Hello, learners, and welcome to the week seven summary video. We’ve been looking at Othello this week. Yes, indeed, and Othello always provokes a lot of interesting commentary. So thinking about the stereotypes that are portrayed in Othello, how do you think those would have been received in Elizabethan England, and what were people’s understandings of foreigners? Well, there’s no doubt that there was a kind of racial stereotyping, and indeed, a sort of stereotyping according to national identity in Shakespeare’s England. But I think it’s very important to see that, particularly in relation to the character of Othello himself. There were different strands of thinking about Moors, as they were called. We talked a lot about this in the films.
That Moor, it’s partly a racial term, but is also a religious term. A Moor was a Muslim. And there was a lot of interest in the idea of the strength and grace of the Moors. Of course, there’s that long history where the Moors had invaded Spain. And there’s a lot of admiration for those Moors and their culture, not least because, of course, Spain with the great Catholic enemy. And one of the reasons that the Moorish ambassadors were there in London was precisely because of the possibility of there being an alliance between the Moors and the English Protestants against the Catholics. So the Moor wasn’t necessarily the enemy.
Of course, that’s what we see in the play, where the Moor fights on behalf of Venice. And as in Merchant of Venice, I think there is a sense in which Venice is a double or cypher for England at the time. At the same time there is no doubt that there is a racial stereotyping of a very unpleasant kind going on. But as we’ve stressed, that has very much led by Iago. Iago makes it his business to stir up hatred. And what would the makeup of the audience have been like? What was the ethnic makeup of London at the time? It’s a good question.
I think it used to be thought that the audience for Shakespeare’s original plays would have been almost entirely white. But actually recent work by historians really digging deep into some of the parish records in London, one discovers that there was actually a black community in London. And of course as we’ve said before, particularly in the context of the Merchant of Venice, this is a time where trade is really taking off. The Elizabethan period, you have all these wonderful voyage narratives being written, explorers and tradesman going off all around the world, and similarly traders from Africa, from the Far East, coming to London.
So I think London was already beginning to become something of the cultural melting pot that it is today, and that there would’ve been more of a mix in the audience than we perhaps imagined. But not on stage. But not on stage. There’s no doubt that the character of Othello would have been played by a white actor who had blacked up with burnt cork. And of course, blacking up remained the way in which Othello was played for a very, very long time. The first Black Othello was a rather remarkable actor called Ira Aldridge in the Victorian period, the mid 19th century, who toured across Europe and America.
But right through until the 1960s, predominantly the part was played by a white actor, one of Laurence Olivier’s, perhaps to us now more embarrassing roles, was his blacked up Othello. Now of course, in a way is the converse problem, that because it’s unacceptable to our culture for a white actor to black up, it’s very hard for white actors to play the role of Othello. So for example, the great black actor, Adrian Lester, has been able to play Othello and equally has been able to play Hamlet. But say, Ray Fiennes, has been able to play Hamlet but not to play Othello. The only way around that is if you do reverse casting.
There was a very interesting production in Washington DC a while ago now in which Patrick Stewart, a fine Shakespearean actor, although also known of course as Captain Picard from Star Trek. But he played a white Othello in an entirely otherwise black cast. So interesting possibilities. So Othello is a really good example of Shakespeare’s knowledge, or perhaps lack of knowledge, of other lands. And there’s a lot of debate about whether or not Shakespeare travelled. Yeah, there is. There’s one passing reference in Othello to a gondolier, but I’m not sure Shakespeare actually knew what a gondolier was. Because there are certainly no references to canals.
We don’t know whether Shakespeare travelled, but in a sense, he travelled in his imagination. And we know that he read. So among the sources for Othello was a book by Lewis Lewkenor, which was an account of the history and customs of Venice. So he’d have read about Venice. And obviously, there were English travellers from Venice. And he would no doubt have spoken perhaps in the tavern in London to people who have been there. I think it’s rather doubtful that he went to Venice. But it has to be a possibility. We have this tantalising period in the late 1580s where we don’t know where Shakespeare was.
And certainly it was the case that the acting companies travelled across Europe, so at the very least, we can say he’d have picked up a lot of knowledge about overseas from his fellow actors. In what sort of situation would people have travelled? People wouldn’t have holidayed, I guess. They wouldn’t have holidayed.
Well, I think they wouldn’t have holidayed. I mean, there are examples of people who just travel either from the Continent to London. One of the best accounts we have of the London Theatre was a Swiss traveller called Thomas Platter, who just travelled in order to see the world and write a book about it. Conversely, there’s a wonderful story of a man called Thomas Coryat who was a great walker. He walked all the way to Venice. As you do. As you do. And again, wrote a book about it. So travel narrative was a very, a very common genre. You were also beginning to get the origins of the aristocratic gentleman’s grand tour.
Certainly a lot of well-to-do gentleman, aristocrats especially, would have gone to Italy, not least to learn language and to learn about the culture. And next week, we are staying overseas and looking at Antony and Cleopatra. Yes, back to the ancient world. Although interesting to do it straight after Othello, because the question of Cleopatra’s skin colour is an interesting one. And just as Othello is a play about an outsider in Venice, a fellow from North Africa in Venice, so Antony and Cleopatra, though set in the ancient world, has this similar contrast between two different worlds, the world of Rome and the world of Egypt. And some of the stereotypes we have of the exotic and erotic orient are played upon there.
Rome, of course, seen very much as the exemplar of the great empire, in some ways an exemplar for the modern state, so this is a play in which questions of politics and duty on the one hand, love and desire on the other, are fighting with each other. So any good productions? Well, it’s tricky. Do you know Antony and Cleopatra. There are productions. There are productions. But I have to say, it’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that I can genuinely say has never been satisfactorily filmed. So maybe if we have some budding filmmakers out there on the course, they could produce the great Antony and Cleopatra film for the next generation, but they’re going to need a big budget.