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One of the great tragedies, get the edition you need
on 14 November 2005
One of Shakespeare's later plays and one of his great tragedies, 'Othello' is a play which emphatically presents tensions - gender, race, religion, nation, role. It's a play which relies on the potency of opposition and contrast, the characters being polarised into black and white.
Othello is a Moorish general who has saved Venice and who is now based on the exotic island of Cyprus. Here is a man who, despite his 'alien' origins, is hailed as the saviour of his community, a man who is universally loved and admired, except by his lieutenant, Iago. In Iago Shakespeare beats out with blacksmith rhythm one of his greatest creations, a man fired by jealousy, tempered by hatred, a man whose determination is hammered into shape and whose evil burns bright.
It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy that the hero should plunge from the sublime heights to utter destitution, despair, and death. The cornerstone of Othello's triumph is his lady, Desdemona. Winning her hand, securing her devotion is his greatest achievement and elevates him to unimagined happiness. Yet it this very foundation which Iago undermines with the seed of jealousy. As suspicion takes root, the whole edifice of Othello's world collapses about him.
'Othello' embodies Shakespeare's oft-repeated theme of love and duty as the mortar which binds society. It is Othello's tragedy that he should adulterate both, exposing them as weaknesses rather than strengths. Shakespeare took characterisation to a new level. His triumph is not only in his invigoration of the English language but in his ability to get inside the minds of his characters long before psychology became the lingua franca of literature. Shakespeare's characters breathe, their dilemmas and tragedies are painfully human.
There are many published editions of the play available - your choice may reflect your pocket, it may more likely reflect your need to study for school or college. It's worth contrasting the various popular editions available and considering which most adequately meets your needs.
The Heinemann edition is aimed at 'A' level students in the UK. It offers page by page notes on the text plus an overview of what is happening on stage to give you an insight into this as an active dramatic production, not simply words on a page. It's well laid out, well produced, well printed, making the text easy to follow. There are questions posed about the drama and characters, providing stimulating material for teaching and learning in groups, or for individual thought. There's a significant section at the rear of the book exploring themes and the major questions in the play, leading the student into a deeper awareness of language, setting, characterisation and drama. Designed emphatically for 'A' level students, it will nevertheless prove useful for first year at university (and possibly beyond), thanks to its ability to generate ideas and questions.
My first choice, however, for any student or anyone seeking a sound understanding of the play, is the Arden edition. It provides the most extensive notes, offers insights into the play and its performance, explores the dynamics of its characters, and offers you an excellent appreciation of the text. The textual notes are comprehensive and readily comprehensible. They are included on the same page as the text - text at the top, notes at the bottom - and make it easy to follow the meaning of the dialogue. Add to this good quality paper and printing, and you have a robust edition and an exciting resource for the student.
The Penguin Shakespeare edition offers an excellent introduction - 70 pages of analysis of the play's themes and dynamics. Well worth reading by any student. A small, pocket-sized edition, it's portable. However, the notes on the text, while excellent, are confined to the back of the book - you have to keep turning back to refer to them. Note, there are three Penguin edition available. The Penguin Shakespeare is more up-to-date than the New Penguin Shakespeare, and the Penguin Popular Classics simply delivers the text of the play with little or nothing in the way of notes.
The New Cambridge Shakespeare is a sophisticated resource - it provides a dynamic Introduction, analysing the play and providing the sort of intellectual baseline sixth form and first year university students need. It offers further analysis at the end of the play. The text is beautifully printed, with tight little notes at the foot of each page (you may find you need glasses, however). An edition to be recommended.
The Cambridge School Shakespeare provides ideas for groupwork and class analysis of text and themes, and must provide teachers with an excellent practical resource. The text appears on the right hand page, notes and commentary on the left - making it very accessible and readable. There is also a quality feel to the paper and printing.
The Longman's School Shakespeare also provides notes on the left hand page, text on the right. The text is, perhaps, better presented than the Cambridge 'School' edition - it is slightly more expansive and lucid. The notes, however, don't feel as robust as in the Cambridge edition - they're more limited and less comprehensive.
The Oxford School Shakespeare is, I feel, the weakest of the 'school' editions. I didn't find it as dynamic or thought-provoking as the others. It provides a brief synopsis, a scene by scene analysis, and some useful notes. But text and notes run together on the same page, giving it a congested, claustrophobic feel which I found disconcerting.
For school work, I'd go for the Cambridge, Heinemann or Longman's, for the keen student, the Arden edition is top, followed by the New Cambridge. If you're studying the play, it's worth collaborating with your fellow students - you each acquire a different edition of the text, then you can compare and contrast the notes and commentaries.