Wednesday, February 1, 2017
What's in a typo?
We usually don't think too much about handwriting anymore because everything we do is usually typed on a computer. But manuscripts and first drafts would have to be hand written in Shakespeare's lifetime. I tried to read William Shakespeare's will and the only words I could make out and be sure about was his signature. As long as he also told someone his will, mistakes in reading it couldn't cause many problems.
However, one word in the middle of Othello's final speech can change the entire meaning of the passage. Printed in the First Quarto (1622), Othello compares himself to 'the base Indian' while in the First Folio (1623) it reads "the base Judean" (Levin 60). These two words are very different in how they describe Othello's character.
If the original meaning was "Indian", then this would bring to mind thoughts of the cannibals and savages of the New World that Shakespeare's society was so eager to gossip about. More primal and lowly attributes would be applied to the general.
The word being "Judean" is less likely due to the OED saying that "the earliest citation it records (after the Folio reading, which is labeled 'doubtful') is from a book published in 1652" (Levin 61). But giving the benefit of the doubt to the word gives Othello aspects of Judas, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ. Othello would be comparing himself as a traitor which evokes a very different type of emotion from the audience than comparing himself to an Indian.
It's amazing to see how much a few wrong looking letters can change the analysis of an entire speech. Shakespeare's handwriting was terrible and it's his fault that the word can be up for debate. However, the mistakes and typos do not take away from his status because it only causes more people to talk about Shakespeare's works. The idea of Shakespeare is a much larger concept than just his writing and bibliography, it includes the power of his name and it's effects on people still to this day.
Levin, Richard. “The Indian/Iudean Crux In Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 1982, pp. 60–67.