Who is the ‘main’ character in Othello?
This question has been debated for centuries and is a fascinating one to consider. Although thematically Iago is the antagonist, to a certain extent he is actually the protagonist. Iago is the one that tells us his ambitions and fights to achieve them. It is Othello who is given the title role and the greater emotional range, but Iago who is truly active in the play, manipulating the other characters and going after what he wants. Apart from having more lines in the play than Othello, audiences are taken through the narrative by Iago, and are complicit in his ideas and decisions through soliloquies and asides. Iago somewhat complicates the role of the protagonist as the audience are repulsed by him and in awe of his mental agility, yet never able to escape their alliance with him.
What is Iago’s true motive?
While Iago offers a few reasons for his “hatred” of Othello, none of them are convincing, proven or particularly watertight. In Shakespeare’s source material, Iago’s character is very clear that his motivation for revenge is that he believes Othello has slept with his wife. However in Othello, Shakespeare lays out a number of reasons and we are never quite certain what Iago’s driving motivation is. This has led theorists to speculate reasons and makes Iago such a slippery, complex character. In the 1800s Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’. Iago almost seems unwilling to admit any clear reason at all, and at the end of the play, says he will refuse to speak at all.
The history of Othello in performance
The performance history of Othello has been extremely contentious in regards to the depiction of race onstage. As social and cultural responses to racial issues continue to shift, so do performance practices. Before the 20th century the role of Othello was most-likely played by a white actor. Professor Ian Smith discusses how Elizabethan performers would wrap their bodies in dyed cloth to simulate blackness, whereas more modern approaches saw a white actor using black make-up. This use of ‘blackface’, as it is now termed, was common in theatre for many years. While we would assume that such practices have long ceased, white actors played Othello in blackface well into the late twentieth century. The last major production cast like this was in 1990 with Michael Gambon’s performance of the title role at the Stephan Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.In 1943, Paul Robeson was the first Black actor in America to play the role of Othello in an otherwise white cast. Robeson’s Broadway production was successful, it ran for 296 performances, and a reviewer even stated, “No white man should ever dare play the part again”. However, American audiences were in no way wholly converted. In 1979 African-American actor Paul Winfield received hate mail during a run of the production for kissing ‘a white Desdemona’. Although Robeson played Othello in the UK many years earlier it wasn’t until 1999 that the Royal Shakespeare Company cast their first black British actor, Ray Fearon, to play the role of Othello. In Australia, an Indigenous actor didn’t play the role on stage until Tom E. Lewis’ performance for the Darwin Theatre Company in 2006. It was the same story in film. Some of the most famous screen depictions of Othello in the second half of the 20th century were in blackface. Orson Welles (1952), Laurence Olivier (1964) and Anthony Hopkins (1981) all played the role in blackface to critical acclaim, Olivier even receiving an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t until 1995 that a black actor was cast as Othello in a major film production, with Laurence Fishburne playing the role, opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Iago.
Through a modern lens, audiences often experience this play as the tragic plight of a Black soldier who is used for his military prowess, but never accepted by society. However, the play has not always been interpreted this way. Many 19th century productions saw the play as a suitable tragic end for an ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unnatural’ interracial marriage. In an 1882 production of Othello in Baltimore, a guard on duty at the theatre during a performance shouted “It will never be said that in my presence a confounded Negro has killed a white woman”; then he fired his gun, stormed the stage and broke the arm of the actor who was playing Othello.
Gender roles, misogyny and domestic violence
Othello is also a problematic play in its depiction of gendered roles, misogyny and domestic violence against women. Considering Othello is a play predominately set in an army base it has very little stage violence. Apart from the drunken scuffle in Act 2 and the scrappy sword fight at the start of Act 5, the soldiers in the text are experiencing a time of peace. The brutal murder of Desdemona at the hands of her husband in the final scene stands as the most significant act of violence in the play. Most of the famous deaths of female characters in Shakespeare occur offstage; think Lady Macbeth or Ophelia. However, Desdemona’s death is front of stage, drawn out and is placed specifically at the climax of the play’s action. It feels almost deliberate that the audience must watch and endure it. In Shakespeare’s original text, before Desdemona’s death she forgives Othello for his actions. Many modern productions delete this text, including in Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 production directed by Peter Evans.
American writer and activist Susan Sontag famously said ‘Real art has the capacity to make us nervous’. Othello has a history of doing just that. But historically such responses have varied depending on the social and ethical beliefs of the time. The first recorded response to Desdemona’s fate is Henry Jackson’s observation of a 1610 production, stating that the audience were moved ‘more after she was dead, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance’. Conversely, in 1660, Diarist Samuel Pepys noted that during a production ‘A very pretty lady sat by me and called out to see Desdemona smothered.’ Dr Samuel Johnson, the author of the famous 1755 English dictionary, was a great lover and critic of Shakespeare, and confessed that he found Othello so tragic that he could not bear to read or see the last act performed. In 1776, German director Schroeder’s adaptation of Othello made its audience very ‘uneasy’, according to records. There were ‘swoons followed upon swoons’ and people left the theatre, or were ‘carried out’ during the closing scene. On recalling the Edmund Kean performance of Othello in the early 1800s, renowned poet John Keats said it was ‘direful and slaughterous to the deepest degree’. In a Russian production in the early 20th century, when Alexander Ostuzhev performed Othello’s final speech, an audience member stood up and shouted “It wasn’t his fault: his kind of love could burn up a city.”
The difficulty for audiences in past centuries was mainly the question surrounding Othello’s guilt, and watching Desdemona die whilst knowing of her innocence. For a 21st century audience, her innocence, despite making her plight more tragic, is almost irrelevant. She is the victim of a heinous crime of domestic violence, whether she has cheated or not. So how does a director deal with this moment in a modern production? Some past productions have chosen to make the act almost slow and poetic, whereas more recent representations, such as Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 production and the RSC’s 2015 production, presented a rather shocking, drawn-out scene of struggle and brutality.
The question is, should we see it, do audiences want to see it? Should we step right up to the violence and show it for all its horror, or shy away from it? And moving forward, will it be seen as socially responsible to put it on stage?