Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Minor Epiphany

I knew we would start looking at the film version of Othello with Lawrence Fishburn and Kenneth Branagh today so I've been reading it -- and disliking it as much as I have in the past. I think it's one of the dullest plays Shakespeare ever wrote. I am not fascinated with Iago's machinations, I think many people are as devious as he for as little reason [feeling slighted and suspecting a tryst with his wife are not so slight really], and I think Othello is a Johnny One Note, with his unsophisticated, blindered code of honor. Others don't agree with me about either of those views.

I actually tossed and turned until about 1:30 last night thinking about the play and two related things became obvious to me. Othello was played in black face in the past and now is played by very talented black men like Fishburn [I also saw James Earl Jones on stage in the role -- Christopher Plumber was Iago]. But Othello is a Moor. Moors are North Africans, Arabs, or perhaps Berbers. They have Mediterranean skin and features, they are not black men from sub-Saharan Africa. Much has been said in the class about the Elizabethan feeling that those who are evil or villainous are ugly, and they are often called "dark." So the references to Othello as "black" are a traditional description. Othello is, by our standards today, not a black man. If I were a black person I would be more incensed than I am - and I"m seriously disturbed -- that Othello is always played by a black actor now and is shown, as always, to be an easy dupe and a man with uncontrollable violence toward women. It is a long, long standing slur stemming from the white English [European] sense of superiority to all things African, their hatred, fear, and long standing prejudice. I believe it is still being practiced by producers of this play and enjoyed by audiences.

My second insight was partly inspired by having seen two operas lately set in Spain, El Cid and La Forza Del Destino. In both the rigid, even rapid, Spanish code of honor leads to tragedy [or nearly in El Cid]. I also recently read Journey to Samara, which is about a journey undertaken early in the 20th century into Saharan territory where tribes were in a constant state of warfare based on honor vendettas. I don't know if ethnologists have written about the influence of this idea conveyed from the Moors in Spain to Spanish nobles but it seems very likely. Meanwhile, Othello as a Moor would have imbibed honor system, which explains his reaction to all suggests by Iago that Desdemona is untrue to him. His vengeful murder goes deeper, into more primitive areas than jealousy or ignorance of European manners. He is a product of that tribal honor system, but he is not a black African; he would probably have the same sort of complexion as most of the Mediterranean peoples. It's time to see Othello properly cast.

Some of the lasting fascination with Shakespeare's plays is that there is always more to be discovered, layers of motive, and here layers of ethnology that The Bard tapped into in the way that the most astute writers do, often without knowing the extent of what they are showing and burying in their plots. It's left to later readers and scholars to uncover all that a genius writer shows us.


Kass said...

Boy, you really go deeply into your analyzation of the things you study. I'm impressed. I've always been bothered by the portrayal of Othello in the opera, for all the same reasons you are.

John Ettorre said...

It is pretty amazing that he had so many layers of meaning that we're still teasing them out half a millenium later. Most of us would be pretty happy for readers to be wondering about our meaning the next day, let alone 500 years later.