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Race and Othello

So this is a subject that has been beaten to death, but I listened to Emma Smith’s (Oxford) Approaching Shakespeare podcast on Othello. I feel like it’s unfortunate that she chose this subject to be her first podcast; I’ve listened to several now and some are excellent. This one, however, I felt, not so much.

She starts off strong; similar to a Great Courses series of lectures I’ve listened to (Marc Conner argues that you can understand Shakespeare by using a set of tools he can teach you), Smith says that she will give you a set of interpretive tools that you can use to approach any Shakespeare play. This particular lecture strives to show you how to can approach Shakespeare by using the techniques of close reading, looking at Shakespeare’s sources, and genre (she also uses performance).

For better or worse, the question she wants to ask is, “What is the significance of Othello’s race?” She starts off by asking whether Shakespeare intended Othello to be a Sub-Saharan black African or a North African Arab (I guess, avoiding the fact that many North Africans are not Arab), and briefly whether Othello is Muslim or not.

Eventually she gets around to mentioning that she wrote a book arguing that Othello is unavoidably a racist play. Then she mentions you’re “welcome to argue with that.” I get the feeling she is playing devil’s advocate here a bit, which is fine. From a certain perspective of course there is a racist element about the play; I’ll talk about this more when I write about both Emma Smith’s and Alan Cohen’s podcasts on The Merchant of Venice. On the question of whether Merchant is anti-semitic or not, Professor Cohen argues that it has to be, because historically, as a man growing up in the South, even as a liberal, he was racist.

On one had you can say, there were no gender or race studies departments at the Universities during Shakespeare’s time. There was no education about race or gender inequality. So post such studies, of course we are more sensitive and better educated about such subjects than any Elizabethan, including Shakespeare, could be. He probably thought he wasn’t racist, but at the same time wouldn’t let his daughters marry a blackamoor. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with this view, as enlightened as it may be, is that there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Let’s look at the evidence Smith gives to prove that Othello must be a racist play.

First, she argues that we’re encouraged to be sympathetic towards Iago and disinclined to be sympathetic towards Othello. She argues that this must be the case, because Iago is allowed to talk to the audience (via soliloquies or asides), and Othello is not. So we’re supposed to sympathize with Iago, like, for example, Hamlet, because he talks to us. In Tibetan logic, the way to answer this is to say “not necessarily.” Can you think of a character in Shakespeare who talks to the audience who we are not supposed to sympathize with? I can; have you seen Richard III? He constantly talks to the audience about how is going to steal, kill, and manipulate his way to the crown. Are we supposed to sympathize with him?

Next Smith argues that perhaps Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” is due to his dislike of Othello’s race. In Shakespeare’s original source material , Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Iago (“Ensign” in the original story) hates Othello because he’s in love with Desdemona himself. So the question is, why did Shakespeare remove this obvious motivation? (What Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity” in his book Will in the World.) Maybe, Smith suggests, it was to hide a racial motivation.

This is borderline detestable. Sure, racism may be one of the possible motivations for Iago’s hatred. He certainly tries to play on racist feeling in 1.1.91-92 (“an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.”) But does Iago hate Othello because he is black? Or because he cuckolded him? Or is it because he passed him over for promotion? Iago gives all these reasons, then says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (5.2). Is Shakespeare hiding a racist motivation?

It seems unlikely. If he wasn’t afraid to write Iago’s speech to Brabantio, I don’t see why he would be afraid to let Iago confess a racist motivation. In Merchant, are the characters afraid to call Shylock “Jew”? Is Shylock afraid to say that he hates Christians? So if that’s what Shakespeare wanted us to think, why not say it? He’s not afraid to let us know that he’s an anti-semite, but he is afraid to let us know that he’s racist?

Iago is not the only character Shakespeare creates with “strategic opacity.” Is he hiding a racist motivation when King Lear asks how much his daughters love him? Because he removed Lear’s motivation from the original source. My personal theory on “strategic opacity” (I haven’t read Greenblatt’s book yet) is that Shakespeare removes obvious motivations because he doesn’t want us to think about that; he wants us to focus on the results. What is the result of hatred? Or perhaps Shakespeare is asking, is the hatred of any other human being justifiable? Can you have a reason to legitimately hate someone, or is any one reason as good as any other? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Anyway, the last piece of evidence Smith gives here is a possible etymology for Iago’s name. Scholars have conjectured that “Iago” is a contraction of Santiago, a Saint made famous for slaughtering “Moors.” Whether this is true or not is only speculation; there is no real evidence that this is the case. But even if it is (it’s possible), then this only again implies a racial motivation among the other (possible false) motivations Iago lists, but refuses to name at the end.

And all of this ignores what Smith herself admits; you can’t say what an author’s beliefs are based on what their characters do. Shakespeare wrote characters of almost every persuasion; does that mean he condoned or agreed with all of their behavior? Was he expressing his views with which characters? In which plays?

The truth, as Smith discusses to better effect in later lectures, is that Shakespeare appears to be interested more in asking questions than giving answers. He removes the obvious motivations for his characters; he changes his source material to make his plays more ambiguous. Smith’s second lecture is on Henry V; is he a mirror (role-model) for Christian kings or a violent sociopath? The only answer you can give to that question is “yes,” because Shakespeare represents him as both in the play. So, is Othello’s race significant? Yes, it could be. No, it’s not really in the Orson Wells version. Is the play racist? Yes, it could be read or performed that way. But if you found it that way, it might say more about you and less about Shakespeare. Because what Shakespeare seems to want us to do is to ask the question.

Marlowe Society

So I’m doomed; I’m already desperately behind on these posts… I want to write about some podcasts on The Merchant of Venice I listened to, but first I wanted to talk about the current issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, but now I’m going to write some metablogging: I found the Malone Society’s blog and spent the time I should have spent working on my ebook reading about student productions of The Tragedy of Thomas Merry and Samuel Daniel’s neo-Senecan closet drama The Tragedie of Cleopatra.

Evidently the Marlowe Society gives bursary awards to students so that they can produce long-forgotten Renaissance drama; the ASC’s Actors Renaissance season is doing similar work with similar methods. Meaning, you put actors on the stage without giving them a director, lots of time to prepare, or full scripts in imitation of how plays would have been rehearsed during Elizabethan/Jacobean/Caroline times.

The Tragedy of Thomas Merry (1601) has everything you want in a Renaissance play: an author controversy, murder, a historical element, and a live lute player. Interesting for me are the comments on working from cue scripts (also from a follow up youtube video) and using a prompter; the ASC Actors Renaissance season does the same. I saw a production of The Maid’s Tragedy recently at the Blackfriars where they used a prompter; it was brilliantly done; when an actor forgot a line, they would say “prithee” and the prompter would read them the next line. They did this so quickly that sometimes you might not have even have heard the prompter and thought “prithee” was a part of the performance.

It made me think, if what we think we know about Elizabethan performance is true (short rehearsals), then there must have been a prompter on stage at these performances. I’m not sure what research has been done on this, but it’s on my list to find out.

The production of Cleopatra (1594) doesn’t mention the use of a prompter, but claims that the play is:

in dialogue with Shakespeare. It was almost certainly a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare in his much-revised 1607 edition

The other area of interest for me is Arshad’s discussion of closet drama; works that were written for private reading or possibly performance. Arshad claims from producing the play that it could be produced, so theoretically this means the play, although not written for the professional stage, was meant to be produced and as such might have included female actors (who would not appear on professional stages for another sixty years). Professor Dobson has also done some work on amateur performance and its effects; it’s an area of study that needs more research.

In any event, if you want to see a rarely produced Elizabethan play, they’ve posted the full recorded video of The Tragedy of Thomas Merry to youtube.

Shakespearean Appropriation

I was looking at my notes from a lecture I listened to at the Shakespeare Institute on eastern perspectives on Shakespeare, and it struck me how complicated the idea of Shakespearean appropriation is. One of the questions I was given to consider for the class was, “Is Ninagawa a Westernized director who uses Japanese actors or a Japanese director who uses Westernized scripts?” The teacher, Erin Sullivan, asked “What are we supposed to think about British-born black actors playing a version of Julius Caesar set in Africa?”

Or even more interesting to me, what do we think about a failed interpretation of Troilus and Cressida by the RSC and the Wooster group being retitled (now Cry, Trojans!) and kept in production? Why is it that somehow, by changing the title, it’s okay to keep performing a play that was previously derided as “strangely infertile” and “awkward stylistic collision”?

The short answer is, if you retitle it then the Shakespeare scholars and critics don’t have to pay attention to it anymore.

Why do we care? As Shakespeare shifted into a cultural icon (around the time of Garrick, whether due to his influence or in spite of him is a subject for debate), the battle began as to who, when, where, and how it was acceptable to perform Shakespeare.

My still forthcoming review of Reviewing Shakespeare will mention some of these issues, as Paul Prescott brings them up in terms of the act of reviewing. Critics are, or at least they were, “night-watch constables,” vocal defenders of what is considered “authentic” Shakespeare. What is not “authentic” is called such (an “awkward stylistic collision”). But to what extent do we have to accept the verdict of critics as true? The famous response (“you may be lost in the wrong century”) to Billington’s review of the 2011 production of the Globe’s Much Ado argues that critics are not the final defenders of what is culture, as much as they would like to think themselves such.

So who does get to decide? Directors? Actors? Shakespeare?

In the end, it has to be you.



“Now” documentary

I was checking the Shakespeare FB page (I’m not sure who’s actually running it; I suspect it can’t be him), and I found a link to the website promoting the Kevin Spacey and Sam Mendez production of Richard III. I watched two of the trailers and then purchased the documentary.

The production company was exciting for its time because it featured both American and British actors working together in repertory for 200 performances, around the world, of this production of Richard III. I have to admit, my interest was attracted because of the Spacey and Mendez names attached, and what I was hoping for from the documentary was insight into this production of one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

Not so much. Like most documentaries, its main goal is perhaps to be interesting. So in an effort to be interesting, it covers a lot of ground: how the old actors got along with the new, how the British actors got along with the Americans, how the traveling got to them, what they saw, what were the impressions of various foreign countries, interviews with Spacey and Mendez–along with various actors and promotors–and how their work on this production mirrored their collaboration on American Beauty, what they did in their spare time, and, finally, a lot interest in bobble heads.

It had a lot of positives though: some of the interviews provided real insight into both actors preparing for roles, how they view their performances, and a few tidbits about the production itself. Confessing that I just saw the Mark Rylance Broadway Richard III, I have something to compare it to.

Of interest to me was the discussion of the Lady Anne wooing scene (always a lynchpin for this play); Spacey felt that it was Richard’s success here that spurred him on to see what else he could do–how far he could push his successes. During the scene where Hastings head is presented, they staged this as Buckingham presenting Hastings head in a box (which Richard cries over, then stabs.) I thought this was a nice touch; in the Rylance edition of the play, when the head was brought out, the American audience laughed at the prosthetic head.

In this production the way they handled Buckingham agitating for the crown for Richard was as a media broadcast of Richard at prayer: Richard accepts the crown via a live stream. The idea here seems to be to portray how tyrants control the media for their own purposes. Spacey also claims to have designed one of his costumes based off of Qaddafi, who was being overthrown at the time.

Spacey also discussed how he tried to play Richard as Richard embracing himself as an actor; that is, the character of Richard understanding that he is playing a part for an audience. I’m studying metatheatricality and its effect on production; I’m wondering if the audience understood how Spacey is an actor playing Richard playing an actor. And if they caught that, could they connect how they are also actors playing parts?

Some other interesting production notes where how the actors deal with laughing on stage (“corpsing”), and Mendez’ advice on casting (“Don’t cast assholes”). Otherwise the only moments I found pertinent were Emma Stone’s discussion of other productions she’s proud of (Peter Brooks famous production of Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Mendez’ view on theatre (“Theatre is only one step away from absurdity”).

If you’re not just interested in Shakespeare or theatre, there are some touching moments in the film; actors relating to each other and one actor discussing his battle with cancer (“Thank God I did what I wanted to do in life”). But, for me, the overall effect was that the film’s dispersed energy leaves it feeling like it needs a center.


Just to record it (so I can find it later), Kevin Spacey also has another project involving Shakespeare; it looks like a documentary about how acting Shakespeare positively influenced high school children.

Review: Henry VI Part 3

So I thought for my first official post I would post my impressions of the BBC production of Henry IV Part 3.

I have the boxed set collection of all the BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays. I haven’t watched all of them yet, but, after watching Henry VI Part 3, I have now see at least one production of every one of Shakespeare’s plays. Which is very exciting for me.

And I feel like I finished with a bang; Peter Sacchio commented in his class on Henry VI (the Word and the Action course) that the BBC productions of the Henry VI plays were good. (The BBC productions as a whole are hit and miss; it depends on who is directing.) I would say, much like Shakespeare’s plays themselves, they improved as they went along.1 The actors almost seem to be getting deeper into their parts as the productions progressed; Henry VI himself for example, but in particular the actress (Julia Foster) playing Margaret. She moved me to tears with her soliloquy after the death of Prince Edward; it was as powerful a Shakespearean acting performance I have seen.

And this is typical of Shakespeare’s characters; we see Margaret in Part 1 as a cheating, selfish character who, as the plays progress, only turns bitter. When she mocks York by making him wear a paper crown, you know she will find, and begin to long for, her comeuppance. And yet in Part 3 5.5 her lament at the killing of her son is so moving that in the moment I forgot all that had gone on before and cried for her:

O Ned, sweet Ned! speak to thy mother, boy!
Canst thou not speak? O traitors! murderers!
They that stabb’d Caesar shed no blood at all,
Did not offend, nor were not worthy blame,
If this foul deed were by to equal it:
He was a man; this, in respect, a child:
And men ne’er spend their fury on a child.
What’s worse than murderer, that I may name it?
No, no, my heart will burst, and if I speak:
And I will speak, that so my heart may burst.

But one of my favorite lines in the play comes right before this; when Margaret asks York’s sons to kill her too, Richard moves to do it but is stopped by King Edward. Richard’s response: “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”

The acting in this production I thought was quite good; Margaret I think was the best, but, like her,  (as the eponymous Henry VI) saves his best for last: his Henry is a miserable king, but almost becomes a saint in the process as he suffers through being king, not being king, then being king again. I’m wondering, after watching his performance, what his Richard II would look like. Ron Cook, as Richard (Gloucester), is also believable–he delivers his asides right into the camera as if he were sharing his secret thought especially with us. Also of note, as Edward IV,  gives a very naturalistic performance: when Warwick catches him in his tent, Protheroe is brought out tied to a chair and is clearly upset while still trying to play the brave monarch.

I’m not sure I believe Warwick’s volte-face when he learns Edward has already taken a wife, but his death scene was naturalistic bloody glory. When Clarence flip-flops I was also left wondering what Richard could have possibly whispered to him to effect the change, but otherwise the only hard thing to swallow is the sets: if your willing suspension of disbelief is used to seeing silly scenery at plays and buying it you’ll be fine. But if you’re used to Hobbit-like realistic sets, this play’s version is going to come up short: this was clearly a play shot to be a DVD, as are most of the BBC productions. (In contrast, for example, to the more recent naturalistic Hollow Crown series.)

All-in-all, the BBC production of Henry VI Part 3 is one of the few chances in which you might ever have the chance to see a three-hour, mostly uncut production of this play, one that is clearly Shakespeare coming into his own before writing his first masterpiece, Richard III.

1 From The Faber Pocket Guide (McLeish, 1998: 76): Shakespeare’s inexperience is shown, perhaps, in the plethora of indistinguishable lords, some appearing for a single speech or line, others bewilderingly changing names and ranks as the plays proceed. (In later plays, he solved this problem by reducing the numbers and sharply characterizing each important individual.)

Welcome to the Shakespearean Review

This is my new blog about all things Shakespeare. You can read more about me on my about page, but basically I’m in a Masters program at the Shakespeare Institute studying Shakespeare and performance, and I want to share some of the things I’m learning and discovering online. So I’ll write about performances I’ve seen, I have an interview with a director I want to transcribe, and then there are theoretical observations about Shakespeare, the nature of his work, and how we relate to it. (I recently read Reviewing Shakespeare, for example, and thought it has a lot of great ideas in it.)

So read on, enjoy, and let me know what you think.