Revenge of|the Footnotes

     When I asked my father what the letters Ph.D. after his name meant he said, “That’s when you know more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.”
     He was a scientist who wore his learning lightly.
     Would that our literary experts did likewise.
     Bear with me on this. It starts rather slowly and then takes leave of its senses.
     I’ve been reading a Variorum edition of Othello, which collects the wisest things critics have said about every line in the play for 400 years and puts them in footnotes.
     Jealousy, Iago tells Othello, is “the greene-ey’d Monster, which doth mocke the meate it feeds on.”
     This is followed by 5 pages of single-spaced footnotes, in which 400 years of experts tell us what that poor schlub Shakespeare thought he was trying to say.
     Twelve words. Couldn’t possibly mean that jealousy feeds on the heart of the jealous person, could it?
     No, no. First we have to determine what the green-eyed monster is.
     “I am apt to think that Shakespeare had here the Crocodile in his eye,” Charles Jennens wrote in 1773.
     Absurd, George Steevens replied in 1778. “It is known that the tiger kind have green eyes, and always play with the victim to their hunger before they devour it.”
     Not so fast, William Henley wrote 100 years later, criticizing the wretchedness of Shakespeare’s lines, and the failures of Theobald (1733), Warburton (1746), Steevens, and J. Monck Mason (1785) to detect it. Had the critics been alert, they would have seen that Shakespeare’s clumsy metaphor required that a jealous husband “first had to mock his wife, and afterwards to eat her.”
     I am not making this up.
     In his Variorum edition, H. Howard Furness does not provide us with dates for the next three critics, all of them praised in their time, and all of them, apparently, insane.
     Andrew Becket said Shakespeare never wrote about a mocking green-eyed monster at all. “I substitute muck, i.e., bedaub or make foul; and this is the true character of jealousy. … For the ‘green-eyed monster’ I read the agreinied, i.e., sportive …”
     Ah, yes: jealousy, the agreinied monster that doth muck the meat … If only Shakespeare had consulted Andrew Becket.
     But wait for Zachary Jackson. A mouse’s eyes, he admitted, “are not to say green,” but if a green-eyed mouse “had been produced in Shakespeare’s time, it would have attracted the attention of the naturalist. Now, the mouse has a peculiar propensity, which doth muck the meat it feeds on. The mouse, after it has glutted on a piece of nice meat, leaves as much defilement on the residue as it possibly can …”
     So the mouse, not the crocodile or tiger, was the agreinied monster that mucked the meat.
     But hold, for the coup de grace from John Howe, 4th Baron Chedworth (1754-1804), who devoted his life to studying Shakespeare. “I think I have heard or read, though I cannot recall where, of a sort of large dragon-fly, that voids a greenish foam from its mouth, and then sucks it in again: – if there be such a creature, it would be sufficient to justify the expression, ‘green-ey’d monster.'”
     It sure would. I guess … justify Shakespeare by dragonfly spit, I mean.
     Furness wrote that Becket and Jackson “exhausted (his) patience,” and that Baron Chedworth’s volume made him “shudder.”
     He included their comments lest their omission be imputed as a fault born of his hostility to them.
     Having quoted them, Furness wrote, “I feel that my vindication is complete.”

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