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Othello exists in two authoritative versions: the first quarto (Q) published in 1622 and the Folio (F) of 1623. Current scholarly opinion on the relationship between Q and F is summarized thus in the Oxford Textual Companion:(1)
[Q] represents a scribal copy of foul papers. F represents a scribal copy of Shakespeare's own revised manuscript of the play.
F therefore brings us closer to Shakespeare's final text than [Q].
[Q's] scribe obliterated fewer authorial characteristics than F's.
This hypothesis places Othello in the same category as Hamlet and King Lear; for both of these, scholars generally agree that F prints Shakespeare's revised texts.(2)
There are two substantial difficulties with this. First, the F versions of Hamlet and Lear omit several long passages (in Lear, an entire scene) which do not significantly advance the plot but whose omission produces tighter, faster-paced dramas. In Othello, if we accept the current hypothesis, precisely the opposite occurs. The prime example is Emilia's defence of wives at the end of the 'willow song' scene:
But I do think it is their husbands' faults If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties, And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Then let them use us well, else let them know The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
This, and similar passages in F, are best described by the Oxford editors:
Q is shorter than F, and most of the material present only in F consists of static poetic elaboration which slows up the dramatic pace. We find it easier to believe that Shakespeare on reflection intelligently cut such elaborations than that he so unintelligently padded out a play already taxingly long.(4)
These comments were made about Richard III. Excepting that Othello is not taxingly long, they apply to it with equal force.
The other difficulty is that F contains many fewer stage directions than Q. For example, at the climax of the play, F does not tell us that Othello kisses the sleeping Desdemona; that after murdering her, he falls on the bed where she lies; that he runs at Iago when told the truth about the handkerchief; that Iago stabs Emilia; or, finally, that Othello stabs himself. For all of these directions, and many others, Q is our only source. No one has satisfactorily explained how it came about that the revised text of the play contains so many fewer stage directions, when the plot was essentially unaffected by the revision. It seems unlikely that the Q-only directions were added by the scribe who copied the play because, as Greg noted,(5) all of them give the impression of being authorial. In particular, Q's Enter Montano, Governor of Cyprus with two other Gentlemen (II.i.0) could only have been written by Shakespeare, because the text nowhere describes Montano as governor. To explain the absence of such directions from F, we have to believe that either Shakespeare or the scribe who copied his manuscript deliberately deleted around twenty stage directions (accidental omission of so many is hardly possible). This is not a credible hypothesis. In this note I provide textual evidence to support an alternative hypothesis: that it is Q which represents Shakespeare's revised text of Othello, F being the original.
False starts in F
During the heat of composition, Shakespeare, like all authors, could be expected to strike out certain words or lines he had written and replace them with others he considered better. That these 'false starts' were sometimes not clearly marked in his manuscripts and could find their way into printed texts is proved by, among others, the well-known example from Romeo and Juliet: 'I will believe Shall I …