A mellow (hued) Othello

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John_Ortiz_and_Philip_Seymour_Hoffman_in_Othello.jpgMy New Yorker reading is irregular these days.  The magazine has gone downhill (in my opinion) and, since I've gone across the hill and around the bend in the river - to India or Kenya or wherever - the issues sometimes take months to find me.  (Yes, I do occasionally read it online, but I dislike The New Yorker's online edition.)  All of which is to say, I just got around to reading a Hilton Als' review from last October, and not withstanding its vintage, I'm going to weigh in and comment.

Als was reviewing Peter Sellars' production of Othello, starring John Ortiz as the title character and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago.  In a provocative move, Sellars' cast a Latino (Ortiz) as Othello, rather than casting a black actor (or even more traditionally, a white-actor-in-blackface).  Als didn't think much of this choice:

Shakespeare's music . . . is not distinct from his narratives or from the actors' behavior; we need to both see and hear his characters' intentions.  Which means, unavoidably, that Othello must be black.
Considering that, earlier in his review, Als quotes the Shakespeare scholar Daniel Vitkus saying that, in 1604, when Othello was written, "black skin color was understood . . . primarily with symbolic logic," Als has made a pretty dense pronouncement.

In fact, Othello wasn't black.  He was a Moor - a man originally of North African origin.  North Africans don't look like what Americans typically identify as "black."  ("Black" in this sense usually indicates a person from - or with ancestors from - sub-Saharan Africa.)  Often, the skin tone of North Africans is consistent with that of people from the Middle East or, say, Latin America.

Othello's many references to Othello's blackness were not, in their original intent, entirely literal.  As Vitkus suggests, the references are symbolic.  When Desdemona's father, Brabantio, complains about "an old black ram . . . tupping . . . [his] white ewe," "black" is not so much a description of Othello's skin, as it is of his soul.  Brabantio thinks Othello is evil.  

This Elizabethan use of "black" finds echoes in the way Americans used to classify people as "black" according to the "one drop" rule.  People who could pass for white (e.g., Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson fame, or Anatole Broyard) would have been labeled "black" under this definition.

To understand these mindsets of the past - the Elizabethan pseudo-spiritual, and the American pseudo-genetic - we must witness what actually happened: white people calling someone "black" who, to our eyes, isn't.  Sellars' casting gave audiences that experience.

If Als had his way, audiences would be limited to an interpretation of Othello that is narrow, ahistorical and unimaginative.  Als' critique self-righteously insists that the provincialism of current thinking is exclusively correct.  For all the harm Als' perspective does to Othello, reducing and diminishing the character, I can only think that Iago would approve.

(Image of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz from The New York Times)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on April 24, 2010 1:09 PM.

The color of morality isn't Red was the previous entry in this blog.

Of wisdom and imperial ambivalence is the next entry in this blog.



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