I Will a Round Unvarnish’d Tale Deliuer

The king entered London, as into his kingdom, on 15 March 1604. It was a triumphant occasion, not least because it was a celebration of the fact that the epidemic plague had finally retreated from the city. It was for this occasion that Shakespeare and his fellows had been given the 4½ yards of scarlet cloth, so they are likely to have been part of the ceremonial procession through the streets of London from the Tower to Westminster. It was an historic walk by Shakespeare through the city that had nourished him. It is possible that he, or one of his colleagues, made a speech at one of the triumphal arches; their rival, Edward Alleyn, made an oration as the “Genius” or guiding spirit of the city. It may have been Alleyn’s last performance, since in this year he retired from the acting profession. The pageants at Bishopsgate and Fenchurch Street were devised respectively by Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson. Dekker seems to have borrowed from Shakespeare in his address to the king:

This little world of men; this pretious Stone,
That sets out Europe …

Since Thomas Middleton was also brought in to provide some suitable verses for the occasion, the absence of Shakespeare from this cast-list of royal panegyrists is somewhat puzzling. He could hardly have declined the honour. It may have been implicitly understood, however, that he was not that kind of writer. There were seven triumphal gates, created in the style of Roman arches by Stephen Harrison; there were fountains, and flames, and living statuary. Shakespeare himself adopted the device of a statue coming alive, at a later date, in The Winter’s Tale. It was a thoroughly theatrical occasion, complete with all the crowds and noise that the new king detested.

The King’s Men were called upon to perform other royal services in this first full year of the new king’s reign. Twelve of them were appointed grooms of the chamber in the summer of 1604, when in August they were charged with the entertainment of the Spanish Ambassador Extraordinary and his retinue of 234 gentlemen who had come to London in order to negotiate the signing of a peace treaty; they had taken up residence for eighteen days in Somerset House, which had become the palace of the queen. The duties of Shakespeare and his colleagues are not detailed, and it is even possible that Shakespeare himself avoided attendance; if he was no longer an actor, there might be no need for him. The players were there, however, to look decorative and to fulfil their role as courtiers. They may even have been asked to perform; but there are no records of any play being staged, and each of them was paid what seems to have been a bare minimum of 2 shillings per day.

The King’s Men were travelling in the spring and summer of 1604; they visited Oxford, for example, in May and June. It is unlikely, as we have seen, that Shakespeare now travelled with them. During this period he completed two plays that were performed at court towards the close of 1604; Othello and Measure for Measure were staged respectively in November and December of this year. Since the public theatres had been allowed to open again in April, one or both of these plays had first been shown at the Globe. They were the first productions of the King’s Men after their return from Hampton Court. It has been suggested that Othello and Measure for Measure are both dark plays for a dark time, born of the plague and the queen’s death, with the tragedy of Othello and Desdemona preceding the bitter and forlorn story of Angelo and Isabella. But in fact they seem to have been written in a period of general rejoicing at the new king’s accession, with Shakespeare reaching the pinnacle of his social eminence.

The King’s Men were acting as courtiers for the Ambassador Extraordinary of Spain in the period when Othello “the Moor” was being created. The “Moor” himself is of Spanish origin while two of the other characters in the play, Roderigo and Iago, have recognisably Spanish names. Even in the period when Shakespeare was writing there was a concerted Spanish effort to expel the very large population of Moors from their country. The Moors, like the Jews, were the victims of European racial prejudice. There was also a large colony of Moors in London, refugees from Spanish persecution. Elizabeth I issued an edict against “the great number of negars and blackamoors which are crept into the realm since the troubles between Her Highness and the King of Spain”.

In 1600 a Moorish ambassador for the King of Barbary came to Elizabeth’s court, and became an object of fascinated attention. There is ample reason for Shakespeare to have seen, and even spoken with, him. He played before him at court, during the Christmas season. The Moor sat for his portrait during this visit, too, and the image of this dignified if somewhat withdrawn figure must have impressed itself upon Shakespeare’s conception of Othello. At the age of forty-two he looks haunted, forever watchful. It is a mistake to consider Othello to be of African or West Indian origin, as is often the case in modern productions. He was of Moorish stock, olive-skinned, and Shakespeare portrays him as “black” for the purposes of theatrical emphasis and symbolism. In Shylock Shakespeare had created a character of some complexity; by the time he came upon Othello, he had become even more interested in the role and nature of the scapegoat. But it would be a mistake to assume that he had any overt humanitarian purpose. Instead he had a keen eye and ear for theatrical intrigue.

There are other contemporary matters that must be seen in the context of Othello, if only because they would have been known to every member of the audience who witnessed the first production. King James had a pronounced sympathy for the Spanish state; that is why Shakespeare and his fellows were entertaining the Ambassador Extraordinary in Somerset House. But there was also a well-attested story publicised throughout Europe that the previous king of Spain, Philip II, was an insanely jealous husband who had strangled his wife in her bed. What is more, he had become suspicious of her when she had inadvertently dropped her handkerchief. These parallels are too close to be coincidental. The fact that Cyprus becomes the scene of the tragic action of Othello is also explicable in these terms. Cyprus was once a Venetian protectorate but had been occupied by Turkish forces for more than thirty years, and thus posed a threat to Spanish as well as Venetian interests in the region. King James himself had written a poem upon the subject. So Shakespeare was deliberately reflecting the interests and preoccupations of the sovereign. During the present reign of Philip III, too, Spain was at odds with the republic of Venice. It would be too much to claim, as some commentators have done, that Othello “represents” Spain and that Desdemona “represents” Venice. Yet it is undoubtedly true that Shakespeare’s imagination, magnetised, as it were, around Spain, had drawn in everything. He had become, for the purposes of this play, a vessel for all things Spanish.

So it would be wrong to state that Shakespeare never wrote a play concerning contemporary life. Othello was a very modern drama, refracting all the circumstances of the period. Shakespeare also read some recently published translations that suited his purpose—among them A Geographical Historie of Africa and Pliny’s Historie of the World. He also read Sir Lewis Lewkenor’s The Commonwealth and Government of Venice. These books were published in 1600, 1601 and 1599 respectively, so we may plausibly imagine Shakespeare as a haunter of bookstalls, picking up any recently printed volumes as a spur to his creativity. The booksellers pointed out their recent acquisitions, and his noble patrons may have informed him of the latest fashionable volume. But there was a pattern to his reading. The evidence of Othello suggests that, when he had hit upon a theme, he opened those books that were directly relevant to it. He was searching for local “colour” but also for the circumstantial detail and the significant phrase.

The question of Shakespeare’s learning has vexed many commentators. Its extent can perhaps be measured in the simple statement that he learned as much as he needed to learn. He had no wasted or superfluous knowledge. He was familiar with the classics of the schoolroom, as we have seen, and for his own dramatic purposes used Ovid and Virgil, Terence and Plautus. He could read Latin, and possibly even a smattering of Greek, but he preferred to use translations wherever possible. He read North’s translation of Plutarch rather than Plutarch himself, for example, and read Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses rather than the great original. He would have been obliged, however, to read Plautus and Ovid’s Fasti in Latin. He was not interested in these texts for their own sake, only for what they inspired within him. He was of course thoroughly familiar with all of his source material, whether it be out of Plutarch or Holinshed. This may also come under the rubric of useful learning. He was not a scholar, an antiquarian or a philosopher. He was a dramatist. He seems in fact to have distrusted philosophy, rational discourse and sententiousness in all of its forms. Abstract language was his abhorrence. He trusted only language imbued with action and with character, with time and with place.

It is possible that he could read both French and Italian, but he preferred to use translations wherever possible. It is not a question of laziness but of efficiency. The fact that he preferred English versions of foreign stories also suggests that he was not particularly interested in the “otherness” of other cultures. It was his habit to search through books, old or new, looking for that which his imagination could use. He seems on occasions to have read the summaries of the text in the margin rather than the text itself. His knowledge of popular botany, medicine, astrology, astronomy, and other matters, is extensive rather than profound; his alertness and power of assimilation were unique, so that he seems to know “more” than his contemporaries. He picked up everything.

We may make an informed guess about the books he assimilated. Among them are William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, Geoffrey Fenton’s Certaine Tragicall Discourses, Bandello’s Novelle, Giraldi Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, George Whetstone’sHeptameron, Arthur Brooke’s Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet and the anonymous A Hundreth Mery Tales. They are what might be called “light” contemporary reading. He seems to have had a particular affection for anthologies of romance stories and for the new Italian novels, and it has already been noted how closely his work followed the model of the popular romances. But he also read the English poets, principal among them Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Chaucer; he seems to have sensed, justifiably, that these were his real predecessors. He also seems to have read poetical miscellanies such as The Paradyse of Daynty Devises and A Gorgious Gallery of Gallant Inventions. There is some hint, too, that he read contemporary poets such as Donne and Southwell in manuscript form. He may have read those plays by his contemporaries that had emerged in print, although it is always possible that he preferred to watch them. He was acquainted with Montaigne and with Machiavelli, but such knowledge was commonplace at the time. It is unlikely that he studied them with any great attention.

He may have owned a library or carried his store of books with him in a book-chest. He mentions libraries only twice in his published work. Yet he could have used the libraries of patrons, such as Southampton or Pembroke, and of course he might have lingered and read in Richard Field’s bookshop. He must have had one or two books physically close to him, however, since there are occasions when he quotes long passages almost verbatim from Plutarch and from Holinshed. Various books have emerged over the last three centuries, bearing Shakespeare’s signature, but the chances of forgery and fakery are high. The most plausible and likely candidate for inclusion among Shakespeare’s books, however, is the signed edition of Lambarde’s Archaionomia mentioned earlier. It would not seem appropriate material for a forger, unlike the works of Ovid or of Plutarch, and the volume does indeed chime with Shakespeare’s youthful legal interests. So there may be a true connection.

When he read his primary source narrative for Othello, Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, he must have been struck—inspired, rather—by its first sentence. “Fu gia in Venezia un Mow”. There was a Moor in Venice. Venice had been the site of his first outcast, in the person of Shylock. Othello was another example of the dispersed and dispossessed, the wanderers of the earth. There was a Moor in Venice. Cinthio’s narrative is a prose tale, but something within it stirred all the powers of Shakespeare’s sympathetic imagination. He immensely deepened and broadened the story, so that the first two acts of the play in particular bear very little resemblance to any possible originals. A measure of his contribution is to be found in the fact that all the names of the characters, apart from that of Desdemona, were formulated by him. He also revised his play, giving Desdemona more pathos and credibility, and, because he must have realised in performance that Emilia, the wife of Iago, had become too unsympathetic a creation, he gave her more dialogue with Desdemona so that she gained in sympathy.

The play, with the title of The Moor of Venis by “Shaxberd,” was performed for the king and his court on 1 November 1604 in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. It was not written for private performance, of course, and it had already been played at the Globe and in the guildhalls of the company’s provincial tours. Richard Burbage, as Othello, would have “blacked up.” There was no occasion for subtlety in the presentation. A versifier later commented upon Burbage’s role as “the grieved Moor.” One curiosity concerns the part of Othello. When Ben Jonson described Shakespeare’s own character he considered that he “was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature.”1 He is quoting almost verbatim from Iago’s description of Othello (677-8):

The Moore is of a free and open nature,

That thinkes men honest, that but seeme to be so.

It may be an inadvertent recollection on Jonson’s part, but does it suggest that Shakespeare was in some sense “like” Othello? The theme of sexual jealousy runs deeply through many of Shakespeare’s plays. Could Jonson have known that Shakespeare harboured suspicions about his wife in Stratford? It has become a well-known theory, promulgated among others by James Joyce and Anthony Burgess, but it must remain wholly theoretical. It might just as well be said that, because both Julius Caesar and Othello suffer from epilepsy, Shakespeare was personally acquainted with the disorder.

If a boy played Desdemona, he must have been a skilful and remarkable actor. He had to suggest a certain eroticism within Desdemona’s innocence; as the German philosopher Heinrich Heine put it, “What repels me most every time are Othello’s references to his wife’s moist palm.”2 The boy actor would also have had a good voice, able to sing popular ballads. Since Desdemona’s willow song is absent from the first published version of the play, however, it is likely that for some performances he was unavailable for the part.

It might come as a surprise to contemporary audiences that Iago, customarily seen as the epitome of evil in modern productions, was initially played by the company’s resident clown and fool, Robert Armin. Iago was in the comic mode, and spoke to the audience in his confidential soliloquies. Charles Gildon, at the end of the seventeenth century, disclosed that

I’m assur’d from very good hands, that the Person that Acted Iago was in much esteem for a Comoedian, which made Shakespeare put several words, and expressions into his part (perhaps not so agreeable to his Character) to make the Audience laugh, who had not yet learnt to endure to be serious a whole Play.3

Iago’s role as comedian also fits the essentially comic structure of the play itself. Of course Gildon is alluding here to the sexual bawdry and innuendo in which Iago indulges with Desdemona, but he is being less than fair to Shakespeare. The dramatist loved sexual slang, and would not have considered it as writing “down” to any audience. It was a part of his imagination. As for being “serious” for “a whole Play” there is not one drama of Shakespeare’s which aspires to that unity of mood or tone. Comedy and tragedy were equal parts of his art.

There are elements of Roman new comedy and Italian learned comedy in this play with the presence of the zany and the cuckold who is also the Spanish braggart. But again they are here enriched beyond measure. Shakespeare used “types” as a matter of course, but they were simply the structure upon which he built. It is also worth observing that Othello is unique in being a tragedy largely established upon comic formulae. That may even have been the task that Shakespeare set himself. He establishes a comic structure, in which the locales of Venice and Cyprus have little connection with the main action, but then all begins to go awry. In the process he manages to enter the very rhythm of his characters in the world. They are deeply embedded in their language, with their own particular vocabulary and even cadence, so that we can as it were see Shakespeare living and breathing in unison with them. It is a miracle of transference. And we can feel the propulsion of his imagination. When a character mentions the “enchafed flood,” the immediate response is that the Turkish fleet be not “ensheltered and embayed”; the syllables push him forward into new paths of thought.

It has been suggested that in some way Iago is a refraction of the dramatist, an unmoved mover whose intellectual agility far outruns any moral conscientiousness, but in fact he is closer to the medieval Vice who stirred up trouble with the unwitting connivance of the audience. No doubt, however, Shakespeare derived great pleasure from creating a villain who orchestrates his victims like a dramatist while at the same time proclaiming his honesty and sympathy on every occasion.

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