Online Publication of the South-Central Renaissance Conference

Othello’s Jealousy: From Textual Crux to Critical Conundrum

Posted on June 23, 2012

Discoveries 29.1 (2012). 23 June 2012

By Michael L. Hays


Discussions of Othello almost invariably recognize him as “other” in terms of gender, race, class, profession, and national origins, among others.[2] In all of these ways, he is indeed “other.” But, too often, when we view him as “other” in these terms, we see him as an “other” more in ways which interest us than in ways which interested, or were instinct with, his original beholders. The result, I think, is the persistent problem of satisfactorily explaining Othello’s jealousy.

Another “other” is contemporary literature and literary traditions, those especially influential components of culture. One such tradition embraces chivalric romances, the largest corpus of fiction writing throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime and a potent contemporary influence. We deprecate such romances, but Elizabethans did not. The bibliographical record is the proof. The obvious instances in the Short-Title Catalogue are the many issues of Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick.[3] The former, Shakespeare quoted in King Lear; the latter his company performed in an acting version.

Additional evidence is everywhere in Shakespeare; I offer one example, from Othello. Whence comes the notion, spoken by Iago, that “they say base men being in Loue, haue then a Nobilitie in their Natures, more than is natiue to them” (TLN 998-1000; 2.1.215-17)?[4] “They say” suggests a commonplace, but who are they who say? “They” are the chivalric romances embodying the motif of courtly love, in which the love of a morally superior woman inspires a man to virtuous deeds or approves them. But if the woman later proves or appears to be morally inferior, then the man’s occupation is lost, is it not?

Which brings us to Othello’s jealousy. Today, we regard it as a condition to be interpreted for its meaning from political, psychological, or sociological perspectives. Yesterday, we regarded it as a phenomenon to be explained by the mechanics of Othello’s rapid transformation from a loving to a jealous husband. Between now and then is our failure to provide a plausible account of the sudden onset of his jealousy, with its acceptance of what is baseless and, in all eyes, implausible until Iago blears his perception. Why is Othello susceptible to Iago’s insinuations? Is it Iago’s message or his manner or method of delivery? Is it the convention of the slanderer believed—which raises questions what slander believed and why? Meanwhile, no interpretations, however interesting or ingenious, satisfy us, as our craving for still more interpretations testifies. I think that we confront an “other” which we see but which we do not see for what it is.


I want to focus our sight by inspecting an intriguing but hitherto ignored textual crux in Othello. Two lines in the scene in which Iago renders Othello jealous have different pronouns in the Quarto and the Folio. The Quarto reads: “Did Michael Cassio/When you woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?” The Folio reads: “Did Michael Cassio/When he woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?” (TLN 1696-7; 3.3.96-7). The distinctly odd thing about this crux is the editorial consensus which simply disregards it. All modern editors take the Folio as their copy text, most regard its changes as authorial, yet every one of them emends its “he” to “you” without comment.[5]

This uniformity exists for one of two possible reasons. One would be an assumption of textual corruption, the result of scribal or compositorial error. However, no one has offered any evidence to support either suggestion. Other suggestions would likely be no more convincing for the same reason: no evidence. Whatever our editorial principles, if the Folio is our copy text, then Folio’s “he” is our word unless we have reason to reject it.

The other would be—and is—assumptions that “he” is nonsensical and, nonsensically, that pronoun differences do not merit a moment’s consideration. Imagine: in a play involving jealousy, who has done, or is thought to have done, what with whom is unimportant! Prooftext literalism rather than context sensitivity to lines uttered by characters thus ignore the nuances of the text. Other astigmatic or skewed readings prove unpersuasive upon scrutiny. Whatever our critical principles, we should make an assumption verging on fact that Folio’s “he” made sense to Shakespeare, his fellows in rehearsal and performance, and his audience. Whether this change from Quarto to Folio is authorial, the question, critical, not textual, is whether the result makes sense. And sense often reflects cultural conditioning of which we may be unaware.


Consider Quarto’s “you.” Iago’s question is, “Did Michael Cassio/When you woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?” Here, Iago’s question is redundant because Iago knows the answer, for he has just heard Desdemona declare that Cassio was a go-between. When Iago later claims that he did not know that Cassio had known her, he admits ignorance and implies surprise. Bearing down on Cassio’s role in the courtship, Iago insinuates something amiss about it. He lets Othello imagine what that something is but gives him no clear reason to become so suddenly convinced of Cassio’s betrayal. Likewise, we have no clear reason to know why he becomes so abruptly jealous. We make do with Quarto’s “you” by filling its vacuum with interpretive speculations about aspects of the “other.”

Consider Folio’s “he.” Iago’s question is, “Did Michael Cassio/When he woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?” Here, Iago’s question is quite remarkable, for it insinuates off-handedly as a fact that Cassio wooed Desdemona. Since Iago has just heard Desdemona declare that Cassio was a go-between, Iago is insinuating that Cassio not only wooed Desdemona, but also betrayed Othello by pretending to serve him in the role of agreed-upon go-between. When Iago later claims that he did not know that Cassio had known her, he admits ignorance and implies surprise. Yet his claim is entirely consistent with the insinuated fact of betrayal if go-betweens have, and were understood to have, a bad habit of courting for themselves secretly until detected or, in Othello, defamed.


I am sorry to say that they do have, and were understood to have, that bad habit. In the long literary tradition of courtly love, a motif embedded in some well-known English chivalric romances and later-day adaptations or inventions, the intermediary rarely appears, but, when he does, he usually portends an ominous development. In Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus fails the lovers. In Le Morte D’Arthur, Tristram wins Iseult while wooing for Mark. In Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589), Lacy woos Margaret for King Edward but, in a reversal of roles, she woos him, wins him, and then wards off the king’s charge of treason. In A Knack to Know a Knave (1592), Edgar anticipates the possibility of betrayal when, appointing Ethenwald to woo Alfrida in his stead, he admonishes him not to woo for himself.

Shakespeare knew these works and was thoroughly acquainted with the intermediary. He used the intermediary adeptly and, I believe, more often than did his contemporaries. As early as Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), he awkwardly signals to the audience what to expect of Proteus as the intermediary. The Duke tells Proteus that

we dare trust you in this kinde [to woo Silvia in Valentine’s behalf],
Because we know…
You are already loues firme votary,
And cannot soone reuolt, and change your minde (TLN 1501-4; 3.2.56-9).

The Duke recognizes the possibility of betrayal but mistakenly places his trust in Proteus on the grounds that he will be true to his love Julia, and Proteus establishes his villainy by wooing his friend Valentine’s love for himself.

In Twelfth Night (1601), Viola wins Olivia while wooing her on behalf of Orsino; the complications of an intermediary enriched by the titillation of same-sex attraction enhance interest and humor. In this play and in Othello, Shakespeare shows characters pretending to serve as intermediaries but using their position of trust to exploit foppish lovers for money: Sir Toby bilking Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, and Iago bilking Roderigo. In King Lear, Oswald fails as Goneril and Edmund’s agreed-upon go-between; he fails to deliver her letter, which, when Edgar finds it on his fallen body, reveals her infidelity, exposes her plot for Edmund to assassinate Albany, and leads to the lovers’ demise.

As late as The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare found new ways to use the intermediary. After Leontes becomes jealous, he accuses Camillo of being a “Pandar” (TLN 643; 2.1.48) to help Polixenes to win Hermione. He says that “that false Villaine,/Whom I employ’d, was pre-employ’d by him” (TLN 645-6; 50-1). Without prompting, Leontes rationalizes his jealousy by retrospectively refashioning Camillo as an unfaithful intermediary serving his imagined rival. Shakespeare’s new wrinkle: the intermediary as double agent.

These instances indicate a literary history of the intermediary: a record of disparities between accepted function and actual outcome or conduct. As some of them indicate, characters who know that a knight is wooing a lady with the aid of an intermediary also know that the intermediary can be faithful or unfaithful to his task. The knight himself knows as much. A peculiarity of this literary history is its internalization in characters.

Let me be clear. The knight’s knowledge of the possibilities of an intermediary’s behavior internalizes the literary history of the type. However, this knowledge is not a meta-textual or hyper-textual feature of the knight; the knight is aware of himself and the world as if both are real, not as if both are fictional. The knight knows what an intermediary is supposed to do and what he can do. So, when a knight believes in an intermediary’s betrayal, his response is not surprise at an extraordinary event, but justifiable outrage at its moral, political, or social effects. It is most decidedly not to think of his betrayal by an intermediary as a literary gimmick to render him jealous.


That Cassio wooed Desdemona for himself is a possibility to Iago and Othello. Otherwise, Iago could not insinuate it, and Othello could not accept it. The tradition of the intermediary enables Iago’s sexual innuendos based on Cassio’s role. In turn, these innuendos imply Desdemona’s infidelity and Othello’s dishonor as knight and husband.

When Desdemona reveals Cassio’s role as an intermediary—“What? Michael Cassio,/That came a woing with you? and so many a time/(When I have spoke of you dispraisingly)/Hath tane your part…” (TLN 1669-72; 3.3.70-3)—Iago seizes on this fact new to him and immediately shapes it to serve his purposes. In doing so, he executes his earlier-stated strategy to trap Cassio by exploiting his “Courtship” (TLN 945; 2.1.173); he necessarily ensnares Desdemona and Othello by making her appear unfaithful and by rendering him jealous. What he lacks until this moment of her revelation is the tactical information to implement his strategy. What he does not lack is the quick wit to exploit such information when he acquires it.

Othello accepts Iago’s slanders about Cassio and Desdemona because of their sense. As a knight who wooed a lady with the aid of an intermediary, Othello trusted Cassio but would accept insinuations of his betrayal from Iago, a trusted source. He needs only intimations, later supported by suggestive instances, to believe betrayal, infidelity, and dishonor, and to change perceptions of those involved in the courtship and their relationships. Thus, report, not reality, enables the sudden shift from one perception to another, and later perceptions of artful fictions as confirmations.

Othello becomes suddenly jealous because Iago’s insinuations, as Iago pursues them, persuade him to see himself no longer as a chivalric knight who has wooed and won a beautiful, high-born damsel by virtue of his deeds of arms and with the aid of an intermediary, but as the old, black, and ill-suited husband cuckolded by a young wife with a more suitable young lover. It is an old story, of course, but it appears to be a story forgotten and, despite the many clues given in the play itself, overlooked. The action of Othello’s jealousy hinges on the role and reputation of the intermediary, knowledge of which has been lost to modern cultural perception.


So both Quarto’s “you” and Folio’s “he” make sense. However, the Quarto is insipid in suggestions which add nothing; the Folio is inspired in slanders which add everything. Quarto’s “you” is vague, indirect, non-committal. Contemporaries supplied the traditional suspicion of intermediaries. Without understanding the prompt of Othello’s jealousy, moderns rely on considerations or latent biases rendered irrelevant by the Duke and the Venetian Senators, and undermined by Othello’s multiple rationalizations, or they rely on Iago’s wink-and-nod machinations in language or gesture.

Folio’s “he” is specific, direct, and shocking. It is a trifecta of slanders intensely focused by imputed fact. It means that Cassio wooed Desdemona, that Othello wooed her, and that both wooed her at the same time. It means that Cassio accepted Othello’s request to serve as intermediary while or before he wooed for himself and that Othello believed that he served faithfully. It means that Desdemona consented to concurrent solicitations by two men and so was the “Whore” (TLN 2783, 2788; 4.2.86, 89) whom Othello, in his jealousy, later declares her to be. The narrative time of “nine Moones” (TLN 423; 1.3.84) in Venice is sufficient to make Iago’s insinuations possible and Othello’s suspicions plausible (and to eliminate the “double-time” problem). His imputation of a “thousand” (TLN 2577; 4.1.192) fornications expresses, not deranged hallucination, but serviceable hyperbole. Folio’s “he” makes Othello’s jealousy reflect, not mental delusion, but moral outrage.

Shakespeare’s dramaturgic strategy assumed his audience’s familiarity with the intermediary in courtly love. On trial for witchcraft, Othello does not seek exoneration by requesting Cassio’s testimony or revealing his role as intermediary. Shakespeare saved that fact for Desdemona to reveal later. Her disclosure gives Iago the opportunity which he has wanted, for which he has waited, and which, in the Folio, he fully exploits. I believe that Shakespeare realized that changing Quarto’s “you” to Folio’s “he” would endow the Folio with a richer and more potent meaning than the Quarto entertained.

Folio’s “he” makes sense. Editors who take the Folio as their copy text lack warrant to emend it in light of the Quarto. Critics who ignore the difference in pronouns ignore the implications for the meaning of the play. In different ways, editors and critics obscure cultural knowledge which might enable informed readers or audiences to see Othello’s jealousy as something plausible, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have seen it.

I admit that this crux is likely unique in its nature and significance. Nevertheless, a pronoun substitution which affects the characters’ perceived and real relationships in a play concerned with jealousy should have received editorial and critical attention. That it has not suggests that pronouncements of conservatism in editing are more a matter of convention than conviction, and that disregard of textual variants in criticism reveals a dismaying lack of curiosity. Be that as it may, in this case, but not likely only in this case, editing and criticizing Shakespeare, not to support present interests or modern perspectives, but to see him more nearly as he is, require more cultural knowledge than many realize.

[1] This article is a revision of the paper, “Another Source of the “Other” in Othello: From Textual Crux to Critical Conundrum,” which I delivered at the 2012 South-Central Renaissance Conference in New Orleans. I have rephrased some comments on recent critical pre-occupations, and on the reasons for the universal neglect of the crux identified and discussed; removed concluding comments on the relevance of contemporary literature to scholarship and pedagogy; and added a few endnotes. Because attendees liked the briskness of the style, I have not revised to achieve blandness.

[2] Lena Cowen Orlin, Othello Seminar (for 2012), Bulletin, Shakespeare Association of America (June 2011), p. 5, offers a seemingly comprehensive list. “With Othello we engage issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion in the Renaissance; women, patriarchalism, and domestic violence; sexual identity, sexual practice, and pornography; social distinction, occupational mobility, and class resentment; state aggression, imperialism, and surveillance.” The important concerns are race and gender: “Was it racist then? Can it be anything other than racist now? Why are its sexual politics overshadowed by its racial politics?” There is an interest in “What new questions should be asked of Othello?” but I wonder how different they would be in kind from these.

[3] A discussion of the bibliographical record occurs in Michael L. Hays, Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2003), 27-65. The enumerative and analytical bibliography underlying this discussion was too long for publication.

[4] My text is Charlton Hinman, ed., The First Folio of Shakespeare, The Norton Facsimile (New York: Norton, 1968). Line numbering follows Hinman for Through Line Numbering (TLN), and G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) for conventional lineation by act and scene.

[5] I have consulted the following editions: Ridley, 7th ed. (Arden, 1965), Bentley in Harbage (Penguin 1969), Ribner/Kittridge (Ginn, 1971), Sanders (New Cambridge, 1984), Wells/Taylor (Oxford, 1988), Bevington, 4th ed. (Longman, 1997), Cohen in Greenblatt (Norton, 1997), Honigmann (Arden, 1997), Kermode in Evans, 2nd ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and McDonald in Orgel/Braunmuller (Penguin, 2002). The Wells/Taylor Textual Companion (Norton, 1997) to their Oxford edition is also silent.