The Most Plausible Option?
Keith Hamilton Cobb
Othello is a play written in England in the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death. That is to say give or take some 417 years ago…
We begin with a play now so far removed from its original colloquial context that nothing remains as relevant other than its depictions of human nature, which are sometimes accurate, other times not so much. Irrespective of whether or not Shakespeare infallibly gets it right in his portrayals, human nature does not evolve. We are now essentially the same animals that we were in the 16th and 17th centuries. We still see ourselves in the behavior of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, which is what allows them to endure. Inarguably the playwright was extraordinary. And yet genius, in and of itself, is neither sacrosanct nor infallible.
In 1603, as today, one aspect of basic human nature was the tendency to allow truth to fall prey to agenda. It is so innate a trait that we often exhibit it inadvertently. Shakespeare need not have been conscious of what his agenda actually was in order to skew perception and presentation towards what was, for any number of reasons, more comfortable for him and his audience alike in the historical moment. Of agendas he had several. There were financial agendas and political agendas (surely each of these influenced the other just as they do today). And there were also agendas of identity, which is to say most simply (and here I paraphrase Anaïs Nin and no doubt countless others) not seeing things as they are but as we are. Thus, when Shakespeare decided to appropriate a story about an African descended man, a presence not new but still somewhat irregular in the Elizabethan frame of reference, the result was bound to be rife with inaccuracy and untruth.
Othello is a play about an African descended brown man written by an English white man from a story written by an Italian white man… What could go wrong?
Exacerbating the issues, at least for my 21st century sensibilities (even while human nature, the focus of all drama, has gone unchanged) is the superficiality of early modern stagecraft and dramatic writing. I am bound to be pilloried for calling it superficial. Is there a better term, I wonder? All that I actually mean to say is that conventions of drama that were wholly acceptable to early modern audiences require, in the present day, so huge a suspension of disbelief as to render unwatchable for me much of Shakespearean theater. The ages of scholarship that have inundated the Shakespearean canon have not rectified this problem for me. It is very much like the Old Testament Bible, inasmuch as the original texts in Aramaic and Hebrew were written to regard a specific people experiencing some specific things at a particular historical moment. More than two thousand years later, after endless translation and transcription influenced by multiple agendas and irretrievably removed from original context, there are those who will call it the irrefutable word of God. Such is the case with Shakespeare’s Othello.
For all of its lovely language, Othello began as a bad play—or at least a play that would at best only reflect its period’s early evolving perspectives on love, race, and the ethics surrounding various interpersonal relationships in society. In any contemporary context, the plausible thread of its narrative is so frayed and weak that it will not legitimately support the weight of its tragic conclusions. And it has only grown increasingly ridiculous with the distance in time it has traveled from the context of Elizabethan acceptance that it was born into. To sit and read it from some Quarto or First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library is to commune with what it was. To watch it played now as it was then written and come away feeling as though one has taken in something of redeeming contemporary cultural value can only again begin to beg the question of whether what one is seeing is as it is, or as they are.
More often then not, audiences sitting for contemporary productions of Othello tend to laugh as much as recoil in horror at what was originally intended to be a tragedy (as one would imagine crimes of passion and the circumstances that cause them should be). And it bears noting that, for a tragedy, suspiciously, Shakespeare depended in its construction upon several established elements of comedy. I am left to wonder if these elements weren’t employed only to make the non-white tragic hero appear particularly pathetic in his fall.
Of course, I have no irrefutable knowledge of the cultural or personal perspective that motivated him in the writing of this play or any other. I cannot indict Shakespeare outright, and I’ve no desire to. I can, however, point to how producers, actors and directors in some of the most contemporary productions of Othello tend to lean into the comedy, or at least do nothing to disrupt it as their audience’s chief tendency. I can also point to Leontes, the white king of Sicilia in The Winter’s Tale, who suffers no such utter indignities as does Othello for his even less explicable flight of irrational jealousy. Leontes looks upon his wife, Hermoine, playing hostess to his friend, Polixenes, and mayhem immediately ensues. He requires no villainous instigator to incessantly aggravate his jealousies for an entire act. It is drawn from nothing and wreaks havoc, and yet all ultimately “live happily ever after.” The Winter’s Tale is not technically a tragedy, so one may fairly accuse me of comparing apples to oranges. But it is, like Othello, a story drawn from another piece of fiction with the playwright having license to make of the characters what he pleases. Why did he please to make Othello as ridiculous as he did? I think the least that can be said is that a Black other in Elizabethan society would have been an easy mark. Here and now, he still is.
Contemplating the laughter, I’m not at all sure that contemporary audiences are buying into Othello’s poor depiction of Black masculinity. Obliviousness to racial bias in our culture is so deeply endemic that a white audience might hardly find occasion to care. For those who attend the American theater at all anymore, it’s equally possible that they might attend a performance of Othello the way I, as a teenager, attended midnight showings of the movie, Mommie Dearest, Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford based on a book by her adopted daughter — a piece of cinema so exaggerated in its depictions of some of the most abhorrent aspects of human behavior as to render it nothing but camp, regardless of any former intention, and an evening’s diversion to revel in the outrageous. Whether contemporary productions of Othello are taken seriously by theater makers and audiences or not, they remain for me an anomaly of American theater culture. Why do we do it? Hamlet is a far superior play. So is Romeo and Juliet for that matter, and the other 50 percent or so of the canon that anybody attempts to regularly produce. No one produces The Two Noble Kinsmen because it’s not very interesting or very good. But somehow Othello in all of its utter implausibility, remains in the stageable top ten.
I am an African American male actor, and no one ever asked me to consider any of those other plays in any way and to anywhere near the extent to which Othello has been forced into my consciousness throughout my professional life as somehow the most plausible option. I could write a play about, for instance, Toussaint Louverture or Dr. Charles Drew, both men of color whose exceptional feats in the world are actual, but few would recognize their names when compared to the light of recognition in the common eye upon the uttering of the name of Shakespeare’s fictitious but far more famous Moor. The play I or any playwright might write could be just as “good” in any measurable terms as Shakespeare’s (depending, of course, upon who you ask and how that person is invested). Many plays have been. But most would sooner sit yet again to see the fantastical nonsense that weaves Shakespeare’s tale than to contemplate the proactive exploits of Black men who triumph and do not die in ignominy. Why is that?
I am being unfair. Coriolanus triumphs and yet succumbs to his tragic flaws perhaps no differently than Othello does except that one is a complete fiction and the other is not. So perhaps it is the fiction that most bothers me. Perhaps I am saying, “If you’re going to tell tales of reprehensible people, tell them about white people like you, because you don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me or anyone like me.”
But all is not lost. I cannot redeem a reprehensible fiction because there are no facts that I can point at to refute it. It’s a fiction. What I can do within the context of the fiction is to turn an insupportable white male fantasy into a considerably more credible Black male hero’s journey. Remember that the term, “hero,” does not imply goodness nor inevitable triumphant happiness. While it may have been written in all good faith, Othello has long since fallen into the controlling hands of the ignorant or the ill-intended or both. (See You Can’t Outrun a Foregone Conclusion.) They have nurtured an audience that cheers the race-bating villain and laughs at the Black man’s destruction, to say nothing of how the women in the story, their awarnesses and agency, tend to end up ancillary if not incidental to the plot altogether. Even if the American culture at large cannot seem to operate efficiently for being perpetually impeded by its divisions, the theater makers can do better should they desire. We can choose to take the time and spend the money to go deeper, to interrogate more intensely, and, with regard to what we ultimately bring to the stage, offer up a host of more plausible and, I would hope, more compelling options. Creative justice serves everyone.