Shakespeare’s Othello disgusted Abigail Adams. After seeing it performed in 1786, she wrote to her sister, “I could not separate the African color from the man, nor prevent that disgust and horror which filled my mind every time I saw him touch the gentle Desdemona.”
In 1835, her son John Quincy was also put off by Desdemona’s “fondling” with Othello, arguing that “the great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature.”
By the time Paul Robeson played the role on Broadway in 1943, Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy was already a battleground of competing racial ideologies. For his part, Robeson defiantly read Othello as an indictment of white racism. “I am approaching the part as Shakespeare wrote it,” he said, “and I am playing Othello as a man whose tragedy lay in the fact that he was sooty black.” For Robeson, the play was “about the problem of minority groups—a blackamoor who tried to find equality among the whites.”
This month British actors David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig perform Othello at New York Theatre Workshop (Nov. 22, 2016-Jan. 18, 2017) in a political climate of resurgent white supremacy and black resistance. This is familiar ground for U.S. productions of Othello. After all, for more than 200 years, Americans have fought over Othello’s race as a way of fighting over the meanings of race itself, as both the Adamses’ and Robeson’s comments indicate. Recalling the changes in the way this contested classic has been staged and received in this country deepens our understanding of how Shakespeare continues to be racialized today.
The play’s American story did not begin with controversy. The first production of Othello in the U.S. took place in December of 1751 at Robert Upton’s Nassau Street Theatre in New York City. Little is known about this production aside from the fact that audiences could sit in the box, pit, or gallery and that it was performed “By His Excellency’s Permission.” Other early colonial productions of Othello were often justified on moral grounds, revealing the influence of an early American bias. As historian Tilden Edelstein notes, a 1765 Rhode Island production averted an existing local law against theatre by describing Othello as a “Moral Dialogue in Five Parts.” And a 1762 New York production of Othello was rationalized as a fundraiser for “such poor families as are not provided for by the public.”
Though, as with Abigail Adams, many white Americans may have seen the play through a predominantly racial lens, there is little evidence that 18th-century U.S. productions of Othello sparked widespread public debate on race.
Yet in an increasingly race-obsessed 19th-century America that would go to war over slavery, develop a more coherent ideology of white supremacy, and invent blackface minstrel performance, Othello provided a unique opportunity to define American whiteness. What troubled many white people, in short, was that the revered Bard himself had created a noble character who was also black. To acknowledge Othello as black was to taint Shakespeare’s greatness, and to admit the possibility that African Americans could also possess the author’s positive characteristics. Some reconciled Othello’s blackness by seeing it as a flaw of the play or as a cautionary tale about race mixing.
But by the mid- to late 19th-century, it was more common for critics and artists to distance the author and character from contemporary African Americans with a distorted racial logic. Scholar Richard Grant White typified this kind of thinking, saying, “I could never see the least reason for supposing that Shakespeare intended Othello to be represented as a Negro.” Othello was instead described as a “Moor,” in White’s analysis “a warlike, civilized, and enterprising race, which could furnish an Othello, whereas the contrary has always been the condition of the Negroes.”
In 1868 Mary Preston went a step further. “In studying the play of Othello, I have always imagined its hero a white man,” she wrote, concluding that Shakespeare “was too correct a delineator of human nature to have colored Othello black, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.” For these critics, Shakespeare authored the race of the character and the character of race.
Many professional productions also distanced Othello from blackness. Changes in stage makeup standards made the non-black Othello more theatrically achievable. For the first 200 years of Othello’s performance history in England, the character Othello—invariably played by white actors—was depicted with dark makeup. But by 1820, English actor Edmund Kean had normalized a lighter-complexioned “tawny” Moor, initiating what Edelstein describes as the “bronze age of Othello.” On the stage, Othello was depicted as an ethnic “Other,” no doubt, but one still distinct from African Americans.
In 1826 Edwin Forrest became the first famous American-born Othello, debuting a lighter-featured version of the character at the age of 20 (his final performance in the role was in 1872, the year he died). Forrest’s was an Othello for the white working class, passionately performed for crowds at the rowdy Bowery Theatre in New York. He, too, was not intended to be seen as black; indeed, one critic lauded Forrest for avoiding the “popular mistake” that Othello was “of African origin.” One patron famously said after watching him perform, “If that is the way Moors look and talk and love, give me a Moor for my husband.”
In 1871, The New York Times described Edwin Booth’s refined, brooding Othello as a “supple Oriental with a barbaric nature overlaid by a lacquer of Venetian refinement.” Henry Irving’s 1876 touring Othello was not a “savage-looking negro” that would have “disgusted Desdemona,” but a “tawny Moor, with long, straight black hair, and a refined and noble bearing.” Audiences could thus distinguish Othello from African Americans by making “Moors” an invention of white fantasy. In this way, the professional theatre found yet another way to erase and marginalize African Americans. Othello was by, about, and for white people.
Other reviews and productions perpetuated whiteness by normalizing racial absence. Indeed, for many critics and artists, Othello was not about race at all, but about “universal” themes of love and jealousy.
To be sure, when race entered the discussion, these performances generated conflicted meanings. There is evidence that some audience members and critics associated Othello with blackness, despite the efforts of actors and directors to erase it or argue it away. And often this blackness was seen as what went wrong in performance: William Winter chided Irving’s Othello for being “practically black” in his appearance. And when Italian actor Tommaso Salvini traveled to the United States and performed a passionate Othello with darker makeup, some critiqued him for resembling the constructed qualities of the American “negro.” A largely positive 1873 New York Times review of his Othello nevertheless complained that he “makes him a Negro. The peculiar features of that race are not thrust violently upon us, it is true: but still, there they are; Desdemona’s love is an undeniable wooly-headed Negro. This, we may be sure, was not Shakespeare’s conception of Othello.”
On the other hand, Othello was a handy sobriquet when white Americans needed a metaphor for black criminal behavior. African Americans consistently “played” Othello in the white-authored crime blotter: In 1837, one Thomas Little was “charged with enacting the part of ‘Othello, the jealous nigger’” by attempting the “destruction of his wife” when he suspected her of cheating on him. In 1860, a jealous “Othello-colored villain…cut his Desdemona’s throat and threw her into the river.” The National Police Gazette described a “Fatal Row in a Slum” in which “a negro barber” shot “Charlotte Bowman, a white woman” in the chest. Bowman had been in a fight with other women about “who among the women…should receive the caresses of the sooty ‘Othello.’” A cartoon image from Life magazine in 1889 depicted a black man laboring in his prison uniform with a caption that quoted one of Othello’s lines: “I have done the state some service, and they know it.”
Othello was also made black in minstrel adaptations of the play that were popular from the 1830s to the 1860s. As historian David Roediger writes, minstrel performances provided a communal space for wage-earning white males to collectively define what it meant to be white (and male) by circumscribing what it meant to be black. Through pieces such as Desdemonum (1854), Othello; a Burlesque (1866), and Othello Travestie (1834), white performers affirmed their identity by depicting its supposed opposite—in this case, a lazy, stupid, sexual, and violent black Othello. While these performances and practices died out in the 19th century, the image of the degraded black Othello endured throughout the 20th century in popular essays and performance criticism.
When African Americans themselves tried to perform Shakespeare, the police sometimes got involved. William Alexander Brown opened the African Grove Theatre in New York in 1821 and produced many plays by Shakespeare, including Richard III, Othello, and Julius Caesar. Brown’s decision to move his theatre across the street from the Park Theatre was seen as a direct threat to the white establishment—at least, that was the pretext under which law enforcement stormed Brown’s theatre and jailed his black actors. The police magistrate released them only after they promised “never to act Shakespeare again.” Similarly, in 1841, The New York Herald told the story of a “stage struck Negro” locked up for quoting Shakespeare in public and released only after vowing “not to spout Shakespeare in the streets.”
By the logic of white supremacy, then, Othello’s race was functional. It changed based on what whites wanted to say about the characteristics of race in general. While the professional “legitimate” theatre barred African Americans from being represented, let alone representing themselves, onstage, the popular press and minstrel stage depicted the black Othello as subhuman, peddling fear of miscegenation and racial violence.
In the face of this insult and injury, the African Grove offered salient resistance. The theatre’s star, James Hewlett, was the first African American on record to play Othello; Hewlett directly challenged white ownership of Shakespeare by calling himself “Shakespeare’s Proud Representative.” When English actor Charles Mathews mocked Hewlett’s Shakespearean dialect, Hewlett challenged him in a public letter: “Our bard Shakespeare makes sweet Desdemona say, ‘I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.’ Now when you were ridiculing the ‘chief black tragedian,’ and burlesquing the ‘real negro melody,’ was it my ‘mind,’ or my ‘visage,’ which should have made an impression on you?” Hewlett further argued that Shakespeare’s intent with the role was to critique racial prejudice.
Historian Errol Hill outlines the rich history of black Shakespeareans in his book Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors, describing the many African-American artists who performed Shakespeare throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Like Hewlett, many of these actors used the Bard’s cultural status as a way of asserting their humanity.
Indeed, another actor who started at the African Grove, Ira Aldridge, would make an even larger impact. For many in the black press, Aldridge’s career served as living refutation of white racist attitudes about African-American inferiority, crucially broadcast on the world stage—Aldridge became famous for performing great Shakespearean roles in Europe (as depicted in Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play Red Velvet). In celebrating Aldridge’s story, African Americans exposed the lie of minstrelsy. The black playwright and journalist Willis Richardson later commented in Opportunity that “representation of Negroes on the stage above the role of buffoon seem recently to have been weakened considerably” because of people like Aldridge, who “throughout his career…carried himself with distinction.” John E. Bruce, a former slave and cofounder of the Negro Society for Historical Research, wrote that Othello was “the Negro whom Shakespeare created, to be portrayed as only such a consummate artist as Aldridge could portray and interpret the character.” Aldridge’s African-American Othello evinced nobility, intelligence, and accomplishment—a resounding counterpoint to nearly a century of discrimination and minstrelsy.
African Americans also used the authority of Shakespeare to argue for black equality. Carter G. Woodson, founder of The Journal of Negro History, said that through Othello “Shakespeare…showed that he believed in equality not only of the blacks, but of all men.” In a 1923 essay in The New York Amsterdam News, Jamaican-American author J.A. Rogers wrote that “Shakespeare, when he created Othello with such stateliness and pride, taught that color had no effect on character.”
When Robeson stepped on the stage of Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in 1943, white and black conceptions of Othello came to a head. The white literary editor of The Nation, Margaret Marshall, argued that Robeson’s blackness disqualified him from being “the Moor as Shakespeare conceived him,” but most of the black press came to the opposite conclusion. W.E.B. Du Bois, for instance, argued that Robeson’s Othello “was undoubtedly the type Shakespeare had in mind.”
For all the pride of claiming Shakespeare and Othello from white interpretations, Robeson’s triumph raised new questions that have since dominated discussions of the play. While the production effectively changed normative casting practices by making Othello almost exclusively a role for actors of black African descent, many have wondered if that was a mixed blessing. In 1944, Langston Hughes’s satirical faux-naif “Jesse B. Semple” character worried in The Chicago Defender about the message it sent to see Paul Robeson “slap a white woman in front of all them people in that theatre.” Othello expert and historian Virginia Mason Vaughan states the problem succinctly: “When we remember that Othello is a wife murderer…there is a danger in making the Moor stand for all black males.”
Indeed, this takes us back to the play itself: Once we peel back the levels of performance history and racist interpretations around it, is Shakespeare’s Othello itself a fatally flawed, white supremacist fantasy? Is it no more than a kind of high-toned minstrel show—a white-authored idea of violent blackness that has as little to do with real African Americans as the black Othellos of the 19th century?
While the overt racism of 19th-century tabloids may be less common today, Othello as a white supremacist trope still surfaces. In the 1990s, for instance, the case of O.J. Simpson and the murder of his white wife provided a new pretext for the old allusion to the Moor as black criminal: During the infamous “white Bronco” chase, news anchor Dan Rather famously made the O.J./Othello link. This too-easy analogy led to a reverse impulse, though: Film critic Roger Ebert complained about the 1995 movie of Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne, that “with the fates of O.J. and Nicole Simpson projected like a scrim on top of the screen, it is difficult to free the play to do its work.” The play’s work was not about “interracial love,” Ebert argued, a subject he claimed “was not much on Shakespeare’s mind.” In a recent Folger Shakespeare Library podcast, Shakespeare scholars Ayanna Thompson and Ian Smith discussed their confrontations with scholars and critics who, like Ebert, “police the borders of Shakespeare studies” this way, by insisting that Othello “is not about race.”
But to focus on Shakespeare’s intent is a trap, falsely anointing a dead playwright as the ultimate authority on the racial meanings of Othello today. Contemporary Shakespeare productions that erase race through constructions of “Shakespeare’s intent” misunderstand that theatre is an exchange of meaning between performers and audiences in the present moment. A Shakespeare performance is not a magical realm where race stops signifying, but an opportunity to intentionally challenge whiteness.
In the U.S., the meanings of Othello and Shakespeare have been created through the language and practice of white supremacy. Some of the mantle has been shaken off, as African Americans have fought and continue to fight these interpretations, but troubling resonances have remained.
As we turn our eyes to New York Theatre Workshop’s new production—with a Nigerian-British Othello and a white American director, Sam Gold—we anticipate the next turn in the unfolding story of Othello and race in America.
Andrew Carlson teaches theatre at the University of Texas at Austin and serves as managing director of the Oscar G. Brockett Center for Theatre History and Criticism.
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