ETT closed its run of Othello at Northern Stage on Saturday night, and it was a daring take on a play which throughout the 20th Century has traditionally portrayed “Othello as simply the barbaric, jealous black man”.[i]
ETT’s Creative Adviser for this production, Abdul-Rehman Malik asks the question “How would our view of Othello change if we knew he were a Muslim?”[ii] And it should be asked, not least because there was an alliance between the Moroccan Empire and Elizabeth I’s England when Shakespeare was writing, but also it throws into relief some of the issues of the play itself, as well as its relevance in our time.
To return to the ETT, Othello is played as a genuine Muslim, who has assimilated the trappings of Christianity acceptable to the corrupt Venice of the time. However, in his most private moments, Othello brings out his Muslim prayer beads, whereas in public a somewhat ostentatious cross “is clearly seen in public … He knows not to appear Moor.”
Let’s unpick that in terms of the outcome of the play, and the interpretation of ETT. Firstly, Othello has been a slave, and once free has risen up the ranks of Venetian Military to the position of General. We can imagine the horrors of being a slave because of later documents revealing the conditions of ships and treatment of people,[iii] and perhaps Othello did not endure quite these conditions, it won’t have been an easy existence. Moreover, when Othello mentions the “insolent foe”[iv] is he referring to the Arab slavers who sold him, or the Venetians whom he now serves? In terms of ETT’s interpretation, the line is subversive said to the senate about the senate, and with good reason.
Victor Oshin, in the eponymous role, is a young actor, and does not try to play his character as older, and this is significant. Whatever else Othello has been through, he has achieved an elevated military rank, and at a young age. He must have worked hard. Yet, he is still seen as second class, as evidenced when the senate react to his marriage to Desdemona. What else must Othello do to be accepted? He has proven himself on the battlefield and has converted to Christianity. Except he hasn’t, not genuinely, and that’s understandable. He holds to his sense of self, which has been under assault for most of his, in this production at least, young life. His faith “is not merely a religious confession – it is a communal and political identity.”[v] And that would have also been the case for Venetians, with emphasis on political. Jews were segregated, Muslims sequestered, and the politics was corrupt and cunning, emulating Machiavellian ideals, not the epitome of the Christianity they purport to believe.
Enter Iago, the epitome of Machiavelli, who both represents and plays on the corruption of the state, the, interestingly, the women of Venice. According to Thomas Coryat, Venetian women were notorious, with high-born being indistinguishable in appearance from the Courtesans, for which Venice was famous.[vi] With Othello, in this production, being so young perhaps he was unaware of the machinations of Venetian women, and is therefore easily convinced by Iago’s poison. It is also worth noting that whether in Venice or Cyprus, Othello is surrounded by masculinity, and according to Jerry Brotton, “toxic masculinity” at that – Cyprus is a battlefield after all.
The point really is that Othello is not in his own world, and clings to it in moments of quiet and solitude. Iago uses this to Othello’s detriment.
Othello has always been a difficult play to comprehend because of the quick descent into jealousy and violence, and I think this production goes some way towards explaining it. Brotton states “At its heart is a character that we still do not understand.”[vii] Whatever jealousy we may have felt ourselves, we cannot see ourselves in Othello. But maybe we shouldn’t. I’m a white woman; I can never empathise with Othello’s experiences and pre-history, and I certainly can never condone his murder of his wife, regardless of a director’s interpretation.
Instead, there is a different point to be made. Othello has been through trauma, has been ripped from his origins, debased, has worked so hard for acceptance, and is still not wholly welcomed by the society he has sworn to protect. Add to this Iago’s poisonous whisperings, and double dealing, what we see here is a “sobering reminder of the impact of psychological violence on the spirit.”[viii]
Othello’s suicide, very symbolically by a blade hidden in
his cross, is a punishment. He has denied himself a place in Jannah through his
act, in the same way Christians believed that suicide debars them from Heaven. He
is not redeemable. His actions are heinous. This does not make him a Muslim
threat however, rather the dangerous outcome of systematic abuse, and abuse
because he is ‘other’.
[i] Malik, Abdul-Rehman. “A Moor for our Time” Othello Programme. ETT. November 2018
[ii] Brotton, Jerry. “Othello and the Orient Isle” Othello Programme
[iv] Shakespeare, William. Othello Act I: scene iii:136 https://www.shakespeareswords.com/Public/Play.aspx?Content=Text&WorkId=9&Act=1&Scene=3
[vi] Coryat, Thomas. Coryat’s Crudities 1611 http://www.archive.org/stream/coryatscrudities01coryuoft/coryatscrudities01coryuoft_djvu.txt