Othello was probably written in 1603 or 1604, just before its earliest recorded performance. Some scholars believe that the Bad Quarto of Hamlet (Q1, 1603) is contaminated by recollections of lines from Othello, favoring an earlier date (possibly 1602) for Othello, though others find the evidence uncertain. On grounds of style and content, Othello cannot be dated earlier than 1602. The play was first published in 1622 by Thomas Walkley, in a Quarto edition, known as Q1, printed by Nicholas Okes. It was printed from a manuscript whose nature has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate. It may have been a Fair Copy of Shakespeare's manuscript, or it may have been a transcript of either his Foul Papers or of the Promptbook kept by the King's Men. The transcription may originally have been made for Walkley's publication or for use by the King's Men, or, possibly, for an individual, a theater enthusiast. Given the surviving evidence, none of these theories can be positively proven or disproven (Scott, pp. 58).
In 1623 Othello appeared in the Folio edition of plays, and this text (known as F) was probably printed from Q1 but amended according to another manuscript whose nature is also perplexing. It may have been Shakespeare's fair copy; it may have been a promptbook; it may have reflected alterations resulting from years of productions; it may have included errors made by someone relying on their memory of performances; it may have incorporated Shakespeare's own alterations. Again, no hypothesis can be established firmly.
Whatever this manuscript was, it differed significantly from Q1. There are over a thousand variants, most of them minor, but F contains about 160 lines not present in Q1, including a few substantial passages. The longest fragment (4.3.31-52, 54-56) contains much of the "willow" song, for instance. On the other hand, Q1 contains 10 brief passages (the longest being four lines) not in F. Whether these variations represent additions to one text or cuts from the other is debated by scholars; in practice, modern editors have generally found F to be the superior text and have used it as the basis for their versions, while also using variants from Q1 in many particular instances. However, some editors reverse the priority (Scott, pp. 58).
In the 18th century, Othello continued to be among the most-often performed of Shakespeare's plays. Most leading actors undertook the title role, with Barton Booth, James Quin, and Spranger Barry prominent among them, while John Henderson and Charles Macklin were successful Iagos. In the early 19th century, Edmund Kean was acclaimed as the greatest Othello of all time, a status that some critics believe may still apply, though his legend has doubtless been enhanced by the fact that he collapsed onstage while playing the part (into the arms of Iago, played by his son Charles Kean) and never recovered, dying a few weeks later. Othello was a natural vehicle for Ira Aldridge, the first black Shakespearean actor. William Macready played both Othello and Iago ...