March 2nd

This quarto of Othello, printed in 1622 by Nicholas Oakes–the printer responsible a quarto of King Lear as well—anticipates the first folio of Shakespeare’s collected works, printed the following year, in at least one crucial way. The convention among most printers around this time, and certainly among the printers of the late 1590s and early 1600s, was generally not to make any demarcation of acts and scenes; instead, scenes would implicitly end and begin by the stage directions that ushered the last remaining characters off the stage, and brought other ones back onto it. A few pages from the 1622 quarto of Romeo and Juliet, published the same year, stand as a case in point:

Notice the way that the “Exeunt” at the bottom of the page is followed, on the succeeding page, by a stage direction designating the entrance of several other characters. In most modern texts, this implicit shift in scene would find more overt demarcation, with headings like “Act I, Scene 2” or “1.2.” Oakes’ copy of Othello would seem to follow in the same vein as Romeo and Juliet; certainly the first page, which you can check out above, has no act or scene markers. But this changes later on in the play, around the second act:

Oakes and his printing house were not always so quick to follow through on the demarcations implicitly promised by such a clean division of the play into scenes and acts; plenty of scenes, by our standards, would seem to bleed into one another without any markers like “Act 3, Scene 4” to separate them. Look, for instance, at this confluence of scenes:

“Act 3,” a well, receives no announcement. “Act 4,” meanwhile, is explicitly signaled, but without any “Scoena 1” to accompany it:

Act 5 is signaled in just the same way:

Where does the first folio come into this story? A year later, that text would provide more extensive and consistent division of the acts and scenes of Shakespeare’s play:

The point is not that Oakes’ copy influenced the first folio a year later, but that Oakes’ quarto of Othello and the first folio of Shakespeare’s works represent two distinct efforts to accord Shakespeare a kind of textual dignity; for the presence of such act and scene divisions, along with their Latin headings, imparted upon the plays an organization, a control and an authority that made them seem, if only in the most superficial of ways, more than just plays, but commodities worth possessing.

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