This remarkable copy of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare contains extensive manuscript notes by the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). It includes his famous comments on Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ along with many additional remarks on Othello and other plays.
The notes are written on blank pages inserted between the printed leaves of this two-volume edition by Samuel Ayscough (1745–1804). At the end is Ayscough’s ‘copious index’ of key words in Shakespeare’s plays, listed alphabetically with their line references.
Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare, 1818–19
The notes were made in preparation for Coleridge’s course of six lectures on Shakespeare, between December 1818 and January 1819. These were held at the Crown and Anchor – a pub in London’s Strand, well-known for political meetings. Coleridge seems to have taken the books into the lecture room, probably using the notes as prompts for an unrehearsed scene-by-scene analysis.
What did Coleridge say about Othello?
These sketchy annotations are the only surviving evidence of Coleridge’s now-famous lecture on Othello given on 21 January 1819. A selection of pages is digitised here.
Comments on Othello’s ethnicity (p. 1042 and two unnumbered pages after it)
On the three blank pages that precede the first scene, Coleridge comments on Shakespeare’s ‘admirable’ use of Roderigo as ‘the Dupe’ who becomes the first victim of Iago’s ‘art’. More disturbingly, Coleridge then turns to the question of Othello’s ethnicity, apparently prompted by Roderigo’s brutal description of Othello as ‘the thick-lips’ (1.1.66).
Like many others in 16th–19th century England, Coleridge makes a troubling distinction between different types of African – the ‘Moor’ and the ‘Negro’. He worries that Roderigo is creating a ‘wilful confusion’ between the two, since his words imply that Othello (whom Shakespeare calls ‘the Moor of Venice’) is ‘a Negro – who is not a Moor at all’. The term ‘Moor’ was often used to describe a Muslim North African, while ‘Negro’ more frequently referred to a sub-Saharan black African. For Coleridge, a ‘Moor’ could be a convincing tragic hero of noble and military rank, but he perceived a ‘Negro’ to be of lower status and therefore wrong for this type of play. He asks, ‘Can we suppose [Shakespeare] so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous Negro plead Royal Birth – Were Negros then known but as Slaves – on the contrary were not the Moors the warriors’.
In an earlier lecture (on 9 November 1813) Coleridge had already rejected the idea of mutual love between a ‘beautiful Venetian girl’ and a ‘veritable negro’. Such views are perhaps surprising since Coleridge had expressed a strong objection to the slave trade, which was abolished in England in 1807.
Iago’s ‘motiveless Malignity’ (page between p. 1050 and p. 1051)
Coleridge’s well-known remarks on Iago are provoked by the villain’s final speech of Act 1. Responding to lines 1.3.380–404, Coleridge writes:
The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity – how awful! In itself fiendish – while yet he was allowed to bear the divine image, too fiendish for his own steady View. – A being next to Devil – only not quite Devil - & this Shakespear has attempted – executed – without disgust, without Scandal!
Coleridge seems to be suggesting that Iago’s wickedness is without clear provocation within the logic of the play. His villainy lacks a clear motive, but arises from sheer delight in the suffering of others. This makes Iago ‘fiendish’ like the ‘devil’, yet disconcertingly human.
‘Is this jealousy?’ (after p. 1076)
The idea of jealousy, ‘the green-ey’d monster’ (3.3.166), might seem to be at the heart of the play. But in response to the dialogue just before Othello smothers Desdemona in Act 5, Scene 2, Coleridge asks, ‘Is this jealousy?’
Elsewhere (in his ‘Table-Talk’ of 24 June 1827) Coleridge argued that there was ‘no jealousy, properly speaking in Othello’. For Coleridge, ‘jealousy can never be strictly right’; it must arise from an irrational tendency towards ‘suspicion’. As Emilia reminds us, ‘jealious souls … are not ever jealious for the cause, But jealious for they’re jealious’ (4.1.159–61). In this play, it is Iago who gives Othello cause to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful, so Othello is not ‘jealous’ in Coleridge’s terms.
- Full title:
- The Dramatic works of William Shakespeare: with explanatory notes. To which is added, a copious index to the remarkable passages and words, by Samuel Ayscough.
- 1807, London
- early 19th century [Coleridge's manuscript notes]
- Book / Manuscript annotation
- William Shakespeare, Samuel Ayscough [editor], Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Usage terms
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Virginia Mason Vaughan
- Ethnicity and identity, Tragedies
There have been numerous interpretations of Othello over the last 400 years. Virginia Mason Vaughan discusses four recent critical approaches: feminist, new historicist, marxist and post-colonial.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
- Power, politics and religion, Tragedies
Hamlet shows Shakespeare intent on sabotaging the conventions of revenge tragedy. Kiernan Ryan explains why.
- Article by:
- Alexandra Melville
- Tragedies, Ethnicity and identity, Deception, drama and misunderstanding
Alexandra Melville provides a close reading of the villainous character of Iago in Act 2, Scene 1 of Othello.