Shakespearing #28.1 by John King
Four Observations About Othello
1. In Shakespeare is Hard, But So is Life, the Irish theater critic Fintan O’Toole says,
If you look at the character of Othello in isolation, and in particular if you look at him through the notion of the “tragic flaw’, then he is not, for all his facility with words, very bright. He can talk up a storm, but he’s not much for thinking. His tragic flaw is jealousy and he carries it around like a crutch, just waiting for someone to kick it from under him. He is manipulated by Iago, a man he didn’t enough trust enough in the first place to make him his lieutenant, without ever attempting to ascertain facts for himself. Suspecting his wife, he fails to confront her with her supposed infidelity, or to question her alleged lover, or to ask any of the other people who could tell him what’s going on. He is driven demented by a handkerchief. (69)
Now O’Toole is setting up a discussion of the chaotic Elizabethan context of the social construction of social status and political power, but if we look at Michael Cassio as being the hero of the play, then his tragic flaw is that he cannot hold his liquor. Sad, really.
2. Othello is about race, or more particularly, it is like a litmus test about race. We out ourselves in how we react to the race and racism of the play.
O’Toole remarks on how icky 19th century scholarship was about the interracial couple at the core of the play (76-77). O’Toole is so keen to show how progressive he is that he misreads A.C. Bradley entirely.
In a lengthy endnote in his Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley chronicles the ridiculous debate over whether or not Shakespeare actually intended Othello to be a black man because, you know, Othello would have kissed Desdemona, which means that our beloved bard has perhaps accidentally almost wanted people to consider interracial love. This dimwitted denial among otherwise intelligent people so enervated Bradley that he writes wearily in the first person plural, in this endnote, “We do not like the real Shakespeare” (416). Bradley’s dry sarcasm was lost on O’Toole.
I once got to hear James Earl Jones discuss his career, and on the subject of Shakespeare, he said that he preferred the part of Michael Cassio to Othello.
When portraying Othello for the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Kevin Crawford forewent any pigmented make up at all so as to avoid the stench of blackface, and considering the emotional and political climate post-9/11, made Othello a converted Muslim.
White actors are still drawn to this perplexing role in Shakespearean tragedy, but have stopped using blackface since at least the 1990s. There are so many black actors that the grotesquerie of blackface is easily avoided, and while this has long been true, we are now at least two generations into being fully aware that this is true.
If many audience of previous ages have found the color of Othello’s skin disgusting to contemplate, when that skin color is the bizarre co-optation of blackface, I must confess that the spectacle does make me queasy, as in Olivier’s turn as the Moor.
3. From Olivier’s perspective, the convention of using make up to render him black was an established stage convention, and the connection to Step and Fetchit perhaps seemed especially remote to him.
I have, over the years, shrugged off my aversion to Olivier and his seemingly old-fashioned acting. In his own ways, he was bold, and funny, and worthy of some indulgence (not that the blackface thing in Othello is tolerable). Olivier was a term used throughout my childhood to indicate an absurdly perfect actor, when in fact he was a human actor devoted to Shakespeare. The Shakespeare thing is why, for so many people, he wasn’t quite real.
For Olivier, the challenge of Othello was finding an appropriate voice for the Moor. In his autobiography, he writes,
I decided to have a bash at that voice. I have always felt nervous about roaring and screaming at home, but feel no self-consciousness if I can get out into the hills. I remember once screaming King Lear at a group of cows that had formed a ring of curiosity around me. “God,” I thought, ‘I hope the audience is as patient as they are.’
4. In 2009, I got to see Philip Seymour Hoffman portray Iago in Peter Sellars’ production of Othello in the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU. Very little of that experience stands out to me, although I may have been a little drunk and certainly gastrointestinally encumbered by too much Arturo’s pizza.
Othello and Desdemona’s bed was plexiglas and filled with television images, a tableau that looked stupid rather than expressionistic or meaningfully postmodern, since sleeping on plexiglas seems like a non-starter no matter what such weird behavior is supposed to mean.
But what I do remember is the strangeness of Iago himself–the play seemed to be about Iago’s attempts at having human relationships with his wife, with Othello, with Desdemona, and his transgressive ways of breaking some unspoken barrier between human loneliness and the emptiness of convention to the secret authentic core of other people’s lives. Hoffman’s Iago seemed, in his soliloquy, to be having a hard time having a relationship to himself, an outsider, even when he is all alone.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.