Monday, February 21, 2011

Paint It Black

Othello is an odd play, an "extravagant and wheeling stranger" among the kings, queens, and princes that populate other Shakespearean tragedies. Othello is a noble man, but not a true nobleman. He has risen to a position of power on his own merits--a rarity throughout most of history (and arguably still a rarity today). He's a warrior who doesn't get to fight anyone or anything except his own demons. Desdemona (notice the "demon" embedded in her name) is, like Juliet, a sheltered aristocratic girl who dares to love someone inappropriate. As in Romeo and Juliet, the events of the play happen in only a few days. But even more than R & J, Othello is private tragedy. The fate of nations, of cities, or even of great families, does not rest on its outcome. After the dead are buried, the Venetians will presumably find someone else to fight the Turks, and life will go on. In this sense, it's more a story for our time than Will's.

So what's this play about?  These days, it's about race. Back in Will's day, however, Othello was about difference of all kinds--cultural, sexual, social, philosophical.  Why didn't I include "racial" in that list? Because I really don't think that the racial angle played the same way to an early modern audience. Othello is black, by his own admission--but like gender, race was just a theatrical construct on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage. There were no black, or even brown actors to play Othello. They wore makeup. Or maybe they just wore a turban and some colorful robes. Othello, like the "women" on the stage, "is not what he is." He's just an actor, painted black.

So why make him a Moor at all? Could he not just as easily have been a Jew, like Shylock, or an Egyptian, like Cleopatra? Perhaps a bastard, like Edmund--there are number of ways Will could have told this story of a man who marries above his station, who's an outsider, who is ruined because he doubts himself and mistrusts anyone who loves him. The fact that Will chose to tell this story at all--a story so unlike others that lured him, is interesting. His source was a mid-sixteenth-century Italian story by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, a minor writer in the tradition of Boccaccio.  Biographical aside: Giraldi clearly understood the importance of image, since he took a nom de plume: Giraldi Cinthio.  This name doubtless sounded more poetic to sixteenth-century Italians than Giovanni Giraldi, which was like being called "John Jones" back then. Anyway, Cinthio wrote a short story called "Un Capitano Moro" ("A Moorish Captain") as part of his collection of tales, Gli Hecatommithi.  In Cinthio's version, Iago decides to ruin Othello because of his own unrequited passion for Desdemona. In Will's redaction, Iago has no passion for anything but moral mayhem--instead of an angry suitor, he's the Lord of the Flies. A pretty big change. 

But I digress. Why does Othello have to be black, African, Moorish--i.e., foreign and dark-skinned? Because his blackness works as a metaphor for the problem of perception in general. And to see him on the stage, his black face surrounded by all those pale English ones, is visually arresting. Disturbing. The audience is drawn to his face, and to Iago's words. We see Othello, but we listen to Iago. This disconnect between the body and the word, between seeing and hearing, is central to the play. It's like having the devil whisper in your ear for the entire performance, even as your eyes are drawn elsewhere.

The play is less interested in race per se than in the disjunction between what seems and what is. How things appear, and how they really are. Othello is dark, but the Duke tells Brabantio that his "son-in-law is more fair than black," by virtue of his service to the state. Othello calls Iago "honest," even up to the moment his betrayal is revealed. Appearance is taken for essence, surface for substance, throughout--Othello even insists, in his despair, that he'd rather Desdemona slept with hundreds of men, if only he hadn't known about it.  He demands "ocular proof" from Iago of her perfidy, then falls for a cheap trick with a handkerchief. A magician's sleight of hand, as it were.

Given the play's obsession with appearance and deception, having a white actor portray Othello in blackface is actually thematically appropriate. It works with the language and the structure of the drama. But that's not an option any longer--race can't be seen as a theatrical construct these days. In this era, and especially in this country, with its tragic legacy of slavery and racially-motivated injustice, blackface looks too much like mockery. Like stealing something one hasn't a right to. Olivier's blackface Othello seems like the worst kind of usurpation now.

Even if we accept that the play wants us to see Othello's skin color as superficial, dramatizing it that way still raises the whole uncomfortable issue of "blackness" as a synonym for evil in the European tradition. You know, the Dark Side. Othello looks black (read: evil) but he's really "fair." Iago looks fair (white) but he's really black inside. Desdemona looks fair to Othello, but he fears she's really a black-hearted whore. A whited sepulchre.

In the Middle Ages, devils were regularly portrayed as black. And sometimes with a woman's face, too.  Blackness and femininity were linked in Christian mythology--often with the caveat that a fair feminine face hides a devilish interior. Black was not beautiful--remember in The Merchant of Venice, Portia breathes a sigh of relief when her Moroccan suitor chooses the wrong casket. "A gentle riddance," she says with naive bigotry, "let all of his complexion choose me so."

Even dark-haired women were thought to be less beautiful than fair ones--a fair woman with a plain face was prized above a prettier dark one. Blondes, as the old hair color commercial promised, invariably had more fun. Of course there was more at issue than just aesthetic preferences. Darkness was--still is--associated with ignorance, superstition, death. All bad stuff.  It's all over our language. "I see," we say when we understand. "Enlighten me." "His lecture really illuminated things." In Will's day these associations were even stronger, because they hadn't disappeared into the language, as they have now.  What I mean is, early modern people noticed words like that in ways we no longer do. We've got light whenever we want it now, but if you lived in pre-modern Europe, the night was pretty damned dark.  Who knew what lived in the woods at night? You sure didn't want to go in there to find out. It was easy to see--I mean understand--why many people believed in witches and other supernatural beings. It was simply too dark for widespread enlightenment.

We saw how important the light/dark opposition was in Romeo and Juliet. It's equally important here, albeit in a different, more conventional way. In R & J, night was the time when the fakery and facades of the daylight hours fell away, leaving only the "truth" of erotic intimacy. In Othello, nighttime maintains its more traditional association with ignorance, deception, and occulted motives. The play begins in darkness, with Iago and Roderigo whispering slanderous, salacious lies to Brabantio. Roderigo reveals himself as Desdemona's spurned suitor, but Iago remains hidden in the darkness, the unseen "first mover" of the tragedy to come.

Next:  Iago's Twitter feed.

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