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Othello – Footnotes

Feb 14, 2024 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on William Shakespeare’s Othello include notes about the source of Shakespeare’s plot, the meaning of the terms “Barbarian Moor”, more on the form and settings of the play, how the changing view of race has been reflected in the performance history of the play, examples of how the language of colour codifies racism, and some final thoughts on the tragic ending of the play.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

The source of the play
Shakespeare was famous for lifting the plots of his plays from other existing sources and making them into something all of his own, and Othello is not an exception. Shakespeare’s play is an adaptation of an Italian tale entitled, “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”), which appeared in a collection of one hundred stories written by Cinthio in 1565 (Gli Hecatommithi). Many of the main points of Iago’s plot in the original are reproduced in Othello, including the Ensign (Iago) capitalising on Desdemona’s appeals on behalf of the Corporal (Cassio) to stir the Moor’s jealousy. The Ensign also plants Desdemona’s handkerchief on the Corporal and tells the Moor that she gave it to him.

Referencing Cinthio’s story is more instructive, however, for what Shakespeare changed and invented than what he copied. In Cinthio’s original, for example, it is explicit that the motive for the Ensign’s actions is that he lusts after Desdemona and is spurred to revenge when she rejects him. The Ensign’s plot is therefore directed more against Desdemona than Othello, and he actually helps the Moor kill Desdemona. As we discussed in the podcast, Shakespeare does not provide Iago with a single motive for his treachery, but suggests a number of possible spurs, which offer performers and directors a rich array of performance choices.

In the original telling, the Ensign’s wife (Emilia) knows everything about his intent to besmirch Desdemona. She does not consent to help him – the Ensign steals Desdemona’s handkerchief himself – but she doesn’t dare to say anything for fear of her husband. Shakespeare’s Emilia becomes a much more rewarding character. The scene between her and Desdemona during which she delivers her rousing speech about the equal entitlement of women is entirely Shakespeare’s invention, and Emilia’s courage in the end in defying Iago when she discovers his treachery provides a stirring counterpoint to his evil.

The specific manner of Desdemona’s death in Cinthio’s story is somewhat implausible, and not one Shakespeare copied. In the original version Iago tells the Moor that the ceiling in the house where Desdemona and the Moor reside is weakened by cracks, so they contrive to bash Desdemona to death and then bring the ceiling down on top of her lifeless body to make it appear an accident. Clearly Shakepeare having Othello kill Desdemona himself is infinitely more psychologically powerful. As is the different way that Othello meets his end. In the original tale the aftermath of Desdemona’s death drags on, with the Moor regretting his actions and falling out with Iago, who in turn testifies that the Moor was soley responsible for Desdemona’s death. After being tortured and exiled, the Moor is finally slain by Desdemona’s relatives. Again the power of Othello’s realisation and remorse, and his own choice to kill himself has a kind of despairing dignity and is much more compelling.

It is fascinating to glimpse how Shakespeare took the bones of the original material and created rich, rounded characters and scintillating theatrical drama.

Title page of Cinthio’s Hecatommithi 1580
Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Portrait of Moroccan Ambassador to court of Elizabeth I, 1600.

A Barbarian Moor
The title of the play is “The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice”, but what was meant by the term Moor in Shakespeare’s world? It is used to describe Othello more than 45 times in the play, which accentuates his distinction as an outsider in a white European world. However the term does not have single meaning: it has been taken to refer to Africans from the north coast of Africa, or more widely to Arabian or Turkish moors, but also even to Muslims as a religious group. It is commonly taken to denote a black skinned person. The only certainty about its definition is that the person is not a white Christian. Ayanna Thompson offers a useful analogy for our times in the introduction to the third Arden edition of the play, when she suggests that it was vague in the way that the term ‘Arab’ today can be conflated to refer to race, religion, language and geography.

Iago describes Othello as an “erring Barbarian”, and inflames Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, further by describing his daughter as being sexually “covered by a Barbary horse”. The term Barbary refers again geographically to the north coast of Africa, the present day Morocco and Algeria, and of course as we touched on in the podcast, Shakespeare may have taken inspiration from the Moroccan delegation to the English court in 1600. Of course barbary is also the root of the adjective “barbarous”, with its connotations of cruel or bestial behaviour. There is a precedent for Shakespeare’s association of barbarous and Moor, for in Titus Andronicus, the character of Aaron the Moor is actually called the “barbarous Moor”. Clearly Iago’s intention is to connect Othello’s race with brutish behaviour.

Iago’s association of Othello and his race with bestial behaviour is underscored by his frequent references to animals, such as the “Barbary horse”. The Arden edition again cites 40 different references to animals in the play. It is frequently used to refer to unconstrained sex as being characteristic of animals. Iago describes Desdemona and Cassio as having sex like goats or monkeys, for example. It is also at the root of Iago’s description of Othello as the “black ram” who is “tupping” Brabantio’s “white ewe”. It is one of the racist premises of the play that Othello’s jealousy and violence are the outbreak of the primitive animal instincts of an African man, that cannot be disguised or contained by an assumed social veneer.

The Arden textual analysis also identified that the use of animal language signals Iago’s corruption of Othello as the play proceeds. In the first two acts, Iago makes frequent references to animals, Othello none. In fact initially the grace of Othello’s language belies his own avowal that he is “rude” in his speech. But Othello increasingly adopts Iago’s metaphoric language as Iago’s bestial vision grabs hold of him.

 

The form and setting of the play
A few further observations on the form and setting of the play.

I read in some commentaries that the form of the play has many features that were traditionally associated with Comedy. This seems very unlikely, given of course that it turns into anything but, and on the title page it is named The Tragedy of Othello.  But what are the elements of comedy that such readings refer to?

First, that the play is constructed with the intricate plotting of a comedy. I confess that there are times when the complications of Iago’s plotting seem to obscure the central tragic story. The comic character of Roderigo, for example, can be jarring in the dark arc of the play, albeit that he is but a pathetic pawn in Iago’s manipulations.

Some critics also point out that Othello initially follows one of the models of Elizabethan comedy which contemporary audiences would have recognised – that of the cuckolded husband. Of course, Shakespeare takes the premise in a different direction, by granting Othello a genuine nobility, and then charting real tragedy and despair resulting from the supposed infidelity.

The play’s form also has features of a standard early-modern Morality play – an allegorical form in which characters represent moral qualities, both good and bad. A Morality play usually features a character named Vice, who tempts the protagonist into immorality. The character of Vice also speaks directly to the audience, sharing his schemes, as of course Iago does. There is also some sense that Iago is improvising his plans as he goes along, which is characteristic of the character of the Vice.

What about the settings of the play, in Venice and Cyprus? What do these locations signify? As we touched on in the podcast, Venice is a cosmopolitan city, trading with Africa and the East. It is renowned as an exotic, liberal place. Prostitution was legal, for example, hence the knowing reference to Desdemona as a “super-subtle Venetian”.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature two distinct locations with different thematic qualities. For example, the forest of Arden in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a place free of the usual constraints of Athens, or one thinks of the existential moor in Lear. Here we travel to Cyprus – a place incidentally closer to the non-Christian world – but also more importantly where the urbane and civilised world of Venice is replaced by the barren environment of a military garrison. One can imagine the claustrophobia of the encampment, an environment in which tensions and tempers would be strained. The men readily become unruly and violent. It is a suitable cauldron in which Iago can concoct his lethal psychological poisons.

The Ducal Palace, Venice

Kyrenia Castle Cyprus. Occupied by the Venetians in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The performance history of Othello
We talked in the podcast about the changing views of Othello over the ages, and how they reflected prejudices about race in their time. Farah rightly pointed to Ayanna Thompson’s fascinating introduction to the 3rd Arden edition, where she charts the performance history of the play. There are a few remarkable facts from that that we didn’t have a chance to reference in our conversation, but I think are worth citing.

First that David Garrick, the famous 18th century actor who championed Shakespeare, believed that Shakespeare chose to make Othello black because a white person’s jealousy could never have reached such destructive expression. Eighteenth century producers were also uncomfortable with the idea of a sexual relationship between Othello and Desdemona, and they commonly edited out the more sexualised language.

During our conversation we referred to Paul Robeson’s discomfort portraying the relationship between himself and Desdemona in front of white audiences in London in 1930 and New York in 1943, when theatres were still segregated in the USA. He is quoted as saying that he deliberately minimised physical contact with his Desdemona on stage, despite that in real life he was actually having an affair with both actresses who played the part, Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen respectively. A footnote that encapsulates the racial tensions of the time is that while he was playing Othello at the Savoy theatre in 1930, he was not allowed to stay at the hotel next door because the hotel did not permit black guests.

Such social taboos were a given in apartheid-era South Africa where interracial marriages were banned. So the 1987 production in Johannesburg directed by the white South African actress Janet Suzman touched a raw nerve in that divided country. This was the first time a black actor played Othello there, and audience members walked out when Othello and Desdemona first touched.

Much more recently Adrian Lester said of his 2013 portrayal at the National Theatre that he wanted to see “the character before the colour” – so that the play is not primarily about race. As we mentioned in the podcast, that production emphasized the military context that the characters inhabit. As Farah observed productions can focus on several different themes in performance, such as the bonds and brutality that are part of being in the military, or jealousy, misogyny, domestic abuse and psychological trauma. It may also be possible to cast black actors in other roles, however the text as written does emphasize Othello’s blackness throughout, stressing his ‘otherness’ and perpetuating racist tropes, so it is difficult to escape the primacy of race in the play. A fact stressed in the more recent production at the National Theatre where Giles Terera was the only black person in the cast, a production directed incidentally by a black man – Clint Dyer.

David Garrick, portrait by Gainsborough 1770

Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft
Savoy Theatre, London 1930

Adrian Lester
National Theatre, London 2013
Photo by Tristram Kenton

Giles Terera
National Theatre, London 2023
Photo by Myah Jeffers

Colour coding
Farah pointed out in our conversation that race is not a theme in the play, but is the context in which the whole play takes place. Racism is ingrained in the world in Shakespeare’s time, and one can properly argue still is. Assumptions about race are reflected in the language employed in the play, which as Farah suggests begins with the general idea of ‘colour coding’, where moral values are ascribed to the colours of black and white. Such colour coding is a very common element generally in Shakespeare’s metaphoric language; for example when he refers to a character’s black soul. We have already noted how black skin is associated with animal behaviour, but there are a number of examples where colour is used in a more subtle way to define moral quality, which underlines how accepted this metaphoric language and thinking is.

For example, in defending Othello’s character, the Duke of Venice describes him as “far more fair than black” – the double meaning of fair being that his good qualities are characteristic of fair skin. To them Othello has learned to behave as a white man should. Yet Othello later bitterly points out that he was welcome in Brabantio’s house as long as he came to entertain him as a successful military commander, but the minute he becomes a suitor to his daughter he has crossed a forbidden line. To the point that Brabantio cannot credit the possibility of a partnership between his daughter and Othello, as it is “against all rules of nature.” Desdemona even has to defend her falling in love with Othello by saying that she fell in love with his mind, implying that she looked beyond the colour of his skin.

As we noted in the podcast, the colour coding is explicit in the final scene, where Othello specifically remarks on the whiteness of Desdemona’s “alabaster” skin. The imagery is often accentuated in the visual staging of the scene, with Desdemona dressed in a white shift, and the bed clothed in white sheets. She is described by Emilia as an “angel”, and Othello is the “blacker devil”. With such coding it is virtually impossible to avoid the negative connotations of race.

 

The Ending
Some additional thoughts on the ending of the play. The scene of Desdemona’s murder and its immediate aftermath is undeniably powerful:  the hopeless tension as Desdemona vainly appeals against Othello’s fierce intent; the mismatch of his malign strength and her innocent frailty; the graphic horror of his smothering her.

The denouement is also rich with multiple emotions. What are we to make of his lame justifications, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men”, that he “Loved not wisely, but too well”, and that “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour”. His idea of honour being all important. How frustrated and angry we feel about his terrible judgement.

Yet we also pity him for his confusion and despair. When immediately after he has killed Desdemona, and Emilia is knocking on the door to come in, he is helplessly disoriented – he cannot work out whether to let her in or not. And then the terrible heartbreak, when Othello snags on the word “wife”, saying if he lets Emilia in “she’ll sure to speak to my wife./ My wife, my wife! what wife? I have no wife”. It’s not unlike Lear’s repeated “Never” over Cordelia’s breathless body – the awful realisation.

Followed by the even more unfathomable heartbreak when he realises that he has wrongly accused her, when he sees Iago assault Emilia. It is a moment loaded with his grief, but also of some catharsis when others witness Iago’s true nature break out, a secret we have been forced to keep, but that now reveals itself to everyone else.

And finally, does Othello seem to recover some dignity in his remorse, and his acceptance of the only punishment that can be just, his own death and consignment to hell?

 

Ken Nwosu as Othello and Poppy Gilbert as Desdemona.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London
February 2024
Photography by Johan Persson.

The Texts
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