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Notes on Othello


Shakespeare did not oversee the publication of any of his plays. He wrote for the stage not the page. Thus, the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Othello was as part of a festival held at Whitehall (the royal residence) on November 1, 1604. The first known performance by The King’s Men at the Globe Theatre was in April 1610. The play first appeared in print as a quarto (a small, single-play volume) in 1622. This quarto is markedly different from the First Folio edition of 1623 (part of the collected works assembled after Shakespeare’s death). Most modern editions of the play conflate the two versions into a composite text, striving to include the best features of each.

The Lead Role

The first actor to play the role of Othello, Richard Burbage of The King’s Men wore black face. This remained the tradition through the 19th century, when the part was played white. In the mid-1800’s, an African-American, Ira Aldridge, was the first black actor to take on the role – but never in America. He played to great acclaim in Europe and Russia. He also performed the roles of Macbeth, Shylock, and Lear. The next notable African-American to take the part was Paul Robeson in 1930 (London) and finally on Broadway (1943). Many black actors have taken the role since then, including Tony Richardson and Trevor Nunn on the stage, and more recently Laurence Fishburne in Oliver Parker’s film adaptation (1995). When the white actor Patrick Stewart was asked to play the lead, he agreed on condition that the rest of the cast was black.

Shakespeare in Hawai’i

In Hawai'i, Othello was staged by Kumu Kahua in 1996, with a Hawai’ian Othello and white Iago and Desdemona. In 2002, Y York and the Hawai'i Theatre for Youth (HTY) produced a hip-hop adaptation of Othello, using only four characters and an Othello marked as different by facial tattoos.

Othello as “other”

A “photonegative image” production worked because Othello has always centered around the lead character’s “otherness,” not simply his race but his alien identity based on a generalized nationality. At the time, all dark-skinned peoples were considered “Moors,” regardless of their country of origin. Othello is remarkably different from the Venetians, and this difference is frequently marked in the script. The otherness of Othello seems not to matter but even as it is dismissed as unimportant, enemies and allies cannot avoid remarking it, from Iago’s initial taunt to Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.85-6) to the Duke’s compliment, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.1.288).

Subtly skirting the issue of race, Desdemona claims that she fell in love with the face of his mind and the body of his prowess: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (1.3.250-2).

The play has proven a prescient treatment of race. Little mention is made of the issue in the 17th century. At that time all of the female roles were impersonations by boys, so the impersonation of a man of color did not demand any more stretch of the imagination. In the 19th century, the play was often treated as farce or burlesque in attempts to defuse the racial charge. However, modern interpretations must address the many controversies the play presents to its audience, and to its performers. Many have argued that Othello should no longer be played by a nonblack actor; others argue that all Shakespearean casting should be “color-blind.”

Other ways to view Othello

The focus on race draws attention away from equally interesting and poignant features of the text, notably the power struggles within the constraints of politics and gender, and the typically Shakespearean insights on human nature. The entire action of the play turns on Iago’s belief that he has been slighted by Othello, who has appointed another “foreigner” as his lieutenant, the Florentine Michael Cassio. Iago is appointed Othello’s “ancient,” a key figure for Othello, but a post with little reward and less glory. The action unfolds as Iago gains absolute power over his superior and reigns (briefly) over a world of his own manufacture.

Desdemona also engages in plays for power. The very act of eloping with Othello challenges her father’s sovereignty and the patriarchal structure of the state. She has an independent mind, surprising even Othello with her decision to accompany her new husband to war in Cyprus. Aside from Iago’s machinations, Desdemona is partly responsible for her own downfall. Her disobedience to her father becomes a weapon for Iago to wield. In pleading her case for Cassio, she insists that Othello not treat her request as “a boon” as if entreating him to wear his gloves or finish his dinner. “Nay, when I have a suit / Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed, / It shall be full of poise and difficult weight / And fearful to be granted” (3.3.80-3). In the end, Desdemona is proven powerless. And yet this, in turn empowers Emilia, who reverses the course her own husband, Iago, has set.

Jealousy is the real antagonist of this play. Jealousy motivates Iago. Jealousy destroys Othello. Between the two lead characters the insidious paths of envy become manifest. In Iago, jealousy becomes a solipsistic justification for revenge regardless of the consequences, even for himself. In Othello, jealousy is a deeply psychological battle, ultimately lost.

The play of Othello

The commentary this play offers on theater itself is often overlooked. Iago is a director, cajoling his actors to perform in precise ways, manipulating the scenes, guiding the allowable interpretations, even directly addressing the audience about what’s going to happen. Othello is a cruel comedy. As in all Shakespeare tragedies, there are humorous moments. The structure of the plot is, in fact, comedic, beginning in disarray (the threat of war, the patriarchal disobedience of Desdemona, the political dependence on a foreigner, the Moor) and ending in renewed harmony: the sources of strife have all been removed.

As always, Shakespeare’s facility with language is worthy of attention. The standard line of iambic pentameter is ten or eleven syllables long, typically alternating short and long syllables. This pattern deteriorates as reason crumbles. Radical disruptions to this pattern draw powerful attention. Listen for “O, blood! blood! blood!” (3.3.451), marking Othello’s definitive turn against Desdemona. And at the realization of his error, he can only cry, “O! O! O!” (5.2.203).

Brenda Machosky
Assistant Professor of English
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu


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