Sunday, September 1, 2019

Behind the Character: OTHELLO

Othello is a general in the Venetian forces who, as a foreigner, has won this position through superiority in combat and war strategy. Othello is intelligent, courageous, a skilled leader, and respected by the Venetian troops. For this reason, when Cyprus is threatened by the enemy, the Duke turns to “valiant” Othello to lead the defense (Act I, Scene 3). 

Othello as “Other” 

In the 2019 Shakespeare On Tour
production, Othello is portrayed by
Roshni Desai.
When the play starts, Othello has been living among the cultured people of Venice, a stark contrast in lifestyle to the years spent on campaigns for the military. Othello’s hard work has won the chance at a comfortable life surrounded by intellectual conversation, art and society, and Othello’s social circles have evolved to include the wealthy and influential, like the senator Brabantio. Othello sees possibilities that were not available before and Othello’s growing appreciation for sophistication may be the reason Cassio, a young student of military knowledge and a “great arithmetician,” is appointed to be Othello’s lieutenant though he has little actual on-the-field experience (Act I, Scene 1). More on Brabantio and Cassio in future posts

Just as Othello encounters aspects of life in Venice that are different and new, the Venetians see Othello as foreign due to a difference in origin, history, and color of skin. Thus, Othello lives constantly among, but separated from, other people though they all share the same religion and values. Othello’s skin color plays a role in others’ interactions and the way they view and speak about Othello.

The other characters in the play are always called by name, lending to their being seen as individuals independent of their physical traits. Othello, in contrast, is many times referenced by race, most commonly as “The Moor” (interestingly, references to Othello by name in the full text range in the thirties, despite being the main character and protagonist. Instances of Othello being referenced as “The Moor” nearly double that).

While it is generally the less noble characters who use race to disparage Othello, others like Brabantio and Desdemonan are drawn in by Othello’s exotic qualities. “[Brabantio] loved me, oft invited me,/Still questioned me the story of my life/From year to year” (Act I, Scene 3).

Duality and Downfall

Othello is teeming with themes of duality: black versus white, appearance versus reality, good versus evil, love versus hate. For almost every concept that Shakespeare introduces, there is also a direct opposite. One of Othello’s most worthy qualities is integrity; “Certain, men should be what they seem” (Act 3, Scene 3). This is a direct juxtaposition to the double-dealing Iago. More on Iago in a future post.

Like most of Shakespeare’s characters, Othello is not without complexities. Rather than a one-dimensional representation of a single trait, Shakespeare made Othello full of internal dualities that are in constant conflict. 

Honesty and Trust

Othello’s steadfast integrity gains the respect of the community, but leads to Othello’s faith that others share this lofty ideal and are worthy of trust; “The Moor is of a free and open nature,/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (Act I, Scene 1). This conviction may be what makes Othello an easy target for Iago’s conspiracies, but also forces Iago to work harder against Othello’s constant search for the good in others. “I think my love be honest and think he is not;/ I think that thou art just and think thou art not./ I'll have some proof” (Act III, Scene 3). 

Pride and Jealousy

Another of Othello’s dualities is a conflicting mixture of pride with the perception of being lowlier than others. It is often said that Othello’s fatal flaw is jealousy. But what constitutes jealousy? Dr. Darlene Lancer points out that while both stem from feelings of inadequacy, envy is wanting what others have whereas jealousy is the fear of losing what we already have (Lancer). This in mind, Othello’s marriage and military position are points of pride for the general, but also serve as the foundation for Othello’s jealousy and eventual tragic fall.

These dual feelings of pride and inadequacy affect how Othello navigates a place in Venetian society. Pride shows itself early when Brabantio accuses Othello of tricking Desdemonan into marriage. Othello claims privilege not only due to his military prowess and the “services which [Othello has] done the signiory,” but also due to Othello’s noble lineage; “I fetch my life and being/ From men of royal siege, and my demerits/ May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune/ As this that I have reach'd” (Act I, Scene 2).

Later, however, amid an eloquent speech in defense of Brabantio’s charges, Othello self-identifies only as a soldier, not as worthy of conversing with Venetian nobility. “Rude am I in my speech,/ And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace” (Act I, Scene 3). In this one instance, we see Othello’s ongoing struggle to negotiate self-worth and feeling “other”.

Where insecurity shows its face more than other interactions and relationships throughout the play, however, is in Othello’s marriage. Othello’s love for Desdemonan is very apparent and their marriage is a high point in Othello’s life; "If it were now to die, / 'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute, / That not another comfort, like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate" (Act II, Scene 1).

Perhaps it is because Othello finds so much joy in marriage that, when confronted with allegations that Cassio and Desdemonan are having an affair, we see Othello’s strong feelings of inadequacy against a conventional white suitor. “Haply, for I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have…” (Act III, Scene 3).

Thus, Othello’s existing insecurity as being racially and culturally different combine with Othello’s intense love and pride to play directly into Iago’s ability to manipulate Othello to jealous action. Othello’s lack of knowledge when it comes to Venetian custom lets Iago assert that Venetians secretly cheat on their spouses: “In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands” (Act III, Scene 3). Othello is even willing to accept Iago’s suggestion that the difference in race and status between Othello and Desdemonan makes their marriage unnatural. “Not to affect many proposed matches/ Of [his] own clime, complexion, and degree,/ Whereto we see in all things nature tends--/ Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,/ Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural” (Act III, Scene 3). 

Victim or Villain?

Even with Iago’s machinations turning Othello’s insecurity to jealousy, it is worth noting that Othello’s pride plays just as large a role in Othello’s actions. While the tension between actual victimization at the hands of Iago and Othello’s inclination toward self-torment lend to the tragedy of the story, Othello never loses the freedom of choice. 

Throughout the play, Desdemonan is treated as property that can be stolen and Othello’s sense of ownership over Desdemonan results in wounded pride when challenged by Cassio’s alleged advances. “I had rather be a toad,/ And live upon the vapour of a dungeon,/ Than keep a corner in the thing I love” (Act III, Scene 3). Othello’s ego precludes confronting Desdemonan or Cassio and giving them the opportunity to defend against Iago’s accusations. Instead, Othello chooses to test Desdemonan with the impossible task of producing the stolen handkerchief and to spy on Cassio. Once Othello finally accuses Desdemonan, Othello has already committed to killing Desdemonan convinced that this is an act of divine justice (Act V, Scene 2). 

After Iago’s actions have been disclosed, Othello still has trouble reconciling who is to blame for Desdemonan’s death. Othello views Iago as a “demi-devil” who ensnared [Othello’s] soul and body” but leans toward self-pity as a victim who was justified in murdering Desdemonan given the circumstances; “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour” (Act V, Scene 2).

Famous portrayals of Othello

Richard Burbage

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice was first performed by the King’s Men at the court of James I in November 1604. The show starred Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary interpreter. No one knows if Burbage wore black make-up for the part: issues of racism did not surface until the 20th century. Richard Burbage is considered the first great actor of the English theatre. He played many of the major Shakespearean characters, including Othello, Hamlet, Lear, and Richard III.

Edmund Kean

Othello always generated such onstage electricity it was never adapted or revised during the 17th and 18th centuries. It reverberated among actors and audiences as one of the great theatrical experiences: savage, visceral, transgressive. All big-name actors wanted the role. One of the biggest to cause a sensation in the part was Edmund Kean. His last stage performance was Othello at Covent Garden where, collapsing on stage in 1833, he expired soon after, with the words, 'Dying is easy; comedy is hard'.

Ira Aldrige

For more than 200 years after Shakespeare’s Othello was first staged in 1604, only white actors played the title role. Not until 1826 was Othello finally played by a black performer: renowned African American actor Ira Aldridge. Aldridge emigrated from the United States at the age of 17 and pursued a professional acting career in London that led him to perform throughout England and abroad. Yet his work as Othello drew criticism in London. The editors of the London newspaper The Athenaeum recoiled in disgust at an 1833 Covent Garden performance of Othello, in which they witnessed the white actress Ellen Tree (Desdemona) “pawed about the stage by a black man.” And despite Aldridge’s innumerable successes as an actor, it would be another hundred years before the role of Othello was taken up by a fellow African American.

Samuel Phelps and William Macready

In 1837, the West End actor Samuel Phelps alternated Othello and Iago with his celebrated contemporary William Macready. This innovative role swap, from night to night, was repeated by Henry Irving and Edwin Booth in 1880. Again, in 1955, Richard Burton and John Neville exchanged leads during an Old Vic season. Today, the trend against white actors playing Othello has put this trend out of favour.

Henry Irving

Othello was intended to be a crowd-pleaser. Over the centuries it has attracted all the top performers including Victorian performer, Henry Irving, who played the role in 1876. Known as an actor-manager because he took complete responsibility (supervision of sets, lighting, direction, casting, as well as playing the leading roles) for season after season at the Lyceum Theatre, Irving established himself and his company as representative of English classical theatre. In 1895 he became the first actor to be awarded a knighthood, indicating full acceptance into the higher circles of British society.

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson, son of a former slave, was an iconic American star. His performance in 1930 brought Othello into the modern age. At last a black man played the Moor, and was, by all accounts, utterly mesmerising. Only an audio version of this performance survives, but it hints at an extraordinary theatrical moment. The spectacle of a black man kissing a white woman – Desdemona, played by Peggy Ashcroft – was a sensation. On first night, Ashcroft won rave reviews, and Robeson received 20 curtain calls. The production ran for more than a year.

Laurence Olivier

In 1964 Olivier played Othello as if Robeson’s performance had never happened. Declaring this was 'the impossible one', he immersed himself in technicalities of makeup and costume, and told Life magazine that 'the whole thing will be in the lips and the colour'. He reprised the role for a 1965 film. It is one of Olivier’s most disputed roles and American critics, in the midst of the civil rights movement, balked at the blackface portrayal when it opened in the U.S. in 1966. The film played for just two days. It took longer in Europe, largely unaffected by the fallout from the American Civil Rights Movement, until white Othellos in blackface fell out of favor. As late as 1990, Michael Gambon played Othello in a performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Laurence Fishburne

Fishburne played Othello in Oliver Parker’s 1995 film version opposite Kenneth Branagh as Iago. The film did not receive great review with Othello seen as “distant” and “brooding” and “to have had his tragic fall almost before the play begins” (Roger Ebert)

Patrick Stewart

Stewart turned the role into a reinterpretation of the whole play in 1997. His was the first white Othello in America for half a century in a so-called “photo negative” production: the other cast members were black.

Mekhi Phifer

Phifer played Odin James a character based on Othello in the 2001 film adaptation, O. Roger Ebert said of the performance “Mekhi Phifer makes a strong, tortured Odin, and delivers a final speech, which in its heartbreaking anguish, inspires our pity much as Othello's does.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor

British actor and director, Chiwetel Ejiofor played Othello at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in 2008 alongside Ewan McGregor as Iago. Ejiofor’s performance was lauded by Michael Billington of the Guardian as one that, “in its descent from majestic dignity to deluded rage, suggests a great and noble building being destroyed by the wrecker's ball” and won him the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.

Golda Rosheuvel

Rosheuvel portrayed Othello at the Liverpool Everyman in 2018 making her the first female Othello in a major modern British theatre. Lyn Gardner notes of the casting, “In changing the gender of Othello – making the character a woman who has excelled in what is clearly very much a man’s world – the stakes are raised”

Check out the Nebraska Shakespeare On Tour Production of Othello, traveling to schools and communities this fall!

Upcoming Public Performances
  • Creighton University (Omaha)| September 21, 7:00 PM
  • College of Saint Mary (Omaha)| September 23, 6:00 PM
  • Midland University (Fremont)| September 24, 6:30 PM
  • Highlander Accellerator (Omaha)| October 3, 6:00 PM
  • Golden Husk Theatre (Ord) | October 7, 7:00 PM
  • Lauritzen Gardens (Omaha)| October 15, 6:00 PM
  • The Sun Theatre (Gothenburg) | October 17, 7:00 PM
  • Valentine HS (Valentine) | October 20, 6:00 PM
  • Ainsworth HS (Ainsworth) | October 21, 7:00 PM

Othello On Tour is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

#NEShakesEDTalks: Meet the Scenic Designer for Othello

We are continuing our Othello On Tour series and talking with Brendan, who is a scenic and lighting designer, technical director, and wearer of many creative hats! Brendan started working with Nebraska Shakespeare in 2003. Check it out!

Join us every Thursday for a new video about Shakespeare, theatre, and 21st century life.

Othello On Tour is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

#NEShakesEdTalks - Meet the Director of Othello

We are continuing our Othello On Tour series and talking with Ezra Colon. Ezra is an actor, director, and teaching artist based in Omaha; he has worked with Nebraska Shakespeare since 2016.

Hear what he has to say about our casting approach to Othello!

Join us each week for a new video topic!

Othello On Tour is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

#NEShakesEDTalks: Meet the Cast of Othello

Rehearsals begin in one month for our 14th Annual Shakespeare On Tour! This week, we begin our Othello On Tour series - and we start by meeting the cast of Othello!

Join us every Thursday for a new video about Shakespeare, theatre, and 21st century life. Thanks to Theatre Arts Guild - Omaha for their grant support.

Othello On Tour is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

#NEShakesEDTalks: On location from the folger library.

Katie goes to Washington DC and gives us a brief tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world's largest Shakespeare collection.

Join us each week for a new NEShakesEDTalks topic. Visit us on YouTube for more video topics!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Meet the Cast of Othello for the 14th annual season of Shakespeare On Tour!

This season's Othello will be the first time we take this play on the road as a part of Shakespeare On Tour, and we couldn't be more excited to share this challenging story across the region. Let's meet the cast!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

#NEShakesEDTalks: Shakespeare On The Green RECAP!

Our On The Green season - All's Well That Ends Well and Hamlet - has closed. We are thankful for all the people that made it happen.

Photo and video credits: Sarah Lynn Brown, Chris Holzmeier of Foton-Foto, Ezra Colon, and Tricia Mancuso Parks.