February 18

April 10, 2016

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by WIlliam Shakespeare
directed by Jonathan Munby

A Scholar's Perspective

Presented by the John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Inquiry and Exploration Series

by Peter Erickson

From the opening scene of Othello Shakespeare makes clear that race is a major issue. Iago broadcasts a barrage of racial slurs and clichés that arouse Roderigo and then Brabantio and that we in the audience are forced to listen to. The sexual connection between black Othello and white Desdemona is dramatized by Iago in animalistic terms: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” Iago concentrates his rhetoric on what he insists will be the negative outcome of multiracial reproduction. In Titus Andronicus, written a decade earlier, Shakespeare presents Aaron the Moor cherishing his biracial baby boy as a powerful image of his ongoing black lineage. No such onstage image of strong black affiliation is allowed in Othello, where Othello is isolated in a white world.

The prominence that Shakespeare gives Iago’s decisive leadership in this first scene might tempt us to believe that the only source of racism in this play is the overt racist group of three white men that Iago so easily orchestrates before our eyes. This view would please Iago, who wants to claim that he is in complete control and responsible for all causation. Yet only when we begin to consider what problems other characters contribute to the tragedy do we begin to enter the play’s deeper racial complexities. As Harry Berger Jr. remarks in his important new book, A Fury in the Words: Love and Embarrassment in Shakespeare’s Venice: Iago “is not the autogenic source of evil he fancies himself to be. His victims started doing his work for him well before he started doing it.”  

In the crucial senate meeting, Iago is a mere bystander, present but silent, thus giving us an opportunity to assess the behavior of other major figures in this climactic scene of the first act. Brabantio’s verbal assault targeting “the sooty bosom” of Othello’s blackness is ultimately rejected by the Duke of Venice, who rules in favor of accepting Othello into Venetian society by virtue of his marriage to Desdemona. Of course, this acceptance is also prompted by an ulterior motive: that Othello’s military prowess is urgently needed.

This key scene puts on display an underlying language of race, more subtle than Iago’s crude racism but troubling nonetheless. Desdemona’s love for Othello is genuine yet her assertion “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind” inadvertently conveys a further meaning. In stating her attraction to his mind, she implies that she must bypass and ignore his actual black face.

At the highest level of Venetian power, the Duke’s endorsement of Othello is similarly compromised in his formulation that “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” The comparison places a higher symbolic value on “fair” as a synonym for racial whiteness and consequently devalues, and all but wishes away, Othello’s blackness. The Duke’s declaration confers on Othello the status of an honorary, token, white man. Othello pays a price for this seeming elevation. The long-term effect of the Duke’s gesture is to deprive Othello of his black identity. The terrible burden of this loss will gradually be revealed when, under increasing duress, Othello will have no inner foundation of strong black identity to rely on. 

In the long turning point of Act III, scene 3, we can begin to hear the erosion of black identity that makes Othello vulnerable. From the self-doubt expressed in the questioning tone of his words, “Haply for I am black,” to his definitive self-exposure, “My name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face,” marks the trajectory to downfall. This is the black face that Desdemona avoided. Now, as his word “begrimed” signals, Othello himself has internalized the idea of his blackness as negative. It is relatively easy to destroy Othello because, in accepting the terms of honorary whiteness, he has already given up his manifestly black identity.

One of the most striking features of the play’s ending is loquacious Iago’s absolute silence: “From this time forth I will never speak word.” Even when repeatedly threatened with torture, Iago refuses to play the scapegoat. The chilling words he utters—“What you know, you know”—express the logic that, in blaming Iago, the other characters ignore their own implication in the racial tragedy the audience has witnessed. Thus characters “know” more than they admit, but resist and suppress the self-awareness that would allow them fully to acknowledge that what they know. Iago is not the sole catalyst. Desdemona, the Duke of Venice and Othello have contributed problematic racial rhetoric, which Iago exploits but did not create. In the end, a full assessment must recognize the complicity of a wider range of characters in producing the tragic outcome.        

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most important plays because of its treatment of the issue of race; the ending is hard to bear because the issues raised seem so unresolved. In our own time we continue to confront the anguish of Shakespeare’s Othello in new forms. The work of African American artist Fred Wilson presents us with a contemporary exploration of Othello in a different medium. Wilson represented the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale, a site which inspired Wilson’s Othello-inflected nonverbal structures made in black Murano glass. Wilson’s most recent exhibition of Othello-related work—Fred Wilson: Sculptures, Paintings, and Installations: 2004-2014—contains a large-scale black screen that evokes the closed bed curtains that culminate Shakespeare’s play. Wilson’s screen offers another cultural space for sadness, mourning, commemoration, and change.

Peter Erickson is a Visiting Resident Scholar at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Northwestern University.      


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