Season 05-06 Season

Acting Shakespeare's Moor


The first recorded performance of Othello was for King James in the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace,at Hallowmass, November 1604. Richard Burbage played the title role, and while little else is known about the production, it is thought to be one of Burbage's greatest performances. Othello has continued to be an audience favorite and one of Shakespeare's most frequently produced plays. In 1660, when Puritan rule ended in England and Charles II reopened the theatres, Margaret Hughes played Desdemona in what is considered the first instance of a woman performing on the English stage.

Shakespeare's major source for Othello was a novella written by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, who wrote under the name Cinthio (See Kristin Johnsen-Neshati's article, A Cultural Context for Othello).One of the tales is about a Moor who marries a Venetian named Disdemona; the Moor's ensign, Alfiero, lusts after Disdemona, but she spurns his advances. To take his revenge, he accuses her of adultery with a captain in the army. Alfiero steals Disdemona's handkerchief and plants it in the captain's bedroom; soon afterwards Alfiero and the Moor beat Disdemona to death with a stocking filled with sand and then cause the ceiling of her room to collapse to make it look like an accident. Disdemona's Venetian relatives kill the Moor, and Alfiero is tortured todeath.

In reshaping the story, Shakespeare obscures the motives ofthe ensign, creating one of the greatest and most enigmatic villains in the Western canon and transforming Cinthio's tale, a precaution to women against marrying someone very different from themselves, to the story of the tragic fall of a noble hero.

Casting the Moor as the tragic hero instead of the villain was another of Shakespeare's innovations. In Renaissance drama, Moors were almost exclusively villainous characters, incorporating the qualities of the Vice figure from medieval drama, as in George Peele's 1589 The Battle of Alcazar or in Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus of 1594. As trade opened up with northern Africain the late-16th century, growing prejudices against Moors and Muslims in England added to the acceptance of this stereotype. In 1601, Queen Elizabeth issued an edict expelling all Moors from the British Isles. Debate continues today about whether Othello subverts Elizabethan expectations of a Moorish character or simply delays the reinforcement of the stereotype until later in the play, as Othello descends into madness and jealousy.

Throughout its production history, Othello has often been played by white actors in makeup (See Dr. Virginia Mason Vaughan's article,Acting Shakespeare's Moor). Paul Robeson, a notable African-American actor, played the role three times between 1939 and 1959. Ben Kingsley portrayed Othello as an accented Arab, without makeup,at the RSC in 1985. Additionally, the 20th century has seenmany film adaptations of the play, perhaps most notably Orson Welles' 1952 version.



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