would not have appeared in The Moor of Venice that was performed many times all along the reign of King James. Which also means that, had Will Shakespeare (let alone any candidate that had died earlier) decided to insult King James with his dying breath, Thomas Walkley would have kept the MS in a drawer for many years, while the original, Iago-less, Moor of Venice continued to thrive on the stage.
Looking for confirmation of my theory, I have not been able to find a single mention of the names Othello and/or Iago, in reference to The Moor of Venice in performance, on any records, accounts, diaries, or similar documents, during King James’ lifetime, not even after the publication of the 1Q and FF. The name of Desdemona appears, however, in some reports, after 1604.
Modern scholars take for granted that Othello and The Moor of Venice are one and the same play, so one may come across misleading headlines then to find that, in the contemporary document itself, only the name of Desdemona is given and the Moor has no name, while the villain is not even mentioned. The following is a good example. I quote from G. Salgado’s Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare. (Emphasis in bold).
“Othello at Oxford.” This is the modern title given to the document by Salgado. However, this is the original document translated from the Latin:
Sept. 1610As we can see, despite the deceptive headline, not only is the - supposed - name of the title role, Othello, not mentioned in the letter, but the character, let alone the name, of the villain is ignored. Can we imagine a modern spectator, after watching Othello, to focus his report on the famous Desdemona and her husband and failing to mention Iago at all? In this letter, the only name mentioned is Desdemona. Likewise, in Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi9 the men in the novella that Shakespeare used as source for The Moor of Venice have no names; only Disdemona has what Cinthio describes as an “un-auspicious name”: dis-daemonie = dis-spirited, unfortunate, witless.
-In the last few days the King’s players have been here. They acted with enormous applause to full houses…. They had tragedies (too) which they acted with skill and decorum and in which some things, both speech and action, brought forth tears.-
-Moreover, that famous Desdemona killed before us by her husband, although she always acted her whole part supremely well, yet when she was killed she was even more moving, for when she fell back upon the bed she implored the pity of the spectators by her very face.8
Not until the 1640s have I found some items that contain the male names. One is a posthumously published poem by Leonard Digges (d.1635), prefixed to an edition of Shakespeare’s poems dated 1640, which includes the line Honest Iago, or the jealous moor. Another one is a comment by “Abraham Wright (1611-1690), Vicar of Okeham, who kept a common-place book, probably in the 1640’s, for the benefit of his son."10
Othello, by Shakespeare: A very good play both for lines and plot, but especially the plot. Iago for a rogue and Othello for a jealous husband, 2 parts well penned. Act 3, the scene betwixt Iago and Othello, and the 1st scene of the 4th Act between the same shew admirably the villainous humour of Iago when he persuades Othello to his jealousy.This is a report in which we recognize the Othello that we know. In the 1640s, Wright goes straight to the heart of the play, which is no longer the fate of the witless Desdemona who makes the mistake of marrying a Moor, but the tragedy of Othello and the perfidy of Iago. He writes about the men and Desdemona is not even mentioned. Here we find at last that the jealous Moor has a name and also that the villain called Iago is an important character, which was not the case in the Latin letter of 1610.
In Othello, Shakespeare departs from Cinthio’s novella in many ways, introducing various changes, most of which spoil the logic of the plot and are, moreover, apparently unnecessary, unless they have a special meaning, which I believe they have. But I’ll leave it at that for the present.
Meanwhile, until somebody finds some text that includes the names of Othello and Iago in reference to The Moor of Venice, previous to the 6th of October 1621, I must infer that Marlowe drastically revised the play shortly before that date, giving the name of the king to the most treacherous character in the Canon. And the only logical explanation I can find for any author doing this would be not just that he had an axe to grind with James, but that he was, like Cassio, “past all surgery”; in other words, that his personal circumstances (such as a terminal illness, or suicidal despair), had placed him beyond caring what "King Iago’s" reaction might be.
Because, unless we accept the possibility that the author of Othello was Christopher Marlowe, perhaps kept “in the cold” till then by a deceitful King James, we find ourselves with no author. By 1621 only Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney (until 25th September) among the proposed candidates were “officially” alive. I doubt that Mary wrote the 1Q Othello and as for Bacon, neither before that time, nor, particularly in 1621 would he have dared to insult the King in that way. Having been convicted of corruption for taking bribes in May 1621, only James stood between him and imprisonment, as well as total bankruptcy, had he been enforced to pay the colossal fine demanded by his peers.
So here is the chain of events thus far:
1616: April 23rd: William Shakespeare dies.
1621: September 25th: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, dies, and, as we shall see in the next chapter, her death seems to be registered in the new 160 lines of the FF Othello, (which would mean those 160 lines were written after September 25th).
1621: October 5th: Ben Jonson is appointed DMR, and therefore responsible for the censorship of new plays.
1621: October 6th: Thomas Walkley registers the 1Q Othello.
1622: Early months: Walkley publishes the 1Q Othello under the name of William Shakespeare.
1622: March: Ben Jonson loses his job as DMR.
1622 April: The refurbishments in the Chancel begin and, apparently, the Stratford Monument is finally erected.
(To be continued.)
© Isabel Gortázar, April 2010
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
1Fripp, Edgar I. Shakespeare’s Stratford. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. 72-74.
2As the name of the author appears in the Revels Accounts for November 1604.
3By “Arian” I refer to the doctrine of the Bishop Arius. (4th Century AD.)
4In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena proposes to go on pilgrimage to Saint Jacques le Grand, the French name for Santiago de Compostela.
5Spain was ruled by Goths between the 4th and 8th Centuries. I find this interesting in reference to the line “Ovid among the Goths," in As You Like It.
6For what it is worth, the joint names of Othello and Iago give us the following anagram:
O IA (mes) GO TO HELL. Also: O IAGO TO HELL
7Sawyer, Edmund. Memorials of Affairs of State (etc.). London. 1725.
8From a letter in Corpus Christi College Library: Ms ccc 304 ff 83v and 84r. Ref. G. Salgado, Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare: First Hand Accounts of Performances. 1590 – 1890.
9Giovanni Batista Giraldi, also known as Giraldi Cinthio: Gli Hecatommithi. Venice. 1565
10G. Salgado. Op. cit.
Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.