Othello and King Leir

previously unpublished; unfinished; © the estate of eric sams

As Ernst Honigmann has shown, [1] Q Othello (1622) was set up from Shakespearean copy. The main argument is this: 'A decided preference for shew (instead of show, or for vertue (instead of virtue) or for sence (instead of sense), was not unusual, taking each word individually. But how many other writers shared Shakespeare's preference for shew and vertue and sence and all the other strong or occasional preferences listed above?'

     One such writer was the author of The True Chronicle History of King Leir, written c. 1590 or earlier, acted at the Rose Theatre in 1594 and published in 1605 (soon after Othello was first written). This play was certainly well known to Shakespeare; his masterpiece King Lear contains some forty clear echoes of it, including the nameLeir. The play of Leir contains not just shew but shewed and shewes, not just vertue but vertuous, not just sence but senceless; and these are the only spellings of those words. Of the other 82 Othello words listed by Honigmann, 27 also occur in Leir, and in 15 such instances the spellings are exactly the same: beleeue, boord, comming (and commeth), Countrey, devide, extreame, hye (=high), intirely, lyer (=liar), Lyon, mary (=marry, exclam.), mistris, pitty, sayd, Souldier (and souldier). In addition, Othello has Battell (battle), cald (called), clime (climb), ghesse (guess), humaine (human), Ilanders (islanders) and meerly, while Leir has battell, cal'd, clyme, gesse, humane, Ile (=isle) and meerely. Both plays capitalise City; Othello also has Citty. Leir's only consistent differences in words it uses no more than four times are hony, manage, merit, musike, seyze, stroke and termes (Othello has Honny, mannage, merrit, musique, cease, stroake and tearmes). The sole large-scale distinction is that Leir invariably has -o- and Othello both -o- and -oo- as the main vowel in afford, approue, moue, remoue, proue.

     These examples are easily accounted for by Shakespeare's own comprehensive variability, or the activities of copyists or compositors. There are counterbalancing resemblances; thus Othello's controule and roule (=roll) conform with Leir's scroule (=scroll). Similarly the Shakespearean omission of final -e appears in both contexts (mandat in Othello, expiat in Leir); so do his truncated preterites, in profusion. The following additional words or variants are all identically spelt in both sources: abhorre, a clock, aduisde, Alehouse, and/&, angred, ayre, be/bee, (be)falne, begger, beguild, bin (= been), borne (=born), bumbast, Cat, charg'd, choyce, Commission, counsell, Court, cruell, deseru'd, Deuill, disloyall, do/doe, dore, dye (=die), Drumme, ere (=e'er), fatall, flye, fortune/Fortune, foyle, generall, go/goe, grace/Grace, hapt (=happed). heere (=here), herselfe/her selfe, ile (=I'll), imploy, inchaunt, indure, inforce, ist (=is it), it selfe, kil, lawfull, lye (=lie), Monarch, my selfe, murder/murther, nature/Nature, needfull, neere (=near), ne're (=ne'er), ore/o're (=o'er), our selues, outragious, past (=passed), payne, perswade, pleasde, poyson, practise (sb), rowse, royall, sea/Sea, Seignorie, seuerall, shal/shall, shee, sinnes, sonne, Starre, stil, stopt, Sun/Sunne, tane (=ta'en), Temple, then (=than), theefe, tis, Toade, to day, Trumpet, vessell, voyce, vsde, weele (=we'll), yeeld, your selfe.

     The added category of 'very nearly identical spellings' yields many more comparisons, such as (Leir first) Cherubin and Cherubins, Flea and Flee (=flea), hee'le and hee'l, honor and Honor, intreat and intreate, layed and layd, promisd and promisde, raisd and rais'd, ruld and rul'd, soueraigne and Soueraigne, stomacke and stomake, sute and unsuting. Further, each play includes the genitive ending -es (Apolloes and Othelloes) but omits the genitive apostrophe, as in fathers (= father's). Again, each play adopts the same system of capitalisation as in the examples given plus Bond and Bondslaves, Can and Canakin.

     So much for single words; now for categories. Honigmann (loc. cit.) defines five of them, in Othello 1622: (1) the very frequent substitution of y for modern i; (2) -oo- for -o-; (3) the doubling of consonants; (4) in- for en-; (5) -full for -ful. The last three are well represented in Leir, as shown above; the second is less so, but both texts have boord, doo and too (=to). The even greater frequency of (1) in Leir is readily explicable on grounds of date. Shakespeare's preference for y over i lasted lifelong. But by 1622, such orthography was becoming outmoded, and either the actual compositor or a hypothetical copyist would have amended accordingly, with sundry inadvertent exceptions.

     On the evidence, then, the early play King Leir was also written by the young Shakespeare. Other facts point in the same direction.



[1] Honigmann, E. The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, 1996, 158-161.