Shakespeare did not oversee the publication of
any of his plays. He wrote for the stage not the page. Thus, the
first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Othello was
as part of a festival held at Whitehall (the royal residence) on
November 1, 1604. The first known performance by The King’s Men
at the Globe Theatre was in April 1610. The play first appeared
in print as a quarto (a small, single-play volume) in 1622. This
quarto is markedly different from the First Folio edition of
1623 (part of the collected works assembled after Shakespeare’s
death). Most modern editions of the play conflate the two
versions into a composite text, striving to include the best
features of each.
The Lead Role
The first actor to play the role of Othello,
Richard Burbage of The King’s Men wore black face. This remained
the tradition through the 19th century, when the part was played
white. In the mid-1800’s, an African-American, Ira Aldridge, was
the first black actor to take on the role – but never in
America. He played to great acclaim in Europe and Russia. He
also performed the roles of Macbeth, Shylock, and Lear. The next
notable African-American to take the part was Paul Robeson in
1930 (London) and finally on Broadway (1943). Many black actors
have taken the role since then, including Tony Richardson and
Trevor Nunn on the stage, and more recently Laurence Fishburne
in Oliver Parker’s film adaptation (1995). When the white actor
Patrick Stewart was asked to play the lead, he agreed on
condition that the rest of the cast was black.
Shakespeare in Hawai’i
In Hawai'i, Othello was staged by Kumu
Kahua in 1996, with a Hawai’ian Othello and white Iago and
Desdemona. In 2002, Y York and the Hawai'i Theatre for Youth (HTY)
produced a hip-hop adaptation of Othello, using only four
characters and an Othello marked as different by facial tattoos.
Othello as “other”
A “photonegative image” production worked
because Othello has always centered around the lead
character’s “otherness,” not simply his race but his alien
identity based on a generalized nationality. At the time, all
dark-skinned peoples were considered “Moors,” regardless of
their country of origin. Othello is remarkably different from
the Venetians, and this difference is frequently marked in the
script. The otherness of Othello seems not to matter but
even as it is dismissed as unimportant, enemies and allies
cannot avoid remarking it, from Iago’s initial taunt to
Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is
tupping your white ewe” (1.1.85-6) to the Duke’s compliment,
“Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.1.288).
Subtly skirting the issue of race, Desdemona
claims that she fell in love with the face of his mind and the
body of his prowess: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And
to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes
The play has proven a prescient treatment of
race. Little mention is made of the issue in the 17th century.
At that time all of the female roles were impersonations by
boys, so the impersonation of a man of color did not demand any
more stretch of the imagination. In the 19th century, the play
was often treated as farce or burlesque in attempts to defuse
the racial charge. However, modern interpretations must address
the many controversies the play presents to its audience, and to
its performers. Many have argued that Othello should no longer
be played by a nonblack actor; others argue that all
Shakespearean casting should be “color-blind.”
Other ways to view Othello
The focus on race draws attention away from
equally interesting and poignant features of the text, notably
the power struggles within the constraints of politics and
gender, and the typically Shakespearean insights on human
nature. The entire action of the play turns on Iago’s belief
that he has been slighted by Othello, who has appointed another
“foreigner” as his lieutenant, the Florentine Michael Cassio.
Iago is appointed Othello’s “ancient,” a key figure for Othello,
but a post with little reward and less glory. The action unfolds
as Iago gains absolute power over his superior and reigns
(briefly) over a world of his own manufacture.
Desdemona also engages in plays for power. The
very act of eloping with Othello challenges her father’s
sovereignty and the patriarchal structure of the state. She has
an independent mind, surprising even Othello with her decision
to accompany her new husband to war in Cyprus. Aside from Iago’s
machinations, Desdemona is partly responsible for her own
downfall. Her disobedience to her father becomes a weapon for
Iago to wield. In pleading her case for Cassio, she insists that
Othello not treat her request as “a boon” as if entreating him
to wear his gloves or finish his dinner. “Nay, when I have a
suit / Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed, / It shall be
full of poise and difficult weight / And fearful to be granted”
(3.3.80-3). In the end, Desdemona is proven powerless. And yet
this, in turn empowers Emilia, who reverses the course her own
husband, Iago, has set.
Jealousy is the real antagonist of this play.
Jealousy motivates Iago. Jealousy destroys Othello. Between the
two lead characters the insidious paths of envy become manifest.
In Iago, jealousy becomes a solipsistic justification for
revenge regardless of the consequences, even for himself. In
Othello, jealousy is a deeply psychological battle, ultimately
The play of Othello
The commentary this play offers on theater
itself is often overlooked. Iago is a director, cajoling his
actors to perform in precise ways, manipulating the scenes,
guiding the allowable interpretations, even directly addressing
the audience about what’s going to happen. Othello is a
cruel comedy. As in all Shakespeare tragedies, there are
humorous moments. The structure of the plot is, in fact,
comedic, beginning in disarray (the threat of war, the
patriarchal disobedience of Desdemona, the political dependence
on a foreigner, the Moor) and ending in renewed harmony: the
sources of strife have all been removed.
As always, Shakespeare’s facility with language
is worthy of attention. The standard line of iambic pentameter
is ten or eleven syllables long, typically alternating short and
long syllables. This pattern deteriorates as reason crumbles.
Radical disruptions to this pattern draw powerful attention.
Listen for “O, blood! blood! blood!” (3.3.451), marking
Othello’s definitive turn against Desdemona. And at the
realization of his error, he can only cry, “O! O! O!” (5.2.203).