HISTORY SHOWING OTHELLO AS ONE OF THE MOST PERFORMED WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE
Othello possesses an unusually detailed performance record. The first certainly known performance occurred on 1 November 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London, being mentioned in a Revels account on “Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar”, 1604, when “the Kings Maiesties plaiers” performed “A Play in the Banketinge house at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis.” The play is there attributed to “Shaxberd”. Subsequent performances took place on Monday, 30 April 1610 at the Globe Theatre, and at Oxford in September 1610. On 22 November 1629, and on 6 May 1635, it played at the Blackfriars .
Othello was also one of the twenty plays performed by the King’s Men during the winter of 1612, in celebration of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine.
At the start of the Restoration era, on 11 October 1660, Samuel Pepys saw the play at the Cockpit Theatre. Nicholas Burt played the lead, with Charles Hart as Cassio; Walter Clun won fame for his Iago. Soon after, on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew’s new King’s Company acted the play at their Vere Street theatre, with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona – probably the first time a professional actress appeared on a public stage in England.
It may be one index of the play’s power that Othello was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was never adapted and changed during the Restoration and the eighteenth century.
As Shakespeare regained popularity among nineteenth-century French Romantics, poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred de Vigny created a French translation of Othello, titled Le More de Venise, which premiered at the Comédie-Française on 24 October 1829.
Famous nineteenth century Othellos included Edmund Kean, Edwin Forrest, Ira Aldridge, and Tommaso Salvini, and outstanding Iagos were Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.
The most notable American production may be Margaret Webster’s 1943 staging starring Paul Robeson as Othello and José Ferrer as Iago. This production was the first ever in America to feature a black actor playing Othello with an otherwise all-white cast (there had been all-black productions of the play before). It ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any other Shakespearean play ever produced on Broadway. Although it was never filmed, it was the first lengthy performance of a Shakespeare play released on records, first on a multi-record 78 RPM set and then on a 3-LP one. Robeson had first played the role in London in 1931 in a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo, and would return to it in 1959 at Stratford on Avon with co-stars Mary Ure, Sam Wanamaker and Vanessa Redgrave. The critics had mixed reactions to the “flashy” 1959 production which included mid-western accents and rock-and roll drumbeats but gave Robeson primarily good reviews. W. A. Darlington of The Daily Telegraph ranked Robeson’s Othello as the best he had ever seen while the Daily Express, which had for years before published consistently scathing articles about Robeson for his leftist views, praised his “strong and stately” performance (though in turn suggested it was a “triumph of presence not acting”).
Actors have alternated the roles of Iago and Othello in productions to stir audience interest since the nineteenth century. Two of the most notable examples of this role swap were William Charles Macready and Samuel Phelps at Drury Lane (1837) and Richard Burton and John Neville at The Old Vic (1955). When Edwin Booth’s tour of England in 1880 was not well attended, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the roles of Othello and Iago with him in London. The stunt renewed interest in Booth’s tour. James O’Neill also alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth.
The American actor William Marshall performed the title role in at least six productions. His Othello was called by Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times “the best Othello of our time,” continuing: “…nobler than Tearle, more martial than Gielgud, more poetic than Valk. From his first entry, slender and magnificently tall, framed in a high Byzantine arch, clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, a figure of Arabian romance and grace, to his last plunging of the knife into his stomach, Mr Marshall rode without faltering the play’s enormous rhetoric, and at the end the house rose to him.” Marshall also played Othello in a jazz musical version, Catch My Soul, with Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago, in Los Angeles in 1968. His Othello was captured on record in 1964 with Jay Robinson as Iago and on video in 1981 with Ron Moody as Iago. The 1982 Broadway staging starred James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago, who became the only actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for a performance in the play.
The 1943 run of Othello, starring Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen, holds the record for the most performances of any Shakespeare play ever produced on Broadway.
When Laurence Olivier gave his acclaimed performance of Othello at the Royal National Theatre in 1964, he had developed a case of stage fright that was so profound that when he was alone onstage, Frank Finlay (who was playing Iago) would have to stand offstage where Olivier could see him to settle his nerves. This performance was recorded complete on LP, and filmed by popular demand in 1965 (according to a biography of Olivier, tickets for the stage production were notoriously hard to get). The film version still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for acting ever given to a Shakespeare film – Olivier, Finlay, Maggie Smith (as Desdemona) and Joyce Redman (as Emilia, Iago’s wife) were all nominated for Academy Awards. Olivier was among the last white actors to be greatly acclaimed as Othello, although the role continued to be played by such performers as Donald Sinden at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979-1980, Paul Scofield at the Royal National Theatre in 1980, Anthony Hopkins in the BBC Television Shakespeare production (1981), and Michael Gambon in a stage production at Scarborough directed by Alan Ayckbourn in 1990. Gambon had been in Olivier’s earlier production. In an interview Gambon commented “I wasn’t even the second gentleman in that. I didn’t have any lines at all. I was at the back like that, standing for an hour. [It’s] what I used to do – I had a metal helmet, I had an earplug, and we used to listen to The Archers. No one knew. All the line used to listen to The Archers. And then I went and played Othello myself at Birmingham Rep I was 27. Olivier sent me a telegram on the first night. He said, “Copy me.” He said, “Do what I used to do.” Olivier used to lower his voice for Othello so I did mine. He used to paint the big negro lips on. You couldn’t do it today, you’d get shot. He had the complete negro face. And the hips. I did all that. I copied him exactly. Except I had a pony tail. I played him as an Arab. I stuck a pony tail on with a bell on the end of it. I thought that would be nice. Every time I moved my hair went wild.” British blacking-up for Othello ended with Gambon in 1990, however the Royal Shakespeare Company didn’t run the play at all on the main Stratford stage until 1999, when Ray Fearon became the first black British actor to take the part, the first black man to play Othello with the RSC since Robeson.
In 1997, Patrick Stewart took the role of Othello with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) in a race-bending performance, in a “photo negative” production of a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. Stewart had wanted to play the title role since the age of 14, so he and director Jude Kelly inverted the play so Othello became a comment on a white man entering a black society. The interpretation of the role is broadening, with theatre companies casting Othello as a woman or inverting the gender of the whole cast to explore gender questions in Shakespeare’s text. Companies have also chosen to share the role between several actors during a performance.
Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald’s 1988 award-winning play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a revision of Othello and Romeo and Juliet in which an academic deciphers a cryptic manuscript she believes to be the original source for the tragedies, and is transported into the plays themselves.
Othello opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London on 4 December 2007, directed by Michael Grandage, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago, Tom Hiddleston as Cassio, Kelly Reilly as Desdemona and Michelle Fairley as Emillia. Despite tickets selling as high as £2000 on web-based vendors, McGregor and Reilly’s performances received largely negative notices. Ejiofor, Hiddleston and Fairley all received nominations for Laurence Olivier Awards, with Ejiofor winning. Stand up comedian Lenny Henry was the latest big name to play Othello. He did so on a tour at the start of 2009 produced by Northern Broadsides in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Adaptations and cultural references
Otello, a four-act opera with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi and music by Gioachino Rossini was first performed at the Teatro del Fondo, Naples, on 4 December 1816. The opera deviates from Shakespeare’s original in some aspects: Iago is less diabolical than his Shakespearean counterpart, the setting is Venice rather than Cyprus, and the composer and librettist provided an alternative happy ending to the work, a common practice with drama and opera at one time. The opera is rarely performed.
Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito adapted Shakespeare’s play to Otello, an Italian grand opera in four acts that was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan on 5 February 1887. It was Verdi’s second to last opera (followed by another Shakespeare adaptation, Falstaff) and is considered by many his greatest. The popular opera attracts world class singers and is found in the repertoire of prominent opera houses. Verdi and his librettist dispensed with the first act of the play. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 film version of Verdi’s opera starring Plácido Domingo as Othello was nominated for the BAFTA for foreign language film. However, it did not win the award. (Indeed, according to the Kennedy Center’s biographical note on Domingo, Laurence Olivier saw Domingo in Otello and, in a mock-furious voice, told Franco Zeffirelli: “You realise that Domingo plays Othello as well as I do, and he has that voice!”)
On 25 February 1999, Bandanna, an English language opera in a prologue and two acts with a libretto by Irish poet Paul Muldoon and music by Daron Hagen was performed by the opera theatre at The University of Texas in Austin. The opera is set in 1968 on the United States–Mexican border and borrows elements from Cinthio’s tale, Shakespeare’s play, and Verdi’s opera.
Mexican choreographer José Limón created a 20-minute, four character ballet called The Moor’s Pavane to the music of Henry Purcell in 1949. The work premiered at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival in the same year. American Ballet Theatre was the first dance company outside Limon’s to include the work in its repertory. It is a standard in dance companies around the world and notable interpreters of the Moor include Rudolf Nureyev.
The ballet Othello was choreographed by John Neumeier to music by Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Naná Vasconcelos et al. and was premiered by the Hamburg Ballet in Hamburg on 27 January 1985, with Gamal Gouda as Othello, Gigi Hyatt as Desdemona, and Max Midinet as Iago. The work remains in the repertoire of the Hamburg Ballet, seeing its 100th performance in 2008.
In 2002, modern dance choreographer Lar Lubovitch created a full-length ballet in three acts based on the Shakespeare play and Cinthio’s tale with a score by Elliot Goldenthal. The work has been staged by the San Francisco Ballet with Desmond Richardson, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Parrish Maynard in the principal roles. The ballet was broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances: Dance in America and the program was nominated for an Emmy Award. The ballet is recorded on Kultur video. Othello was first performed in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House, 23 May 1997, by American Ballet Theatre.
Other ballets include Prologue choreographed by Jacques d’Amboise for the New York City Ballet in 1967 as a prequel to Shakespeare’s play, Othello choreographed by John Butler to the music of Dvořák for Carla Fracci and the La Scala Theatre Ballet in 1976, and a version choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux for the Louisville Ballet in the 1980s.
Between 1948 and 1952 Orson Welles directed The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952), produced as a black-and-white film noir. The film stars Welles as Othello and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. The troubled production was filmed over the course of three years as Welles’ time and money permitted, in Mogador, Morocco and Venice. Lack of funds (and costumes) forced Roderigo’s death scene to be shot in a Turkish bath with performers wearing only large, ragged towels. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Rather than focusing on racial disparity, the film plays on a difference between Desdemona and Othello in age, size and personal attractiveness. The film noir colouring of the picture minimised any commentary on Othello’s blackness, to the point that the critic F. R. Leavis wrote that the film made no reference to Othello’s colour.
Unlike Welles’s film, Stuart Burge’s Othello (1965), based on John Dexter’s National Theatre Company’s production, starring Laurence Olivier, brings issues of race to the fore, with Olivier putting on an ‘African accent’ and entering in a large ‘ethnic’ necklace and a dressing gown. He commented, however, that he did “not dare to play the Moor as a full-blooded negro”. One contemporary critic found the coloration too much, commenting that Olivier was “blacker than black, almost blue” .
Trevor Nunn’s 1989 version filmed at Stratford, cast black opera singer Willard White in the leading role, opposite Ian McKellen’s Iago.
The first major screen production casting a black actor as Othello would not come until 1995 with Laurence Fishburne opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Iago – not that there have been many major screen productions of Othello: most film versions to date have been filmed stage productions. It was made during the O. J. Simpson trial and commentators such as Cartmell draw parallels between the two whodunit murder stories, and wondered if the film’s release was not a little to do with the publicity surrounding Simpson’s drama. A modernised, loose retelling, O, completed in 1999 and released in 2001, featured African-American actor Mekhi Phifer in the lead role, which was renamed from “Othello” to “Odin James” or “O. J.”, with the story set in an American high school and revolving around sports rather than warfare.
Malayalam film Kaliyattam is an adapted version of Othello against the backdrop of the Hindu Theyyam performance. In 1998, Suresh Gopi received the National Film Award for Best Actor, and Jayaraj the award for Best Director for their work on the film.
Omkara is a version in Hindi set in Uttar Pradesh, starring Ajay Devgan as Omkara (Othello), Saif Ali Khan as Langda Tyagi (Iago), Kareena Kapoor as Dolly (Desdemona), Vivek Oberoi as Kesu (Cassio), Bipasha Basu as Billo (Bianca) and Konkona Sen Sharma as Indu (Emilia). The film was directed by Vishal Bhardwaj who earlier adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Maqbool. All characters in the film share the same letter or sound in their first name as in the original Shakespeare classic. It is one of the few mainstream Indian movies to contain uncensored profanity.
Other film adaptations
1909 silent film shot in Venice
1909 German directed by, and stars, Franz Porten as Othello, Henny Porten as Desdemona, and Rosa Porten as Emilia.
1914 silent film shot in Venice
1922 Othello, German, starring Emil Jannings as Othello, Werner Krauss as Iago, and Ica von Lenkeffy as Desdemona
1952 Othello, United States, directed by, and stars, Orson Welles as Othello, also starring Micheál Mac Liammóir as Iago, Robert Coote as Roderigo, Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona, Michael Laurence as Cassio, Fay Compton as Emilia and Doris Dowling as Bianca.
1955 Othello, USSR, starring Sergei Bondarchuk, Irina Skobtseva, Andrei Popov. Directed by Sergei Yutkevich.
1956 Jubal, Western setting
1962 All Night Long (British) Othello is Rex, a jazz bandleader. Dave Brubeck and other jazz musicians.
1965 Othello with Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay, and Joyce Redman
1974 Catch My Soul adapted from Jack Good’s rock musical, directed by Patrick McGoohan and starring Richie Havens, Lance LeGault, Season Hubley and Tony Joe White.
1982 Othello, the Black Commando written by and starring Max H. Boulois with Tony Curtis as Colonel Iago and Joanna Pettet as Desdemona
1986 Otello, adaptation of Verdi’s opera of the same name
1995 Othello with Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Fishburne, and Irène Jacob. Directed by Oliver Parker.
1997 Kaliyattam in Malayalam, a modern update, set in Kerala, starring Suresh Gopi as Othello, which won him the national award for best actor, Lal as Iago, Manju Warrier as Desdemona, directed by Jayaraaj.
2001 “O”, a modern update, set in an American high school. Stars Mekhi Phifer as Odin (Othello), Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona), and Josh Hartnett as Hugo (Iago).
2002 Eloise a modern update, set in Sydney, Australia.
2004 Stage Beauty, a romantic period drama, set in the 17th century, on the theme of male and female actors playing women’s roles — with the role of Desdemona as the example.
2006 Omkara, a Hindi film adaptation of Othello directed by Vishal Bhardwaj
2008 Jarum Halus a modern updated Malaysian version, in English and Malay by Mark Tan.
2012 Otel•lo, a free adaptation directed by Hammudi Al-Rahmoun Font.
1955 Othello, aired on BBC Television, with Gordon Heath as Othello. A telerecording of the broadcast still exists
1981 Othello, part of the BBC’s complete works Shakespeare. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins.
1990 Othello (1990) A videotaped version of the last Royal Shakespeare Company production at The Other Place starring Willard White, Ian McKellen, Clive Swift, Michael Grandage, Sean Baker, and Imogen Stubbs. Directed by Trevor Nunn.
2001 Othello. British made-for-TV film. A modern-day adaptation in modern English, in which Othello is the first black Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police. Made for ITV by LWT. Scripted by Andrew Davies. Directed by Geoffrey Sax. Starring Eamonn Walker, Christopher Eccleston and Keeley Hawes.
2008 Othello, The Tragedy of The Moor. A two-hour television adaptation starring Carlo Rota in the title role. Director Zaib Shaikh maintains the theatrical feel of the play, while shooting in a studio controlled environment. Also starring Matthew Deslippe as Iago, Christine Horne as Desdemona, Graham Abbey as Cassio. The adaptation was co-written by Zaib Shaikh and Matthew Edison.•2013- An Indian daily soap named “RANGRASIYA” was on aired on Colors TV depicted a bit of Shakespeare’s fame Othelo
In 1891-2, the Bohemian/Czech composer Antonin Dvořák composed the overture ‘Othello’, Op 93 (cf Othello (Dvořák))
In 1914, the Ukrainian-born Sergei Bortkiewicz composed his orchestral Symphonic poem after ‘Othello’, Op 19.
Chicago based hip-hop group Q Brothers created a modern adaptation with Othello being a record producer called “Othello: The Remix.”
Othello, an adaptation by Oscar Zárate, Oval Projects Ltd (1985). It was reprinted in 2005 by Can of Worms Press and includes the complete text of the play.
In January 2009, a manga adaptation was published in the United Kingdom, with art by Ryuta Osada. It is part of the Manga Shakespeare series by Richard Appignanesi, and is set in Venice in carnival season.
Othello, a series of 60 paintings executed in 1985 by Nabil Kanso. It was published in 1996 by NEV Editions.
Christopher Moore combines Othello and The Merchant of Venice in his 2014 comic novel The Serpent of Venice, in which he makes Portia (from The Merchant of Venice) and Desdemona (from Othello) sisters. All of the characters come from those two plays with the exception of Pocket, the Fool, who comes from Moore’s earlier novel based on King Lear.
The plot of the Portuguese language novel Dom Casmurro by the Brazilian author Machado de Assis, a translator of Othello into Portuguese, is based upon the play. It is generally considered one of the great novels of Brazilian literature.