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About this book

An introductory guide to Othello in performance offering a scene-by-scene theatrically aware commentary, contextual documents, a brief history of the text and first performances, case studies of key productions, a survey of screen adaptations, a sampling of critical opinion and further reading.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
Othello is a dark play. A man is shouted out of his bed in the middle of the night to find his daughter gone, his country at war; soldiers brawl and kill each other in the dark, unable to recognise each other; lovers elope in the darkness; politicians send their best general at night to defend a country beset by invasion; a woman is murdered by her husband in a darkened bedroom, her murderer taking care to snuff out his candle before committing the deed. All the main characters are introduced at night, all die at night.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

2. Commentary

Without Abstract
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

3. The Play’s Intellectual and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
The sources and primary documents below have been selected to provoke insights into Shakespeare’s treatment of race and gender in Othello. They should provoke productive discussions in rehearsals and workshops. However, understanding the context of the play should not foreclose creative interpretation of the play; on the contrary, if used right, these works, written by people for whom Othello was a contemporary or near-contemporary play, can be used dynamically with the text to generate new ideas for performance. Because Othello is unusually enmeshed in a very complex and emerging cultural context, these documents can only serve as an introduction to the play’s intellectual and cultural contexts. I begin with two of Shakespeare’s sources to shed light on the material with which Shakespeare crafted Othello. Following that, extracts from the anonymous play Lust’s Dominion and Shakespeare’s own early play, Titus Andronicus, present different ways in which the Shakespearean stage represented race. Thomas Rymer’s diatribe against Othello, discussed as a work of criticism in Chapter 6, is reproduced here to illustrate how Othello could provoke extreme reactions nearly a century after it was written. This section concludes with an extract from one of the many journals of travels in Africa published during the period, to give some insight into how the early modern mind encountered (physically and imaginatively) other races.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
Othello was once one of the most important and frequently staged of Shakespeare’s plays. For three centuries, the play dominated the English stage to such an extent that it would be possible to tell the story of theatre’s development from the Jacobean to the Victorian eras solely through Othello’s production history. Richard Burbage, Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready and Henry Irving were all celebrated for either Iago or Othello (often both). Othello was among the first plays to be staged after the Restoration, and may have been the first play to cast women rather than men. In an age when it was common practice to adapt Shakespeare’s plays (sometimes drastically), Othello tended to be performed in its original version. Today, despite the high level of critical and educational interest in Othello, there are fewer opportunities than ever to see the play in performance.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Othello was first filmed in 1906 and a number of short silent movies followed. The play’s vivid stage pictures suited the monochrome, voiceless melodrama of the early years of the cinema. Since then, Othello has continued to attract film-makers, actors and writers with the consequence that there exist more than 20 versions in a variety of languages. However, cinema and television faced similar challenges to the theatre as the cultural politics of representing race and sexual violence shifted. In 1981, director Jonathan Miller was accused of being racist for casting the white actor Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Cinema and television have been more ready to dispense with Shakespeare’s text than the theatre, and since those first silent movies the play’s text has been rewritten, sometimes drastically so. Most films cut the text so that it better fits the expectations of modern audiences. Some films have dispensed with the text altogether, retaining the play’s structure and characters but writing new dialogue that puts the play into an immediate, contemporary context. In this chapter, I shall discuss in more detail the most widely available examples of each of these approaches. I shall begin with a discussion of the best-known films of the text as written (even if heavily cut), then go on to talk about two significant modern-day adaptations.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

6. Critical Assessment

Abstract
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most discussed plays, and has been a source of critical fascination since the 17th century. The number of publications about Othello has accelerated in the last 20 years, and anyone now confronted with the range and depth of this material will find it utterly daunting. Othello is not a play that is easily reducible to key themes and tragic flaws. Shakespeare told the story in a way which seems to defy narrative logic. Iago either has no motive, or he has several; Othello may or may not be royal; the handkerchief may be a magical heirloom, a token of fidelity — or just a spotted handkerchief. Time and location shift in different ways. The only character we get to know, through revealing soliloquy, is Iago, and we never really get to know him: ‘I am not what I am,’ he insists. Iago constructs the story for us, mediates our understanding of it, and yet no character in Shakespeare is a more untrustworthy guide, and at the point when he most needs to speak, when he is compelled to explain himself, he retreats into permanent silence. Othello cannot be contained within critical discourse, which often seems to flounder in attempts to describe the play’s horrors. This is a play in which the central character literally has a fit, who reveals his monstrosity, and yet never loses his dignity, even bestowing on the murder of his lover the aura of a duty, a rite. Othello is a baffling play whose effects disturb at levels which resist critical analysis, with a madness which runs ahead of any attempt to contain and contextualise. As Samuel Johnson once observed, the play‘can draw no aid from critical illustration’ (Vickers, 1974, p. 165).
Stuart Hampton-Reeves
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