“Speak of Me as I Am”

DEC 17, 2018

Finding Othello in the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library

Shakespeare’s Othello is a character of contradictions. Othello is, in his own words, the paradoxical “honorable murderer”: he is the perpetrator of a terrible crime, but also the victim of Iago’s ruthless deceptions. He is confident in the art of war but feels insecure in his own marriage. Despite his high-ranking position in its military, he is an outsider in the Republic of Venice, referred to throughout the text as “The Moor” while other characters, individualized, are called by their given names. In the seventeenth century when Othello was written, the term “Moor” was generally understood to mean “Muslim” and was applied to peoples of Berber and Arab descent—usually from North Africa, but also from the Middle East or Spain. Additionally, the term was more widely used to refer to peoples from across the African continent, regardless of their religious or cultural affiliations, and there are ongoing scholarly debates as to what Shakespeare specifically intended in his use of the word as applied to Othello. Throughout the play’s production history, these complexities have resulted in a wide variety of interpretations of the role. Records from generations of performance reflect a changing image of Othello, shifting in tandem with conceptions of masculinity, nobility, and race within the public imagination.

The first recorded performance of Othello took place on November 1, 1604 starring Richard Burbage, one of the most famous actors of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men. Othello was one of the best-known roles of Burbage’s varied career, which included characters ranging from Romeo to Richard III. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the lineage of white actors performing Othello in blackface was effectively a who’s who of notable players, including David Garrick (England, 1745), Edmund Kean (England, 1814), and Edwin Booth (America, 1881). During this time, exoticized stereotypes of blackness—with roots in Elizabethan processions and plays depicting Moors as giants—meant that Othello was expected to be tall and imposing. A small man, Garrick was considered ill-suited for the role, while the handsome and more physically commanding Irish actor Spranger Barry became the eighteenth century’s most esteemed Othello. As the popularity of Napoleon began to rise, however, the image of heroic warrior-types started to shift. Slender builds and highly polished manners became acceptable expressions of the character, and slight-framed performers, including Kean and Booth, played Othello to great acclaim. This trend would be interrupted by Italian actor Tommaso Salvini, who took the English-speaking world by storm in the 1870s with a fervent performance that rejected the preference many actors of the time were showing for beautiful speech over action. Seeing an Italian actor perform the role thrilled American and British audi-ences. Echoing the sentiments of many audience members who saw Salvini’s performance, one critic observed, “the Moors are akin to the Latins…being of Latin temperament, Othello is played better by Latins than Englishmen.”

This enthusiasm for a non-Anglo-Saxon Othello had not been widely shared by Ira Aldridge’s audiences 40 years earlier who, in 1833, saw a prominent Black performer play the character for the first time. A month after Edmund Kean’s final performance as Othello at Drury Lane, Aldridge, an American actor with a long and lauded career, received mostly lukewarm reviews after his debut in the role at Covent Garden. 1833 was the year that slavery was abolished in the British colonies, and some, perhaps in response to this political shift, bemoaned the notion of a Black man stepping onto a major British stage in one of Shakespeare’s great tragic roles. A few nights after Aldridge’s Othello opened, an outbreak of influenza in London forced the theater to close for five days. When the theater reopened, Othello—and the other two shows in which Aldridge had been featured—were removed from the repertory. As the National Omnibus reported: “Mr. Aldridge has been the victim of an unmanly, vindictive, and unprincipled persecution, got up by a gang of callous, mischievous ruffians, who took the advantage of an unworthy prejudice, which still lingers in the minds of weak persons.”

Robeson is triumphant! - Howard Barnes, Herald Tribune

American actor Paul Robeson’s three turns as Othello marked a junction in the performance history of the play. Robeson, who became an actor in part because of the racial prejudice he experienced as an African American lawyer, achieved early success in his career on stage. He was approached about playing Othello at the Savoy Theatre in London and agreed on the condition that he be allowed to spend several years in England perfecting his pronunciation of the material. For this 1930 production, directed by Ellen van Volkenburg, Robeson chose Peggy Ashcroft to play opposite him as Desdemona. The production met with mixed reviews. Most agreed that Robeson spoke the text well but felt the direction of the piece was poorly conceived. Audiences also protested the number of times Robeson and Ashcroft, who were having an affair at the time, kissed on stage—ironically replicating the same anxiety surrounding interracial relationships that informs the plot of the tragedy.

By 1943, Robeson, who had become increasingly politically minded while travelling extensively throughout Europe, including parts of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and wartime Spain, had come to firmly identify the cause of Black Americans with the situations of oppressed peoples around the world. Believing it was time for the United States to see an interracial Othello, Robeson approached Margaret Webster to direct him on Broadway. Contractually, Robeson had exclusive final say on all casting and costume decisions, and he shared artistic control over all aspects of the production. “In our conflict,” stated the show’s program note, “all races are allied to fight for common ideals.” Despite an air of idealism in an America professing strong anti-fascist beliefs, the production was launched cautiously with a trial engagement at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. After a warm reception in Cambridge, it moved to Broadway for a record-breaking 296-performance run.

The multicultural production featured Uta Hagen as Desdemona and José Ferrer as Iago, neither of whom had the star power of Robeson at the time. Both would have been dropped from the Broadway production had Robeson not argued on their behalf, going so far as to negotiate top billing for them both. In line with Robeson’s broader and uncompromising advocacy for equality, when the company toured, they refused to perform at segregated theaters. After the war, Robeson was one of many artists, including Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Robeson was seen as having controversial political attitudes, and his passport was withdrawn in 1950. Nine years later, in a successful attempt to force the return of his passport, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre invited Robeson to play Othello in Stratford, England.

After Robeson first played Othello in 1930, one reviewer announced that “no white man should ever dare presume to play [Othello] again.” This was not to be the case. On film, Orson Welles played the role in 1952, followed by Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-nominated 1965 performance. In fact, in England, white actors would continue playing the role well into the 1980s. And, while many established actors of color—including Earle Hyman (1953), Ben Kingsley (1986), and Laurence Fishburne (1995)—have now lent their talents to the role, opinions on who should play Othello continue to vary. In 1998, Ghanaian-born British actor Hugh Quarshie asked: “When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men…?” In a similar vein, Sidney Poitier once told James Earl Jones (The Night of the Iguana) that he refused to play the role because, as he put it, “I cannot go on stage and give audiences a black man who is a dupe.” Jones himself played the role in seven different productions between 1956 and 1982. Jones rejected producers’ encouragement to perform “black rage,” instead finding inspiration in imagining an Othello born into a rich historical Muslim culture, such as that of Spain before the Moorish expulsion. “Was Othello a savage?” asked Jones. “All I had to do was go to the Alhambra in Spain to know that it could not be so.”

Hugh Quarshie later decided that the role should continue to be played by Black actors, as long as Othello was played as a man responding to racism, “not giving a pretext for it.” As Quarshie has identified, there are complex politics at play in Othello’s identity. Each production that engages with these complexities must find its own answer to the question of who Othello is, or should be. By doing so, each production joins in dialogue with the play’s rich and varied history. In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production coming to the A.R.T. this winter, director Bill Rauch’s contribution to that history is a production that avoids casting one Black actor to play Othello in an otherwise white ensemble. “Given the glorious complexity of our society, that felt like the wrong direction for this production,” says Rauch. The production’s cast of twelve features eight actors who identify as people of color, creating new possibilities in answer to the question: “Who is Othello?”


Elizabeth Amos is the A.R.T. Dramaturgy Apprentice.


Milly S. Barranger, Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater (University of Michigan Press, 2004)
Sheila Tully Boyle, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001)
Sarah Hovde, “A contract for Othello” (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2016)
Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The early years, 1807-1833 (University of Rochester Press, 2011)
Lois Potter, Shakespeare in Performance: Othello (Manchester UP, 2002)
Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello: the search for the identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by three centuries of actors and critics (University of California Press, 1961)
Dale Stinchcomb, “Full freedom, not an inferior brand” (Houghton Library Blog, 2016)


Image Credits
Poster from the 1943 Broadway production of Othello starring Paul Robeson. Photo: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library/Harvard University
Ira Aldridge as Othello (1854). Photo: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library/Harvard University
Costume design for James Earl Jones as Othello at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut (1981). Photo: courtesy of Robert Fletcher

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