Stratford Festival Talk at the Guelph Public Library 14 March, 2013
I gave a talk at the Guelph Public Library last Thursday as a part of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s series in anticipation of the upcoming season. It was exceptionally well attended and was very honoured to see so many people coming out to hear my thoughts about Othello.
My original plans were, as always, more wide ranging and far reaching than I was eventually able to accomplish. Instead of a talk in two arcs, where the first part looked at character and the second part looked at issues of plot and morality, I just stuck to character. The transcript of my talk is below, for those who are interested. I’ve also linked a copy of the audio file for those who want to download me yakking on for an hour.
I want to once again thank the Stratford Festival and the Guelph Public Library for putting together a wonderful evening.
Guelph Public Library Talk: Transcript
Dramaturgy of Othello
I’m Andrew Bretz, PhD. My specialty is gender and the early modern stage and, at the moment, I’m editing a series of editions of Shakespeare for Oxford University Press that will be coming out for the Canadian market in 2014.
I have a background as an actor and dramaturg, so I bring to the table a strong focus on performance analysis and performance history of Shakespeare.
What I want to do over the course of this talk is to give you a look into some of the choices any director or actor has to make when approaching this particular play. I’m approaching this from the perspective of a scholar, but more specifically as a dramaturg. What is a dramaturg? In essence, it is a theatre company’s resident scholar. Dramaturgs are people who are often writers and artists, but whose specialty lays with bringing out the knotty problems of a text. In the case of classical texts like Shakespeare, a dramaturg might do the research behind the scenes to ask: What did 17th century Venice look like? What were Shakespeare’s sources? What is Shakespeare doing with genre in this play? Is there an aural world of Othello that a production ought to try to recapture? A dramaturg is a resource for the director, often acting as a secondary mind, assisting and aiding the director and the cast to help them flesh out their choices in the presentation of the play. Every performance is constructed out of innumerable choices and each of those choices is a sign of an analysis. Each choice, each sign, represents a statement about the play and about the tradition of performance. What I plan to do in the next hour is to go through some of the choices that are unique to the play Othello so that when you go to see the play at Stratford this summer, you will be able to look to those choices and draw out an idea of the analysis of the play that makes up the performance.
In order to do this, I’m going to be going through three arcs. In the first arc, I’m going to look specifically at the choices unique to the three characters of Othello. In the second section of my talk, I want to look at some of the larger issues at stake in the play in terms of the ways that Iago’s character complicates the moral world of the play. Finally, in the third section, I’m going to look at the acting choices around Desdemona. In what follows, I’m going to presume that you are all familiar with the story of Othello. If not, however, here’s the short version:
Othello (a Moor) is a general in the army of Venice and he meets a Venetian woman named Desdemona… LOVE! The Venetians are at war with the Turks. On the night that Othello and Desdemona get married (much to her father’s chagrin), Othello is called away by duty to go fight the Turks at Cyprus. Iago, Othello’s ensign, Johannes factotum, and general right hand man, who is a handsome young dapper fellow, for reasons that are none too clear to anyone, decides that he is going to ruin Othello’s life. Quick change and we are in Cyprus. Othello has won the battle, Cyprus is saved for the Venetians – time to celebrate! Othello and Desdemona go off to celebrate their marriage (and the winning of the battle), while Iago stays back with the men of the camp to drink and carouse. Iago frames Cassio, who is Othello’s left-hand man(?), and Cassio gets into a drunken brawl. Othello is roused from his bed and cashiers Cassio. Iago then comforts Cassio, saying that if he just goes to Desdemona, she will sue to Othello for him. Surely, soon there will be a reconciliation.
Soon, Othello sees Cassio spending a lot of time with Desdemona and he mentions this to Iago, who plants the seed of doubt into his mind (INCEPTION!) and slowly Othello comes to believe that in fact his Venetian wife is cheating on him. Iago manages to convince him through a number of devices, including having Othello listen to one half of a conversation, where Cassio talks about his actual lover, but Othello understands it to be about Desdemona. The key point, however, is that Othello sees Cassio with a handkerchief that he gave to Desdemona as a love token. Later, Othello calls his wife a whore and other names in public. Finally, he decides that Desdemona must die and that Cassio must also die. Iago is contracted to kill Cassio, while Othello smothers Desdemona on their marriage bed. Then, the murders are discovered, Iago is found out, and Othello, in a fit of grief and rage, kills himself. Iago – strangely – lives to see another day, while the marriage bed of Othello and Desdemona is laden with corpses at the end of this tragedy.
So, let’s start with the character of Othello. How do you represent a man who is driven to murder and jealousy by the prompting of one man (Iago) and a little handkerchief?
In some ways, Othello is both the easiest character to understand in the whole play and the hardest at the same time insofar as he is in many ways a stand in for the Everyman of the medieval morality play – so every man should be able to identify with him (supposedly) – but at the same time he’s insistently positioned as foreign, alien, and exotic – so emphatically NOT everyman.
Let’s start with the foreignness. What race is Othello?
In many ways, it doesn’t make sense to ask that question. It only really makes sense to ask what race is Othello in performance, because, like all plays, the text as you read it on the page is only an instruction manual for the primary text, which is a performance. Playscripts in that sense are something like a cookbook. The recipe is nice, but it is not really the recipe but the meal that you are interested in. So, what race has Othello been played as, and why?
Of course, we don’t really know that much about the first performances of Othello, though we can piece together bits about those performances and the culture from which they came. Othello was probably played by Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s company’s star actor. Burbage was, unsurprisingly for a Londoner of the time, a white man. That’s not to say there weren’t people of African descent living in London at the time Othello hit the stages for the first time in 1601-4ish, but Burbage himself was white. Now whether he played the part in what we would think of today as “blackface” or if he wore a more “tawny” colour of makeup is a subject of no little debate in scholarship on this play. There are good arguments on both sides.
On the one hand, Shakespeare had previously used characters whose bodily descriptions indicated a sub-Saharan African ancestry, most famously with Aaron the Moor in his very early play Titus Andronicus. We even have a copy of a drawing that survives of a performance of Titus Andronicus where the character of Aaron appears and he is clearly pictured as someone whom we would think of today as “black” or of sub-Saharan African ancestry. Other “Moorish” characters in early modern drama were often presented as black men, though they were undoubtedly played by white men in make up. I say undoubtedly, because, although there were emphatically people of sub-Saharan African ancestry in England at the time (people are always surprised by that), there are no indications that any of them were in the acting companies of the day. Those black men and women in London and other places in England had been there, literally, for centuries. There’s evidence of small black communities and individual black Englishmen/women for centuries before this. Not only am I talking about the oft cited “Henry VII had black trumpeters as entertainers in his court,” but I’m talking about archival and archeological evidence that suggests that black people lived in England throughout the middle ages and even as far back as the Roman period. The idea that there were no “black” people in England prior to be beginning of the slave trade in the decades following Shakespeare’s death is simply wrong. Indeed, recently the historian Duncan Salkeld (who is on twitter for those who are interested) discovered a few people of African origin who lived JUST down the road from the Globe playhouse. About as far away as the Bookshelf is from us now… This research is very recent – as of 2004, scholars could say for certain that there were maybe 100 black individuals in England in the Renaissance. Now we can point to about 350 in London in Shakespeare’s day alone.
So Burbage could have been wearing blackface, but the other option is that he was “tawny” or North African, Berber or Arab. Thing is, as Ania Loomba notes in Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism, “Moor” was a word that meant both Muslim and black to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In August 1600, so about a year or so before Othello was written and hit the boards, Elizabethan London played host to an embassy from the court of the Moroccan Emperor ’Abd-el-Malik. The sight of North Africans walking the streets of London, with their exotic clothes and aristocratic demeanor, was the cause of no little concern for the notoriously xenophobic English. Why were they there? Elizabeth and her court had a long standing interest in expanding trade with North Africa and the Levant, but they had focused their attentions on Morocco in the last years of the 1590s. The English not only were beginning to expand trade with “the Moors,” they were beginning to trade in arms with them. This was not something that the public were particularly happy about. The Moroccans were “natural” enemies. They were Muslims – which was even worse than being Catholic to the vehemently Protestant Londoners. In fact, the “great Turk” of Constantinople was the avowed enemy of Elizabeth…. And now the English were going to give arms to Moroccans (whom most English couldn’t distinguish from Turks)? Also, it was rumored (and probably true, actually) that North African slavers would raid the coasts of England and France and take small groups of individuals to serve as slaves in the Islamic world. Finally, for the early modern English, they were of a “lesser” race, less able to control their passions and jealousies (according to the theories of racial difference at the time). English custom was that when you met a man’s wife, you kissed her (as you would kiss someone today in France – yet they did it on the lips) – how could an Englishman introduce these Moors to women at court or elsewhere? The anxiety about this was palpable for the six months that they were in London. Shakespeare wrote his play in the wake of this Moroccan embassy. What it was to be a “Moor” to the audiences of London at the time may well have shifted such that when Othello first took life, he was not a black man, but a North African man.
Any which way you cut it, when Burbage played Othello for the first time, he was a white man, either wearing black or “tawny” makeup. If he was black, that identified him with such theatrical figures as Aaron and the devil in medieval mystery plays (who was always portrayed as a black man). If he was “tawny,” then he was the living embodiment of a very real enemy/friend for England. Now, it goes without saying that white actors dominated this role for the next few hundred years. Whereas in the early Tudor period it was thought that the air of England was too pure for a slave to exist, throughout the late 1600s and the whole of the 1700s, no black man seems to have been allowed anywhere near the part because those black men who were in England in that period were largely enslaved. The choices of white actors in that period as regards race/makeup seem to have had more to do with theatrical expression and aesthetics than the political reality of slavery at the time. That is, many actors chose a “tawny” colour because the all-black makeup was thought to obscure the ability of the actor to communicate facial expressions. Indeed, David Garrick, the 18thcentury’s greatest Shakespearean actor largely failed in this part because he chose to do it in blackface makeup, which hid his expressiveness. So for much of the period prior to the early 1800s, the white men who played Othello played him as a kind of North African-light skinned black man. They emphasized his otherness, his foreignness, but they did so without sacrificing their own facial expressiveness.
It was only when you get to the 1800s that you begin to find black men taking on this role and Othello begins to be firmly associated on the stage with blackness. Whether or not he was previously associated with blackness is a matter of academic debate, but ON STAGE, prior to the early 1800s, Othello was (generally) of lighter skin tone. That changed as you had black actors taking the stage. For instance, Ira Aldridge, the great American/British actor (well, born in America, couldn’t make a living there because he was black, so he went to England) was one of the first black men to really excel as Othello. Though he started out as a novelty for the English because he was able to act with a “discretion” and “correctness” that they were not expecting from an “uneducated” African-American, he eventually garnered praise from no less than Edmund Kean and other great actors of the day. Kean, let’s not forget, had a few “signature” Shakespearean roles, including among them Othello. So, in complimenting Aldridge, he helped solidify Aldridge as a serious actor. Indeed, Aldridge became mid-century acting royalty in Europe. The role was still done by white men, but the influx of black actors had the effect of further complicating the racial dynamics at play in the role and the role as it was understood by the culture.
What do I mean by “complicating the racial dynamics?” In 1930, Paul Robeson was playing Othello. People still had troubles with the idea that Paul Robeson, a black actor, would kiss Peggy Ashcroft, let alone kill her character. But the reviews of that production, in attempting to construct Othello in terms of his blackness, actually ended up constructing blackness in terms of Othello. They state: Othello “Comes from a race whose characteristic is to keep control of its passions only to a point and after that point throw control to the wind.” That’s a description of Othello, applied to an entire race. What had happened is that over the course of the two hundred plus years since Shakespeare wrote Othello, the social identity of the black man went through many phases. In the early 1800s, black men were seen by white British society as childlike and in need of education. When emancipation occurred in 1833 throughout the British empire, the attitude towards black men changed. Black men could (theoretically) refuse their service. They were constructed not as childlike, but almost like animals by early Victorian society, animals who would rather not work for the glory of the British crown. To Victorians, they needed discipline, but no matter how much discipline a white Englishman gave a black man, scratch the surface and they were still barbaric. The culture turned to Othello for a literary model of this construction of black male identity. All of this happened, by the way, at the same time as people like Aldridge were taking the stage for the first time as Othello. The two movements in the reconfiguration of black identity in the 1800s were linked. So by the time you get to 1930, what it was to be a black man was to be like Othello. Passionate, barely under control, martial, and somewhat innocent.
So let’s bring it back to performance and performance choices for a minute. Immediately, you are faced with something of a problem. Today, if you cast a white man as Othello, there had better be a really, really good reason for that—like all the rest of the cast is black. If, however, you cast a black man as Othello, you are participating in a tradition that constructs black male identity through Othello. Here, the director is stuck in a racial double bind. The key, I think, is to make sure that the black male actor who plays Othello is aware of his inheritance and can make choices within the role to work against the stereotypical identities that are embedded in the performance tradition. I certainly don’t think it is impossible to play this role/perform this play as some have suggested with Merchant of Venice or Taming of the Shrew, but I think that actors and audiences must come at the play with a full knowledge of the ways in which blackness and masculinity have been constructed through it for the past two hundred years.
Now, let’s move onto Iago.
Iago is always a problem for scholars and actors alike because he is so contradictory. On the one hand he seems to be completely motiveless in his hatred for Othello, which some people have interpreted to be a kind of pscyhopathy and others have seen as a malignant racism embedded in the character. On the other hand, he provides us with a number of motivations for what he does in the play. He is both overdetermined and motiveless. He seems like he has the whole of Othello’s downfall planned long before the play ever begins, but at the same time, if you read closely, he really doesn’t know what is going to happen next from moment to moment. He’s making it up as he’s going along. On the one hand, he is married and clearly coded heterosexual, yet on the other hand same sex desire seems to be bubbling through his character, directed at both Cassio and Othello (though, interestingly, not Roderigo). The most critical contradiction in his character and one which any audience member or actor has to struggle with when they watch this play or act in it is the question of how morally culpable Iago actually is. That is, what does he actually DO and therefore how guilty is he? I’m going to move through all of these in turn.
First, at the risk of sounding like a pastiche of a Stanslavski teacher: what is his motivation? He states at different points that he has a number of motivations and the critic A C Bradley actually went over these in the early part of the twentieth century. Let’s just look at a few of them.
1.1 – Cassio. When Roderigo asks Iago if he actually hates Othello, Iago replies:
Despise me, if I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp’d to him: and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I–God bless the mark!–his Moorship’s ancient.
One thing that we don’t tend to get when we hear speeches like this said (and I think this is because of the way we deliver blank verse today as opposed to Shakespeare’s day) is the way Shakespeare is playing with line length. Shakespeare, like all his contemporaries wrote in blank verse. They had ever since Marlowe first pioneered the iambic pentameter line about twelve, fifteen years before in his play(s) Tamburlaine. Iambic Pentameter is five beats per line, five off stresses. It becomes the heartbeat of the play, the backbone, as it were. When lines go short, it is like the introduction of a syncopated rhythm into an otherwise metrically normalized song. In this speech, Iago has two lines that go horrendously off rhythm: “And in conclusion” and “And what was he?” Now, that’s not laziness on Shakespeare’s part, it’s poetic mastery. He’s indicating something about the character through the lines, through the poetry. Iago’s speech is fracturing, breaking apart. The more he thinks about what has happened, the more his grammar becomes non standard. The second half of the speech is filled with interjections and subjugate clauses. His mind is distracted. He’s so angry (or so it seems) that language is beginning to fail him.
Now, either Iago is in fact really passionately angry and the usurpation by Cassio is a primary motivation, or it is something of a put on for Roderigo.
At the end of 1.3, the audience gets the chance to see Iago alone for the first time. Indeed, this is one of the only soliloquies delivered throughout the whole of the play and it is one that is delivered to the audience. He tells us:
But this is a totally different motive. By the end of the first act, we are faced as an audience with what must either be two unrelated and unique motives, or something is amiss. Iago even breaks up his lines for us, playing the audience, just as he played Roderigo. He’s actually breaking what has come to be considered one of the cardinal rules of the soliloquy – he’s lying to the audience. Either he’s really enraged about these two unique motives and that rage is articulating itself in the breakdown of the lines, or he neither motive is wholly sufficient. That’s the most terrible possibility. He hates Othello not because he has a motive, but his hatred is without motive. That motivelessness is what opens the door to one of the most characteristic aspects of modernity – the absurd.
Coleridge was the one who despaired of what he called “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity.” In Iago, you have a character for whom none of the motivations that are offered (and I’ve only talked about two), nor all of the motivations put together, can really account for the blinding hatred of Iago for Othello. If his anger and malign influence over the play is really without motive, then what we are seeing is the first articulation of what later is known as the absurd. What is the absurd? The absurd is irrational, yet it is the logical conclusion of rationality. That is, think of all actions in the world as having a motivation and that motivation was shaped by actions previous to it, which themselves had a motivation… and so on and so on. All effects (actions) have a cause (a motivation), which goes back all the way to the dawn of time. But what if your actions are not shaped by motivations? What if you can do things simply because you do them? When the Irish writer Samuel Beckett was living in Paris before WW2, he was standing on a street corner when he was stabbed by a passing stranger. He bled profusely and almost died. Eventually, much later, the police caught the assailant – a drugged out member of the Parisian demi-monde—and Beckett had a chance to ask him why he did it. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. I just did.”
That’s absurdity. And that starts here with the possibility that someone will, without motive, destroy your life.
For a long time there was an interpretation of Iago that pointed to how he is situated in the play as a stand in for the devil. If Othello is a kind of Everyman in terms of medieval drama, then Iago is a kind of Devil. He lies, he tempts, he shifts blame and he is ultimately caught out by his cloven hoof. That is, the devil was shown in medieval morality plays as an old black man who could never fully transform into a human and had a cloven hoof or a tail, which he hid. Indeed, the final scene actually points to such a reading as devil. Upon Othello’s recognition of Iago’s villainy in act five, Othello looks Iago up and down and he says:
I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.
And of course, Iago, among all the main characters (save Cassio), lives. Nevertheless, I actually don’t buy the reading of Iago as devil, because I think Shakespeare is working in a vein closer to Lear than, say, Macbeth. That is, this is a world where evil is intensely human. Evil looks like the virtuous young man who walks the streets of London. He looks like you, or me, yet he is capable of causing such suffering. And why do it? Really, there is no reason for it. It isn’t that the devil made him do it. If you claim that, for the early moderns, you claim to know the mind of God. He does it because he does it and there’s no real explanation possible. Motivation for causing another human being suffering? …As Othello says, “that’s a fable” In some ways, Iago is worse than the Devil of the medieval morality plays. The devil causes suffering because he is jealous of God, but Iago? To quote Michael Caine, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
How to play this on stage? That is, how can an actor today play the part of Iago as a motiveless villain? Remember, Iago is even trying to deceive the audience at the end of act one. How do you, as an actor, play a character who is so through and through a liar that he breaks the metatheatrical conventions of the soliloquy to lie to an audience? Well, in the modern world we have a few cognates or analogues for what is going on here. Supervillains, psychopaths, serial killers have all taken over the screens in recent years. The only problem is that, compared to, say, Hannibal Lecter or The Joker, Iago is both worse and much more tame at the same time. Worse because we can understand Hannibal Lecter and the Joker through the medical discourse as a psychopath yet we can’t really apply those terms to Iago. Much more tame because, ultimately, all he does is point Othello in the right direction and Othello does the rest.
Iago is a liar, made of pure hatred and rage, without any ultimate motivation for what he does. For all that though, what does he do? He defrauds Roderigo, stabs Cassio, kills Emilia. What most people consider to be the worst of what he does is to poison Othello’s views of Desdemona, but Othello does the rest. When we talk about ethics, we talk about ascribing praise and blame to individuals based on their actions. For example if I do an act that is morally condemnable based on incomplete knowledge of the facts, I think most people would agree that I am not as blameworthy as if I did that same action with full knowledge. So if I poison someone by offering them poisoned tea, I am blameworthy, but if I poison somebody by offering them poisoned tea, without knowing it is poisoned, I am not blameworthy. Apply this to Iago and Othello. If Iago is wholly evil, wholly blameworthy, then he is totally at fault for the pile of bodies on the bed at the end of the play. If Iago is totally evil, then Othello is not to blame for what he did, because he was acting without a real knowledge of the facts. It seems the play does not want us to come to this conclusion, however. The play invites us to believe that there are mitigating circumstances for Othello and that he is a dupe, an agent acted upon by Iago, but not, ultimately, a bad man.
If that is the case, then why kill himself? Othello believes that he is a bad man. When the truth has come to light, Othello starts off: “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.” Cassio explains how he got the handkerchief, that most damning piece of evidence, and Othello says: “O fool, fool, fool!” talking about himself. Then after being told that he will be brought back to Venice, Othello delivers his glorious final speech, which T. S. Eliot described as “an exposure of universal human weakness.”
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
Othello’s final speech is all about a kind of self-presentation as just and honourable. He is trying to present himself to himself and to those around him as a loyal subject of Venice, a good man, whose only fault was that he loved “too well.” It’s an idealization of himself right at the moment that he is about to commit suicide. This idealization makes sense if he knows that, fundamentally, he was the one who smothered Desdemona, not Iago. This doesn’t exculpate Iago, but it does implicate Othello. The only reason Othello could commit murder was because he had such rage within him and that final speech cannot eliminate the rage from the moral equation.
So what does this mean for the staging of Iago? In 1963, Hannah Arendt came up with the term “the banality of evil” to describe the fact that those who did the most horrific acts in the concentration camps in WW2 were not fanatics, psychopaths, or supervillains – they were real people. I think it is really easy to come to the conclusion that, given the “motiveless malignity” of Iago, that he should be played as some kind of a moustache twirling villain from a melodrama or as the devil from medieval mystery plays. I’m not sure about this. I think Shakespeare’s point is far more horrifying. If Othello is an everyman character, so is Iago. He’s just one of us. We can all be evil. For no reason. We all have it in us to be horrifically evil to one another. That’s the terrible thing that Othello recognizes at the end and tries to escape from through that final speech. It lurks in him too. Motiveless malignity.
The one person who I haven’t talked about yet is Desdemona, who is the object of all of the various passions of the play, but is herself a quite fascinating subject too.
Desdemona tends to get short shrift in analyses of this play, partially, I think, because of the conundrums posed by Othello and Iago. (Sadly, this talk is no different—I haven’t given myself a lot of time to talk about her.) The problems of race and motive(lessness) are so vexing that we tend to overlook the really fascinating things that Shakespeare is doing in this play with the concepts of femininity, sex, and desire. Even before Desdemona appeared on stage as a character, the early modern English brought presuppositions about her to the character. To start thinking about Desdemona, let’s turn to locations. To quote Cole Porter, we open in Venice. Venice had particular resonances for the early modern English as regards femininity. Indeed, the relationship between place and profession or social position is something that easily understood. A “Philadelphia Lawyer” is a top-notch lawyer. A “Berkeley intellectual” is a stereotype of a left-leaning, somewhat effete academic. To the early modern English, a “Venetian woman” was a sexually voracious and licentious woman whose appetites could be at best contained to her husband and another man. Two lovers was practically chaste… for a Venetian woman. Shakespeare relies on this play between the actual chastity of Desdemona and the reputation of Venetian women throughout the piece. Desdemona is not merely an object of desire who becomes an object of derision. Indeed, Shakespeare positions her as a desiring subject from the start. When Othello is relating the story of how his relationship with Desdemona began, it is she who asks him to come back to her father’s house, she who asks for more stories of adventure, and she who tells Othello, “If I had a friend that loved her,/I should but teach him how to tell my story/ and that would woo her.” John Quincy Adams, the American president, said of Desdemona that she was the one who made the first advances (and that was why he didn’t like her). So, even before she comes to the stage, she’s situated by location and by relation of the narrative, as being a sexual subject, acting upon her own desires. If nothing else, this erotic forwardness is something that hangs in the background throughout the play. It is a shadow that looms over her character.
I’m not saying however that what Iago suggests of her is true. Obviously, Desdemona is loyal to her husband and chaste throughout the play. But the context and the actions of the character both situate Desdemona as an erotically invested individual.
When I was an undergrad, I had a professor whose interpretation of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in act one was that theirs was a transcendent, agapic or divinely romantic love. I think that’s a load of nonsense, with all due respect to the memory of that professor, but I understand where that interpretation is coming from. Absolutely, she is resolutely loyal to her husband, in keeping with the expectations of feminine duty of the early modern period. But she is also a desiring female subject—which was also in keeping with the expectations of feminine comportment of the early modern period. I think if we recognize that in the character there is this play between respectability and erotic desire, it helps to explain why in 1660, after women first came to the stage and were allowed to act by royal proclamation, Desdemona was the first character played by a woman on the English stage.
Desdemona was a paradox. She could reinforce certain negative stereotypes of women in the 1660s (women were licentious and would have sex with anyone if you didn’t lock them up) but she also reinforced certain positive images of women (that they were more capable of genuine honesty and affection than men). When women took to the stage as Desdemona, there was a real debate in the theatres as to whether or not a female actor could perform femininity as well as a male actor could. It seems perhaps bizarre to us today, but the contradictory nature of the ways in which femininity was understood at the time was seen to be reflected better by the contradiction of a male actor performing a feminine character than a female actor performing a feminine role. Indeed, as Julie Hankey points out, the sex of the performer of Desdemona was an analogous problem in the late 1600s-late 1700s to the very modern problem of Othello’s race. That is, no matter what choice you make today regarding Othello’s race, race becomes one of the central concerns of the play. At the time, no matter how you cut it, the fact that you suddenly had to have a female body on stage (it was now the law) made the whole play veer into the erotic. In 1710, for instance, during a performance of the final scene when Desdemona asks her husband to come to bed, the theatre erupted in puerile tittering as the line was seen to have erotic connotations that, frankly, are quite foreign to the scene. What ended up happening over the course of the 1700s was that the part of Desdemona was cut, then cut again, and finally it was denuded of all erotic content. By the time you get into the late 1700s, when Sarah Siddons took on the role, it was only then that you finally get a version of Desdemona on stage that was textually full and accounted for the sexuality of the character in anything like a complex way.
Throughout the 1800s, there was a tug of war between two readings of Desdemona. On the one hand, the idea that her love for Othello is pure of all erotic taint fed into the interpretation of Othello as a “noble” Moor, which in turn fed into racial discourses of the time that articulated the black male as childlike and unsullied by western civilization. On the other hand, the presentation of her as an individual in possession of her sexual desires resisted the cultural stereotypes of femininity that developed over the 1800s that equated femininity with frigidity and sexual innocence. No Desdemona was purely in one category or the other, and frankly, few people seem to have paid much attention to the part in the 1800s. This was the period in which Iago seems to have come into his own as a part, and audiences were far more interested in the relationship between Othello and his ensign than the characterization of what was (almost always) a redacted and truncated Desdemona.
It was only in the twentieth century that the part of Desdemona was reconsidered and in many ways that has a lot to do with two things. I) The rise of the feminist movement over the course of the 20th Century; II) Black actors claiming Othello as a part.
Feminism: It is unsurprising that feminists like myself would look at the part of Desdemona and see a great deal to work with. From the representation of the psychological devastation of domestic abuse in act four (and even a possible sado-masochistic reading of act five) to the articulate, expressive, and confident woman of act one – this part really runs the gamut. Shakespeare has created a fully fleshed female character out of what was originally a stereotype of lasciviousness – the Venetian wife. Especially following the rise of second wave feminism in the 1950s, people have looked to this part as particularly rich, because we are now beginning to understand the psychological pressure placed on women in abusive relationships. There is no more childish laughter as Desdemona invites Othello to bed in act five, but chilling silence, as we have all become aware of the shocking statistics on martial abuse and rape.
Black actors claiming Othello as a part: Partially because of this play, black male identity has been constructed in the twentieth century as violent, aggressive, barely under control. When a black actor plays the part, such a casting choice interacts with the racism that is embedded in our culture. This was clearly articulated in the 1930s, when Paul Robeson took the role and audiences were genuinely uncomfortable with the presentation of interracial sexual desire. What this meant for the character of Desdemona and the actors who took on that role was that the “transgressive” eroticism of the character could not be ignored. Even following Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, even following Obama, sadly, black masculinity in western culture is constructed as inherently violent and transgressive. The actor playing Desdemona is working in a cultural situation in which her character is desirous of the transgressive. Thankfully, this particular vision of black masculinity is fading as our culture is beginning, ever so slowly, to recognize that to be a black male is not a transgression.
Bizarrely, as we move towards a world in where blackness and transgression are not equated, I worry that the erotic elements of Desdemona’s character will be filtered out again and her part will be cut, as it was in the 1700s. I don’t think this will happen, because feminism is still an active force, voicing that ever-so-radical thought: that women are people. People are psychologically complex. So long as audiences are interested in watching theatre that investigates complexity, Desdemona will have a role.
I said that I would point you towards some of the theatrical choices unique to Othello that you can take with you when you go to see the play this summer. With a play like Othello, race and the race of the actor who plays the role is, of course, one of the most obvious choices that a production must make. Any which way you choose you are making a politically charged statement, informed by the history of racial relations in the west. If it is a black actor (which *spoiler alert* it is), then is the production cashing in on a stereotype of black masculinity or is it interrogating that stereotype, which was partially created through this play in the first place? What about the character of Iago? How can you play “motiveless malignity” without appealing to the modern concept of the psychopath as being somehow different from all of us? That is, Iago is just like you and me. How can you show that and still have him enact the evil that he does? Finally, Desdemona is a character that has been caught between childlike innocence and erotic sophistication at least since the Restoration in 1660. How do you, as an actor, negotiate that knife’s edge between sexual knowledge and desire, and transcendent purity of motivation on the other? Ultimately, when you go see the play, you will have to choose how the actors and director developed or chose not to develop some of the ideas that I’ve brought forth in my talk. Personally, I’m looking forward to it. I hope that what I’ve said has given you some insights into the roles and some ways of viewing the production with an eye to the actor’s art.
If you have any questions about the play, or about any aspect of my talk, why don’t we open up the floor for questions?