Wednesday, June 17, 2020

464. Othello: Fainting or Dying

New Shakespeare editions are always controversial. Because of the complicated text history of the plays, an editor has to make decisions about countless details. 

William Shakespeare, Othello (1900)

Academic editions are, of course, scrupulously examined, but for private press editions aesthetic views play a significant role. The graphic design of plays is a profession in its own right, and by no means simple, due to the presence of several layers of text: the spoken texts themselves, which can be of a poetic or prosaic nature; but it must also be clear who is speaking and what the stage directions are.

In some university libraries, private press editions may be accessed in open stacks, surrounded by popular, cheaper editions. That's the place to look for private press books with handwritten notes by readers, which I found, for example, in copies of Michael Field's plays in the University Library of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (a nice topic for a future blog.) 

Although the 39 volumes of the Vale Press edition of Shakespeare's poems and plays (1900-1903) will have been purchased mainly for decorative purposes, other Vale Press editions were bought for their texts as well, and Ricketts intended these editions to fill gaps in collections. Some buyers actually did read the whole series, or at least parts of it.

And there were readers who also considered the edition with an eye for textual accuracy.

The academic magazine Notes and Queries of August 1900 contains a note by Maurice Jonas, called 'An Error in the Vale Press Shakespeare'.

In the beautiful edition of Shakespeare’s works in the Vale Press, now in course of publication, occurs a peculiar mistake. In iii of “Othello,” after Montano has been wounded by Cassio the proper stage direction is, “He faints,” but in the Vale Press edition “He dies” is substituted.

Maurice Jonas was right, but still he was too kind. Not only, has the act of fainting been substituted by the death, the stage direction has become part of the spoken text, so it is not Montano who faints (or dies), but Montano who tells us that his opponent dies or must die. This is followed by another stage direction that I did not find in the editions which I consulted. Something went wrong here in terms of design. 'He dies' is wrong, but, moreover, this text should have been placed in the line below Montano's speech.

It's quite rare to find a textual commentary on a private press book, but here's one.