Hey, guys! Today we’re going to talk about the play, Othello, and the cultural history behind this work.
Since the beginning of time, the black experience has been complex and hard to look back on.
Whether Shakespeare knew it or not, Othello became part of the black community’s culture the moment he wrote Othello as a black man. Othello is iconic for many reasons, the main reason being Shakespeare’s only play where he not only acknowledges a black person but includes them into his story. Though this implication is ambiguous, students of Shakespeare base this knowledge on Othello’s description in the play by other castmates. He is referred to as black, the moor, and his black features are brought up.
Before he even comes to the stage, we learn that Othello’s wife chose him over her father. Without explicitly saying so, we learn that Desdemona’s father isn’t fond of their relationship. In an article written by Kiernan Ryan, it is brought to the reader’s attention that the couple is enthralled by “the venomous rage of a society whose foundations are rocked by the mere fact of their marriage” (Ryan). Because of white men’s entitlement to Desdemona’s body, they mark Othello as an enemy. His existence becomes a threat to their masculinity and they don’t even regard Desdemona’s feelings.
While reading this play, I realized that I had an issue with the relationship between Desdemona and Othello. During the time that this play was written, Othello was more than likely deemed the villain the moment the audience got the playbill or their love would be seen as something exotic and not real love. But the relationship between Desdemona and Othello plays into the stereotype of black men “stealing” white women from their husbands. Iago plans to plot against Othello based off of a rumor that he hears of him sleeping with his wife. To me, Iago thought that since Desdemona chose Othello that he would influence other women to chose a black man instead of a white one too. All of the odds were set against him before the character was even brought to the stage.
Though I believe that there should be stories written about black characters outside of their tragic cultural past, this play has racist undertones but erases oppression from his history. There’s no talk about how a white woman and a black man’s relationship together wouldn’t have been seen as normal, but instead, they sabotage it.
Iago, the true villain in this play, is the main one sabotaging their marriage by telling Othello that he knows that his wife is cheating on him. Othello becomes enraged and accuses his wife of cheating on him with Cassio. Throughout this whole time, Desdemona refuses to believe that something has gone wrong with Othello and he’d never be jealous about her while other people insist that he is. Sadly, things go sour between the two which ends up with the death of Desdemona. In another article by Andrew Dickson that I researched for, I saw how some actors have a problem with this part of the story along with other things. A British-Ghanian actor by the name of Hugh Quarshie says that “Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor,” and that “doing so risked legitimising – in fact condoning – the racist stereotype of a black man” (Dickson). With this tragic ending along with other aspects of the play, many actors refuse to participate in the recreation of Othello. The character Othello started out as an outsider but an outsider who was wise, smart, and honorable then turns out to be a murderer. To me, Othello didn’t get the chance to become developed before he was written off as a murderer. He deserved the chance to be seen as something else and have a happy ending.
In a lecture that my Shakespeare class covered earlier this semester, Kim F. Hall touched on the fact that black scholars are policed when it comes to their love of Shakespeare just like they’re policed when it comes to their beings. The story of Othello is seen as the only play by Shakespeare that’s acceptable for black people to embrace. Kim F. Hall brings up that in an article, Toni Morrison was not seen as relatable to Shakespeare but seen as someone of the Elizabethan Era and a descendant of Othello.
Even with its racist implications and undertones, many black scholars and theater lovers have taken Othello into their own hands and created what represented the black community. Taking this play and showing the multifacetedness of many actors, directors, and writers show how we are worthy of experiencing Shakespeare like our non-black counterparts. When looking at Shakespeare’s work, one can not overlook the racist and entitled history that comes with it. In the article written by Dickson, he points out that the first actor that played Othello was a white man who “have worn dark makeup, as actors in Britain did until the late 1980s” (Dickson). Though black individuals weren’t looked at as people that were worthy of telling their own stories, they were included in stories the way that non-black people wanted them to be.
With Toni Morrison rewriting Othello to make Desdemona and actors such as Jessika D. Williams play Othello as a black woman, there are many creative adaptations of this play rewritten by black individuals. Othello can be seen as a story that’s been passed down from generation to generation for black people to mold into what they believe and want it to be. Black stories are for black people to retell and cherish. We deserve the chance to make Shakespeare into who we visualize him to be but also acknowledge the history.
Dickson, Andrew. “Othello: the Role That Entices and Enrages Actors of All Skin Colours.” The British Library, The British Library, 16 Nov. 2015, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/othello-the-role-that-entices-and-enrages-actors-of-all-skin-colours.
Ryan, Kiernan. “Racism, Misogyny and ‘Motiveless Malignity’ in Othello.” The British Library, The British Library, 11 Dec. 2015, www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/racism-misogyny-and-motiveless-malignity-in-othello.