Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Book 68 of 2012: Othello

I’ve always enjoyed reading Shakespeare, ever since we first studied Twelfth Night at school I fell in love with the style of the language. So when I saw that the first book I’d be studying for my OU course was Othello I was quite excited as it’s one that I’ve not read before.

The edition that we were set to read was the Oxford Classics version which the course book explains was chosen due to the ‘extensive’ introductory notes. What this actually means is that the first 170-odd pages of a 400-&-something page book are taken up by a rather dry and dusty introduction. Even the course materials say that it’s not actually necessary to read all this, but wanting to be a good student I read it all.

I didn’t particularly like the style of the introduction. A lot of it was making references to other books and essays written by other Shakespeare scholars and along the way, it gave away the entire plot of the play. I realise that when you’re reading a classic text you can hardly expect to be totally spoiler free and I already knew the basic plot of Othello before I started, but I didn’t like that it gave in depth discussions on points that I hadn’t actually read yet. There was also a lot of repetition in the introduction, it would talk about the issue of race, then talk about the actors playing Othello in different productions and then go back to talking about race again, so a couple of times I found myself wondering whether I’d lost my place and had ended up reading something I’d already read.

In terms of the actual play, I really enjoyed it, but again, the formatting of the book caused me a problem reading it. The way it was laid out was with the play on the top half of the page and then notes on the text in two columns at the bottom, which made it really awkward for reading as it broke up the text. A better way might have been to have the play on one page and the notes on the facing page or at the end of a scene. The thing I’ve always found with Shakespeare is that you need to get into the rhythm of the text and the way the notes were formatted meant that you were constantly stopping and starting. I ended up having to read to the end of the scene then go back and read the notes, just occasionally looking at them if I was unsure of the meaning of a word.

It also felt that a lot of the notes were unnecessary because of the ‘extensive’ introduction. After reading several pages about the line “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” explaining what it means, who the black ram is, why ram is symbolic, what tupping means and who the white ewe is, you don’t really need to have a long explanation repeated in the notes for the line itself. It especially bothered me when there were other less obvious lines which don’t have any explanation at all, or words that were defined each time they were used even though the context didn’t change the meaning; though I realise that a lot of understanding comes from experience but I felt that the notes were a little bit haphazard in their definitions.

The Appendices at the end were interesting and I think that a lot of the information from the introduction could have been slotted in here (though there was a lot of repetition from the introduction in here as well). I like that there was information about the history of the play, when it was performed but felt it was a little bit too bogged down in the differences between the Quarto and Folio editions. I felt like someone had told the editor/author that they couldn’t write a book about that, they had to produce an edition of the play instead, and they just squeezed the play in between. I really liked the inclusion of the story that Othello was based on being included at the end.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading Othello, it’s just a shame that the rest of the book got in the way!

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