The Ideology of Empire: A Review of Public Theater’s Othello

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Oct 9, 2009


By William Shakespeare

A Public Theater/LABoratory Theater Company Production

At the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts

Closed October 4


Poor Othello—lured into a dangerous marriage by Desdemona, undone altogether by Iago, and now battered into senselessness by Peter Sellars! But at least Desdemona and Iago paid with their lives for their manipulations of, and machinations against, Othello; Sellars seems to have assaulted Othello, the play, with impunity. (That’s Sellars with an “a,” the iconoclastic U.S. director, not the late British comic actor, Peter Sellers.)


In brief, Sellars (with considerable help from set designer Gregor Holzinger) robbed the play of every vestige of sense and coherence. The set was basically a bare stage with a platform in the middle, on which from time to time Othello (John Ortiz) and Desdemona (Jessica Chastain) rolled around caressing each other, although curiously without conveying any sense of passion. The passion was presumably provided by the renowned Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, whose one-note passion was rage, directed at the world with such lack of discrimination that Iago’s particular animus against Othello was lost in the din. Some characters “appeared” only via cell phone conversations. Other characters were merged, and the play appeared to be trimmed down from the original, yet the production was scheduled to last four hours.


But the chaos, absurdities, and other offenses against the play pale, so to speak, in light of the primary one. Even while retaining all Shakespeare’s lines referring to “the Moor’s” dark skin, Sellars cast an apparently white Latino as Othello, robbing the play simultaneously of its engine, which is his color, and its significance, which is the reaction to his color of the white world around him—and Shakespeare’s reaction.


Because to watch a production of Othello that serves the play instead of savaging it is to be present at the birth of racism—not the power structure that privileges white skin over dark skin, but the ideology that supports that structure. Racism as ideology was born as the moral pillar of European imperialism.


Othello was written barely a century after Columbus’ landing in the Americas—a century during which Spain, Portugal, and England were colonizing the lands to the West, slaughtering, enslaving, and ruling over the indigenous peoples. Within another century, European powers would take on the same role in Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia, justifying the slaughter, slavery, and conquest with the notion that Europeans were more fit to rule than everyone else, with the visible distinction between rulers and ruled being the rulers’ lighter skin.


They were speaking at that point of color, i.e., characteristics, not a biological construct called “race”; the latter came some 100 years after Othello. But the fundamental premises of white supremacy are all there in the depiction of the brave, virile black man driven by passion and crushed between two “super-subtle” Venetians who between them bring them to his doom.


The two are Iago and Desdemona—yes, Desdemona. Almost always ignored in productions of the play, allowed to be overshadowed by her death at Othello’s hands, is the fact that, before Iago sets out to manipulate Othello to his final ruin, Desdemona has manipulated him into loving and marrying her. It is Desdemona who courts Othello, coaxing the story of his life from him and responding with sighs, tears, “a world of kisses,” and, finally, the instruction that, if he knows someone who loves her, he should teach that man how to tell his story, “and that would woo her.” It is Desdemona to whom Iago himself refers as a “super-subtle Venetian.”


As to what they call Othello, a sample includes “the thick-lips,” a “lascivious Moor,” and an “old black ram,” who, Iago says, is “even now …tupping [her father’s] white ewe.” Laying out his plot in a soliloquy, Iago declares, “The Moor is of a free and open nature … and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.” Should not such people of color be ruled by white people? Indeed, wouldn’t they be better off? In the play, of course, Othello isn’t better off, but is led to his death by white people, but then they die, too, and none of the deaths are drawn in such a way as to discredit white rule.


A word about Desdemona’s death: Just before he kills himself, Othello asks to be remembered as “one who loved, not wisely, but too well”—a description that might have more aptly fit Desdemona. But unlike the ideology of racism, the ideology that supported domestic violence wasn’t new when Shakespeare wrote Othello. Already centuries old was the idea of a man’s loving a woman—his woman (as Desdemona has become, although earlier in the play she was referred to as her father’s “ewe”)—so much he has to kill her.


After two hours of the chaos that was the Sellars/Public production, there arrived an intermission, for which my companion and I thanked whatever deities we believe in. Not needing to see Desdemona murdered—loudly and senselessly, we were sure—we left.


The play has since closed. But Othello appears frequently on New York stages. Catch it next time it comes around. It’s a compressed education in the theoretical underpinnings of racism and, for good measure, sexism.


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