The Many Faces of Othello

Ira Aldridge playing Othello in the 19th century, from a painting by James Northcote

Humans have a built-in pattern detection facility that is a key method for making sense of things. Making sense is, after all, an essential survival skill. Barraged daily by a firehose of sensory data, we have to employ some means of sifting, sorting, discarding and embracing to sidestep the collapse into meaningless chaos.

But when it is your brain that is doing the sorting—most of it happening without your cognition—it is difficult if not impossible to determine just what algorithms are being used. And that involuntary, invisible filtering system creates a lens through which we view the world. Its formation is complex and multi-dimensional, but it feels like it belongs to us, a feature of the blended sense of self that includes our particular consciousness, personality, culture, history, gender, belief system. Being “objective” (yes, it deserves those quotes) is not really a capacity we have, trapped as we are in this plethora of subjective and very personal sense-making survival systems.

It helps to be reminded that “normal is me” is not an accurate model for living. Encountering the relentless logic of historian Yuval Noah Harari, particularly in his most recent book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is a good way to step outside those preconceived ideas and view the world through a wider angled lens. Another useful method is to spend time with the gifted ones who tap into patterns larger than themselves and their particular era. Homer. Dante. Shakespeare. Austen. Melville.

At a recent American Repertory Theater production of Shakespeare’s Othello, I considered once again how far Shakespeare went outside the construct of his Elizabethan life to write with such fresh provocation and insight. The 21st century places great value on perspectival reframing, and Othello can be read meaningfully through any number of alternate narratives: Feminism and misogyny, racism and xenophobia, religious bigotry and anti-Muslimism, postcolonialism, Marxism and class struggle, the psychology of envy, bias and perspective. After having just experienced the success of A Doll’s House, Part 2 at the Huntington Theater—Lucas Hnath‘s contemporary response to Ibsen’s 19th century play—the material for digging deeper into these modern themes is clearly abundant.

The current production in Cambridge is by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is directed by the formidable Bill Rauch. (Rauch has been a guest at ART in the past, previously directing All the Way and Fingersmith, both reviewed on Slow Muse.) In the notes Rauch wrote about the production, he asked the question, “Is there a play in the canon that speaks more precisely to this twenty-first century American moment than Othello?”

Author Virginia Mason Vaughan‘s description of the narrative potential in Othello expands on that thought:

Shakespeare wove the contradictory discourses of his age into Othello’s tangled web, whether it be the conflict between women’s self-rule and patriarchal marriage, western society’s fascination with and fear of the Islamic or African other, or the resentment caused by shifting economic parameters. 400 years later the discourses have changed, but as contemporary appropriations of Othello remind us, the issues have only intensified.

Set in a contemporary naval military milieu—with cell phones, text messaging, a work out gym and a “duke” who is more of a deal brokering bureaucrat—the production has a kind of Everyman quality to it. Othello, in his naval dress uniform, is a successful military commander. Iago is a white disgruntled male, bitter in believing he has lost his place in line, and full of hate and resentment towards an outsider—AKA as immigrant—who has hierarchical dominion over him. (Iago’s MAGA hat is implied rather than worn.) Desdemona is a young woman who followed her heart and believes she has every right to, but quickly discovers that decisions are made about her and for her by the men in her world. Emilia is an unwitting accomplice to her amoral husband who gets woke too late in this sad tale of deceit and, yes, fake news.

There are obvious advantages to drawing parallels between 17th century Cyprus and 21st century America. But by making it an Everyman story, the character of Othello suffers a flattening, stripped of the exceptionalism that is so apparent in the play itself. Actor Chris Butler‘s portrayl of The Moor does not speak to that nobility of character. Butler is more like the nice guy next door, cheerfully naive in believing he is on a roll (winning beautiful Desdemona’s love, a new tour of duty as a reward for his career success) but who is taken down way too easily by a maliciously bitter and conniving cohort. In this telling Othello just seems, well, a little dense and unwitted. Without that “Othello as noble soul” dynamic, the story takes on a very different shape.

While the exploration of the narrative themes is rich, the character dynamic of the play suffers. That may have been Rauch’s intention, making ideas paramount above all else. In writing about the production, Rauch addresses the “morality play” construct:

We hope to intensify the pressure cooker of a plot in which our characters’ lives unravel in what is paradoxically a grotesquely blunt morality play with psychological insights of unparalleled nuance. Even under threat of torture, Iago won’t reveal his true motivations. It’s left to us to search for meaning in the wreckage that our human addiction to bias leaves in its wake.

I never regret experiencing an idea-rich, intentional production, and this production of Othello is full of ideas and intentionality. While I had some reservations about its overall success, what is unabashedly great is the set. This is not trivial. Christopher Acebo‘s vision, both minimalist and evocative, is quite unforgettable and goes a long way to make the evening memorable.

Othello is at the Loeb Theater in Cambridge through February 9th.

Oregon Shakespeare Production of Othello, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge (Photo: American Repertory Theater)