Rewritings of the Duke's tricky couplet in varieties of English are grouped on this page as follows.

  • Rewrightings: this term is used by Alan Dessen (Rescripting Shakespeare, CUP 2002) to refer to extensive changes made to playscripts for a production. Here, the term includes (1) omission of the lines in question; (2) citations which re-contextualise the original words; and (3) allusions or alterations to them in literary or dramatic texts.

  • Commentaries on productions. Differing approaches in performance are based on differing interpretations of the lines' significance in respect of the Duke's intentions, and the response made by Brabantio, and by others, who may or may not be intentionally addressed, or overhear.

  • Student cribs, or modern English versions, are usually published in a parallel text, facing the hard-to-understand original.

  • Glosses in annotations in scholarly or schools editions may define individual words, paraphrase the whole couplet, or suggest parallels.

  • Commentaries on the text in critical essays.


1. Omission (cutting) is a radical form of rewrighting. Alan Dessen mentions "in-the-theatre changes [which] occur when words or phrases are deemed offensive or politically incorrect", and his examples include this: "[...] the director of the 1995 PRC Othello omitted such lines as 'Your son-in-law is far more fair than black' and 'Haply, for I am black'" (Dessen 2002, pp.8-9). [PRC = Playmakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. This Othello was directed by David Hammond.]

The far more obviously offensive language of Brabantio, Iago, and Roderigo was presumably not cut in the PRC production: language which is (deemed to be) racist becomes offensive when it is spoken by the hero, or by the Duke, the play's representative of political authority.

2. Citation

Djanet Sears's play Harlem Duet (Toronto: Shillingford, 1997) is a Black feminist response to Othello. The script alludes constantly to Shakespeare's Othello but only quotes from it once: in Act 2, scene 6, 'HE' - an actor in Harlem, 1928, in a "tiny dressing room" - has these lines:

(Referring to the handkerchief at first.) White, red, black, green, indigo... What difference does it make? That makes no sense....makes no differrence. "If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law is far more fair than black." Far more fair than black. I want...I need to do this... For my soul. I am an actor. I--

Harlem Duet has been translated into French by Janice Valls-Russell as Harlem Duo (Toulouse: PU du Mirail, 2012), using the translation of Othello by Jean-Michel Déprats (2002) (see our French page).

3. Rewrighting proper

In a short story, 'Orthello' (2005), Zimbabwean writer John Eppel depicts a Bulawayo schoolteacher mulling over the adaptation of various lines for a school production in which the sole white actor will be playing Othello:

[...] what about:

If virtue’s qualities are always rare

Your son-in-law is far more black than fair.

Bit clumsy. What if I change ‘fair’ to ‘white’? Um ... what about:

If virtue lack no beauties that delight

Your son-in-law is far more black than white.

Better: ‘white’ has fewer positive connotations than ‘fair’. Needs more work, though. Certainly needs more work. [...]

('Orthello', in Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe, ed. Irene Staunton, Harare: Weaver Press, 2005; and at od.dk.)

Commentaries on productions

In Kelly's production, the Duke said this 'as a forced, embarrassed attempt to defuse the racial tension with, as it were, a slightly off-colour joke' (Loehlin, 'Othello').

(Jude Kelly’s production at The Shakespeare Theatre, Washington DC, 1997; unpublished seminar paper by James N. Loehlin, cited in Othello, ed. Julie Hankey, Shakespeare in Production series, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005, 147.)

In Mendes's production, 'the chuckle from the officers that accompanies this remark suggests that they know Othello isn’t one of them, but they need him badly and – right now – they don’t intend to dwell on it’ (IoS, 21 September 1997).

(Sam Mendes’s production at the Royal National Theatre, London, 1997, reviewed by Robert Butler, ‘The Critics: Black and White and Noir All Over’, Independent on Sunday, 21 September 1997 (www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-critics-black-and-white-and-noir-all-over-1240286.html), cited with altered punctuation in Hankey, Othello, 147.)

Student cribs

If valour is the measure of true beauty, your son-in-law is fairer than he’s black.

(Shakespeare Made Easy. Othello, modernised by Alan Durband, London: Hutchinson Education 1989; repr 2001, 2006.)

If goodness is beautiful, your son-in-law is beautiful, not black.

(No Fear Shakespeare. Othello, ed. John Crowther, New York: Spark Notes, 2003; and at Spark Notes: Othello.)

If virtue is missing delightful beauty, / Your son-in-law is far more just than black.

(Othello. Side by Side, ed. James Scott, Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2005; and at Enotes: Othello Text and Translation.)

NOTE: This is an example of outrageously bad translation. The first line is missing a negative, so the meaning is inverted. And 'just' is not among possible glosses of 'fair' in Shakespeare's English.

'... if virtue is anything to go by, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.'

(No Sweat Shakespeare. "Translated as an easy to read, exciting teenage novel": www.nosweatshakespeare.com/shakespeares-plays/modern-othello/act-1-scene-3)


Glosses in scholarly editions to 1886 are resumed in H. H. Furness's New Variorum Othello (p. 79, citing Warburton, Johnson, Steevens, Tywhitt, Ritson, Walker, and Delius).

If his worthiness is considered, your son-in-law, though black, is not without a pleasing beauty

(The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice, edited by G. B. Harrison, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1938; revised and enlarged 1955; repr. 1959, 1961)

delighted: delightful, i.e. "your son-in-law’s virtues are so fine that they completely overwhelm any qualms you may have at his Negro race."

(Othello: The South Bank Shakespeare, ed. C.W.R.D. Moseley [M.A., Ph.D., F.R.G.S., English Master, The Leys School, Cambridge], London: University Tutorial Press, 1974)

If virtue ... black Proverbial: 'He is handsome that handsome does' (Tilley D410), and see an extended treatment of the same idea in TN 3.4.367-70.

Delighted delightful. Compare Cym 5.4.101-2: 'to make my gift / The more delay'd, delighted'.

(Othello. The New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Norman Sanders, Cambridge: CUP, 1984)

The Duke's parting words to Brabantio, kindly meant as they are, introduce in a gentler key the note of racial difference so brutally sounded earlier by Iago...

(Gamini and Fenella Salgado, Shakespeare: Othello, Penguin Critical Studies, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985, p. 20)

If…lack: If virtue does not lack (i.e. possesses) delightful beauty

far more fair: much fairer (fair ≠ black: pure, of white complexion – a play on words)

(The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice, présentation et notes par Raymond Gardette, Paris: Librairie Générale Française / Le Livre de Poche, collection Lire en anglais, 1996)

virtue Not merely 'moral excellence', but also 'manly strength and courage'; the sense of 'inherent quality' (used e.g. of medicines, herbs, etc.) is probably also present

delighted delightful

fair (a) fair-skinned; (b) beautiful; (c) free from moral blemish

black (a) dark-skinned; (b) baneful, malignant, sinister; (c) foul, wicked

(Othello. The Oxford Shakespeare; Oxford World's Classics, ed. Michael Neill, Oxford: OUP, 2006)

Commentaries on the text