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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds DR.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds NICK WALTON: Hi. Welcome. In this section we’re going to be thinking about the significance of race in Shakespeare’s Othello. It would be very difficult to talk about the play Othello without talking about race. Shakespeare’s text is filled with references to the colour of Othello’s skin. And none of those references are at all complimentary. Iago refers to Othello as “an old black ram.” Brabanzio speaks of the general’s “sooty bosom.” And even Othello himself suggests that it’s possibly due to the darkness of his skin that he lacks those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have. How are we supposed to respond to all of these negative racial slurs? How would Shakespeare’s audiences have reacted?

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds Does Shakespeare’s play suggests that Othello’s gullibility, irrational jealousy, and murderous violence stem from the fact that his ethnicity differs from everyone else in the drama? Othello’s choice to kill his wife is, of course, a terrible judgement on his part. But is the drama pushing us to believe that all Moors are inherently savage and violent? And that Brabanzio was correct to fear his daughter’s marriage to a fellow, who he labels “an abuser of the world,” “a practiser of arts inhibited”? Well, as usual, Shakespeare refrains from answering any of these questions. Instead, it seems to me that Shakespeare gently prods his audience throughout, nudging them to react to everything that is said about the Moor in the play.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds The issue of race in Othello has a long and complicated critical history, both on the stage and on the page. Shakespeare wrote the role of Othello the Moor knowing full well that in his time this part would be presented by a white actor. He’s lead tragedian, Richard Burbage, who would also play Hamlet, King Lear, and others besides. Although there were black people living in London during Shakespeare’s time, some of whom were musicians, dance, and entertainers, there’s no evidence that suggests that black performance took roles in plays staged at the public playhouses. The fact that a white man played the role of a dark skinned Moor in the theatre wasn’t notable or peculiar in Shakespeare’s time.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds After all, you would also been watching young men play the roles of the women– Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. So the audience’s imagination was always being put to full use. However, the fact that white actors wearing black makeup continued to play this part from Shakespeare’s time through to the end of the 20th century is more remarkable. Lots of famous actors from the 17th century onwards, from Thomas Betterton, to David Garrick, to Edmund Kean, and more recently, from Laurence Olivier, to Anthony Hopkins, to Michael Gambon have worn makeup to play black Othello. The idea of a white actor wearing dark makeup or black face to present Othello raises lots of issues for actors and audiences alike.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 seconds Hugh Quarshie has given a lot of thought to the issue surrounding the presentation of Othello’s race.

Skip to 3 minutes and 42 seconds HUGH QUARSHIE: I resisted playing this role for many years because I felt that Shakespeare hadn’t tried hard enough to make the role non-racist. And I was afraid that if a black actor played it, he would just endorse or reinforce some of the racist assumptions behind the characterisation. Shakespeare, a white man, wrote it for another man, Richard Burbage, who put on black make-up 400 years ago. And some of the lines aren’t problematic for a white actor. But for black actor, a conscious black actor, they might be black– they might be problematic. Such as, “her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face,” suggests a self-hating black man, and I think that’s questionable.

Skip to 4 minutes and 36 seconds Audiences in England had to wait until 1826 until they saw a black actor named Ira Aldridge playing the title role. You might assume that Ira Aldridge would present Othello in a different manner to those white actors who had performed the role before him. White actors who presented Othello’s race ostensibly through the makeup and costume. Aldrige’s performance became a landmark in this play’s stage history and you can find out more about his performance in the next section. Another African American actor, Paul Robeson, would continue to change the way in which the role of Othello was presented on stage.

Skip to 5 minutes and 19 seconds One critic has said this he re-voiced the character for a generation of black African Americans by asserting Othello’s dignity, his honour, his grace, and implicitly linking this interpretation to the American Civil Rights movement. Paul Robeson himself said in 1930 that, I feel the play is so modern, for the problem is the problem of my own people it’s a tragedy of racial conflict, a tragedy of honour rather than of jealousy. Shakespeare presents a noble figure, a man of singleness of purpose and simplicity with a mind as direct as a straight line. The fact that he’s an alien amongst white people makes his mind work more quickly. Robeson use of the word “alien” is interesting.

Skip to 6 minutes and 7 seconds And we will be looking at how Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen the Moor as an outsider in the next video. One recent commentator called Ben Okri has noted that, “if a fellow is not to play about race, then its history has made it one.” As plays pass through time, critic’s interpretations are inevitably shaped by the times in which they are living. The critic Elliot Tokson has said that some critics believe that Shakespeare was uninterested in the racial aspects of the tragic situation altogether. While others hold that Shakespeare was so deeply concerned with Othello’s blackness, that to miss that theme is to miss the heart of the play.

Skip to 6 minutes and 55 seconds In recent years, literary critics have looked to find out more about the times in which Shakespeare was writing and have searched to discover clues that could help us understand the social and cultural contexts that influenced Shakespeare as a writer for the public theatre. So what would Shakespeare’s audiences have known about Moors before coming to see a performance of Othello? Were Moors thought to be particularly prone to jealousy and violence? In the next video I will try to answer these questions. But before moving on, you might like to decide for yourself whether you think Othello is a racist play, or a play that contains characters that hold racist views? Or is Othello a play the challenges issues of race?

Skip to 7 minutes and 48 seconds Here’s Iqbal giving his view on this question.

Skip to 7 minutes and 51 seconds IQBAL KHAN: Othello is complicated.

Skip to 7 minutes and 54 seconds It has been talked of [? as ?] the rest of the play. Actually, Hugh Quarshie, who plays Othello, wrote an essay over 10 years ago talking about just those issues. That in some ways an actor, a black actor, thinking about playing Othello should think twice. Because in some senses, superficially, what it represents is an unconventional picture of an obeying and humane black man in the first half. Who then, in some senses, might be seen to revert to type and be animalistic and base by the end of it. However, I I don’t think that is the play. It might have been how it was presented on stage, though, for a long time. And I think that’s an issue.

Skip to 8 minutes and 40 seconds I think the performance history of it has been reductive.

Looking back to look forward

In this video Nick explores the significance of race as a theme in Othello.

As you watch consider:

  • Changing attitudes to Shakespeare’s plays across time.

  • The significance of Ira Aldridge’s portrayal of Othello to the play’s performance history.

Having watched you might also want to ask yourselves:

  • Is race the dominant theme in Othello?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham