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 screen
Othello, The Moor of Venice
Shakespeare could not, of course, have imagined a world in which people would see performances of his plays projected onto large or small screens rather than acted live in theaters, but that has become the case. In the more than one hundred years since the first film of a Shakespeare play was made (in 1899, an excerpt from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of King John), the screen has become Shakespeare’s proper medium no less than the stage or the printed page. If Shakespeare’s works are undisputedly literary classics and staples of our theatrical repertories, they have also inescapably become a part of the modern age’s love affair with film. In a movie theater, on a television screen, or on a DVD player, Shakespeare’s plays live for us, and thereby reach audiences much greater than those that fill our theaters.
It is, however, a development not always welcomed. Some critics complain that Shakespeare on screen is different from (and worse than) Shakespeare in the theater. Certainly it is a distinct experience to see a play in a darkened movie theater with actors larger than life. It is different, too, to see it on a television screen with actors smaller than they are in life, and where the experience of play watching is inevitably more private than in any theater.
But there are obvious advantages as well. On screen, performances are preserved and allowed easily to circulate. If films of Shakespeare may sometimes lack the exhilarating provisionality of live theater, they gain the not insignificant benefit of easy accessibility. In a town without a theater company one can see a Shakespeare play virtually at will. Some newly filmed version of a Shakespeare play is released seemingly every year. A video or DVD can be rented even if the film itself has passed from the local cineplex. And on video we can replay—even interrupt—the performance, allowing it to repeat itself as we attend to details that might otherwise be missed.
Filmed Shakespeare is indeed different from staged Shakespeare or Shakespeare read, but it is no less valuable for being so. It provides a way—and for most of us the most convenient way—to see the plays. For people who cannot get to the theater and who find the printed text difficult to imagine as a theatrical experience, filmed Shakespeare offers easy access to a performance. For students for whom the language of a play often seems stilted and archaic, the enactment clarifies the psychological and social relations of the characters. For all of us who love Shakespeare, his availability on film gives us an archive of performances to be viewed and enjoyed again and again. It is no less an authentic experience than seeing Shakespeare in the theater, for the modern theater (even the self-conscious anachronisms like the rebuilt Globe) imposes its own anachronisms upon the plays (as indeed does a modern printed edition like this one). And arguably, as many like to claim, if Shakespeare lived today he would most likely have left Stratford for Hollywood.
With its taut narrative of racial and marital strife, Othello has attracted the talents of major directors, actors, and operatic stars. From the beginnings of film, it was a favorite among silent-film producers, including a Vitagraph eleven-minute version from New York in 1908, four from Italy in 1907, 1909, 1914, and 1921, three from Germany in 1907, 1918, and 1922 (the last of these directed by Dimitri Buchowetzki in the idiom of German theatrical expressionism, with Emil Jannings as Othello and Werner Krauss as Iago), and one each from Austria (1908) and Denmark (1911). An animated cartoon version by Anson Dyer appeared in 1920. George More O’Ferrall’s fifty-six-minute studio television version for the BBC in 1937 was an event, with Baliol Holloway as Othello, Celia Johnson as Desdemona, and Anthony Quayle as Cassio; Jessica Tandy and Ralph Richardson had turned down the opportunity, but their replacements were no less well known.
All this was prelude to Orson Welles’s black-and-white Othello in 1952, with Welles as director and in the title role. Generally excoriated by the critics in its own time, and failing miserably at the box office in the United States, the film has made a comeback with its rerelease on video in 1992. Unchanged other than for technical remastering to clarify the images and the sound, Welles’s Othello on its fortieth birthday found itself in a postmodern world readily attuned to the film’s experimental montage effects, its rapid cutting and penchant for discontinuities, and its unexpected camera angles. Welles’s own reputation had, by 1992, ascended into superstardom. Part of the film’s eerie unevenness arose from its having been filmed over a three-year period in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, with Welles’s Italian financial backers pulling out or declaring bankruptcy, so the shooting in Morocco and Italy had to be suspended three times, his unhappy actors and crew never knowing when they would be let go (Suzanne Cloutier was his third Desdemona). Yet those who stuck by him were fiercely loyal to his vision of a film noir centered on the motif of fear of entrapment.
Through his use of iron bars and stone vaults, Welles conjures up a world of conspiracy and insidious temptation. The opening shot tells the end of the story, with Iago (Michael MacLiammóir) hauled aloft in a cage by soldiers as a funeral cortège marches solemnly along the eighteenth-century battlements of Mogador citadel in Morocco. As the film moves from a windswept landscape to dark interiors, we see the characters in shadows: hidden, furtive, enigmatic. Othello overhears the conversation of Iago and Cassio (Michael Lawrence), ostensibly about Desdemona, from a place of dark concealment. Everywhere, the corridors of Mogador are a network of dimly lighted cul-de-sacs, windings, and barriers. Welles is an imposingly tall, large, deep-voiced, and majestic Othello, yet prone to secret fears that betray themselves through the anxiety of his eyes. (Welles’s Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight achieves a similar effect.) MacLiammóir’s Iago is afflicted by a sexual impotence and closet homosexuality that, to Welles and MacLiammóir, help unlock the secret of Iago’s malicious pleasure in destroying the happiness of Desdemona, Othello, and Cassio. In the wake of the murder of Desdemona, shown in painfully detailed close-up, we see Othello imprisoned by a huge iron-barred door. The mood and setting are unrelentingly stark.
Along with his Macbeth (1948), Welles’s Othello was conceived by him as taking up the challenge of Laurence Olivier’s successful Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), to show that Shakespeare in the United States and on film could compete with the best of the British theater establishment. Another post—World War II response to this competition was Sergei Yutkevich’s Soviet film of 1955, lavishly produced in color with a musical score by Aram Khachaturian and a script based on the Boris Pasternak translation into Russian that Grigori Kozintsev would later use in his 1970 Lear. Yutkevich, author of an impressive scholarly study of Shakespeare on Film (Shekspir i Kino) in 1973, was deeply persuaded that film should be regarded as the proper heir to the Elizabethan theater. Though marred by an inept voice dubbing for its release in the West, this film is spectacular in its depiction of a sea battle and of the scenic beauties of the island of Cyprus, all as a backdrop to the operatic-like performances of Sergei Bondarchuk as Othello, Andrea Popov as Iago, and Irina Skobtseva as Desdemona. Yutkevich won the title of Best Director at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, presumably more for the breathtaking handsomeness of his film than for its insightful acting.
Stuart Burge’s film of 1965 was based on a highly successful staging of the play for London’s Old Vic in 1964 with Laurence Olivier in the title role. What had worked so well in the theater proves to be rather more disconcerting on film. Seen up close in blackface in full color and with an alarmingly red mouth, Olivier as Othello is a displaced refugee from the stage. This impression is underscored by the patently theatrical settings of a hastily filmed production. The choice of an un-heroic Othello reflects the influence of a revisionary essay by F. R. Leavis analyzing the black general as “insane and self-deceiving,” no less responsible for what happens than is Iago. Caribbean inflections in Olivier’s voice and mannerisms accentuate the portrait of a gullible and self-dramatizing native, even if this condescending interpretation (some reviewers were alarmed at the implicit racism) is offset by Olivier’s commanding dignity and an extraordinarily athletic performance. Olivier howls like an enraged animal in the throes of his violent jealousy. This Othello is putty in the hands of Frank Finlay’s understated, menacing, resourceful, leering, ill-bred, Cockney-accented Iago. The supporting cast is strong, with Derek Jacobi as a well-meaning but unself-disciplined Cassio, Maggie Smith as an innocently bewildered Desdemona of great moral courage, and Joyce Redman as an Emilia desperate to regain her husband’s wandering affections.
The BBC’s Othello in its Shakespeare Plays series, 1981, directed by Jonathan Miller, portrays Othello (Anthony Hopkins) as a light-skinned Arab, by way of shifting the play’s emphasis from racial to marital conflict. Much of the dialogue is conversational and low-key, as though the viewer is being invited to eavesdrop on a domestic tragedy. The result is a quirky, miscast Othello from whom tragic dignity has largely been stripped away. Bob Hoskins as Iago is a loutish, giggling psychopath with an accent that is alternately Cockney and Welsh. Penelope Wilton’s Desdemona is a strong-minded woman outraged at the accusations undeservedly heaped upon her. These characterizations point to a directorial concept that is especially dominant and self-involved. Handsome sets invoke the scenic beauty of Venice in the tradition of Tintoretto. Most reviewers have been bored.
Janet Suzman’s made-for-television filming of Othello in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1988, shortly before the sudden and largely unexpected dismantling of official apartheid in that country, brims with the excited tension of the occasion. Herself a South African and seasoned Royal Shakespeare Company actress, Suzman intrepidly took the chance of casting as Othello a black South African actor (John Kani) of considerable renown but no Shakespeare experience, and as Desdemona a handsomely fair-haired and white South African actress (Joanna Weinberg). The production thus took as its premise a public transgressing of laws against miscegenation. Some whites walked out during the performance, unwilling to tolerate the embrace of a black man and a white woman. Yet much of the mixed-race audience was there because the throwing down of the gauntlet was so courageous and timely. In this political and social context, Iago (Richard Haddon Haines) becomes the embodiment of a fascist police state intent on destroying Othello for the threat he represents to a racially paranoid society. Suzman has managed to transfer the intense excitement of the original production to a film that is visibly located for much of its action in the Market Place Theatre, where the play had first appeared. This film is still available, and it is quite remarkable.
An interesting experiment in mixed-race casting is Ted Lange’s Rockbottom Productions Othello of 1989, translated to film from a Los Angeles stage play with black actors as Othello (Ted Lange) and Iago (Hawthorne James) and a white actress (Mary Otis) as Desdemona. Allegiances and jealousies are markedly altered by this shifting of the racial balance. An MTV camera style and an insistent musical score help define this film as a probing meditation on African American experience in the cultural matrix of Los Angeles. A 1980 film by Liz White features an all-black cast, mainly students at Howard University.
The Jamaican-born opera star Willard White excels in a superbly televised Othello (1990) taken from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in its experimental Stratford theater called The Other Place. Under the expert direction of Trevor Nunn, this version maintains the claustrophobic intimacy and intensity of the stage original. Ian McKellen as Iago, outwardly candid and soldierly honest and yet writhing inwardly with jealous rage, is a perfect counterpart to White’s noble Moor. Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona, Sean Baker as Cassio, Michael Grandage as Roderigo, and Zoë Wanamaker as Emilia are all impressively right for their roles. White won the Evening Standard’s award for Best Actor in the 1989 stage production.
For his 1995 Othello starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago, Oliver Parker was so captivated by the idea of the play as an erotic thriller that he wrote in three brief sex scenes. Othello and Desdemona (Irène Jacob) bed down together after their safe arrival in Cyprus; later, she and Cassio (Nathaniel Parker) are twice seen as lovers in Othello’s jealousy-crazed imagination. A fortuitously timely connection to the then-current sensational trial of the celebrated black athlete O. J. Simpson on a charge of having murdered his white ex-wife potentially added to the box-office appeal of this film. Yet it was not greeted as a great commercial or artistic success, perhaps in part because of missed opportunities for tragic greatness in the interpretation of character. The pacing of many sequences is painfully and distractingly slow. This, together with severe cutting of the text, deprives the story of its taut logical and emotional development. Emilia (Anna Patrick) is played with touching integrity in the final scenes, but her relationship to her husband and to Desdemona is so underdeveloped earlier in the film that her actions seem insufficiently examined. Roderigo is a disaster, grotesquely overplayed by the talented Michael Maloney. Fishburne as Othello is physically imposing as a man initially confident of his own sexual charisma, but his jealousy comes upon him so quickly in this truncated presentation that it seems more irrational than it really is. The best scenes are those in which Iago’s insinuations begin to work on the mind and soul of Othello, turning him from manly dignity to suspicion and hatred. Branagh as Iago is manipulative, canny, resourcefully in charge until things fall apart for him as well. In a fleeting glimpse of emotional vulnerability, he embraces Othello as these two men dedicate themselves to the destruction of Othello’s wife. Many fine moments in this uneven film alternate with stretches of erratic directorial judgment. A common critical verdict is that this Othello is not up to Branagh’s own Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet, though better than his later Love’s Labor’s Lost.
Among the film adaptations or spinoffs that have been inspired by Othello is Alexander Korda’s Men Are Not Gods (1936), with Sebastian Shaw as Edmond Davey, a famous actor of Othello who is narrowly prevented from smothering on stage his Desdemona; in real life she is being courted by Tommy Stapleton (Rex Harrison), a cub newspaper reporter. George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947) stars Ronald Colman as a Broadway leading man named Tony John who undertakes the role of Othello with his ex-wife and regular leading lady, Brita (Signe Hasso), as Desdemona only to discover how perilously life can imitate art: Tony becomes insanely jealous of his ex-wife. Jubal (1956) is a Western with Ernest Borgnine as a gullible rancher named Pinky, Valerie French as his wife, Mae, and Rod Steiger as the insidious tempter who persuades Pinky that Mae is in love with the Cassio-like Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford). All Night Long (1961) translates Othello into the London jazz world, where a black musician, Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris), deceived by the insinuations of his drummer, Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), tries to strangle his white girlfriend, Delia (Marti Stevens). In a rock opera version called Catch My Soul (1974), a black singer (Richie Havens as Othello) is a cult religious leader in a desert commune run by Iago (Lance LeGault). Most recently (2000), in Tim Blake Nelson’s O, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s play is transformed into Odin James, or O. J. (Mekhi Phifer), a black South Carolina high school basketball star with a white girlfriend named Desi Brable (Julia Stiles) and a jealous buddy, Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), who bitterly resents having been displaced as the basketball team’s best player. Andrew Davies’s televised Othello, broadcast on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre on January 28, 2002, chooses as its updated setting the London of race riots and social injustice in the 1990s and afterward; at the end, Jago (Christopher Eccleston) not only walks free but is rewarded by being named police commissioner. Giuseppi Verdi’s magnificent opera adaptation, Otello (1887), was televised live from the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 1948, in what turned out to be North America’s first experience with Shakespeare on television. An Italian version was released in 1982 as performed in Verona. Franco Zeffirelli directed a handsome and stirring Otello in 1986—87, filmed at Milan’s La Scala opera house and on location, with Placido Domingo in the title role and Justino Diaz as Iago. Zeffirelli’s less successful production with Domingo and Sherrill Milnes had been broadcast earlier in 1978, live from the Met, on WNET-TV. Some time shortly after 1987, the Berlin Komischen Opera filmed an Otello in Germany.
Othello, the Moor of Venice
1. 1907 (silent)
Oskar Messter, producer
Franz Porten, director
2. 1908 (silent, 11 minutes)
William V. Ranous and James Blackton, directors
Othello—William V. Ranous
Desdemona—Julia Swayne Gordon
3. 1908 (silent)
Mario Cesarini, director
Desdemona—Maria Adele Gasperini
4. 1909 (silent)
Film d’Arte Italiana
Gerolamo Lo Savio, director
Dimitri Buchowetzki, director
Desdemona—Ica von Lenkeffy
George More O’Ferrall, director
David MacKane, director
Film Marceau/Mercury Productions
Orson Welles, producer and director
9. 1955 (in Russian, trans. by Boris Pasternak, with English subtitles)
Sergei Yutkevich, director
10. 1965 (film of John Dexter’s production for the National Theatre, England, in 1964)
John Brabourne and Anthony Havelock-Allan, producers
Stuart Burge and John Dexter (stage production), directors
New York Shakespeare Festival
Joseph Papp, director
Liz White, producer and director
Jonathan Miller, producer and director
The Bard Series
Jack Nakano, producer
Franklin Melton, director
15. 1988 (South Africa; adaptation of Market Theatre, Johannesburg, production of 1987)
Othello Productions, Inc.
David Pupkewitz, producer
Janet Suzman, director
Iago—Richard Haddon Haines
James M. Swaine and Katherine A. Kaspar, producers
Ted Lange, director
Greg Smith, producer
Trevor Nunn, director
Jonathan Olsberg, producer
Oliver Parker, director
1. 1936, Men Are Not Gods
London Film Productions
Alexander Korda, producer
Walter Reisch, director
2. 1947, A Double Life
Michael Kanin, producer
George Cukor, director
3. 1956, Jubal
William Fadiman, producer
Delmer Daves, director
4. 1961, All Night Long
Bob Roberts, producer
Basil Deardon, director
5. 1974, Catch My Soul
Patrick McGoohan, director
6. 1982, Othello, el commando negro Maria J. Gonzalez, producer
Max H. Boulois, director
Othello—Max H. Boulois
7. 2001, O
Michael I. Levy and William Shively, producers
Tim Blake Nelson, director
Odin James (Othello)—Mekhi Phifer
Desi Brable (Desdemona)—Julia Stiles
Hugo Goulding (Iago)—Josh Hartnett
8. 2002, Othello
London Weekend Television
Geoffrey Sax, director
John Othello—Eamonn Walker
Dessie Brabant—Keeley Hawes
Ben Jago—Christopher Eccleston
9. 2003, In Othello (India)
Royster Abel, director