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Othello (Folger Shakespeare Library) Paperback – August 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

William Shakespeare was born in April 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, on England’s Avon River. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. The couple had three children—their older daughter Susanna and the twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died in childhood. The bulk of Shakespeare’s working life was spent, not in Stratford, but in the theater world of London, where he established himself professionally by the early 1590s. He enjoyed success not only as a playwright, but as an actor and shareholder in an acting company. Sometime between 1610 and 1613, Shakespeare is thought to have retired from the stage and returned home to Stratford, where he died in 1616.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Shakespeare's Life

Surviving documents that give us glimpses into the life of William Shakespeare show us a playwright, poet, and actor who grew up in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, spent his professional life in London, and returned to Stratford a wealthy landowner. He was born in April 1564, died in April 1616, and is buried inside the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

We wish we could know more about the life of the world's greatest dramatist. His plays and poems are testaments to his wide reading -- especially to his knowledge of Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed's Chronicles, and the Bible -- and to his mastery of the English language, but we can only speculate about his education. We know that the King's New School in Stratford-upon-Avon was considered excellent. The school was one of the English "grammar schools" established to educate young men, primarily in Latin grammar and literature. As in other schools of the time, students began their studies at the age of four or five in the attached "petty school," and there learned to read and write in English, studying primarily the catechism from the Book of Common Prayer. After two years in the petty school, students entered the lower form (grade) of the grammar school, where they began the serious study of Latin grammar and Latin texts that would occupy most of the remainder of their school days. (Several Latin texts that Shakespeare used repeatedly in writing his plays and poems were texts that schoolboys memorized and recited.) Latin comedies were introduced early in the lower form; in the upper form, which the boys entered at age ten or eleven, students wrote their own Latin orations and declamations, studied Latin historians and rhetoricians, and began the study of Greek using the Greek New Testament.

Since the records of the Stratford "grammar school" do not survive, we cannot prove that William Shakespeare attended the school; however, every indication (his father's position as an alderman and bailiff of Stratford, the playwright's own knowledge of the Latin classics, scenes in the plays that recall grammar-school experiences -- for example, The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.1) suggests that he did. We also lack generally accepted documentation about Shakespeare's life after his schooling ended and his professional life in London began. His marriage in 1582 (at age eighteen) to Anne Hathaway and the subsequent births of his daughter Susanna (1583) and the twins Judith and Hamnet (1585) are recorded, but how he supported himself and where he lived are not known. Nor do we know when and why he left Stratford for the London theatrical world, nor how he rose to be the important figure in that world that he had become by the early 1590s.

We do know that by 1592 he had achieved some prominence in London as both an actor and a playwright. In that year was published a book by the playwright Robert Greene attacking an actor who had the audacity to write blank-verse drama and who was "in his own conceit [i.e., opinion] the only Shake-scene in a country." Since Greene's attack includes a parody of a line from one of Shakespeare's early plays, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare to whom he refers, a "Shake-scene" who had aroused Greene's fury by successfully competing with university-educated dramatists like Greene himself. It was in 1593 that Shakespeare became a published poet. In that year he published his long narrative poem Venus and Adonis; in 1594, he followed it with The Rape of Lucrece. Both poems were dedicated to the young earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley), who may have become Shakespeare's patron.

It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare wrote these narrative poems at a time when the theaters were closed because of the plague, a contagious epidemic disease that devastated the population of London. When the theaters reopened in 1594, Shakespeare apparently resumed his double career of actor and playwright and began his long (and seemingly profitable) service as an acting-company shareholder. Records for December of 1594 show him to be a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. It was this company of actors, later named the King's Men, for whom he would be a principal actor, dramatist, and shareholder for the rest of his career.

So far as we can tell, that career spanned about twenty years. In the 1590s, he wrote his plays on English history as well as several comedies and at least two tragedies (Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet). These histories, comedies, and tragedies are the plays credited to him in 1598 in a work, Palladis Tamia, that in one chapter compares English writers with "Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets." There the author, Francis Meres, claims that Shakespeare is comparable to the Latin dramatists Seneca for tragedy and Plautus for comedy, and calls him "the most excellent in both kinds for the stage." He also names him "Mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare": "I say," writes Meres, "that the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase, if they would speak English." Since Meres also mentions Shakespeare's "sugared sonnets among his private friends," it is assumed that many of Shakespeare's sonnets (not published until 1609) were also written in the 1590s.

In 1599, Shakespeare's company built a theater for themselves across the river from London, naming it the Globe. The plays that are considered by many to be Shakespeare's major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth) were written while the company was resident in this theater, as were such comedies as Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed at court (both for Queen Elizabeth I and, after her death in 1603, for King James I), some were presented at the Inns of Court (the residences of London's legal societies), and some were doubtless performed in other towns, at the universities, and at great houses when the King's Men went on tour; otherwise, his plays from 1599 to 1608 were, so far as we know, performed only at the Globe. Between 1608 and 1612, Shakespeare wrote several plays -- among them The Winter's Tale and The Tempest -- presumably for the company's new indoor Blackfriars theater, though the plays seem to have been performed also at the Globe and at court. Surviving documents describe a performance of The Winter's Tale in 1611 at the Globe, for example, and performances of The Tempest in 1611 and 1613 at the royal palace of Whitehall.

Shakespeare wrote very little after 1612, the year in which he probably wrote King Henry VIII. (It was at a performance of Henry VIII in 1613 that the Globe caught fire and burned to the ground.) Sometime between 1610 and 1613 he seems to have returned to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he owned a large house and considerable property, and where his wife and his two daughters and their husbands lived. (His son Hamnet had died in 1596.) During his professional years in London, Shakespeare had presumably derived income from the acting company's profits as well as from his own career as an actor, from the sale of his play manuscripts to the acting company, and, after 1599, from his shares as an owner of the Globe. It was presumably that income, carefully invested in land and other property, which made him the wealthy man that surviving documents show him to have become. It is also assumed that William Shakespeare's growing wealth and reputation played some part in inclining the crown, in 1596, to grant John Shakespeare, William's father, the coat of arms that he had so long sought. William Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616 (according to the epitaph carved under his bust in Holy Trinity Church) and was buried on April 25. Seven years after his death, his collected plays were published as Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (the work now known as the First Folio).

The years in which Shakespeare wrote were among the most exciting in English history. Intellectually, the discovery, translation, and printing of Greek and Roman classics were making available a set of works and worldviews that interacted complexly with Christian texts and beliefs. The result was a questioning, a vital intellectual ferment, that provided energy for the period's amazing dramatic and literary output and that fed directly into Shakespeare's plays. The Ghost in Hamlet, for example, is wonderfully complicated in part because he is a figure from Roman tragedy -- the spirit of the dead returning to seek revenge -- who at the same time inhabits a Christian hell (or purgatory); Hamlet's description of humankind reflects at one moment the Neoplatonic wonderment at mankind ("What a piece of work is a man!") and, at the next, the Christian disparagement of human sinners ("And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?").

As intellectual horizons expanded, so also did geographical and cosmological horizons. New worlds -- both North and South America -- were explored, and in them were found human beings who lived and worshiped in ways radically different from those of Renaissance Europeans and Englishmen. The universe during these years also seemed to shift and expand. Copernicus had earlier theorized that the earth was not the center of the cosmos but revolved as a planet around the sun. Galileo's telescope, created in 1609, allowed scientists to see that Copernicus had been correct; the universe was not organized with the earth at the center, nor was it so nicely circumscribed as people had, until that time, thought. In terms of expanding horizons, the impact of these discoveries on people's beliefs -- religious, scientific, and philosophical -- cannot be overstated.

London, too, rapidly expanded and changed during the years (from the early 1590s to around 1610) that Shakespeare lived there. London -- the center of England's government, its economy, its royal court, its overseas trade -- was, during these years, becoming an exciting metropolis, drawing to it thousands of new c... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Series: Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (August 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743482824
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743482820
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By R. J. Marsella on June 25, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Is there any other character in all of literature who is as calculatingly evil as Shakespeare's Iago? His jealousy over being passed over in favor of Cassio engenders a revengeful scheme that turns jealousy into a weapon used to destroy the noble Othello. Here innocence and trust is contrasted with pure manipulation and evil in what is one of Shakespeare's most revealing tragedies. The characters act exactly as they would be expected to based on the overriding quality that they represent. Othello is wonderful Shakespearean drama that ranks among his greatest works.

The Folger Library editions are my favorite. Each page has a facing page that explains obscure terms and helps as a handy reference to make reading the plays pleasurable and educational. These paperback editions of Shakespeare's works are a great value and fit in your pocket.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By bookrabbit on July 17, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've been using the Folger library series for years now, and although the Norton Critical edition has its place, the Folger edition cannot be beat for clarity and accessibility. Pay the extra couple of bucks for the 5.5 x 8
paperback rather than the smaller mass market paperback. The paper quality and illustrations are far superior in the larger version.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Nicholas Edwards on March 30, 2002
Format: Audio CD
This is the 1944 studio recording of the legendary stage production of "Othello" which starred Robeson & Ferrer.
Both of their interpretations may be a little more declamatory than modern tastes are accustomed to, but there is no doubt as to their effectiveness, variety and power. As to Uta Hagen's Desdemona: wonderful. The recording itself is of excellent quality - the balance captures the full mid-range and depth of Robeson's formidable bass and Ferrer's sinuous baritone. The mastering more than does justice to it and is from nearly pristine sources. In brief: If your curiosity is at all piqued by this disc you should get it, no question. Listen to it with the lights out and bask in the sheer glory - especially Act II, scene III and the final scene.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Rocco Dormarunno on April 17, 2013
Format: Paperback
As I have written in previous reviews of editions of Shakespeare's plays, the Folger Shakespeare Library is the most accessible for my students to use and for me to teach from. This "Othello" is no exception.

Of course, there is the play itself which students enjoy more than most of the Bard's works. It has a little of something for students to discuss and to analyze for their papers: racism, power, jealousy (Othello's), jealousy (Iago's), good, evil, love, intrigue... What makes this edition preferable for students is the face-to-face footnoting and explications. Students appreciate not having to flip to the back of the book or have the bottom of the page (and, therefore, the flow of the reading) cut through by footnotes.

And finally, there is the price. The Folger Shakespeare Library is always reasonably priced. This is a huge factor when you consider what students are already paying for their education.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Julie Vognar on November 13, 2008
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
"Put up your bright swords, or the dew will rust them!"

"Oh thou weed, that smellst so sweet that the senses ache at thee...I'll smell it on the tree..."

Paul Robeson not only has the most wonderful voice, but is a superb actor as well. His deep, flexible, expressive tones seem to be going exactly where they are inclined to go, instead of where a man writing over 400 years ago, in what we call "Shakespearian English" (closer to ours than middle English--but not quite there) dictated. Uta Hagen ("and I remain behind, a moth of peace...Let me go with him!") is also perfect.

When I first got the 33 1/3 RPM record (as close to 1950 as possible), I loved Jose Ferrer as Iago, with his India-rubber ball voice, best of all. He is great, but sometimes I find his scenes with Othello so insinuating (after he has begun to feed Othello his "poison" Othello: "Well then--I do believe-- Desdemona's honest." Iago: "Long live she so! And long live you to [very insinuating] think so." One sometimes wonders at Othello's gullibility [which is of course part of his character..but still...]} Iago floats over his "motive-hunting of motiveless malignancy" to perfection. Everything moves toward its inevitable conclusion, with Iago pushing, pulling, tacking, fashioning "the net/ that shall enmesh them all."

I was too young to see this performance (8 in 1943); it's one of many things I wish I could go back in time for.

If you can enjoy listening to a Shakespeare play, instead of watching it--do yourself a good turn, and get this one!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Native Texan on April 24, 2011
Format: MP3 Music Verified Purchase
To say that Paul Robeson's life was remarkable is an understatement. To say that his voice was remarkable is equally an understatement. There isn't much you can say about this man that lives up to the truth of his life and this recording is a good example. I've read reviews about this recording, saying that the acting is old-fashioned and out of date. Particularly in light of some of the more recent original pronunciation recordings, some of the actors do sound artificial. That, however, was the acting style of the time. Paul Robeson's performance stands the test of time, in my opinion. He could easily hold his own on any stage today. And anyone who has studied acting has heard of Uta Hagen. (Strangely, there are times when her delivery sounds like no one more than Marilyn Monroe.) This is a hard-to-find recording worth listening to if only for the symphonic beauty of Robeson's voice.
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