Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Death of Desdemona - Authorship of Othello

The Death of Desdemona

Desdemona is smothered to death in bed by Othello. Within about half a minute, to judge by the ensuing dialogue between Othello and Emilia (to make sure that there will be no recovery), Othello again smothers Desdemona and she is pronounced by the dramatist to be dead. A few minutes elapse, when she suddenly speaks, utters several sentences that alternate with parts by Emilia and Othello, even to respond cogently to Emilia's question,  and then, no further violence having been offered her, expires for good..

The question therefore arises how could Desdemona have regained consciousness and power of speech not less than four minutes after the actual stroke of death had been inflicted on her and she had been pronounced by the dramatist to be dead? Various medical authorities have been consulted on this point, and they all agreed that if she had regained consciousness sufficiently to speak intelligently, as she did, recovery would have ensued. What could have induced the dramatist to narrate a circumstance so extraordinary and so contrary to all human experience? Is it possible that he ever investigated the possibility of so strange an occurrence?

Is it a coincidence that Francis Bacon in his Historia Vita et Mortis, printed a few months after Othello first appeared in the First Folio, tells us that he had been making enquirers as to how long one's physical and mental powers can act in certain directions after every sign of life has gone? And he mentions the report of a man who, when his heart had been torn out by the executioner, was heard to utter three or four words of prayer. Bacon was probably referring to the case of Babington, who, in 1586, engineered a conspiracy to murder Queen Elizabeth and who, on his heart being torn out, is reported to have muttered, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." "Shakespeare" tells us of a lady who spoke after she had for a long time been deprived of breath; Bacon tells us of a man who spoke after his heart had been torn out.

Broadly speaking the Shakespeare Plays can be divided into two groups; those printed during Will Shakspere's lifetime, and those which first appeared in the Folio of 1623, seven years after his death in 1616. Othello falls into neither group. It was first printed in 1622, six years after William's death, and was re-printed next year in the Folio of 1623, completely revised, with 160 lines deleted, and with trifling verbal alterations throughout. The re-arrangement of the lines required no little skill and reveals the hand of the author in almost every scene.

Stratfordians maintain that all the shortcomings of the quarto text are due to stage "cuts." The word "all" is too sweeping and inhibits further enquiry. Cuts for the stage were probably made, but in this case there is clear evidence of extensive revision. Some of the new lines are the author's substitutions for lines deleted; some restore omissions which lead to an obvious non sequitor ; some are more polished elegancies of speech. Most important of all, some are really fine passages, newly interpolated, which no competent editor or producer would omit.

Martin Pares

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