Othello: the role that entices and enrages actors of all skin colours
‘Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor,’ wrote the British-Ghanaian actor Hugh Quarshie in a lecture published in 1998. Doing so risked legitimising – in fact condoning – the racist stereotype of a black man who loses his wits, then resorts to killing his white wife in a fit of crazed jealousy, Quarshie argued.
Seventeen years later, Quarshie – who cut his teeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s and 90s in a number of high-profile roles – has played the Moor of Venice in the RSC’s new production of Othello. When we talk after a long day of rehearsals, he is at pains to point out that things are more complex than his earlier argument suggests. He wasn’t saying that no black performer should ever play Othello; rather, that black performers should think long and hard about doing battle not just with the play, but the context from which it springs. ‘Only by black actors playing the role,’ he says, ‘can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions that the play is based on’.
Photograph of Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in Othello, 2015
In the RSC’s 2015 production of Othello, the lead role was played by Hugh Quarshie and Iago was played by Lucian Msamati.View images from this item (1)
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Quarshie was joined on stage by Lucian Msamati, who will make theatrical history as the first black actor to play Iago at the RSC, and one of only a handful worldwide. The casting of the British-Tanzanian actor has thrown up tantalising questions about the dynamics of this most complex and controversial of plays. Does it matter that Msamati’s Iago is black? Can he be that, and also an out-and-out racist? Is the play itself even about race?
For much of its history, Othello has provided nourishing fodder for racists: from the queasy arguments of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that it would be ‘something monstrous’ to conceive of Desdemona ‘falling in love with a veritable negro’, to the grim parodies that circulated in 19th-century South Africa.
Coleridge's annotated copy of Shakespeare
In his hand-written notes on Othello (c. 1818–19), Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes a racist distinction between different types of African – the ‘Moor’ and the ‘Negro’.View images from this item (10)
The tragedy doesn’t make that easy, however. ‘I see it as two halves, almost,’ says Quarshie. ‘The more successful you are in depicting the first Othello, this man who is wise, astute, mature, magnanimous, the harder it is to show a man who is persuaded that his wife has committed adultery, and who turns into an obsessive, compulsive, murderous maniac.’
Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works
A Bedchamber - Othello threatens Desdemona while she sleeps, convinced that she has been unfaithful. Othello, Act 5, Scene 2 by John Graham.View images from this item (24)
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It is difficult to know what the play’s author might have made of the question. The number of non-white men and women living in early modern London was tiny, perhaps less than one per cent of the population. Black performers were not unknown – John Blanke, perhaps of North African heritage, played the trumpet at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII – but seem not to have appeared on the public stage.
It’s all but certain that Shakespeare’s first Othello was Richard Burbage, a white Londoner. It's even more likely that Burbage would have worn dark makeup, as actors in Britain did until the late 1980s (Michael Gambon was one of the last, at Scarborough in 1990).
Portrait of Richard Burbage
17th-century portrait of the actor, Richard Burbage, probably the first man to play Othello. He played the part wearing black make-up and a wig made of black lamb’s wool.View images from this item (1)
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How should the play be interpreted?
Shakespeare’s play is both fascinating and perplexing in determining how Othello should be interpreted. On the one hand, there was a strong tradition on the Elizabethan stage of black characters being played as snarling villains, as in the anonymous revenge tragedy Lust’s Dominion and the playwright’s own Titus Andronicus; anxiety about black immigration into Britain was such that Elizabeth I issued several proclamations ordering the expulsion of ‘blackamoores’ from her realm.
Draft proclamation on the expulsion of 'Negroes and Blackamoors', 1601
A draft proclamation of 1601 asked for the deportation of black people from England.View images from this item (2)
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On the other, the Moor of Venice is the hero of the play, a decorated general in the service of the Venetian state. The villain of the piece is the white racist who plots Othello’s downfall. ‘When a Moor appeared on stage, it was like the Red Indian in an American western,’ says Quarshie. ‘There was a convention where you expect trouble to follow. And Shakespeare goes against the grain’.
Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson
There is also an alternative history of Othello, in which the role has been interpreted as an act of out-and-out emancipation. The great African-American actor Ira Aldridge was unable to make a career on stage in his homeland because of segregationist limits on black performers. Criss-crossing Europe from the 1830s to the 1860s, the ‘African Roscius’ specialised in parts, notably Othello, that emphasised his African heritage (Aldridge liked to put about the story that he’d been born in Senegal rather than New York City).
Playbill advertising Ira Aldridge's appearance as Othello in Northampton, 1831
The great American actor, Ira Alridge, was known as the ‘African Roscius’ after a celebrated Roman actor who had been born a slave.View images from this item (1)
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The actor-activist Paul Robeson identified closely with his great forebear and was said to have taken acting lessons from Aldridge’s daughter. When he first played the Moor in London in 1930, the reviews were disparaging, with many in the audience outraged by the sight of Robeson kissing Peggy Ashcroft, but Robeson felt it was his destiny to play what he termed a ‘tragedy of racial conflict’.
Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona in New York, 1943–44
When Paul Robeson played Othello in New York in 1943, it ran for 296 performances – still the longest Shakespearean run in Broadway history.View images from this item (1)
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When he returned to the role on Broadway in 1943, one reviewer declared that ‘no white man should ever dare play the part again’. With the notable exception of Patrick Stewart, who played Othello as part of an otherwise African-American cast in a ‘photonegative’ production in Washington DC in 1997, most actors in Britain and America have heeded the advice.
Perhaps this is the lesson to draw from Othello, Quarshie suggests: that the play’s history on stage uncovers as much about the societies in which it appears as the play itself.
Sometimes, as when John Kani played Othello at the Markettheatre in Johannesburg in 1987 in the midst of apartheid, only the second black South African actor in history to do so, the play can seem as if it’s about nothing other than race. At others, such as Adrian Lester’s modern-dress performance at the National Theatre in 2012, the colour of the hero’s skin can seem almost incidental; the play’s tragedy primarily one of jealousy.
‘What we make of it tells us more about ourselves than it does about Shakespeare,’ says Quarshie. He laughs: ‘I’m sure our production will be no different.’
This article was originally published in the Guardian newspaper in June 2015
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.