Othello, The Moor of Venice on stage - Othello, The Moor of Venice

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Othello, The Moor of Venice on stage
Othello, The Moor of Venice


To a remarkable extent, the history of Othello in performance is the history of lead actors in the roles of Othello and Iago. Desdemona occasionally captures attention, sometimes even Cassio, but the rest of the play is largely forgotten. Scenic effects are not essential. Props are at a minimum. Indeed, there are only thirteen speaking parts. The play on stage depends almost entirely on the personal magnetism of the leading player and one or two others. Small wonder that Othello’s role has been coveted by most of the famous actors in every age.

Richard Burbage played Othello in Shakespeare’s company, regularly at the Globe Theatre, and at court in 1604 and again in 1613. An elegy written upon Burbage’s death in 1619 remembers his “grieved Moor” among his great roles. Thomas Killigrew, who obtained the rights to Othello after the Restoration, performed the play with his King’s Men at the Cockpit. Samuel Pepys saw this production on October 11, 1660, remarking in his diary: “a pretty lady that sat by me called out to see Desdemona smothered.” Thomas Betterton played Othello with great intensity from 1683 to 1709, primarily after 1703 at the theater in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. One contemporary witness testified that “his aspect was serious, venerable, and majestic.” Barton Booth, James Quin, and Spranger Barry were the great Othellos after Betterton on the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage. Oddly, David Garrick was not successful in the role: he acted Othello in two seasons only, abandoning the part for Iago in 1746. Garrick’s small, wiry body and his nervous emotional intensity did not match the age’s preference for a heroic protagonist. John Philip Kemble first played Othello in 1785 and struggled through various productions until 1805, but had no better luck. Kemble failed because of what his biographer James Boaden has called the “philosophy in his bearing and reason in his rage.” Audiences seemed to demand from Othello either the towering violent jealousy projected by Betterton or the grandeur and presence of Quin. Spranger Barry, combining something of both, was the most successful Othello of the century, fierce in his rage but so poignant in his grief that, as a reviewer noted, “the audience seemed to lose the energies of their hands, and could only thank him with their tears.” Iago, played by Lacy Ryan, Colley Cibber, and Charles Macklin, among others, required melodramatic villainy, though Macklin also provided some real depth of characterization, naturalizing his performance so that (in Macklin’s words) Iago’s “seeming openness and concealed revenge” became a plausible, if terrifying, human response to the goodness surrounding him. Anne Bracegirdle and Susannah Cibber were the outstanding Desdemonas of the age, energetically asserting their innocence. The play was enormously popular throughout the period, no doubt because of the persuasive acting of its principals. It was staged in all but seven years of the entire eighteenth century.

The play was cut to center attention on its main figures and to enhance the tragic nobility of the protagonist. Bell’s acting version of 1773 is representative of the tradition. It omits Othello’s mention of anthropophagi, cannibals, and “antres vast,” does away with the storm scene for the landing in Cyprus in Act 2, cuts the Clown scene (3.1) in the interests of classical unity and decorum, banishes Bianca for reasons of moral decency, takes away the scene in which Othello’s jealousy is confirmed by seeing the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, and deprives Desdemona of her conversation with Emilia before her death. The death itself is accomplished by stabbing. What remains in the text is chiefly a series of lofty tragic scenes for Othello and Iago.

Othello in the nineteenth century belonged for the most part to Edmund Kean, Edwin Booth, and Tommaso Salvini; Samuel Phelps also succeeded in the role. Kean’s Othello was the most celebrated, described by critic William Hazlitt as “the finest piece of acting in the world.” Kean’s appalling fury and final desolation moved audiences to tears. Booth describes his father as believing that “no mortal man could equal Kean in the rendering of Othello’s despair and rage.” Booth himself was a more noble and humane Othello, as in his production at Booth’s Theatre in New York in 1869, but was perhaps more arresting in his portrayal of a gloating and demonic Iago, as at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1866. In 1881, Booth and Henry Irving appeared at London’s Lyceum Theatre, alternating the roles of Othello and Iago, with Ellen Terry as Desdemona. The production was a great success, artistically and financially. Irving had played Othello only once before, in 1876, to little acclaim, and he had never played Iago. Still, he was the greatest English actor of his generation, and people flocked to see the collision of titans from England and America. As Othello, Irving could not match the power of Booth’s brooding Moor. Irving’s Iago, on the other hand, was more than a match for his rival, believably genial in public and savagely sardonic when alone. Yet Irving’s success with Iago was not enough to compensate him for being overpowered in the role of Othello. Although the English critics applauded Irving, the measure of Booth’s triumph is that Irving never again acted either part. The Italian actor Tommaso Salvini first appeared as Othello in New York at the Academy of Music in 1873 and two years later in London at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His was a fiery, sensual Moor, powerful and dangerous. The theater critic William Winter, disgusted by Salvini’s barbaric Othello, claimed that “only because of the excitement that it diffused throughout the nervous systems of the multitude, it possesses a worldwide renown.” What Winter intended as a slight seems high praise indeed today.

Though William Charles Macready acted the part often in his career, first in 1814, he felt that he never achieved “the real pathos and terrible fury which belong to the character.” Still, his Othello was powerful and dignified, and, in keeping with the attention to realistic detail for which Macready was famous, always correctly attired as a sixteenth-century Venetian officer. When, in 1816, Macready and Charles Mayne Young alternated in the two leading parts, Macready achieved greater success as Iago. Hazlitt remembered Young’s Othello as “a great humming-top, and Macready, in Iago, like a mischievous boy whipping him.” Samuel Phelps and Charles Fechter also acted Othello with something like Macready’s dignity and restraint. Phelps alternated with Macready in the parts of Iago and Othello in 1839 at the Haymarket Theatre, with Helen Faucit as Desdemona. Once again, Macready achieved success with his Iago, but Phelps’s unfussy, gentle Othello, much to Macready’s discomfort, carried the day. The Weekly Dispatch delightedly remarked: “He was of all things that which we have never witnessed since the death of Kean—natural.” The Sunbeam proclaimed, even more enthusiastically, “we are now convinced that the Othello of Mr. Phelps is the Othello of Shakespeare.” His productions at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, in fifteen of his eighteen years as manager, were great successes, and he continued alternating in the two male leads in seasons when he had another actor capable of performing both. Charles Fechter’s Othello was more sentimental than Phelps’s, intelligent and affectionate, perhaps better suited, as the Morning Advertiser put it, to be the hero of a “French melodrama” than of Shakespeare’s agonizing tragedy.

In some remarkable way, the emotional intensity demanded in the playing of Othello seemed to encourage actors to carry their theatrical roles over into their private lives. Kean was correspondent in a notorious divorce trial in 1825. In 1833 Kean collapsed into the arms of his son Charles during a performance of Othello and died shortly thereafter. The American actor Edwin Forrest brought to his performance of Othello the experience of divorcing his wife for adultery only to be found guilty himself and ordered to pay alimony. Court appeals dragged on for years, leaving Forrest embittered and alienated. The nineteenth-century American black actor Ira Aldridge, who successfully played Othello and other tragic parts in Europe for four decades before his death in 1867, was married to a white woman. Stories such as these, at any rate, fed a popular conception of Othello as a shocking and sensational affair, one well suited to the savage fury and sensuality of Salvini’s performance. The scene of Desdemona’s murder in Salvini’s rendition was especially violent, and the production took London by storm. The famous actresses of the age—Sarah Siddons, Anna Mowatt, most of all Ellen Terry—captured the sympathies of audiences by playing to the full the melodramatic role of womanly innocence traduced and overwhelmed.

Sensationalism of this kind is made for opera, and it is no coincidence that the Othello of the nineteenth-century stage gave rise to immortal operatic rendition. Gioacchino Rossini’s Otello (1816) departs too widely from Shakespeare’s text to allow meaningful comparison (he relied on Cinthio’s story), but Giuseppe Verdi’s great Otello (1887), the libretto by Arrigo Boito, is integrally a part of the stage history of Shakespeare’s play. The omission of the first act in Venice, the concentration on the roles of Otello, Iago, and Desdemona, the ending with Otello’s last kiss of his dead wife—all are comparable to those means used by actor-managers to focus the play on the intensely emotional confrontations of the tragic protagonists. Verdi eloquently interpreted the play as it was understood by his generation, and did so with such power that his operatic version remains a central formative influence in today’s theater.

Modern productions have not signalled any major revision in the staging of Othello, in part perhaps because the play does not easily lend itself to topical appropriation as with the antiwar satire often applied to Shakespeare’s histories or the disillusioning view of sex and politics often seen in productions of Troilus and Cressida or Hamlet. Othello does not easily adapt itself to Edwardian decor or the American frontier West, as in some productions of All’s Well That Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing. In most modern productions the text is more nearly restored to the original than in those of the previous century, and the balance of parts gives new visibility to Roderigo, Brabantio, Emilia, and Bianca, but the text was never as rearranged as it was for many other plays. Because Othello is a play written around a few major roles, directors have not had to change a great deal to get what they wanted from this play.

Changes in perception of Othello have accordingly focused on a few delicate and critical issues, most notably that of the relations of the races. For Paul Robeson, a black American actor, the central issue was not sexual jealousy but the granting of human dignity to blacks. Starring in a production with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, Sybil Thorndike as Emilia, and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1930, Robeson brought together his personal convictions and professional ambitions in a way very different from that of Kean or Forrest. Earlier actors of Othello, excepting Ira Aldridge, had been whites who could choose to portray a black Othello or a more Arabian and Moorish Othello to suit their own acting styles. Robeson was black, a large man, sonorous of voice, commanding, magisterial. He was also a believer in a cause, and, although limited theatrically to this one role in which he must show violence and loss of emotional control (prejudices of the time did not permit him to play Iago as Booth, Kean, and Phelps had done), the very fact of his sharing the spotlight with Peggy Ashcroft (and later in 1943 with Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagen in Margaret Webster’s production at the Shubert Theatre in New York) was in itself significant. He was a man of memorable dignity and presence, and his work opened the way for other blacks, especially Earle Hyman (New York, Jan Hus Auditorium, 1953, and Stratford, Connecticut, 1957), Moses Gunn (Stratford, Connecticut, 1970), and James Earl Jones (New York Shakespeare Festival, 1964, and Stratford, Connecticut, 1981), to succeed in the part. Robeson became a controversial figure and something of an outcast, whereas, when Jones played opposite Christopher Plummer in 1981 at Stratford, Connecticut (a production that in February of 1982 opened at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre), his race no longer occasioned comment.

Black actors have had great success in the role, and indeed are now the norm rather than the exception. In 1989, at Stratford’s Other Place, the noted opera baritone Willard White played Othello opposite Ian McKellen’s highly acclaimed Iago, in the final production at that theater; in 1998, David Harewood played Othello opposite Simon Russell Beale’s Iago in Sam Mendes’s production at London’s National Theatre. In 1999, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, directed by Michael Attenborough, cast Ray Fearon as Othello, the first time in forty years that the company had cast a black actor as Othello for the main stage. Fearon, then just thirty-one years old, played Othello as a powerful and dangerous presence, stalking the stage with a shaved head and a gold stud in his right ear. If his own youth oddly leveled the age difference between Othello and Desdemona (Zoe Waites), he was nonetheless compelling as he came to doubt his own carefully crafted self-image.

Still, today the role of Othello is available to any leading player, and has been acted by Ralph Richardson in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at the Old Vic in 1938, with Laurence Olivier as Iago; by Richard Burton, again at the Old Vic, in 1956, alternating with John Neville in the parts of Othello and Iago; by Emrys James at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1971; by Raul Julia, as a passionate, tortured Othello in Wilford Leach’s production for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1979; by Anthony Hopkins, opposite Bob Hoskins’s Iago, in Jonathan Miller’s BBC television version in 1981; and by Ben Kingsley, who powerfully revealed the violence at the center of Othello’s achieved calm, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1985. In 1997, Patrick Stewart played Othello at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, the only white actor in an otherwise all black cast. Perhaps most memorably, Laurence Olivier played Othello at the Old Vic for the newly established National Theatre in 1964. With his virtuoso performance of an Othello both proud and self-dramatizing, Olivier demonstrated at least that the play remains the vehicle for an astonishing display of acting ability by one of the great actors of the age. At their best, to be sure, productions of Othello will hold in balance the three major characters—Othello, Desdemona, and Iago—as in Greg Doran’s production at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2004, which toured Japan before it transferred to the Trafalgar Studies in London. The twisted intensity of Antony Sher’s Iago, the taut self-control of Sello Maake ka-Ncube’s Othello (whose South African accent marked him as an outsider every bit as much as did his skin color), and the simple goodness of Lisa Dillon’s Desdemona all made powerful claims upon the audience as the tragedy terribly unfolded.

When we locate Othello on the Elizabethan stage, we see that the absence of scenery accentuates the focus on character; indeed, scenic effects have seldom played a big part in productions of this play. The Elizabethan actor needs to build the scene around him by his commanding presence and the magic of his words. Costuming and spatial arrangement are also important: in Act 1, scene 1, we know in the Elizabethan theater that we are before Brabantio’s house when Desdemona’s father appears in the gallery above, at his window, and then reemerges below in his nightgown “with servants and torches.” Torches are repeatedly necessary in Othello, not to illuminate the stage but to signal nighttime. Theatrical signs of darkness are often intensified by violent action, as in the drinking on watch (2.3) or the killing of Roderigo and the wounding of Cassio (5.1). The latter scene, particularly, reveals how actors on the bare Elizabethan stage, in full daylight, convey a sense of darkness and dread: they grope about, look apprehensive, call for lights, and gradually come to understand what the audience, in its omniscience, has known all along.

Illusion-making of this sort is central to a play that is so concerned with deceptive appearances and overhearing. Iago is the master of illusion, and his dominance as a baleful kind of dramatist indicates how hard it is not to be deceived by show. We watch Roderigo, Othello, and indeed virtually everyone fall under the influence of his image-making ability. What are we as audience to believe? We are left in Act 5 with a stage image that focuses our attention on this problem of truth and reputation: Desdemona’s bed. Thrust on stage or set in the discovery space at the rear of the stage for the play’s final scene, it is a central stage property that tests the very nature of theatrical illusion. Desdemona lies slain within its bed curtains, while Emilia and others struggle to discover what has occurred. Othello, who has begun the scene believing he could snuff out the life of Desdemona as simply as snuffing out a candle, learns too late that Desdemona is not what he, in his diseased imagination, has pictured her to be. The final “tragic loading of this bed” leaves us with an unforgettable picture of Othello’s failure, but also of the innocence that his doubt and Iago’s slander cannot finally unsay.