Community Responses to Othello
STC’s vision is to create theatre that ignites a dialogue and that connects classic works to our modern world—this vision is especially true for Ron Daniels’ production of Othello. In the context of world events, this tragedy is one of the classics that seems most timely, relevant and urgent.
For that reason, we have invited some members of our community to craft responses to Othello and to all of the questions this production poses in whatever form calls to them—whether that means poems, songs, pictures, essays, stories or anything in between. We hope these responses, which will be published online throughout the run of the show, will help further the dialogue between STC and the community and help provide our audiences with another lens to view this current production.
(We’ve remounted Othello for the 2017 Free For All! Learn how to get tickets.)
Now, without further introduction, please enjoy the response to Othello from writer Elijah Mendoza:
Daniels’ Othello approaches both tragedy and otherness from a particular point of view. Heavily emphasizing a Muslim definition of the term “Moor,” Daniels and Faran Tahir depict an Othello that primarily struggles with cultural and religious estrangement rather than racial discrimination. And while Shakespeare never lets us forget that Othello is physically distinct from the white Venetians around him—in a particularly cringe-worthy pun, the Duke of Venice pays Othello a compliment by calling him “more fair than black”—issues of religion arise on numerous occasions in the text. Othello invokes Christianity to admonish Venetian soldiers for their raucous behaviour; Iago references Othello’s baptism; and Desdemona claims Christian chastity. By pushing these issues to the forefront, Daniels’ production depicts a xenophobic world that is both challenging for the audience and current.
Daniels’ Cyprus, as staged after intermission, is distinctly Muslim. The Venetian women, Emilia and Desdemona, enter the stage with their hair covered by scarves. At one point, we even hear a call to prayer. But most notably, Othello takes on cultural trappings that we did not observe in Venice. While many characters appear in casual, non-military dress, only Othello wears long flowing robes, neglects his leather military boots, and wields an Eastern scimitar. Most striking, in a moment not derived from the text of the play, we observe Othello prostrated in a prayer that seems intentionally non-Christian. Because no direct explanation is presented, the audience is offered at least two possibilities for this choice in staging: either Othello is returning to his old culture and traditions, or he is simply comfortable being himself in a territory where he is not constrained by the Christian elite.
While there is overlap in these possibilities, these choices in staging are further complicated by historical reality. Although Shakespeare was certainly not bound by the need to tell accurate stories, it is worth noting that Cyprus was not traditionally a Muslim territory. A long-time Byzantine controlled area, many Cypriots must have adhered to Eastern Christian beliefs. As the island became part of the Venetian republic and then the Ottoman Empire, followers of both Western Christianity and Islam became important parts of the economy and society. Furthermore, as a historic center of trade with a prime location in the Mediterranean, Cyprus must have enjoyed a greater degree of religious and cultural diversity than many parts of Europe. An Elizabethan audience may have found Cyprus to be an exotic place, but it would be an oversimplification to identify Shakespeare’s Cyprus as primarily Muslim. This background is important to keep in mind as we discuss Daniels’ Othello. Daniels’ choice to depict a Muslim Cyprus affects how we interpret Othello’s actions and the response of other characters (particularly Iago) to Othello.
Othello’s embrace of non-Western faith and culture is reinforced through the creation of a Muslim setting. While this opens the possibility for linking Othello’s anger and insanity with Islam—which has been pointed out by reviewers and audience members—it is also possible to view Othello’s return to his cultural and religious practices in the light of a man looking for reassurance. As Othello begins to unravel, he at least finds a moment of solace in prayer. And while Daniels’ production invites a problematic connection between spousal murder and Islam, Tahir plays Othello as a self-assured, perhaps arrogant, man who comes unhinged at the mere suggestion that his wife could be unfaithful. Throughout the narrative, Othello is regarded with respect and obedience. Iago’s suggestion of infidelity is met initially with Othello’s derision and then abnormal obsession. As the first moment where Othello’s authority is questioned, one can read Tahir’s depiction of obsession and subsequent homicidal rage as manifestations of overconfidence and a fragile ego that do not implicate a wider cultural point of view.
As much political rhetoric has recently revolved around anti-immigrant and Islamophobic conversation, there’s great potential to reinterpret plays, such as Othello, that remind us of the tragic consequences of bigotry. Although Shakespeare was no advocate for equality, he invests his characters with a rich humanity that extends beyond race, religion or gender. Seeing his work performed offers a chance for contemplation and reflection that remains relevant for a contemporary world that still struggles to find the humanity in others.
Elijah Mendoza is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside. He has taught high school English at public and private schools and also writing at the community college and university level. Currently, he teaches part time in the writing department at GW and works full time at an IT company. His work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. He particularly enjoys formal poems, screenwriting and motorcycles.