Director’s Notes Vol. III

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Welcome back to DIRECTOR’S NOTES – a project built around a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello containing two concurrent strands of programming: first, a series of written articles detailing the creative process of editing and creating a new performance text, and second, a staged reading of the resulting text, which will be open to all of you to see.

These articles are an invitation to TBD’s entire audience to feed into this creation process that is authentic to the way I like to work.  That’s the aspiration, at least.  You can engage with us either in the comments here on this post, by emailing us at, or by filling out our DIRECTOR’S NOTES FEEDBACK FORM.  I look forward to hearing from everyone!

Missed the first installments of DIRECTOR’S NOTES? Check out Volume I here and Volume II here!

For this week’s post, I want to start with just the first page or two (around 100 lines) and test out a little annotating system.  A fun challenge has been working out a way to translate my notes on the text itself – which I make in the margins of multiple versions of the text, often with my own kind of shorthand language – into a format conducive to blogs.1  So bear with me – and if you have thoughts about how to do this more effectively, I’d love to hear them!

First, you should know what’s happened to the text already.  I have ripped the raw text from the lovely MIT Shakespeare site.  I then worked through it in its entirety against my Oxford edition, changing all typos, removing a lot of its excess commas, and correcting verse line breaks.  By doing this I also made snap judgments about word differences among the different primary source documents from which our modern editions derive.  Some of the most common discrepancies include the lack of strong oaths like “‘Sblood” (an interjection short for “God’s Blood,” pretty blasphemous) in the Folio; the Folio sometimes leaves these out completely, and other times changes them to something less strong.  I’ve gone with the Quarto printing on this – they’re more fun!

Format-wise, I’ve also broken the play down into so-called “French Scenes,” where a new “scene” begins upon the entrance or exit of any single character.  It’s the most useful thing for me to begin to grasp the architecture of the play in terms of characters.  What I’ve done is relabel each scene while retaining the scene divisions most editors have adopted.  So the first French Scene is labelled “I.i.1” – the first capital roman numeral is the act, the lower case roman numeral is the scene within that act, and the final Arabic numeral is the french scene assignment within that scene.  Having made these divisions, you can quickly make up a chart, like this:

This is the first act of Othello. Where a character’s entry is “lit up,” that means they’re in a scene.  There’s already a lot of interesting questions to think about, just in this chart. You’ll see I’ve put “?” in Cassio’s box for I.iii.4-6 – it’s not clear that he NEEDS to be in these interview scenes, or whether Shakespeare intended for him to be so.  You’ll see he’s included in that troop of folks that meet up in I.ii.5, as he’s the messenger from the Duke to bring Othello to the council chamber.  Does he come along to the council chamber? Something we’ll have to decide.

The other interesting discovery from charting the whole play like this is that Desdemona finds herself alone on stage only once in the entire play – and its for about three lines.  We may yet find other moments in our production to feature her alone onstage, but this is perhaps an interesting direction from Shakespeare – what does it mean to an audience to never see a character alone on stage?  If you never truly see Desdemona alone onstage, is it easier or harder to imagine and believe Iago’s lies about her?  What does this choice on the playwright’s part tell us about the perspective of the play?

Ok enough about this for now!  Let’s get to the play.


A street in Venice. Enter RODERIGO and IAGO 

RODERIGO Tush, never tell me!2 I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.3
IAGO ‘Sblood, but you will not hear me! If ever I
Did dream of such a matter, abhor me.
RODERIGO Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.4
IAGO Despise me if I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him: and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.5
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance,
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,

[Here’s my first cut. It preserves the flow of the line, retains its sense, and deletes this “And, in conclusion,” line which has always weirded me out a bit.  An interesting piece of textual history here: “And, in conclusion,” appears ONLY in the First Quarto printing of the play.  The Folio printing simply moves from from “Horribly stuffed…” to “Nonsuits my mediators.”  Now, that clearly doesn’t make any sense.  Some editors suggest that this line was a creation of a scribe to cover for a few illegible lines.  How’s that for “true to Shakespeare”?]

Nonsuits my mediators6. For, “Certes,” says he,
“I have already chose my officer.”
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife,7
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election;
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be beleed and calmed
By debitor and creditor. This counter-caster,

[These cuts are a little deeper.  I want to tell a story about citizen-soldiers and the dehumanizing effects of a certain societal mindset – one driven by possessions and reputation as markers of wealth.  This production isn’t about the military life – though I am sure such productions hold great dramatic promise.  But for this reason, I am willing to part with these lines, above, which suggest broader commitments to the military life than I think are critical to our Othello.]

He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ensign.8

RODERIGO By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.
IAGO Why, there’s no remedy. ‘Tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first.9 Now, sir, be judge yourself
Whether I in any just term am assigned
To love the Moor.
RODERIGO I would not follow him then.

IAGO O, sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass,
For naught but provender, and when he’s old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.

[This long speech from Iago I’ve chosen to keep intact.  It’s a piece of genius on Shakespeare’s part – it gives us insight into Iago’s motives and the way his mind works, and it is a demonstration of how Iago performs parts of his character for people like Roderigo.  Iago can point up his double-dealing and ability to play a part to win Roderigo’s trust.  He’ll use this tactic throughout the play, like in this moral fun-house mirror of a confession to Othello in the next scene:  “I lack iniquity / Sometimes to do me service.”]

RODERIGO What a full fortune does the thicklips owe
If he can carry ‘t thus!
IAGO Call up her father.
Rouse him. Make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t
As it may lose some color.
RODERIGO Here is her father’s house. I’ll call aloud.10
IAGO Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.
RODERIGO What ho, Brabantio! Signior Brabantio, ho!
IAGO Awake! What ho, Brabantio! Thieves, thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags!11
Thieves, thieves!

BRABANTIO appears above, at a window


So there you have it – a look at the first 100 lines of Othello.  It’s amazing how much information is packed into this brief scene.  In a way, we’ve actually “met” nearly all of the play’s major characters: Iago and Roderigo are present, their conflict concerns Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, and through Iago we meet Cassio and hear of his recent promotion to lieutenant.  And its not just the fact that we learn all this from these 100 lines that is remarkable: it’s also the way we’ve learned it.  The audience is orienting itself in this world through the kinds of words it hears: purse, price, worth a place, pride, letter and affection, preferment, obsequious bondage, cashiered, lined their coats, homage, full fortune, thieves, your house, your daughter, your bags…. These words are the building blocks for our audience’s imagination – they’re there for us to tap into to help create our production of the play.

This started as an editing exercise, but moved quickly into a discussion of the scene’s dramatic possibilities and what we need to be focusing on communicating to the audience.  To me, those two processes work hand-in-hand.  I think that is what I mean when I say that the edit of the text should be tailored to achieve your performance goals.  I’ve only cut about nine lines total in these first 100 – but I’ll be back to see what else might go as I start to get a clearer picture of the edited text as a whole.  Do you see anything in this scene that you think can go?  Or are some of the lines I’ve highlighted too dear to be cut?  Let me know!

Next week I’ll report on my progress overall with the text – I’m on the cusp of a few large vision-oriented and editing decisions that I am really looking forward to gaining your input on.  I’ve had many good conversations with many of you over these last few weeks – they have been immensely helpful.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this project so far, and I I look forward to hearing from you all in the next few weeks!