Friday, August 6, 2010

More Doubts About Will: The Swan Song by Isabel Gortázar

I proposed in Part 2, "Enter Iago," that The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a thoroughly revised text in respect of The Moor of Venice performed at Court in November 1604, as the name of Iago could not have been part of that performance. Let me repeat the relevant facts: The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was entered into the Stationer’s Register (SR), by Thomas Walkley, on October 6th 1621, one day after Ben Jonson had been appointed Deputy Master of the Revels (DMR), and eleven days after the death of Mary Sydney, Countess of Pembroke on 25th September; the First Quarto (1Q) Othello, 160 lines shorter than the First Folio (FF) version, was published by Walkley in the early months of 1622.

The hypothesis I wish to propose here is that Marlowe re-wrote The Moor of Venice, turning it into what we know as the 1Q Othello in the spring/summer of 1621, and revised it almost immediately after the Countess died, adding 160 lines, many of which are dedicated to Emilia, including a long speech for the vindication of women. A further indication that Othello was probably revised long after 1616 may be that it is the first of the Quarto plays to be published with Act divisions.

Seeing that between the publication of the 1Q and the printing of the FF,1 (seven years after William Shakespeare’s death), those 160 new lines appeared out of nowhere, Stratfordians maintain that Shakespeare wrote the FF Othello in 1604, Iago included, and that Walkley’s 1Q is a shortened or “cut” version. In this respect, the possibility that Emilia’s death may refer to the Countess of Pembroke’s demise on 25th September 1621 would allow us to conjecture that a living Shake-spear was still revising his last play sometime after that date.2

Iago’s wife does not die in the source story, nor does she die in the 1Q; in the FF, however, Emilia dies singing like a swan:

Emilia (FF, V, 2 lines 244-6):
What did thy song bode, lady?
Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan.
And die in music. (Etc.)

Because it is a known myth that swans sing immediately before their deaths, Emilia’s expression may be taken simply as a reference to such myth. However, the OED acknowledged in 1612 the epithet of “swan” as applicable to singers and poets.

Her admiring friends referred to Mary Sydney, Countess of Pembroke, as the swan of Avon, because the Wiltshire River Avon flows among the grounds of her home, Wilton House near Salisbury. I suspect that Jonson’s line in the Introductory Poem3 was meant for her.

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights along the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James?

Actually, one wonders whether William Shakespeare was ever called the Swan of Avon, until later scholars took it for granted that Jonson’s poem must refer to him, on account of the river, but of course Jonson is talking about the Thames.

My conjecture is that Emilia’s death, singing like a swan, is a reference to Mary’s death, and was included by Marlowe after September 25th, but not in time to appear in the 1Q, published, as I have said, in the early months of 1622. If this were so, that would explain why Thomas Walkley would publish an incomplete version of Othello, instead of the full text. It is logical to suppose that the MS registered on October 6th, was all the text there was at that moment, and that those missing 160 lines were later added by the author, in time to be included in the FF.

No one has been able to explain satisfactorily why, when printing the 1Q, Walkley would take the trouble to remove, for example, the Willow Song, the death of Emilia, and some beautiful lines such as these:

Othello (FF: V, 2, lines 270-275):
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon'd;
Here is my journey's end, here is my butt,
And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.
Do you go back dismay'd? 'tis a lost fear;
Man but a rush against Othello's breast,
And he retires. Where should Othello go?

This is indeed an anxious question: Where should Othello go? One might be tempted to conjecture that the death of Mary Sidney had left him without his last refuge in England; this added speech reads like a suicide note. Because Othello already had a suicide speech in the 1Q,4 this further insistence about his journey's end and the reference to his utmost sail may conceivably be telling us that the author is dying somewhere across the Channel, in the Continent where he has spent the last almost thirty years of his life.

Marlowe’s late revision would finally explain a small detail that has puzzled scholars: In Q1 Othello (Q1, 1. 3 – 345, corresponding to FF I. 3- 701), we find the word acerb: “acerb as the coloquintida”; this word was changed to bitter in the FF: “bitter as coloquintida,” a natural revision towards simplification, from the rare word to a familiar one. Acerb is not recognized in the OED as an English word until 1657, so an editor cutting/editing the FF manuscript would have had to pick up the word from the source story, in Italian. In M. R. Ridley’s Arden Edition of Othello (1962), the editor simply explains this away by saying that “It is reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare wrote acerb and not bitter since no actor, compositor, or editor would be likely to substitute the rare word for the common.” But the reverse is also true, as no actor, compositor, or editor is likely to have known what acerb meant at all! The coloquintida5 (OED, 1565) is a medicinal herb that grows in warm regions. I wonder how many people in an Elizabethan audience would have ever heard about such an herb, let alone known that it has a very bitter taste; therefore, the words “acerb as coloquintida” might have been unintelligible to most of them.

Shakespeare got the word acerbissimo from the original Tale by Cinthio,6 who uses it in a completely different context, when he explains that the Lieutenant’s love for Desdemona had turned to the bitterest hatred (odio acerbissimo) because the lady did not return his affections. We are used to Orthodox academics assuming that William Shakespeare knew Italian, but, in this case, he surpasses all expectations, showing that not only he knew the meaning of the superlative acerbissimo, but he was also familiar with Italian suffixes, so that he could coin a new adjective in English, acerb, by removing the particle issimo. However, as the word that we find in the FF is not acerb, but bitter, we need to be told who, in the chain of people allegedly involved in “cutting” and editing the FF manuscript for Walkley’s 1Q, had the nerve and the knowledge to remove the perfectly adequate English word, “bitter,” and substitute it for the non-existing word, “acerb." Unless, of course, there was a living author, a linguist, revising Othello between 6th October 1621, when the 1Q was registered, and the summer of 1622, when the full text of the play was included in the FF.

So where was Marlowe at the end of September 1621? If I were writing a work of fiction, I might propose that he was ill and away in the Continent when Mary Sidney died, which news he would have heard several weeks later; alternatively, he may have been at Mary’s bedside till she died. In this second scenario he might have delivered the 1Q Othello MS in person to Jonson before leaving the country, when, after Mary’s death, her two sons, the Inimitable Pair, sent him packing. His anxious question would be added in the last revision: Where should Othello go?

Wild speculations aside, the facts appear to suggest that Marlowe made the final revision of Othello after September 25th, and my hunch is that he then either died or killed himself. If he were abroad, Jonson may not have been aware that such a revision existed when the 1Q was printed early in 1622, but he might have known that Marlowe was finally dead. In his edition of the 1Q, Walkley thought it necessary to write a Prologue signed by himself on account of the author being dead… Although this appears to be obviously referring to William Shakespeare, dead six years earlier, we might wonder whether Jonson already knew that Iago could at last be introduced under cover of the early censorship, without further risk to the author. Here is the 1Q’s title page:

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice
As it hath been diverse times acted at the Globe and at the Black Friars, by his Majesty’s Servants. Written by William Shakespeare.”

Despite this information, and for reasons that shall be explained later,7 I find it unlikely that the text published by Walkley may have been the property of the King’s Men. Since 1604, the King’s Men had been performing The Moor of Venice, not Othello.

I believe Othello to be the last of Shakespeare’s plays, his “swan song” as well as Emilia’s. In it, Christopher Marlowe skilfully weaves the strands of the principal events that led to his destruction and, eventually, to his death in exile and ignominy. In order to tell his complex story Marlowe turned around the common usage of having one actor play several roles; instead, he used each character to represent several real people, according to ingeniously interweaved sub-plots and meaningful names. He also used several characters to represent the same person in different moments of his/her life. He assumed that his audience and readers would be familiar with the relevant historical people and events. Alas, in that he was deceived by history itself: the clues that would have been obvious to his educated contemporaries are lost to many academics and readers today. But this is not the place to explain the full story that I believe is told in Othello.

The use of the same plot and similar title as the earlier play would have been a ploy to avoid close scrutiny from the censors, who would have taken for granted (as everybody does to this day) that Othello was the same play as the old Moor of Venice of 1604. The entry in the SR says: "Thomas Walkley. Entred for his copie under the handes of Sir George Buck, and Master Swinhowe warden, The Tragedie of Othello, the moore of Venice." This seems to clear Jonson of all responsibility; nevertheless, his presence as DMR may have been the unique circumstance that made such registration possible. If so, Jonson probably took an enormous risk by allowing Othello to be entered into the SR. In fact, coincidence or not, Buck was declared insane and removed from his post shortly after the 1Q Othello appeared in print and Jonson was also removed from the post of DMR in March 1622. Maybe writing that obscure Introductory Poem in the FF was the price he had to pay for this audacity, and for his loyalty to his unlucky friend.

One cannot help wondering at Hamlet’s farewell lines to Horatio,8 such as they appear in the 2Q (1604):

O god Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

Why would Hamlet’s name be so badly “wounded”? It was Marlowe’s name that needed redressing, and he knew that only the recognition of his authorship of the Shakespearian Canon would clear his name forever.

(To be continued in Part 4.)

Isabel Gortázar

© Isabel Gortázar, July 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.

1According to W.W. Gregg (The Shakespeare First Folio, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1955, pg 371) Othello was printed between August and September 1623, so in the late stages of the printing process.
2For my objections that Francis Bacon, alive in 1621, may have been the author of Othello, see Part 2: "Enter Iago."
3In the First Folio (1623).
4Another coincidence: In the suicide speech of both the 1Q and FF, Othello makes a reference to Aleppo, one of the most famous conquests of Tamburlaine.
5Its full name is Citrullus colocynthis; it grows in some parts of Asia and the Mediterranean.
6G. Giraldi Cinthio: Gli Hecatommithi, Venice, 1565.
7See part 4: Pending publication.
8In his play Poetaster, (c1601) Ben Jonson represents himself as Horace; in his edition of Poetaster (The Revel Plays, Manchester University Press) Tom Cain wonders whether Jonson meant Ovid to represent Marlowe or Shakespeare (!).

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Sam Blumenfeld said...

Dear Isabel,
Fascinating article. Glad that you show a relationship between Marlowe and Mary Sidney. A whole book can be written on that subject. If you've read my book, you'll understand my interest in that relationship. She was indeed the Swan of Avon and the power behind Pembroke's Men that produced Marlowe's plays before Deptford.

Anonymous said...

Dear Isabel,
Wonderful article. I've long felt that the most important relationship in each of Mary Sidney and Marlowe's lives was the relationship between them. I suspect that Jonson, Sidney and Marlowe (and Blount too, I'd wager) co-edited the FF in some fashion together. Love the questions and resulting discussion your article raises.

Isabel Gortázar said...

Thanks Sam and Anonymous for your kind comments. I did read your book, Sam, but my copy is in England. I will re-read the relevant passages whne I get to London in the authumn.

If any one out there has any evidence on the relationship between Mary and Marlowe, we'd all be grateful to share it. Unfortunately, even the famous letter of September 1603 has disappeared, although it was there until the mid nineteenth century.

BTW, I agree that Mary may have helped Marlowe to revise the plays from mid-1618 to 1620; it looks as if Jonson helped till the end.
Blount did not join the FF project until the spring of 1622, when I believe Marlowe was already dead.

I'll give you my final thoughts on this in my next and last essay of the "More Doubts About Will" "tetralogy".

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