Life would have been so much simpler if I had stuck to a faith. I might have been spared the stress of trying to figure out things for myself; and when bad things happened, I might have found consolation in traditional practices, however spurious. Secretly, I envy people with faith, even if I lack confidence in their ability to expound truth, explain meaning and make moral judgements. Ever present at the back of my mind is the caption to a cartoon depicting the all-knowing, all-loving Almighty: ‘He could have banned slavery or shellfish. Shellfish. He chose shellfish.’
Some secular people have embraced the quasi-religion of Bardolatry, declaring Shakespeare as the god of their idolatry. According to the followers of this religion, Shakespeare was ‘a man not for an age but for all time’ (Jonson); and ‘he reads us better than we read him’ (Bloom). It is claimed that he is a ‘universal genius’ whose appeal extends to all men at all times in all places, and that he possessed an unrivalled if not complete understanding of human nature. Such a man, Bardolators say, can be trusted and deserves to be worshipped.
The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709
Nicholas Rowe hailed Shakespeare as a ‘Genius’ in his account of the playwright’s life, at the start of his illustrated Works of Shakespeare, 1709.View images from this item (74)
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Not being a Bardolator, despite having appeared in several productions of his plays, I am not convinced that Shakespeare is an unequivocally reliable guide in the exploration of human nature; and I fear that we may see the world and ourselves through the distorting prism of his plays. And so I took some persuading before agreeing to take on the role of Othello. This was in large part because of my reservations about the character and about the play. I had seen many fine actors take on the role but never quite been convinced of his transformation from a man of reason, sound judgement and nobility of mind into an emotionally incontinent, insecure, homicidal obsessive in the space of a single scene, Act 3 Scene 3. And doubts about the character’s coherence led to the suspicion that Shakespeare was really just elaborating on the Elizabethan stage convention which held that ‘Moors’ posed a menace to ‘mores’, social, sexual, moral and aesthetic. Did Shakespeare effectively save himself the trouble of a plausible psychological profile for Othello by reverting to the convention as voiced by Iago: ‘These Moors are changeable in their wills’ (1.3.346–47)?
Ira Aldridge as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus
Ira Aldridge in the role of Aaron the Moor, a character in Shakespeare’s gruesome revenge drama, Titus Andronicus.View images from this item (1)
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A Bardolator will believe that Shakespeare’s unrivalled understanding of human nature obliges us in all humility to accept that Othello is not simply a stage convention but a serious study of sexual jealousy. ‘Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death’, according to Bloom. (I have to admit that I am not sure what this means and suspect it might be ‘psycho-babble’: death by castration I can understand, but to be castrated by death sounds as comically absurd as it would to be scarred, amputated or unhinged by death.) Nevertheless, working backwards from his murderous actions, the faithful Bardolator will ‘retro-fit’ a psychological condition to him, suggesting that however proficient and professional he might be on the battlefield, in the arts of love he is a rank amateur; and that for all the pride he takes in his ‘royal siege’, he was always insecure and is actually the kind of self-hating black man who would say:
Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrim’d and black
As mine own face. (3.3.386–88)
But, as I say, I am no Bardolator and felt entirely justified in asking whether the character is coherent and whether the play is racist, whether indeed that Shakespeare suggests that Othello behaves as he does because he is black. Does the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ really mean that I should accept that a play written over 400 years ago by a white Englishman for another white Englishman in blackface make-up is an authoritative and credible profile of a genuine black man?
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)
There may well have been someone who was very much like the Moorish Captain in Cinthio’s original story or very much like Shakespeare’s Othello; just as there may well have been Native Americans who behaved very much like the ‘Red Injuns’ of old Westerns, riding around the circled wagons, ululating , scalping white men, raping white women and kidnapping white children. But we now know that there were a good many Native Americans who did nothing of the sort, and indeed that those movies were a distorting prism. In Elizabethan England, there were many black people who were nothing like Othello, or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, or Eleazar in Lust’s Dominion, or Muly Hamet in The Battle of Alcazar. But Shakespeare’s types and tropes have not been questioned because of the inherited assumption of his ‘universal genius’.
It is clear that Shakespeare could have got to know some genuine black people in Elizabethan London, had he wished to do so. If he decided not to take the trouble of doing this basic research, was he being lazy? If he did have black acquaintances and still went on to write the Othello of the second half of the play, was he being a bigot?
Of course, another reason for my hesitancy was that I knew all too well how easy it is for Iago to steal the play: it may be Othello’s tragedy, but it is Iago’s play. An actor of skill, given ample material to charm an audience, will charm that audience. The actor who plays Othello is arguably gifting the actor who plays Iago, as James Earl Jones found to his cost in the last of his seven portrayals of the role opposite Christopher Plummer. Why put yourself through all the nightly stress and emotional turmoil just for someone else to take all the plaudits?
Photograph of Conrad Nelson as Iago in Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2009
Conrad Nelson as Iago with the precious handkerchief, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Othello, 2009.View images from this item (1)
Playing the role of Othello
In a lecture I gave 20 years ago, later published as Second Thoughts About Othello, I argued that black actors who took on the role ran the risk of reinforcing racist attitudes towards black people. It seemed to me that Shakespeare was much more interested in the character of Iago, who has double the number of soliloquies that Othello has, and is allowed to engage much more directly with an audience. A soliloquy is an opportunity for a character to establish a relationship with the audience, to reveal something of himself or herself. Emilia, Desdemona and Roderigo are allowed the briefest of opportunities, Othello more, but he appears at times to be talking not to an audience but to himself.
The odds were clearly stacked against me. But Greg Doran, the Artistic Director of the RSC, can be quite persuasive. Over lunch toward the end of 2013, he suggested that I had reached the right age to play Othello and that if I did not do so soon, I probably never would! He went on to say that should I decide not to play it, then perhaps I should think about directing it. On leaving lunch, I thought of little else. But after a couple of days’ mulling, it seemed clear to me that the best way of defeating this monstrous hybrid would be if I performed the title role myself. This, I think, is called hubris; but I felt I had to have a go, even if it meant tilting at the windmills of traditional interpretation.
The relationship between Othello and Desdemona has to be credible, poignant and palpably sensuous for there to be any sense of tragic loss; and I felt strongly that a woman director would best help an actress create a convincing, three-dimensional character, in as far as that is possible with a role originally written for a young man. We were fortunate to find just such a woman in Natalie Abrahami but, unfortunately, a scheduling clash forced her to withdraw. In the event, the eventual director Iqbal Khan and I shared a similar agenda and got on well enough to persuade me to get into the ring with Othello.
Photograph of Joanna Vanderham and Hugh Quarshie in Othello, 2015
Desdemona is torn between conflicting loyalties to her father and her husband. In the RSC’s 2015 production, Joanna Vanderham played Desdemona and Hugh Quarshie played Othello.View images from this item (1)
‘Judged by the brain, it (Othello the play) is ridiculous. Judged by the ear, it is sublime’. I agree with George Bernard Shaw that the plot is open to ridicule – uxoricidally jealous rage triggered by a dream and a handkerchief; and I agree that some of the verse is sublime. But I have wondered whether it is the so-called ‘Othello music’ which has led audiences and indeed critics to overlook the more unsatisfactory story elements or even make a virtue of them – the ‘double time’ structure, the excessive reliance on coincidence, the tendentiousness of the dialogue which makes it easy for Iago to dupe Othello. Indeed, I have wondered whether it is precisely the intensity of the emotional experience that audiences look for in a ‘black’ character. The voice of a soul singer can cover up the most incoherent and meaningless lyrics. In striving to make our production less ‘ridiculous’, we may well have lost some of the poetic sublimity. But this was perhaps inevitable.
There was no possibility of suggesting that a clever and cunning white man could easily dupe a credulous black man because in our production, both Othello and Iago were black. And our mission was to allow an audience to see what Othello and Desdemona saw in each other despite an obvious age gap; a mission which, though difficult, was not, I think impossible. Other than that, there were three objectives: the first was to make credible Othello’s transformation from magnanimous to murderous. The ‘Temptation scene’, Act 3, Scene 3, is a long scene but there are barely 300 lines between him saying ‘Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee’ (3.3.90–91) and ‘Now do I see ’tis true. Look here Iago, / All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven’. (3.3.90–91) This meant restructuring the scene, transposing and reassigning certain lines. Cuts were made but no lines were rewritten, other than a small but key change to a line previously mentioned: ‘Her name that was as fresh as Dian’s visage is now begrim’d and black as thine own face…’
Photograph of Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in Othello, 2015
In the RSC’s ground-breaking production of Othello, the Moor and his ensign were both played by black actors – Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago.View images from this item (1)
The second objective was to make it much more difficult for Iago to manipulate Othello and the other characters; and having aroused Othello’s jealous rage, to put him in danger of it, thereby raising the stakes and increasing the jeopardy for Iago.
And the third objective was to link Othello’s sense of personal betrayal to a conviction that he has been cleverly and cynically exploited by the ruthless Venetian state, that he has bought into a false set of values. In our production, the personal was political.
It is fair to say that the production was acclaimed, with some people talking of it as landmark, even a ‘game-changer’. We – Iqbal Khan, Lucien Msamati and I – made sense of it by bringing the play closer to our experience. But in so doing, did we take it away from Shakespeare? And does it matter?
 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), p. 449.
© Hugh Quarshie