Tragedy of Othello Playbill, from Chicago on the Aisle
Othello is a play that has been censored repeatedly for over 400 hundred years because of its broad spectrum of themes about society. It is the one play Shakespeare wrote that has an undeniably black lead character. Othello is not the villain nor the manipulator of the plot. The play is based on a story entitled "Un Capitano Moro" by Gli Hecatommithi, Giovanni Battista and Giraldi Cinthio around 1564. Cinthio's tale may have been based on an actual incident that occurred in Venice around 1508. Desdemona is the only named character in Cinthio's tale. His other characters were identified as the Moor, the squadron leader, the ensign, and the ensign's wife. Othello also touches upon a major issue in Europe of this time period; the intermingling of Muslim religion and culture with the West. Written just a century after the Muslims were driven out of Spain as part of the Reconquista, there are obvious threads of hostility within the play about Othello's Moorish origins, and his differences in religion and culture.
Othello and Desdemona by Giuseppe Sabatelli, 1834 (Milan)
After being deployed to Cyprus, Othello returns to Venice and elopes with Desdemona, the daughter of a respected Venetian senator. Othello is manipulated by his Ensign, Iago, into believing Desdemona is an adultress. He murders Desdemona in her sleep and, upon discovering Iago's deceit, kills himself. Problems of identity, honesty, gender and marriage are issues addressed and interwoven in the plot. Although the title of the play suggests that the tragedy belongs primarily to Othello, it does not. Iago plays the villain who manipulates the action and causes the death of Desdemona and consequently causes Othello to commit suicide. Iago manipulates the other characters at will. He achieves this by getting close to all characters and playing on their weaknesses, while seemingly unaware of his duplicitous nature, they refer to him as "honest" Iago.
"Othello Costume," Illustration by Percy Anderson, 1906
Othello was first mentioned in a Revels account of 1604. The play was performed at Whitehall Palace with Richard Burbage as the first actor to play the role of Othello. The first African American to play Othello in London was Ira Aldridge. In 1930, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was the second. Robeson was also connected to Aldridge through Amanda Aldridge (Ira’s daughter) from whom he took elocution lessons in preparation for this role.
Desdemona and Her Maid by Theodore Chasseriau, 1849, (Museé du Louvre, Paris)
Central to the plot of the tragedy, Desdemona is the wife of Othello and the daughter of Brabantio, a well-known senator. She was a young Venetian woman of high birth and good breeding. Venetian aristocracy tried to keep their bloodlines pure and therefore Othello’s marriage to Desdemona not only violated the state and religious order but what they felt was the order of nature itself. Her reputation was lost when she violated the city of Venice’s virgin image. Problems of identity, honesty, gender and marriage are all interwoven in the plot.
Othello's Lamentation by William Salter, 1857
Othello is a brave and competent soldier of Moorish background and advanced in years with rank in the service of the Venetian Republic. He is an authentic and sensitive portrait of a black hero in a white society unfamiliar with Venetian culture and customs. It is paradoxical that while he is considered brave and a competent soldier, he is not accepted in the Venetian society. To be a Moor specifically means to be a member of Northwestern African muslin tribe of Mixwed Berber and Arab descent; however, by Shakespeare’s time "the Moor" had become a generic visual and literary trope for all people of African descent. There is no consensus on Othello's actual lineage. He could have been African, Somali, Ethiopian, an Arab, or a Turk. At the time, Turks fostered great anxiety and fear among the inhabitants of Western Europe because of their many conquests over Christian states.
Aldridge as Othello by William Mulready (Walters Art Museum)
Othello’s officer Iago tricks him into believing that his wife, Desdemona is having an affair with his Lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Othello kills his wife out of jealousy by suffocating her in her sleep, only to realize that his wife was faithful, at which point he repents and commits suicide.
Paul Robeson as Othello in 1930 (Hanna Theatre London Production)
Paul Robeson was an extremely gifted and talented man. Born in 1889, he came from humble beginnings. He was the son of a former slave and pastor. Robeson grew up in New Jersey but life suddenly changed for him upon the death of his mother. In spite of the challenges he went on to achieve outstanding academic and athletic success in high school and on to college at Rutgers University. Reviews of Robeson’s portrayal of Othello were very positive: “the production presented a black man of dignity and intelligence in the role of a black man of dignity and intelligence.” However, the many accolades could not save Robeson from experiencing hostility.
Paul Robeson as Othello at the Savoy Theater in London April 9, 1898
Many audiences could not handle the mixing of races such as in Othello. He was spat on, and the fact he was associated with the Communist Party made life even more unbearable. Robeson was hounded by government agencies, denied a passport and deprived of any opportunity for his magnificent voice and acting skills.