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.


  1. Transcript

    Othello. Act I. Scene I.

    The admirable preparation, so characteristic

    of Shakspeare –, in the introduction of Roderigo

    as the Dupe on whom Iago first exercises

    his art, and in so doing displays his own character. –

    Roderigo, already fitted & predisposed by his

    own passions – without any fixed principle

    or strength of character (The want of character

    and the power of the passions, like the wind

    loudest in empty houses, forms his character)

    but yet not without the moral notions and

    sympathies with honor, which his rank,

    connections had hung upon him. The very

    3 first lines happily states the nature and foundation

    of the friendship - the purse - as well the contrast

    of R's intemperance of mind with lago's coolness, the

    coolness of a preconceiving Experimenter. – The 

    mere language of protestation in “If ever – abhor me

    which fixing the associative link that produces ^ determines Roderigo's 

    continuation of complaint – in thy hate – elicits a true

    feeling of Iago's – the dread of contempt fatal to those

    who encourage in themselves & have their keenest pleasure

    in the feeling & expression of contempt in others.– His

    high self-opinion – & how a wicked man employs his

    real feelings & as well as assumes those most alien from his

    own, as instruments of his purposes.–

    The necessity of Tyrwhytt’s alteration of “wife” into

    life – as contempt for whatever did not display power, &

    that intellectual – What follows, let the Reader

    feel – how by & thro’ the glass of en ^ two passions,

    disappointed Passion & Envy, the very vices, he is

    complaining of, are made to act upon him as

    so many excellences - & the more appropriately,

    because Cunning is always admired & wished for by

    minds conscious of inward weakness – and yet it is

    but half – it acts like music on an inattentive

  2. Transcript

    auditor, swelling the thoughts which prevented him from listening

    to it. Roderigo – turns off to Othello – & here comes the one

    if not the only justification of the Blackamoor Othello,

    namely as a Negro – who is not a Moor at all –. Even if we

    supposed this an uninterrupted Tradition of the Theatre,

    and that Sh. himself from want of scenes & the experience

    that nothing could be made too marked for the senses of

    his Audience – would this prove aught concerning his

    own intentions as a Poet for all ages? – Can we suppose

    him 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 &c –

    Iago's Speech to Brabantio implies merely that

    he was a Moor - i.e. black. Tho' I think the

    rivalry of Roderigo sufficient to account for his wilful

    confusion of Moor & Negro – yet tho’ compelled to give this

    up, I should yet think it only adapted for the then

    Acting – & should complain of an enormity built only

    on one single word – in direct contradiction to Iago’s

    Barbary horse” – If we can in good earnest believe

    Sh, ignorant of the distinction, still why take one

    against 10 – as Oth. cannot be both –? –

    “This accident is not unlike my dream” - the

    old careful Senator who caught careless transfers his

    Caution to his Dreaming Power at least –

    The forced praise of Othello - followed by the bitter hatred – – Iago –

    and Brabantio's recurrence to philtres, so

    prepared by the Dream – & both so prepared for the

    carrying on of the Plot by the arraigment of

    Othello on this ground -

    Scene II.

    “'Tis better as it is. – " “not easily wrought”

    above all low passions – “unbonnetted” without the symbol

    of a petitioning inferior. – By Janus – in Iago's mouth –

  3. Transcript

    (after the first act)

    Dr Johnson has remarked that little or nothing

    is wanting to render the Othello a regular

    Tragedy but to have opened the play with the

    arrival of Othello in Cyprus, and to have thrown

    the preceding Act into the form of narration.

    Here then is the place to determine, whether such a

    change would or would not be an improvement,

    nay (to throw down the glove with a full challenge)

    whether or no the Tragedy would by such an

    arrangement become more regular, i.e. more

    consonant with the rules dictated by universal

    reason or the true Common Sense of mankind

    in its application to the particular case. For

    surely we may safely leave it to common sense

    whether to reply to or laugh at such a

    remark – as : for instance – Suppose a man were had

    described a rhomboid or parallelogram, and

    a Critic were with great gravity to observe – if

    the lines had only been in true right-angles, or if

    the horizontal parallels had been but of the same

    length as the two perpendicular parallels that form

    the sides, the diagram would have been according

    to the strictest rules of Geometry. – For ^ in all acts of judgement it never

    be too often recollected and scarcely too often repeated,

    that rules are means to ends, consequently, that

    the End must be determined and understood before

    it can be known what the rules are or ought to be.

    Now from a certain species of Drama, proposing

    to itself the accomplishment of certain Ends, these

    partly arising from the Idea of the Species itself but

    in part likewise forced upon the Dramatist by

    accidental circumstances beyond his power to

    remove or controll three rules have been abstracted –

    in other words, the means most conducive to the

    attainment of the proposed ends have been generalized

    and prescribed under the names of the three Unities,

    the unity of Time, the unity of Place, and the unity

    of Action, which last would perhaps have been appropriately

    as well as more intelligibly entitled the Unity of

    Interest. With this the present Question has no

    [vertical note from lines 16 to 24 states: N.B. very awkwardly expressed.]

  4. Transcript

    30, . In real life how do we look back to little

    speeches, either as presentimental or most contrasted with

    an affecting Event. Shak, as secure of being read over

    and over, of becoming a family friend, how he provides

    this for his readers – & leaves it to them.

    5, β.– Iago's passionless character, all will in

    Intellect—therefore a bold partizan here of a truth,

    but yet of a truth converted into falsehood by absence of

    all the modifications by the frail nature of man – and the

    Last sentiment – there lies the lago-ism of how many!

    And the repetition, Go, make money! – a pride in it, of

    an anticipated Dupe stronger than the love of Lucre -

  5. Transcript

    12, ∝. The triumph! again, put money after the effect

    has been fully produced. – 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! –

    (then turn back to the blank fronting the

    first page) Act II

    Confirmation of my reason – in how

    many ways is not Othello, first, our

    acquaintance – then friend – the object of anxiety –

    before the deep interest is to be approached – so

    the storm &c –

  6. Transcript

    Is this jealousy?