The meaning of blackness in Othello

[Read the post]

A bit O/T, but surprised this hasn’t been mentioned here yet:


First off, Lawerence Fishburne makes one badass Othello. Second, I’ve always wanted to play Othello (I’m not black but in historical context, Arab is close enough.) I’m not an actor, but I’ve considered going into community theater for fun. Othello was always interesting to me because I’ve related somewhat to the sense of suspicion I detect around my race. It’s always kind of there, hovering, like I might “turn” somehow. It’s a very familiar feeling I get from Othello.


I was rooting for Iago. Ken Branagh is great.


This is such an interesting question. I read a little about it last year, but I don’t think there’s one conclusive answer.

Gilbert Gottfried, not so much.


Do this. You won’t regret it and you will appreciate Shakespeare at least 200% more.

Just don’t expect to get any money out of it.


I have a vague recollection that Patrick Stewart once played in a colour swapped version of Othello. Could be he produced it as well, but even less sure of that.


This is an interesting idea, but I think that the racism and personal struggles that Othello faces amount to more than “failed assimilation and acculturation.” Like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, and like the other characters in the play, Othello is as much a product of the racist society around him as of his own choices. Othello has not “failed to assimilate”; in some ways, society has failed him.

I think that in order to understand Othello’s hamartia, we also have to take into account the fact that he is a renowned and experienced soldier. He is accustomed to identifying an enemy and executing a plan of attack, and for that he is a hero. When he applies his otherwise heroic qualities to his personal life, Desdemona becomes the victim of his misdirected rage (and of Iago’s malice).

On the other hand, the tragic hero of the play may also be Desdemona, whose total dedication to her husband, evidence of her profound generosity and kindness, leads to her tragic downfall; that the play is named for her murderer is the final injury against her.


I had an English teacher obsessed with Shakespeare. She gave some interesting thoughts about Othello’s ethnicity. It could all be BS, but it was interesting.

First of all, the back story was that a political deal was struck that required a foreigner in Othello’s spot. Someone with minimal connections to existing power structures, and excluded from social and political circles make up those power structures. Someone isolated. This made the position more neutral and acceptable.

For a cosmopolitan trade city, this meant someone really foreign. But Shakespeare also had to write for the masses. He couldn’t go too obscure. A Moor was convenient. Foreign, hint of forbidden, salacious (gotta get bodies in the door).

As far as race, Othello could be whatever. It’s secondary to his otherness. Theater companies made him dark skinned to accentuate otherness. Using the public’s fear and racism to make the play exciting and sell tickets. Now days, we just assume he’s black.


To us today, the word “black” carries with it a specific cluster of associations informed by history, culture, stereotypes, and literature.

Speak for yourself! Both “us” and “today” are rather nebulous. Don’t go implicating me in your weird conventions.

I can definitely respect people relating some meanings. But when somebody feels a need to persuade others that it is The Meaning seems more than a bit pompous.

failed assimilation and acculturation.

The best kind!

Probably BS.

Shakespeare based Othello on the 1565 short story “Un Capitano Moro” or “A Moorish Captain”, by Giovanni Battista Giraldi.
The plot was roughly the same, if less fleshed out; only Desdemona was named, all the other characters were were only referred to by their role (the Moor, the Ensign); and it was clearly racist, ending on an explicit moral that warned white women against other races’ men.

Therefore it is unlikely that Shakespeare or even Giraldi had any complex political backstory planned. It was just a matter of a xenophobic fable being passed around and modified in the retelling

This is a very difficult issue to deal with. By far the greatest performance of Shakespeare’s Othello I have ever seen is the filmed version of Laurence Olivier’s stage performance (it’s available on DVD and I highly recommend it).

I saw James Earl Jones play Othello, and Christopher Plummer Iago, on Broadway in the 1970s or '80s. James Earl Jones didn’t compare to Olivier (no even close), but Plummer was a stupendously great Iago.

Should Olivier’s performance, which in my opinion is the benchmark by which all performances of Othello should be measured, be discounted because he was white? He was an actor, someone who by definition can portray a character of any race.

Differing points of view are encouraged!

1 Like

It’s telling that your life experiences have led you to believe Laurence Oliver is the victim here because of a discussion relating to a role he played one time possibly not being appropriate for non-people of color to play and that that’s what you’re worried about, over the actual issue.

1 Like

I would be careful talking about racism in the historical context of Edwardian England. The concept of race had not yet been invented. There was still such a thing as foreigness and The Other, but there was not quite the sense of “that’s how dark-skinned people are” and instead things were more couched in religion and linguistic aculturation. It took a while before scientific materialism and the slave trade institutionalized racist ideas.


I don’t think Olivier is a victim of anything, other than overacting in films as he got older. But in the same way that Al Jolson is marginalized in the overarching sense because he sometimes performed in blackface, it would be a tragedy if Olivier’s magnificent portrayal of Othello is marginalized (or not even brought into a discussion) because he was a white man working in blackface. Victimization is different than exclusion or disqualification.

1 Like

Edwardian England was 1901-1914, do you mean Elizabethan?

Racism may not have been as developed then as it was now, but it was there. At the time, the Western world still looked at everyone else like “savages,” and was actively undertaking projects of colonialism, slavery, and wholesale slaughter–which was all acceptable within the racist parameters of the rulers at the time, just as it is now, even if it is more polite and circumspect.

The transatlantic slave trade began in the 16th century–right before Shakespeare came around. So the material and the ideological basis for the racism that we know today was already in place, and Shakespeare not only knew about it, he included the subject in some of his plays. After all, Othello is supposed to have been written a few years into the 17th century, while the original source material was almost 40 years old by that point. As @nemonowan points out above, the original was pretty clear about its racism.

The Merchant of Venice is replete with incredibly racist material directed toward Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. The Tempest, Shakespeare’s only original play, is generally considered to take an anti-colonial stance. Several characters in Othello cast doubt on his character because he’s a Moor and accuse him of stereotypical behavior attributed explicitly to his black skin and cultural background. Othello himself says in III.iii that he has often been accused of winning over Desdemona through drugs and conjuration magic. Racism is an explicit, pretty heavy-handed topic in the play and is well-documented by scholars and by voices in popular culture.


I think they are two somewhat related problems. That of opportunity, and the craft of acting itself.

For acting, the less like the person portrayed the actor is, the more of a triumph of acting it is. This is why I hate the system of Hollywood stardom. Because when people are billed for being recognizable, it is unprofitable for them to disappear into roles. It is easier for them then to be playing versions of their self. People who can struggle and succeed to depict characters of drastically different sexes, races, classes, genders, ages, ethnicities, eras, etc are (or would be) greatly expanding the craft of acting.

But this is only true when it can be assumed that people have equal opportunities to participate, that belonging to a particular category is not itself a reason for exclusion as distinct from acting ability. Unfortunately, people still let entrenched groups with money to a large extent control what is made, with whom, and how it is distributed. So some tendencies die hard. I think that institutionalized art is a huge hindrance, not unlike how institutionalized religion is. Those who have a story to tell and who want to act should just do so, and bypass the moribund systems which have been in place, and surpass them.With more exposure, hopefully people will increasingly realize that diversity is life.

1 Like

Yep. The reversed race concept was his idea, so he was probably at least co-producer or some such. I wonder how they handled the line, “And now my name is as black as my face”?


A black ram is tupping your white ewe!

Yup, no racial fears there :wink:

1 Like