Othello is one of the most intense, raw, and emotionally exhausting of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and a good performance of it shows dimensions that won’t easily emerge during a reading. If you can find and see one, you will almost certainly find it to your advantage. If you can see two or more, you will come to appreciate just how complex and multifarious the potentials of this play are. No single reading or performance can catch them all.
What exactly Shakespeare had in mind regarding Othello’s background is not entirely clear. Othello is said to be dark-skinned, and he is referred to as the “Moor of Venice”. That much might well imply that he was of Semitic extraction. The tradition for a very long time has been to portray him as a black man from sub-Saharan Africa. This is of course eminently plausible as well, given the extent of Islamic penetration into that area for the previous centuries. Othello has of course been a kind of lightning rod for issues of race relations, especially in the twentieth century: while Othello is not ultimately undone by anything to do with his race, but rather by a subtly provoked jealousy by Iago, his race is always a present issue in view.
Part of the racial background of this play has meant that it has until quite recently been normal for the great Shakespeare actors of their times to make themselves up as black in order to play the role. This is no longer acceptable in most circles, but it would probably be unfair to judge those performance in their time according to our modern sensibilities about such things. A controversial but intriguing production in Washington, D.C., placed Patrick Stewart (yes, that Patrick Stewart) as Othello in the middle of an all African-American cast. The inversion is fascinating, I think, and invites us to investigate issues of inclusion and exclusion by the inversion of the conventional imagery. Stewart himself, as reported here, said, “I’ve been imagining myself playing Othello and, in a sense, preparing for it, since I was about 14. When the time came that I was old enough and experienced enough to do it, it was the same time that it no longer became acceptable for a white actor to put on blackface and pretend to be African. One of my hopes for this production is that it will continue to say what a conventional production of Othello would say about racism and prejudice... To replace the black outsider with a white man in a black society will, I hope, encourage a much broader view of the fundamentals of racism.” The idea is certainly challenging; the production is reviewed here.
The play is bigger than just an exploration of race, though. Indeed, race is not most of what it’s about. It’s about the destruction of a noble character from within, and it suggests that this can (at least in some cases) be achieved by malice from without. The seeds of jealousy and suspicion, planted and nurtured with infinite patience by Iago, grow into a monster that takes Othello’s hard-won honor and inverts it into a desperate fear. As a man of violence — especially a military hero — he knows no other resolution for his problem than violence. Especially for those who prefer to see in a tragedy some evidence of a tragic flaw, this is problematic: what actually is Othello’s failing here? Is it his willingness to believe the worse account of his wife? Is it his willingness to resort to violence? Does he really have one, in Shakespeare’s terms, at all? At the end, it is said that he “loved not wisely but too well” — but surely that can’t really account for it all. However you parse the guilt here (and surely the bulk of it is Iago’s), what the play forces us to do is to watch in horror as the suffering mounts up without letup, and as one man, tortured by fear and insecurity, kills the one he most loves. It’s an excruciating journey, but one that is worth taking.