I particularly appreciate the Othello assignment Natasha Korda designed, and Suzy Taraba helped to present, because it induces students to think about how Shakespeare’s play is a living text, not some immutable, unchanging artifact of the distant past. The textual cruxes of the play, which cannot be solved by appeal to an original manuscript, require that readers of the play must decide for themselves which of two versions is best, and why. Does Othello say of Desdemona that she gave him for his pains a world of kisses, or a world of sighs? As he is about to take his life, does Othello damn himself as a base Indian or a base Judean? Much can turn on a word, and editors of the plays have for centuries debated the choices.

The assignment requires students to learn about this literary history: why would one editor would make one choice and another arrive at a different conclusion, and how do editors can justify their decisions? This is no disembodied exercise. Because of Wesleyan’s excellent collection of rare books, students can see for themselves the earliest printed versions of the plays and the editions that followed through the centuries. The physical fact of the books does what no modern reprint or electronic image can do, which is to emphasize that understanding Shakespeare requires knowing something of the history of the books in which his plays and poems are printed. In the end, each student must make his or her decision about the contested lines, and must support her decision by showing how her version best fits into the play as a whole. The assignment requires that students not only offer their own interpretations, but take their place in the context of the editors who have worked before by citing previous editorial explanations.

Working with these early editions paradoxically makes Shakespeare more distant–the books really are old–and more accessible–you, too, can edit the text. But you can edit the text well only if you read closely, know something about the time in which Shakespeare wrote, and study the editorial decisions others have made. The assignment yielded some of the best work from my 201 class last year, but no unanimity. There were strong arguments for “sighs,” and powerful claims for “kisses,” good reasons to choose “Indian” and smart interpretations supporting “Judean.” So the students entered into the on-going debates that make up literary history and criticism.

-Christina Crosby, Professor of English

View the full text of the assignment as a Word 97 file

William Shakespeare. Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: being a reproduction in facsimile of the first folio edition, 1623, from the Chatsworth copy in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire, K.G., with introduction and census of copies by Sidney Lee. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902.

William Shakespeare. Othello, the Moor of Venice: a tragedy. London: Printed for J. Tonson, 1734.

This English 201 unit aims to unfold the language and poetics of race and gender in the texts of Shakespeare’s Othello. The plural ‘texts’ is used here to underscore the fact that there are innumerable texts of Othello, beginning with the two ‘authoritative’ texts–the 1622 Quarto and 1623 First Folio. These in turn spawned the multitude of subsequent editions that have attempted in myriad ways to adjudicate between the Quarto and Folio. Nor are the ‘texts’ of Othello limited to literature, but include a long and rich performance history, including theatrical and filmic adaptations. Each of these multiple texts must navigate the play’s subject matter–interracial marriage–whether by exploring, ignoring, excoriating or interrogating. The texts of Othello thus provide a fantastic opportunity to introduce students to fundamental issues of textuality and intertextuality as they relate to broader concerns surrounding the representation of race and gender. The Olin Library Special Collections assignment seeks to demonstrate that texts are at once produced by and themselves produce our material and social world, by giving students palpable, first-hand knowledge that each text of Othello has its own material, historical, and ideological specificity.

-Natasha Korda, Associate Professor of English

William Shakespeare. The family Shakespeare … [expurgated by Thomas Bowdler]. London: J. Hatchard, 1807. Vol. 4.

Last semester I taught Othello to my students in “The Study of Literature.” While helping students work through the unfamiliarity of Shakespeare’s language is one of my goals, I also want to preserve some sense of cultural and historical difference. While we probably wouldn’t be so moved by Othello if racism, sexual hypocrisy and jealousy weren’t factors in our own lives, we miss much of what the play has to offer if we convert Desdemona and Othello into our contemporaries. Olin’s Special Collections provided a particularly effective resource for delineating the complex histories that have shaped the play’s language. Using an assignment created by Natasha Korda, and with the guidance of Suzy Taraba, my students saw how the labor of Shakespeare’s editors is not just a matter of transmission, but of serial reconstitution. Whether discussing Desdemona’s move from boldness to docility or Othello’s disavowed eloquence, the extensive holdings of the Special Collections gave us a far more informed view of what is both given and disputed: the words on the page.

-Sally Bachner, Visiting Assistant Professor of English

William Shakespeare. The works of Shakespeare: the text of the first folio with quarto variants and a selection of modern readings, ed. by Herbert Farjeon … [London]: Nonesuch Press; New York, Random House, 1929-33. Vol. 5.