Today on Project Gutenberg #6

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Othello by William Shakespeare

Now this is definitely something that everyone here has heard of. I don’t think there’s much I can say about this play that hasn’t been said already. It’s a damn good story about racism, passion, lies and murder, featuring one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes and also one of his best villains. Along with Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, it’s considered one of the Bard’s four great tragedies. I’ll give my thoughts on them in a little while, but first I want to talk about the text itself.

The version that Project Gutenberg pulled up for me isn’t the “official” version offered by them. Some notes at the beginning list it as one of the website’s earliest transcription efforts, so it contains a lot of information that would have been directed at new users: the mission of the project, how to access it online, where to donate if you want to, stuff about copyright. The files I’ve looked at up to now haven’t had these, so it’s fun to read through them and see what PG was like in its infancy.

The other interesting thing about this copy of Othello is that it’s transcribed directly from the First Folio, which means none of the spelling has been updated for modern readers. It looks more daunting than it actually is, though. For example, here’s what the first few lines of the play looks like:

Enter Rodorigo, and Iago.

  Rodorigo. Neuer tell me, I take it much vnkindly

That thou (Iago) who hast had my purse,

As if y strings were thine, should’st know of this

   Ia. But you’l not heare me. If euer I did dream

Of such a matter, abhorre me

   Rodo. Thou told’st me,

Thou did’st hold him in thy hate

Act 1 Scene 1, lines 1-7

Compare that to the same lines from Project Gutenberg’s later edition of the text:

RODERIGO.

Tush, never tell me, I take it much unkindly

That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse,

As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

IAGO.

’Sblood, but you will not hear me.

If ever I did dream of such a matter,

Abhor me.

RODERIGO.

Thou told’st me, thou didst hold him in thy hate.

Act 1 Scene 1, lines 1-7

Looking at something like this would be a good way to train your eyes for reading texts from this time period. I know I’ve had times when that skill would have come in handy.

If by chance you aren’t familiar with the plot of Othello, I’ll give you a little rundown. Othello is a Moor (usually portrayed nowadays as a dark-skinned African, though wasn’t necessarily the case in Shakespeare’s day) who’s worked his way up to being a great general in the city of Venice. He’s just eloped with Desdemona, a Venetian noblewoman several years his junior, and this has made him a few enemies among the establishment. Into this situation comes Iago, who’s angry that Othello gave a promotion he wanted to another soldier named Cassio. Iago, who likes to watch things metaphorically burn, decides that the obvious course of action now is to completely ruin his boss’s life. So he launches a complicated plot to trick Othello into believing that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Does it work? You probably know the answer already, but if you don’t…well, it’s listed among the great tragedies for a reason. But the meat of a great story isn’t in the ending alone, it’s in how you get there. And the way Othello gets to its ending is complex and fascinating indeed.

Look, just go read it if you haven’t already done so. Try and watch it if you can, whether you’re interested in one of the film adaptations or a live performance. There’s never a bad time to enjoy theater.

See you next time!

— Dana

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