The Magazine

What Othello Can Still Tell Us


Last Saturday, we crossed the border, to watch Othello in the grounds of Tolethorpe Hall in Rutland, England’s smallest and most rural county.

Tolethorpe is a former manor house hidden away down winding, high-hedged lanes in quiet, remote-feeling countryside, yet it is only two miles from the handsome Lincolnshire town of Stamford. The house, which has surviving 15/16th century fleur-de-lys wall decoration, was derelict when it was purchased by the Stamford Shakespeare Company in 1977, and the attractive grounds along the River Gwash have been hosting highly-regarded open-air theatrical productions ever since.

It was a memorable evening, as it always is at Tolethorpe -- especially once the daylight began to fail, and the Romanesque arches of the stage scenery looked ever more authentic and bats dashed desperately after moths just above the heads of the audience.

We were transported first to Venice and thence to Cyprus, following the story of Othello the Moor, his white wife Desdemona, and the Venetian politicians, soldiers and rakes who revolve around their central, controversial relationship.

It is unclear exactly when the play is set, but it was written about 1603 and originally entitled The Moor of Venis. It is an adaptation of a story called “Un Capitano Moro,” by a now obscure Italian writer called Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio (1504-1573). Shakespeare may also have been inspired by seeing Moroccan delegations which visited England at the outset of the 17th century. The play has given us some expressions which have become clichés, such as “wearing my heart upon my sleeve” and “he who steals my purse steals trash.”

For those unacquainted with the plot, Othello is a Moor (an imprecise term, used to refer to anyone who was not white), a general who has proved himself in the service of the Most Serene Republic. One assumes he is a convert to Christianity (this is a subject of debate amongst Shakespearean scholars) but even sincere conversion would obviously not suffice to allay suspicions about his good faith. He has promoted an adjutant called Cassio over the head of the resentful Iago, who therefore determines to destroy both men while posing as their friend. Othello’s elopement with Desdemona, the daughter of Senator Brabantio, has created yet more enemies, including Brabantio (who disowns her) and the dissolute Roderigo, who had planned to marry her.

The action switches to Cyprus, then a Venetian colony, where Othello has been sent to mastermind the defence against the attack of a Turkish fleet. In the event, the fleet is sunk by a storm, but the background danger serves to highlight the cultural-racial tension.

The central characters’ marriage is a love-match, and Iago has to work hard to arouse Othello’s jealousy against the innocent Desdemona. But he eventually makes Othello believe that Desdemona has been having an affair with Cassio. He also incites Roderigo to make a murderous attack on Cassio, which leaves Cassio badly injured and during which Roderigo himself is finished off by Iago to stop him revealing his machinations.

Despite Othello’s essential good nature, and the efforts of Emelia (Iago’s wife but alienated from him, and a staunch friend to Desdemona) Iago eventually succeeds in misleading and inflaming Othello, and there is a melodramatic ending that must have delighted the original working-class London audiences, with Othello smothering his wife, Emelia being killed by Iago and Othello committing suicide. We last see the vile Iago under arrest, and being taken away for torture, which audiences now as much as in 1603 take pleasure in imagining.

The play is controversial even 400 years later, and Othello productions are gererally fenced around with programme-note equivocations and preemptive apologies.

It is controversial not because of the character of Othello who, unlike Shylock, is no villain. The worst one can say about Othello is that he is “egotistical” (F. R. Leavis) or unstable, while other critics (like William Hazlitt) regard him as “noble” and even heroic. The only unsavoury characters are the white men Iago and Roderigo. The reasons for diffidence therefore lie elsewhere.

Part of the cause may lie in the earthy expressions used about the Othello/Desdemona liaison, such as “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe,” “the sooty bosom of such a thing as you” and “thicklips.”

The second reason is more complicated. The central role has been taken by actors like Edmund Kean, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Paul Schofield, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Gambon, and the story has been turned into ballets and operas, including one by Verdi. There have been all-black productions, all-white productions, mixed-race productions (notably Paul Robeson in the title role in New York in 1943, the first time a black man had played with a white cast) and productions in which actors alternate the roles of Othello and Iago. Sir Patrick Stewart mischievously played the part as a white, with the rest of the cast being played by blacks.

But it is presently regarded as infra dig for white actors to ‘black up’ in any circumstances, and in recent major British adaptations, the Moor has been played by black actors, most recently to good effect by Lenny Henry. It is not just in theatre that this tendency is discernible; a recent Disney film, Prince of Persia, was pilloried because the central roles were taken by the white actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Atherton, as has been M. Night Shyamalan’s Airbenders -- while many still fizz with indignation about Mickey Rooney’s Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

But although we are supposed to be uncomfortable to see a white actor playing Othello, we are not supposed to be uncomfortable to see a black actor playing a role we associate with whites. As long ago as 2000, when Nigerian actor David Oyelowo was selected by the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Henry VI, those who said they found this incongruous were accused of prejudice. Now, to cite the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, when reviewing a recent Pygmalion featuring a black Eliza Doolittle, theatre critics “almost hesitate to point out” incongruities of casting so as to avoid this imputation.

On the one hand, therefore, we are expected to be race-conscious; on the other, to be race-blind. This apparent inconsistency makes sense only when we realise that the underlying idea is that theatre should be less white and less "elitist" (elitist is a near-synonym for white in this and other contexts).

Shakespeare plays are often said to have passed their view-by date, with some educationalists saying they are too ‘difficult’ for today’s children. This is patently false, as one can see from children’s reactions to the plays – and even if it were true, it would be a serious indictment of modern teaching, considering that the plays were written for bear-baiters and night-soil men. The real reason a minority dislikes Shakespeare is because he portrays an England and a Europe that were almost wholly English and European.

Another reason Othello flutters feathers is because implicit in the plot is the unsavoury moral that ethnic proximity often means ethnic conflict. Apart from the still-resonant backdrop of Christian-Muslim warfare (Cyprus is still a kind of frontline), Othello is doomed to disaster simply because of who (or perhaps what) he is. He is an archetype as much as a man. Desdemona, the most ‘post-racial’ character, suffers longest and dies soonest. The progressive/transgressive affaire is both brief and botched.

The ‘miscegenation’ motif makes many people wriggle in atavistic discomfort. There is some evidence that persons of one race automatically treat members of other races differently – for example, Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests, the genetic similarity theory of Frank Salter and J-P Rushton, and more recent studies conducted for the academic journals Current Biology and Experimental Social Psychology, which monitored brain activity in groups watching members of their own and other ethnic groups in different situations. As Salvatore Maria Aglioti, the Italian academic who led the Current Biology study, remarked,

“If you ask people directly if they are racist, most people say no, but a very high percentage show implicit biases."

He then goes on to distance himself from his team's findings by say that racial prejudice is learned rather than inherited. This study and the other studies I have adduced are of course sketchy and speculative, and signify little when viewed in isolation. Yet historically speaking, birds of a feather usually do flock together, and immigration does cause acute if usually unconfessed uneasiness. It seems not implausible that there should be some such artifact of our semi-animal past, when someone whom you did not recognize was likely to be an enemy.

There does appear to be a widespread if regrettable suspicion that those who do not share one’s physicality may not share one’s personality. Even self-described "liberals" tend to talk about diversity rather than actually living their dream; when it comes to ethnic exogamy they may not be that unlike the working-class "racists" they affect to despise. Their "ethnic cringe" evinces itself in "protesting too much" (another Shakespearean expression, from Hamlet) -- sycophancy and overdone considerateness towards non-whites that often come across as hypocrisy and condescension.

In Othello, the fear of interracial intimacy is expressed figuratively by rodomontade about Desdemona being "covered by a Barbary horse," potentially resulting in "coursers for cousins and gennets for germans." The "treason of the blood" so deplored by Brabantio is not just about what he perceives as Desdemona’s ‘disloyalty’ to him as her father, but also about her perceived ‘disloyalty’ to her people.

In recent decades, history has become a hotly contested political battlefield. Those who favour revolutionary social transformation often strive to insert ethnic anachronisms into national narratives as post-facto justifications -- essentially so that they can justify immigrants’ presence in the prickly present. For a few activists, then, Othello is precious evidence that Europe has always been multicultural, that there can be “European Islam” and individual choices may override "constructs." Yet however often it is staged, and whatever ingenious rationales are introduced, Othello will probably always present troubling aspects for the post-modernized. It will be many, many years -- if ever -- before Othello can be viewed with complete equanimity.

As we left the grounds, full of the horror and sadness of the tale, with the light spilling out of the orangery onto the terrace, the sundial and the cedars, I thought how far we are from the world in which Othello was imagined -- yet how much the melodramatic Moor can still tell us about ourselves.