- The Oxford Shakespeare Othello, the Moor of Venice
There has been no entirely satisfactory scholarly edition of Othello until now. Norman Sanders's New Cambridge edition of 1984 surveyed Othello's extensive stage history and highlighted major controversies surrounding the play, but in keeping with Cambridge's format, annotations were light. E.A.J. Honigmann's Othello for the Arden3 series (1997) was a welcome replacement for M. R. Ridley's antiquated Arden2 edition (1958), but its reticence regarding race—the play's most compelling issue for contemporary readers—made it seem old-fashioned. Finally, in Michael Neill's Oxford Othello, we have a comprehensive edition for the twenty-first century.
Like most of his predecessors (with the exception of Ridley), Neill uses the Folio as his copy text, adding material from the 1622 quarto (Q) and collations from the 1630 Q2 where appropriate. His Appendix B provides a complete review of twentieth-century debates over the play's texts, from the New Bibliographers to the revisionists to more recent work on Q by the late Scott McMillin. Neill concurs with McMillin that Q was compiled by actors from Shakespeare's company who needed a new manuscript of the entire play and recited their lines to a scribe in order to produce one. This twenty-eight-page appendix is the clearest and most convincing discussion of Othello's vexed textual problems that I have ever read; it should be required reading for graduate students.
Neill's 179-page introduction is a monograph in itself. Of it, seventy-seven pages are devoted to Othello's fascinating stage history, with particular attention to the changing face of the hero (black or brown). Another sixty-six pages go to interpretation, with sections on blackness, discovery, the monstrous, place, love and service, and, not least, women. Neill subtly outlines Othello's reception history, showing how a text written when the concept of race had not fully cohered gradually acquired racial overtones so that now, it is impossible to ignore its racial implications. Neill's discussion of gender is less satisfactory; Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca receive a scant eight pages. Certainly, those pages are perceptive and sympathetic, but they are less historically grounded than other sections. The introduction's most original and compelling portion centers on class, broadly interpreted as "Place, Office, and Occupation" (147). As Neill perceptively observes, "The murderous resentments by which Othello's hero is destroyed were, [End Page 109] after all, keyed to a world in which matters of rank, deference, and subordination were all-important" (147). Shakespeare scholars have worked hard to recuperate early modern gender ideologies and to understand the age's ethnocentrism, but the crucial role of service has not received the same attention. Neill makes his reader feel the oppressiveness of early modern hierarchies as they weigh on all the play's characters, not simply Iago.
Neill carries this theme into his commentary. His note for 3.3.9, where Cassio describes himself as Desdemona's "true servant," explains the phrase's resonance: "The nuances of Cassio's language here will be difficult for a modern audience to catch: true servant is essentially a routine courtesy, but one complicated by awareness of Cassio's subordinate role as an officer in the service . . . of a general." In other commentary notes, Neill brings in stage directions from Q that help us visualize the action; even more important, he refers to contemporary performances. The note to 4.2.87, "Is't possible?" for example, suggests that this reiterated phrase can be used to "taunt the audience" and observes that "In Sam Mendes's 1997 production the line provided the cue for a despairingly tender and lingering embrace, broken violently on 'I cry you mercy then.'" Neill's straightforward glosses are refreshingly clear and frequently illuminate the text in new and intriguing ways.
The edition concludes with six appendices. Appendix A on dating concurs with Honigmann's argument for a date, 1602–3, somewhat earlier than previous editors suggested. Appendix C provides...