Othello Introduction…In A Nutshell
What would you get if you combined the psychological manipulations of Black Swan, the web of lies of Gone Girl, the insight into the horrors of racism of 12 Years A Slave, and the homoerotic tension of Top Gun?
a) A movie about a ballerina who frames her husband for murder, gets kidnapped and taken to New Orleans, and changes her name to Maverick, or…
b) Shakespeare’s Othello.
If you answered Othello, congrats. Give yourself a gold star. (If you answered a), please go out and make this movie happen. Please.)
Othello is a tragedy written by the big dog of English theater himself: Billy Shakespeare. The play tells the story of a powerful general of the Venetian army, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a conniving, deceitful, and envious soldier, Iago.
Othello is possibly the most famous literary exploration of the warping powers of jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, it’s among the earliest literary works dealing with race and racism. Othello—undeniably heroic even if ultimately flawed—is the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature. Othello faces constant racism from other characters, especially when he marries Desdemona, a privileged white woman whose father disapproves of the union.
Even the play’s performance history has been marked by racism. To see a real black man and a white woman kiss onstage was seen as so unacceptable to many viewers that, even in early 20th century America, Othello had to be played by a white man in blackface. When Paul Robeson, a black American and the son of a slave, played Othello on Broadway in the 1940’s, the performances electrified a still segregated nation.
Thankfully, times have changed.
But they haven’t changed enough. And as racism continues to run rampant in the 21st century, Othello remains timely and pertinent. That’s no mean feat for a play written in 1603. But the fact that racism was a problem more than 400 years ago and is still a problem today is pretty dang shameful.
Why Should I Care?
We’ll admit it: sometimes Shakespeare’s tragedies make us feel a better about our lives.
We like feeling super-cozy and far away from trouble: a lot of Shakespeare’s tragic devices either a) don’t exist at all (like the potion that makes Juliet appear dead in Romeo and Juliet) or b) don’t exist in our world (we’re definitely not one of two conniving daughters vying for our daddy’s throne, like in King Lear).
Othello isn’t one of those tragedies. What sets this tragedy in motion is still very much alive and well: racism.
It seems like every time we refresh our Twitter feed, we see more news stories that elicit conversations about the pervasiveness of racism. From stop-and-frisk laws in Chicago to black women getting kicked off a train in Napa. From segregation in St. Louis to cab drivers refusing to pick up black men in New York City. From dating websites that only match same-race members in South Africa to a rising percentage of people that admit to being racist in the United Kingdom.
Basically, Othello’s treatment of race and sexuality makes it one of Shakespeare’s most relevant and controversial plays. For some, the play’s portrayal of a black man who marries and then brutally murders a white woman in a fit of rage and jealousy makes Othello a racist play. For these critics, Shakespeare seems to endorse a xenophobic (anti-foreigner) attitude that was pretty common throughout England and other parts of Europe.
After all, they say, the play is full of characters that express a blatant hatred of black men and foreigners, and these characters often refer to Othello as “thick-lips,” the “devil,” and the “old black ram,” who supposedly contaminates his white wife with his hyper-sexuality. Not only that, but Othello enacts a racist stereotype (that says black men are “savage”) when he strangles his wife on her bed.
But for other critics, neither the action in the play nor the characters’ racist attitudes makes the play (or Shakespeare) racist. For some, Othello is a play that portrays racism in a way that provokes the audience into rethinking its ideas and attitudes about race. Many critics argue that Shakespeare’s play asks us to consider the tragedy of how Othello absorbs and internalizes the dominant racist attitudes that surround him.
The idea is that Othello is a study of what happens when society tells a man over and over and over again that he is violent, savage, contaminating, and to be feared. In the case of Othello, the character begins to believe it’s all true and acts out a racist stereotype—that of a “savage” killer.
This is—in the words of George W. Bush addressing the NAACP—the “bigotry of low expectations.” And guess what, guys? This kind of bigotry is still happening today.
Take a gander at these low expectations: four hundred years after Othello debuted, black students are 3 1/2 times more likely to be disciplined than white students, and black preschoolers are more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers. Public school students of color have less access to experienced teachers than white students—a fact which prompted US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to say:
“This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain. In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.” (Source)
Come on, world. We’ve made great strides since 1604 in so many ways. We’re riding in airplanes instead of on horseback, and we no longer think collars that look like doilies are the height of fashion. Can’t we update our views on race as well?
American Shakespeare Company for pic