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Far More Fair than Black:
Shakespeare’s Othello and the White Men Who Played Him
Joseph N. Anderson, AS, BA
Clarion University of Pennsylvania
Multicultural Sources and Services
November 10, 2008
And, noble signior,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.
With these words, the Duke in William Shakespeare’s Othello seeks to consol Senator Brabantio in his grief and anger at the recent revelation that his daughter, Desdemona, has secretly wed the Moorish general, Othello. Within the context of the play, the Duke’s comment was meant to convince Brabantio that Othello is a well-respected Venetian soldier despite his skin color. But one might also call the Duke a sort-of prophet, for throughout history the long line of actors who have played the part of the Moor have indeed be “far more fair than black.”
I once spoke to a friend (a graduate student in English) after watching Stuart Burge’s 1966 film of Othello starring Laurence Olivier. My friend had also seen part of the film and had immediately judged it racist because a white man had played a black man. I disagreed with him, calling it a magnificent demonstration of acting which remained with me long after the film had ended. Our two positions represent two common feelings about the character of Othello and how he is played. This work will examine the performances of some of the most famous white actors in the role from its beginnings up to recent times.
The Play and The Moor
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays. It depicts the short-lived happiness of a Moor named Othello and his descent into jealousy and near madness which ends in universal tragedy. The play begins with two men named Iago and Roderigo speaking about the recent marriage of Othello to Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of a Venetian senator. Both men are angry with Othello- Iago because Othello promoted another man named Cassio instead of him, and Roderigo because he wished to marry Desdemona himself. They announce the marriage to Desdemona's father who makes no attempts to hide his displeasure when confronting the couple soon after. Othello and Desdemona proclaim their true love and fidelity towards one another in front of her father and his fellow senators. Immediately afterwards, Othello (a general in the service of the Duke), is called away to battle on Cyprus. He trusts his wife into Iago's care and leaves.
Everyone arrives on Cyprus, the enemy's ships having been destroyed in a storm. Iago, still coveting Cassio's position and still angry at Othello for not giving it to him instead, devises a plan in which he will make Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers. Iago sends Roderigo to pick a fight with a drunk Cassio. When Othello arrives and discovers that Cassio has been drinking and fighting while on duty, he dismisses him outright. Iago later convinces Cassio that he must speak to Desdemona to get his position back. This is intended by Iago to bring Cassio and Desdemona into close proximity so that they might be caught “in the act” by Othello. Iago begins to plant thoughts of infidelity in Othello's mind and when he sees Cassio leaving Desdemona in a hurry, he feels that maybe his suspicions are proving true.
Later, Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief that had been a token of love from Othello. Iago's wife Emilia quickly snatches it up and it is passed on to Iago who gives it to Cassio. Iago then tells Othello that Cassio has the handkerchief in his possession and that he is claiming to have slept with Desdemona. Othello swears he will kill Desdemona for her infidelity and Iago swears to kill Cassio. Iago instead helps prepare an ambush in which Roderigo will kill Cassio, but the plot is botched when Cassio wounds Roderigo instead. Iago enters the mêlée, wounds Cassio, and leaves. Iago then returns, pretending to be enraged about Roderigo’s assault on Cassio, and kills Roderigo for doing it.
Soon after, Othello enters Desdemona’s bedchamber while she is asleep. He proclaims his love for her but when she wakes, he announces that he will kill her. Desdemona attempts to plead her innocence but Othello feels that the handkerchief in possession of Cassio is solid proof of her infidelity and Othello smothers her. Emilia arrives and Desdemona revives long enough to proclaim her innocence once more before finally expiring. Iago and others arrive at the room. Othello again pleads the case for her infidelity but Emilia explains the deceit her husband has promulgated. Othello now knows that all of his suspicion and jealousy were in error. Iago kills Emilia for her revelation and then escapes the room. When authorities bring Iago back, Othello stabs him but is prevented from finishing him off. Othello then kills himself.
Othello was probably first performed around 1604, having been written around the same time. It was immediately famous and became known for the dramatic effect it had on audience members including performances where “audiences wept, women screamed and fainted, and in Hamburg, it was reported, so powerful was its impact that women gave birth prematurely.” There are even tales of audience members interrupting the play by attempting to physically stop Othello from killing Desdemona. Othello was first published in 1622 in an edition now called Q1. It was also published the next year with alterations in the FOLIO, a well-known collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Othello has held a commanding place in literature and theater ever since that time.
One question that must be asked before studying the acting of Othello is: what exactly is a “Moor” and what corporeal characteristics does he have? Othello refers to himself in the play as “black.” Historically, the Moors were a race of North African peoples who were predominantly Muslim. They were famously expelled from Spain during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late fifteenth century and were thus known throughout Europe. They were darker skinned than their northern European neighbors, but generally had lighter skin than Africans further south. Unaware or ignorant of these distinctions, many Englishmen of Shakespeare’s day grouped all peoples of Africa and the Middle East (and sometimes even further regions) together into one large pan-continental racial and religious group (often called “Moors”). Because of this, critics “have not been able to say fully or finally what ‘the Moor’ represents.” It could refer to any man of northwest African, northeast African, southern African, Arabic or Indian race; indeed “to almost any darker-skinned peoples.”
Shakespeare’s England was also one in which black skin was considered a sign of evil as evidenced by the fact that “demonologies of the period affirmed that the devil was still appearing as a black man.” Black peoples were believed to be descended from Biblical Noah’s cursed son Ham and were at the time all Muslim, primitive, promiscuous and disgusting. In contrast to this prevailing notion, Shakespeare’s Othello is a “dignified, courteous Moor, a Christian, and a supreme general fighting for Christians against the infidel Turks. No other play before Othello presents such a concept.” These facts have left the costuming and characterization of the character of Othello open to much interpretation through the years.
White Actors in Staged Othellos
For over three hundred years, the character of Othello was almost exclusively played by Caucasian men in blackface. In the early years, there was no thought of casting anyone other than a white member of an acting troupe in the role of Othello. It would have been unthinkable and probably impossible to do otherwise given that theaters were licensed by the government and had to play by their rules to even stay open.
Othello, along with all other theatrical performances, was banned during the rule in England of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. After the Restoration of King Charles II, Othello was “among the first plays to be stages in the re-opened theatres” in 1660. Thomas Killigrew, a well-known theatrical producer from the period, staged an Othello staring Charles Hart (d. 1693) who was the illegitimate grand-nephew to Shakespeare. This production is famous for including the first female actor on the stage in England in the role of Desdemona.
The greatest actor of Othello during the period was Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) who “achieved a deep penetration into character and a personal quality of expression that seemed to the judicious ‘natural’ as opposed to the conventional ‘roar and passion’ of the hacks.” Colly Cibber, a playwright and actor in Betterton’s troupe, remembered that “His Voice was low and grumbling, though he could time it by an artful Climax, which enforc’d universal attention.”
The mantle of Othello next fell upon Barton Booth (1681-1733) who received more fame for his take on Othello than from any other role. Booth played at a time when social requirements would often force the strict editing of plays including Othello. While the previous generation had reveled in Othello’s sexual undercurrent and plot, society in Booth’s time would have nothing of it. The text itself was rarely changed in England to the extent that it was in other parts of Europe, but “what remained was apparently still found so disturbing as to rouse the sensitive, shame-excited imaginations of [the] audiences as powerfully as the full text had roused the Jacobeans.” Of Booth’s Othello, it was said that “in the distressful passages… all the Men, susceptible of the tender Passions, [were] in tears.” Also, that in the role, “… he had a manly Sweetness in his Countenance… His Attitudes were all picturesque, he was noble in his Designs… the Blind might have seen him in his Voice, and the Deaf have heard him in his Visage.”
Spranger Barry (1719-1777) is widely considered the best Othello of the eighteenth century. He was able to realistically perform in the role both the greatness and strength that Quin sought, and the emotional reality that eluded Garrick. One author praised Barry by stating that,
“the tremendous thrust and stature of his emotion, in sight and sound, seemed completely to fill out Othello’s form, in spite of the textural cuts…. With the famous tenderness- the “silver cadence”- of his voice, and his majestic physique, Barry projected an indestructible human dignity, not only in repose, but also in his expression of passionate love; and later too, when a fearful agony so shook his body and mind as to convey… the terrible deeps of Othello’s inner being.”At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Othello was again trimmed as social customs decried the language. The word “whore,” which even in the eighteenth century had been a purely descriptive term, had now become so offensive that it was replaced with other words in almost every instance. Victorian England had arrived and Shakespeare was taking the hit.
Kean and Othello became legend together. In his late forties, Kean’s spectacular popularity was beginning to wane. Critics were talking of the way he used to act; how once-upon-a-time Kean would leave his work seared on the hearts of his audience. Then one night, playing Othello while his son Charles played Iago, Kean realized his time was up. Though horribly sick, he refused to cancel the show. Kept moving with the assistance of some brandy, he continued through the first two Acts. At the end of Act III, Kean finished with a strong, “Farewell!” and collapsed into his son’s arms, dying only a few weeks later.
At the moment Keane fell, there was an American actor in England who was acclaimed for his Shakespearean performances. He was young, exciting, and he was black. Driven to perform in Europe because of the rampant prejudice at home, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) made a name for himself as “the most accomplished American on the London stage in the nineteenth century.” He is now considered “the first highly successful black actor.” This work will not focus on Aldridge, but must note his accomplishment as the first black actor to play Othello in its 220 year history.
Other famous white Othellos of this period include William Charles Macready (1793-1873), Charles Fetcher (1824-1879), and Henry Irving (1838-1905).
As actors continued to attempt to find a new take on Othello and to earn new audiences, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) entered the scene with a fresh characterization that kept within the Victorian standards of decency, and yet was exciting to watch. Forrest performed an Othello who raged and ranted respectably- never overdoing it, nor underplaying the part. He “helped create popular enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the United States, especially with his performances of Othello and Lear.”
Edwin Booth (1833-1893), too, attempted to please his conservative audiences with a realistic Othello. His strategy was to present the Moor’s feelings as raging intensely inside him but seldom shown to those around him. Booth led a sad personal life (he was twice made a widower and his brother was Abraham Lincoln’s assassin) and this affected his performances: his “brooding nature, his sleight figure, and his musical voice… suited the image of the poetic murderer he usually made of Othello.”
Notable white Othellos of the early twentieth century include Oscar Asche (1871-1936) and Donald Wolfit (1902-1968). Ralph Richardson (1902-1983), the celebrated English actor, toured as Othello with a young Laurence Olivier as Iago. Unfortunately, Olivier outshone Richardson and audiences found themselves enjoying the villainous Iago and his plotting.
Othello was also played on the stage to wide critical acclaim by several black actors in the twentieth century- Earle Hyman (b. 1926), James Earl Jones (b. 1931), and most notably Paul Robeson (1898-1976) who played the Moor at least three times in highly successful runs.
White Actors in Filmed Othellos
In addition to its success as a staged play, Othello has been filmed often in the last century- over 50 times since 1907. Also like the theater, until a few years ago these films were dominated by white actors in makeup.
An early and famous screen Othello was that of Emil Jannings (1884-1950) in a ninety minute silent film directed by Dimitri Buchowetski in 1922. The film used big sets and many extras but these elements sometimes overpowered the plot. In one scene which is now famous, Jannings as Othello is so disturbed in his mind and consumed with jealousy that he begins to chew maniacally on the cursed handkerchief.
Welles’ Othello was so non-commercial that it basically disappeared for many years, only being shown at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Library of Congress, or the British Film Institute. It was finally rereleased in the 1990s to wide critical acclaim. Critics now consider it a milestone in Shakespearean filmmaking. One summed up recent reaction by declaring that “despite its technical flaws, [Othello] is a film of extraordinary visual beauty.”
Just a few years later in 1956, a Russian Othello appeared starring Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994) as the Moor. The first Othello filmed in color, this work was well received by audiences and critics even after it was overdubbed by English actors for Western consumption.
“Black… I had to be black. I had to feel black down to my soul. I had to look out from a black man’s world. Not one of repression, for Othello would have felt superior to the white man…. I felt that Othello spoke quite differently from any other character in Shakespeare: he speaks like a foreigner who’s learned the language too carefully…. Black all over my body, Max Factor 2880, then a lighter brown, then Negro No. 2, a stronger brown. Brown on black to give a rich mahogany…. I am Othello.”The All Movie Guide puts it best: “Some considered his portrayal of Othello to be an unflattering stereotype; others regard Olivier's interpretation as one of the finest Shakespearean performances ever captured on film.”
In 1981, Anthony Hopkins (b. 1937) played Othello as part of a BBC Shakespeare series and in 1986, Plácido Domingo (b. 1941), the famed Spanish tenor, had the title role in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Verdi’s opera, Otello. As far as I can discover, this was the last time a white man played Othello by donning makeup.
There are two problems that some people have with Othello and race: one, they see racism within Shakespeare’s play, and two, they see racism when a white actor plays Othello. As to the first point, having read the play myself, I believe that:
“Shakespeare was not trying in Othello to emphasize any racial differences between the hero and heroine, though the differences in the backgrounds provide Iago with plausible suggestions for Desdemona’s alleged disaffection. Othello, as Shakespeare characterizes him, is a soldier of fortune from a foreign country, a hero, who wins Desdemona by his bearing and the romantic recital of his adventures in strange lands. When enemies of Othello want to abuse him, they speak opprobriously of his alien looks and wonder that Desdemona could love so strange a man, but that is part of the reality of the characterization, not a hint on Shakespeare’s part of “racism.” The unhappy times when men would read some suggestion of racial prejudice into every piece of literature concerned with alien characters lay some centuries ahead.”As to the second point, we have seen that Shakespeare’s Othello was played successfully by white men in blackface for nearly four hundred years on both stage and film. While some performances undoubtedly played to stereotypes, history shows that most actors took the role seriously and played Othello as “the noble Moor,” a courageous, intelligent, and passionate man who, nevertheless, had faults. So why must there never be another white Othello, as some want? It is true that in our current culture, the idea persists that if a white man “pretends” to be a man with darker skin, especially one who commits a horrendous crime, it is wrong. But isn’t the most difficult trial for an actor to become something they are so obviously not? Wouldn’t it require the best skills an actor has to be believable as someone of another race? I think that this is the ultimate role for any actor. Unfortunately we may never have the privilege of witnessing another attempt.
 The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, act I, scene III, lines 289-91.
 Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More (New York: Delta, 1990), 477.
 J.H. Walter, introduction to The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, by William Shakespeare (Boston: Plays, Inc., 1976), 6.
 Boyce, 477-8.
 Barbara Everett, “’Spanish’ Othello: The Making of Shakespeare’s Moor,” in Shakespeare and Race, ed. Catherine M.S. Alexander and Stanley Wells (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 69.
 Emily C. Bartels, Speaking of the Moor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 3-4.
 Michael Neill, “’Mulattos,’ ‘Blacks,’ and ‘Indian Moors’: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Difference,” Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (Winter 1998): 364, as quoted in Bartels, 4.
 Walter, 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 W. Davenport Adams, A Dictionary of the Drama (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1904), http://www.theatredatabase.com/16th_century/richard_burbage_001.html (accessed November 15, 2008).
 Boyce, 478.
 Ibid., 242-3, 336.
 Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 20.
 Anthony Aston, ”A Brief Supplement to Colly Cibber, Esq.,” in Watson Nicholson, Anthony Aston (South Haven, Michigan: 1920), 72, as quoted in Rosenberg, 20.
 Rosenberg, 31.
 From various anonymous documents, as quoted in Rosenberg, 37.
 William Cooke, Memoirs of the Life of Charles Macklin (London, 1804), 113, as quoted in Rosenberg, 42.
 Rosenberg, 44.
 Ibid., 55-8.
 Rosenberg, 69.
 Boyce, 8.
 Boyce, 201.
 Rosenberg, 81.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 114.
 Ibid., 102.
 Kenneth S. Rothwell and Annabelle Henkin Melzer, Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography (New York: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc, 1990), 208-27, and Othello search results, Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/find?s=all&q=othello.
 Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 26.
 Ibid., 79-80.
 Peter Noble, Fabulous Orson Welles, 215, quoted in Lorne M. Buchman, Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 126.
 Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare Observed: Studies in Performance on Stage and Screen (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992), 54.
 Buchman, 126.
 Rothwell and Melzer, 217.
 Laurence Oliver, On Acting (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 153-159.
 “Othello,” All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p=avg&sql=1:105111
 Louis B. Wright, The Significance of Othello, Othello (New York: Washington Square Press, 1957), xiv, as quoted in H.R. Coursen, Watching Shakespeare on Television (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1993), 126-127.
 H.R. Coursen, Watching Shakespeare on Television (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1993), 126-162.