By JIAYI (VIVIAN) LI, Shanghai, China
Dr. Mary J. Barnett, Georgetown University
Othello was written between 1603 and 1604; its first recorded performance was in 1604, with Richard Burbage playing Othello (Swindall 11). Undoubtedly, Burbage played Othello in blackface. It was not until over 200 years later, in 1833 that the first black actor played Othello in London. Since then, most actors playing Othello have been black, although scholars like Peter Ackroyd argue that Shakespeare intended him to be a Spanish Moor (Arogundade). Recently some scholars began to argue about the ethnicity of Othello. Some scholars even suggest that Othello should be played by a white actor of blackface, like hundreds of years ago. After all, one of Othello’s main themes is racial discrimination. Othello is a play focusing on the issue of racial discrimination that offers unlimited possibilities for new interpretations. Spectators, critics and directors in different time have tended to think differently about the most proper race to play Othello because as time goes by, more and more people can accept racial diversity in the society.
Ira Aldridge received compliments from both his audiences and critics because he created a unique Othello that European audiences of that time felt closest to Shakespeare’s Othello. At first, they went to see the play only for curiosity because they had never seen a black actor playing Othello. (Thompson 108). However, after Ira Aldridge’s Othello debuted in the public, “audiences and critics recognized Aldridge as a star” because he [was] the very incarnation of Othello” (Thompson 112). It was also the first time in play’s history that audiences and critics judged an actor not by his race but by his performance.
Because Ira Aldridge was a black man playing a black character, he succeeded in representing Shakespeare’s Othello so that European audiences could understand the play. The era of Ira Aldridge’s performances was a time in which Europe discovered the value of Shakespeare’s dramas and public recognition of his play increased (Thompson 112). As a result, Ira Aldridge, in order to raise public awareness of race and understanding of Shakespeare’s drama, only performed Shakespeare’s tragedies in provinces where there were a great number of illiterate people. (Thompson 105). Since those illiterate people could understand Othello through his performance, Ira Aldridge undoubtedly received compliments and acknowledges among the public.
Ira Aldridge, who was never ashamed of his Negro identity, became a symbol of the struggle for black equality (Thompson 107). His influence was first seem when “ [Britain’s] Parliament was engaged in the debates which culminated in the passage on 31 July, 1833 of a bill emancipating British-owned slaves in the West Indies” (McDonald 2). “Mr. Aldridge’s black visibility was revolutionary…he introduced black characters into the history of [European countries’] drama.” (Thompson 113). In addition, he was associated with “the situation of blacks in overseas colonies, the American abolitionist movement, the Civil War and the black emancipation” (Thompson 107). Aldridge’s resemblance to the original Othello promoted people not only to think about the problem of racial inequality presented in Othello but also to introspect and break the inequality in reality.
More than 150 years have passed since Ira Aldridge’s debut. With the development of the society, people’s opinion has varied. Last white Othellos, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles were played in the 1960s. After that, a blacked-up Othello never existed on stage because politicians “created a so-called no-go zone for white actors on that particular role” (Muir). Instead, black actors such as Paul Robeson, Laurence Fishburne and Huge Quarshie dominated this character for near half century. However, recently, Hugh Quarshie, who played Othello before, said that “Of all parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor” (5). In 2007, a white actor, Thomas Thieme, played Othello in a Munich Kammerspiele production (Billington 1). Is it reasonable that a white actor plays Othello now?
Although it means that we are dating back to the day before Ira Aldridge, some scholars like Elise Marks and Sheila Rose Bland still hold the idea that white actor should play Othello so that audiences can experience the way that Othello originally appeared on stage. “As Dympna Callaghan had argued, ‘Othello was a white man’. That is, he was originally created for, and performed by, the white Renaissance actor” (Thompson 1). Patrick Stewart indeed has been one white Othello of renown. His “beautifully-delineated portrait” of Othello promotes audiences’ confusion when he was derided with “thick lips” (Rose). With Othello played by a white actor, audiences were able to appreciate tremendous performance resembled to Shakespeare’s Othello.
Another reason that a white Othello would be interesting is that a white Othello provides us with an opportunity to reconsider color discrimination demonstrated in Othello. Doing that, we can understand the moral issues like racism in Shakespeare’s dramas better. As created by Shakespeare, Othello is the incarnation of justice. Even if he is a black Moor, people respect and love him because he is a courageous and secure figure protecting the nation’s safety—he is the noble Moor. But if Othello is played by a black actor, we lose the opportunity to wrestle with the complexity of conventional racism. In Jacobean time, black is associated with corruption and white is associated with nobility, but Othello proved it wrong for the duke says: “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.331). Ironically, it is Iago, the white man, that is corrupted.
Othello is supposedly white inside (noble) because of his true love with Desdemona. His persistence and the use of powerful language eventually win Desdemona. Desdemona refused several white people and choose Othello not only because she is fascinated by his story but also because of Othello’s pure love with her. After believing Iago, Othello becomes black inside (he is corrupted). Before his death, he realizes his fault, so he confesses, and converts into a good man again. In Othello, many behaviors prove that Othello is both noble and corrupted. Hence, Othello should be performed by a white actor of blackface to shape the complexity of color in Othello.
“Othello is a uniquely pressured text with a uniquely pressured performance and cultural history. As the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri writes, ‘Othello haunts the English stage’ because of the unfinished nature of the play’s significance in history” (Thompson 170). Before 1800s, audiences took it for granted that Othello should be performance by a white actor because black was the most subordinate. But since the Ira Aldridge first performed in London, the pubic began to accept other races. For instance, in 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, Spanish and Arab Othellos existed, giving scholars a chance to reconsider Othello’s nationality (Arogundade 1). In modern times, some scholars argue that Othello should be played by a blackface white. As time went by, many different opinions arise not only because Othello’s unique theme and characters offer us infinite possibilities to interpret diversely, but also because the evolution of society and people’s acceptance of racial diversity. Othello is more than a play; it represents the eternity of culture.
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