Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Is Shakespeare’s Othello a “racist play or a play about racism”?
This dilemma has “plagued and fascinated” actor E.B. Smith, who takes on the title role in Shakespeare BASH’d’s new production of Othello, alongside Catherine Rainville as Desdemona, and directed by James Wallace. Mr Smith is not alone. Across the world and for centuries, scholars have shared and debated this question. The play’s tragic plot is distressingly simple. Othello is a Moorish nobleman who has reached the pinnacle of his career. He is a general of the Venetian army, and has secretly married Desdemona, the daughter of an important statesman in Venice. He passes over Iago (James Graham), a Venetian soldier and ensign, for promotion. In retaliation for this slight – and true to his malicious nature – Iago determines to destroy Othello’s happiness by convincing him of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago schemes and connives until he succeeds, with tragic consequences for Desdemona and Othello.
Mr Smith and Ms Rainville are experienced Shakespearean actors, and the opportunity to perform Othello held enormous appeal for both. Over the past couple of years, Mr Smith and Mr Wallace have had “many, many conversations about what the play means in the context of a modern lens with regards to race and representation”. Warming to his topic, Mr. Smith elaborates: “Othello is complex and tragically human, perhaps the character with the biggest heart in the Shakespearean canon. He is also very self-consciously, a racial “other,” which provides an enormous challenge worth confronting.”
While Othello has long fascinated Ms Rainville, being cast as Desdemona felt implausible, so facing this challenge was a huge draw for her. Moreover, she “knew that doing this part and this extremely challenging play with BASH’d would mean the most supportive and hard-working team would be in the room”. She smiles, “I was right.” She sees racism, misogyny, love, anger, fear and hate as deeply rooted in every character in the play: “Audiences will, I think, see each highlighted in all the characters, more or less, depending on their own perspective and where they come from in life. It will be interesting to feel that and talk about it after.”
She views Othello and Desdemona as “incredibly strong individuals at odds with the world” – a stance which attracts them to each other. Mr Smith concurs that they are “brave souls” who don’t seem to belong in the world into which they’ve been thrust. Each finds in the other the means to “break the mold of what is expected of them, and express themselves in a way far more honest than the world would prefer…. Despite the constraints that are imposed, they find admiration and acceptance in one another.“ Ms Rainville goes still further: “They find empathy, understanding, and space for their individual humanity with each other in a world that is determined to define them by race or gender, and, in a way, define them to only that race or gender.”
As a mixed-race Black man, Othello’s “bravery to love” is “beautifully inspiring to Mr Smith, and personally significant: “My parents’ struggle and in many ways my own (albeit not lethal as is the lovers’ in the play), has long been distinguished by the instances in which even our modern world can be unaccepting or intolerant of interracial and interethnic love.” Despite the passage of centuries, Ms Rainville observes that people remain “still miles away”: “That’s why we still do it. I hope that there is some reflection of those issues, and it makes room for discussion and gives a platform for more voices to be heard.” Mr Smith hopes for modern audiences to recognize that this story is neither “archaic or implausible through a modern lens”. To make his point, he points effortlessly to current examples in the news and media outlets. It’s remarkable – and disturbing – “just how powerful identity is, and how we still decide to weaponize it”.
So what about those questions of race that the play explores, particularly in Iago’s machinations? “Let’s be clear, I don’t presume to know whether Iago is a racist,” Mr Smith stresses. “But Iago pulls off this horrible plot because he’s able to take advantage of Othello’s otherness, using race as a medium on which to grow his horrible disease…. He seems only able to destroy these people in this way with the precondition that race operates on their lives in this society. I think it may be more useful to think of him as an opportunist who preys upon others’ bigotry to isolate Othello, than to assume he’s operating solely out of his own racism.”
So… is Othello a racist play, or is it about racism? Ultimately, audiences at the Shakespeare BASH’d production will judge for themselves . . . either pronouncing a definite position, or continuing the age-old debate. Whatever their view, the dilemma itself – and the play’s themes of patriarchy, prejudice, otherness and assimilation – will feel distressingly familiar, even in progressive Toronto. While we have come to understand race as a construct of white privilege, and while we readily acknowledge the value of diversity, we have not moved so far toward true inclusion as we might like to claim. Ms Rainville notes that by play’s end, Iago’s manipulation destroys Othello’s resolve because he can “only fight the prejudice, abuse, and manipulation so long”. Although it might feel like a “quick turn” in the story, “he’s been fighting to be in this place and position his whole life, and no one has made it easy for him”. His experience in this tragedy written more than 400 years ago presages the experience of too many underrepresented persons, who are made to feel like foreigners in a foreign land, and must work harder than others for the life they want. As Othello shows us, this perpetual grind can erode morale, create suspicion, and incite distrust.
Ultimately, it is less that Mr Smith’s question requires a definitive answer, than that it still matters for audiences to consider it. For those who have never engaged with Othello (and for those who have already started their ongoing dialogue with the play), Shakespeare BASH’d’s thoughtful and considered interpretation – affordably priced and presented within the friendly atmosphere of the Monarch Tavern – is ideally situated for staking out (or reassessing) one’s position in this ongoing debate.
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What: Othello by William Shakespeare; Presented by Shakespeare Bash’D; Directed by James Wallace
Performed by Jeff Dingle, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Dylan Evans, James Graham, Melanie Leon, Wilex Ly, David Mackett, Julia Nish-Lapidus, Catherine Rainville, Natasha Ramondino, E.B. Smith
When: February 5 – 10, 2019
Where: Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: www.shakespearebashd.com
©2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine