Is Othello a racist play or a play about racism?
By Newton Buchanan and Lindsay Smiling
Delaware Shakespeare recently hosted an online discussion where actors Newton Buchanan and Lindsay Smiling shared their experiences confronting the systemic racism of Shakespeare’s Venice in Othello, and the reverberations from that play that continue to echo through time more than four centuries later. Delaware Shakespeare has never produced Othello, but Buchanan has appeared in Del Shakes’ The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Romeo and Juliet, which was directed by Smiling.
Between the two of us, we’ve played Othello five times. It is a storied role, a mountain tackled by the likes of James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson (following hundreds of years of Laurence Oliviers and John Gielguds in blackface). And every time we start back on the road to Venice and Othello, we find ourselves asking the same question: Is this a racist play, or a play about racism?
The answer to that question isn’t so simple. If you look at the world in which Shakespeare is writing, the idea of racism doesn’t even exist. Certainly, there is evidence of Blacks in Elizabethan England marrying and owning land. Then again, this is also a time when the slave trade is in its infancy. In England there is great bewilderment about “Blackamoores” and the hue of our skin with scholars theorizing the proximity of the sun or religious figures pointing to the curse of Ham to explain Blackness. The idea of race is not how we see it today. It wouldn’t be until Carolus Linnaeus publishes “Systema Naturae,” that Europe starts to classify the races based on skin color.
But is it a Racist play?
“Thou hast practiced on her with foul charms/abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals/that weakens motion,” Brabantio declares after he learns of the elopement of Othello and Desdemona. Absurdly, Othello is accused of corrupting Desdemona with magic, witchcraft and foul potions. More important, the senators of Venice entertain this accusation as a legitimate possibility. It is only when Desdemona testifies, quite bravely, that Othello is exonerated. This is the world Othello finds himself in. A man of “royal siege” who was sold to slavery, freed, traveled in the military and rose through the ranks. Needless to say, the amount of trauma he has experienced is almost unfathomable.
Finding space for that to live in you, as an actor, is quite taxing. Othello then has to go on a journey that perplexes him to the extreme, so that he murders his own wife. Then, realizing his heinous act, kills himself. He alone will serve up justice.
But is it a Racist Play?
Othello has a long production history of blackface. More so, many of the heralded white actors who have performed the title role throughout history, hint to getting in touch with something primal when trying to capture Othello’s rage. As a Black actor, considering the role, you have to examine the messaging of every moment. Is this production playing up the angry Black stereotype? What is this production’s point of view on race? Often, you are the only Black actor in this show and it’s incredibly taxing to navigate. It’s a lot to unpack, each time, not to mention you bring your own history of trauma and systemic racism and micro-aggressions to the stage, every night. It is impossible to separate a performance of Othello from where we are now and from what is happening in contemporary America.
But is the play Racist?
Regardless of where Shakespeare set any of his plays, he was always reflecting what was happening in London at the time. He was not trying to create any accurate depictions of history. Rather, he was commenting on the personal and political atmosphere he saw. So, when we produce Shakespeare today, WE must reflect OUR time. When you look at the play through the lens of our society, you can see the systems that hold onto power, that create inequity. That is how the plays can still resonate. Too often we see productions of Shakespeare that simply try to recreate what it was like in his day.
And maybe if we use this play today to look at the systems of injustice, we’ll see that it’s not the lone villain, Iago, whose machinations lead to his downfall. It’s not one incident on one day in one place that drive him mad. It’s the world that Othello was born into, a system that left scars that no one around him looks hard enough to see.
We can ask what is the direct line from Shakespeare’s time to our time, and what that says about who we are now. And then, we can start to reimagine our own mythology, whether that it is calling out racism in our own personal circles or looking at the bigger structures and institutions that have manufactured racist policies and ideals.
We’ve been going down a road of a certain mythology for a long time about who we are and where we are. We need imaginative leaps to do this work of change. Then, we can say with Othello, “I have done the state some service.”