Laura Molloy discusses William Shakespeare’s play Othello and its connection to the complexity of Black casting.
Shakespeare’s play Othello was first published in the 17th century, yet it remains one of his most popular plays studied by students. In 2022, the text was selected as the Shakespearean text for the Leaving Certificate Examinations. The story explores the adversities of the protagonist General Othello as he falls victim to Iago’s manipulation. On the surface, Iago’s hatred for Othello stems from his jealousy of his position. However, the blatant racism he shows towards Othello is anything but subtle. With a vast range of modern texts with increasingly inclusive representation published since, is Othello still worth reading ?
The blatant racism Iago shows towards Othello is anything but subtle.
Shakespeare was a renowned playwright and his works were designed to be performed on stage. Nevertheless, many of his characters were not represented in the way a contemporary audience might imagine them to be. During Shakepseare’s time, women were not allowed to perform. Therefore, all of his female characters such as Desdemona (Othello), Ophelia (Hamlet) and Portia (The Merchant of Venice) were played by male actors.
Despite many of Shakespeare’s female characters being complex and layered, no women were physically present on stage. Indeed, male actors may have been disguising themselves as women through costume and makeup, they were never women and this only highlighted the ostracization of women from the arts throughout the 17th century.
Unfortunately, female characters’ representation was not the only thing the stage was deprived of; Black actors playing Black characters was a practice unheard of until the beginning of the 19th century. Playwright and actor Ira Aldrige faced widespread outrage following the announcement of his casting as Shakespeare’s protagonist : for the first time, a Black man played a Black character. The poet Coleridge wrote that the thought of Desdemona falling for a “negro” was “monstrous.” Othello himself confirms his skin colour during the play: in Act Three, Scene Three, he tells the Duke “for I am Black,” leaving no room for speculation. The inaccuracy of casting for Othello significantly reduced the character’s potential for representation, whilst simultaneously distancing the audience from the wider issue of racism.
The rather grotesque pantomime of a White man in blackface being mistreated and jeered at with racial epithets only reproduces the pre-existing biases in theatre that excluded Black people from performance art to begin with. This undoubtedly paved the way for audiences' continued ignorance, as they viewed the performance as nothing more than a game of ‘dress up’ and not as an arena for social commentary. The inclination to portray portraying Black characters but not to cast Black actors highlights how segregated the world was. It is abundantly clear that the cultural norm was that Black people could be spoken about, but were unable to speak for themselves.
The rather grotesque pantomime of a White man in blackface being mistreated and jeered at with racial epithets only reproduces the pre-existing biases in theatre that excluded Black people from performance art to begin with.
Undoubtedly, the play Othello and its accompanying historical context plays an important role in the study of racism in literature and drama. While it is important for contemporary audiences to understand the societal norms that contributed to actors such as Ira Alrdige’s oppression, it is equally important for them to be aware of how this prejudice has transpired in modern theatre. Cast your mind back to 2015, when it was announced that the beloved Harry Potter franchise was going to continue in the form of a play. Actress Noma Dumezweni was announced as the actress set to play Hermione Granger. Whilst many fans were receptive to the choice, others, unfortunately, were not.
In response to the backlash, Dumezweni told the Evening Standard that “it stems from ignorance. They don't want to be part of the creative act.” The author of the series, JK Rowling also came to Dumezweni’s defence and referred to those disapproving of the casting choice as “idiots.” On the matter, Dumezweni said, “The only question we should ask is 'Are they good?' I've met great actors Black and White and I've met bad actors Black and White.” If only theatre audiences had shown the same concerns about the accuracy of actors and characters with regards to Othello.
Dumezweni’s experience echoes Othello’s: his selection for the position of General is frowned upon because of his race, regardless of society agreeing that he is the best qualified for the job. It’s disheartening to see these attitudes continue to prevail in the 21st century, but it’s also key that society is honest about the barriers Black people face at every turn. The prominent theme of racism in Othello is one that must be closely examined by students to increase their awareness of global issues, as it is more than historical context that can be learned from Othello.
Othello is one of Shakspeare’s tragic heroes. Critics constantly argue whether the blame of his hamartia, his fatal flaw befalls him or Iago. Othello became so susceptible to Iago’s manipulation because of his own deep rooted insecurities. The insecurities originate from constantly being placed in a position of an outsider: no matter position or stature, Othello is never viewed as an equal because of the colour of his skin. His entire arc focuses on how he faces isolation and societal rejection and demonstrates the deep feelings of loneliness such isolation can create.
It’s possible to consider that had Othello not been so mistreated by those around him, those insecurities may not have formed in the first place. Although Shakespeare may at times be seen as unapproachable, his plays resonate with modern societal problems. The world of theatre and performance may have become more inclusive since the 17th century, but there is still much more progress to be made. If the backlash of the casting of Hermione Granger reveals anything, it is that racial ignorance still exists in the world of arts and culture. The ongoing discussion of racism and underrepresentation must continue: it is time for us to stop just speaking about Black people and to start letting them speak.
Disclaimer: This article briefly mentions JK Rowling but in no way shares or condones her statements or views.