Decolonising Othello: Challenging the Canon. Changing the conversation
Patrice Naiambana – African Performing Artist/Storyteller
‘If I cannot tell my story to willing listeners, I might as well be a goat. An invisible African goat’. This is a statement I regularly make when deep in conversation with artists operating from the post-colonial dialogic soil of embedded knowledge. The conversation of The Diasporic Personality is a miracle of hybrid multivalencies, born from a wide peripheral vision of the present past. The blackface character Othello and his predicament therefore is apprehended by some nonwhite actors of African ancestry in highly personal ways, unlike the conversations you would ever hear from white English actors. Must this perception disjunct be a perennial inevitable? You may experience this perception disjunct during the Spike Lee films Malcolm X or Bamboozoled. Certain sections of the audience in a cinema hall laugh out loud in self recognition whilst others maintain a studious bemused silence. The process of decolonisation involves the deciphering of perceptions and how these perceptions are produced. ‘Decolonising Othello’ must risk being categorised by Harold Bloom (author of The Western Canon) as an emanation from what he terms ‘the anti-elitist swamp of cultural studies'(1), nevertheless the relevance of Shakespeare’s undeniable illuminating genius in any age and any culture resides surely in the quality of reciprocal interaction between the semiotics of performance and the soul that receives the play. Blooms holds that Shakespeare is the centre of the Canon and in an imperial defence of the universality of Shakespeare declares that Shakespeare invented the human. This lecture holds as a fundamental given that the default position of humanity is not ‘whiteness’. If Shakespeare invented Othello, and Othello is deemed to be black with thick lips (his precise origin has always been in dispute) then I hold it an inalienable right to speak with my thick lips about the human experiences anglo saxon genius presumes to describe, especially where it concerns settings of overt and institutionalised anti-black discrimination. When Bloom declares ‘The Moor tells us that he has been a warrior since he was seven, presumably a hyperbole but indicative that he is all too aware that his greatness has been hard won’, (2) it must be countered that child soldiers are not a hyperbolic invention but real life actuality for many of Othello’s countrymen. When I watch or read Othello therefore my appreciation of this blackface character’s predicament and psychology are likely to differ from Bloom’s eurocentric interpretations both in terms of the function of stories and the choices that Othello makes. I approach these issues as a creator of performance inspired by the raison d’être of the Griot. The Griot’s vocation is predicated on a mediating functionality within his community. The Griot does not merely seek to entertain or satisfy aesthetic considerations. ‘Decolonising Othello’ seeks to find ways to help us listen to each other more effectively rather than simply posit an Africanist or post-colonial reading. I hope to avoid a conclusive ‘Black Theatre’ proposition sitting outside of what is never ever termed ‘White Theatre’.
For white actors (and many black actors) Othello is a great role with which to express their craft and demonstrate acting range. For others Othello is a role they have no wish to play, a negative myth for the communities from which they hail. Kwame Kwei-Armah the UK based African-Caribbean writer and actor has written, ‘As an actor, I have always avoided Othello, simply to challenge the notion that every black actor aspires to playing “the lascivious moor”. Nor does the story of the “old black ram” who is “tupping your white ewe” really encompass my world view’. (3) Ben Okri’s little known essay ‘Five Meditations on Othello’ and Hugh Quarshie, the Ghanian born British Black actor’s study ‘Second Thoughts on Othello’ also raises important questions and doubts. Quarshie poses a legitimate question, ‘When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men, namely that black men or ‘Moors’ are over emotional, excitable and unstable, thereby vindicating Iago’s statement, These Moors are changeable in their wills? Of all the parts of the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should not be played by a black actor.(4)’However Hugh Quarshie’s important intervention has itself been described as emotional. He does go on to offer proposals to amend the text in order to ameliorate the play from what he considers a dilemma. The full implications of his paper has yet been fully translated into critical discourse or creative response. In fact while it is regularly partially quoted in theatre programmes it is not in wide circulation within academia. There is no doubt that Othello is a masterpiece of a play. However Ben Okri, Quarshie, Kwei-Armah, other black artists and myself find aspects of the DNA of the character problematic. Ben Okri asserts,’When a black man in the West is portrayed as noble it usually means that he is neutralised. When white people speak so highly of a Black man’s nobility they are usually referring to his impotence’. (5) For a proud man, Othello appears curiously unconscious of anti-black racism. Maria Lugones states ‘All oppressive control is violent because it attempts to erase selves that we are that are dangerous to the maintenance of domination over us’. (6) However Othello’s disintegration is not located in a Fanonesque inner chaos, though Shakespeare dimly hints that his past contains profound trauma. Othello says meditatively as he watches Desdemona depart in Act 3, sc 3, ‘Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not/Chaos is come again. What is or could be theatrically presented as the nature of this chaos? We are to infer perhaps that suffering has enobled Othello. I was brought up to regard Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Malcolm X,
Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King (the list is quite long) as noble in their resistance against oppression. So we may take different routes to attain nobility. The classical view (also Shakespeare’s proposition) of Othello as a noble hero, a progressive upgrade compared to the stereotypical cruel Moor figure such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, is inherently ambivalent. Quarshie asks, ‘Is there a problem with Othello, if so does the problem lie with me or with Shakespeare?'(7) After an impassioned conversation about Othello, Quarshie sent me the full version of his essay in 1999. Since then spurred on by the divided responses, misapprehensions of his questionings, and the simplistic representations of Africans in the UK mainstream story arenas, I have developing an ‘Art Text’ work in progress entitled ‘The Counsel of Sooty Bosoms’. Its a body of counsel on Othello articulated by writers, artists and citizens who can relate to being called the modern day equivalent of a ‘sooty bosom’ (Brabantio’s insult to Othello Act 1, sc 2, 70). I also set myself the task to explore responses to Othello in diverse environments, cultural locales and age range using storytelling techniques and a performance paradigm entitled The Gospel of Othello. This project sought to explore Shakespeare as a lingua franca for intercultural dialogue and learning. I was particularly interested in the interaction of the non-Shakespearean specialist and non-academic demographic. However it is the claims of Shakespeare’s universality from the priests of The Canon that galvanised me into attempting a Canon of nine Othellos, each uniquely different, but grounded in the diasporic hybrid terrain of ‘the extravagant wheeling stranger of here and everywhere'( Iago on Othello – Act 1, sc 1, 134-5). This approach is related to but differs from post-colonial Shakespearean appropriations, for it does not seek a recovery of identity or asserts a political stance primarily, but acknowledges that our creolised world is no longer monolithically Western or African, that Westernity and Africanity are not fixed in stone. An Othelloesque response to Othello’s injunction to ‘Speak of me as I am'( Act 5, sc 2, 340–346) will attempt to demonstrate that from what we now know of child soldiers, current war torn Aleppo and colonial resistance, Othello’s character need not remain bound in anglo saxon imaginings of blackness. We will re-appraise the canonical view that Othello is a noble romantic hero from a framework that prioritises the socio-political, historical relevance and
transformative potential of storytelling. Inspite of Bloom’s lament that the ascendency of Critical Theory and Multiculturalism has brought about the demise of The Canon, there is no performance of Shakespeare or any play that cannot be anything but contemporary by this simple unavoidable necessity: we experience a play in the ever present now. We cannot help but bring into the theatre space our own fears, longings and histories. A textual examination of the predicament of Othello from a Palimpsestic understanding of history may help us to widen the palette of interpretation for the character and the play. The Elizabethan context of ‘blackness’ as a marker of religious difference will be employed as a clarifying prism in this decolonizing project. There may be an alternative to the emotive and limiting wrangling of the blackness of this Black man, and that is to consider that Othello is behaviourally or psychologically not black at all. A.C. Bradley pointed out ‘Now I repeat that any man situated as Othello was would have been disturbed by Iago’s communications, and I add that many men would have been made idly jealous’. (8) In that case,
why is this character black? What might blackness painted upon a white actor signified to an Elizabethan audience? For 300 years a white actor put on black face to present an Africanist personae. To what extent does the inherent meta-theatricality of Blackness within the text render Othello an inescapable white anglo saxon construct that is always white. Othello proclaims in Act 3, Sc 3, 386-7, ‘I’ll have some proof. Her name, that was as fresh/As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face.’ It is far fetched to impose a reading that declares the royal Othello’s sense of inferiority here, rather these are the lines for a white actor in blackface to utter for an Elizabethan white audience who were fully aware at all times of the whiteness of the actor. Word play and ambivalence are hall marks of
Shakespeare’s plays. In any case Othello appears untouched by race injustice, his sense of honour is not in the slightest bit assailed by Brabantio’s racist invective.
Further it is very rarely mentioned that Othello the best general Venice has ever had is not only a mercenary but whose military history could conceivably have involved ties with powerful Islamic factions and other anti-Christian forces before his baptism. Post 9/11 the vision of the African at the helm of nuclear weaponry is not fantastical. There is no reason why Othello’s calm cannot rest on the supreme knowledge that he is in fact a potential threat capable of commanding huge armies to turn against Venice if the need arose. Not for him the dank ignobility of hiding in caves.
Shakespeare insisted on constructing a black face character, an outsider who is an alien to Venice and her ways. Crucially it is the embedding of Othello’s enraged choices within his blackness, that Othello acts the way he does because he is black that induces profound second thoughts. ‘These Moors are changeable in their wills’ pronounces Honest Iago to Roderigo (Act 1, sc3, 346). It is the suspiciously racist assumption that dogs Shakespeare’s play and forces audiences to turn a blind eye and admire the machiavellian magnificence of Iago’s manipulation. Ania Loomba reminds us that ‘Stories of a Turkish emperor or general loving and then killing a beautiful Christian woman circulated freely in early modern England.'(9) We are unable to wrench away from the perception that Othello in the end behaves in a
stereotypically cruel and jealous manner. Despite the heroic qualities Shakespeare endows Othello, Loomba goes on to add,’each of Othello’s characteristics as a husband, as a man, as a soldier, is always traced to his racial identity. This itself may be the problem. Whether we regard him as noble or debased, challenging or confirming stereotypes, Othello can only be read against a collective category called ‘Moors’. (10) Black Africans today do not generally maintain as an article of honour that we must kill our wives if we believe they are unfaithful. Murdering unfaithful wives is not a culture specific propensity. Any person anywhere may take it upon themselves to murder unfaithful wives and their lovers. We possess other undesirable traits, some of us still eat humans, granted, but Black Africans don’t have a monopoly on cannibalism either. Hungry white European cannibals do exist. I will argue that there are enough tropes laid down by Shakespeare to locate Othello’s vulnerability in other areas other than his skin colour or race. If Black actors are to play Othello it seems simplistic to anchor Othello’s outsiderness on skin colour alone.
I believe that Shakespeare unadulterated contains rich nourishing treasures. We don’t need to rescue Shakespeare from the taint of racism, we just need accessible viable options. Othello is what Okri’s calls ’empty of history’. ‘It is the accepted thing to comment on Othello’s jealousy but few critics seem to realise that his colour, his otherness must imply a specific history in white society’ (11). One may tamper with his plays with unsatisfying results, nevertheless it would be unShakespearean never to attempt an evolution of the stories. Decolonising Othello may legitimately release a lingua franca of options in order to address perception disjuncts fruitfully.
We may arrive at a nuanced perspective on tragedy given that everyday the television inures us to tragic news. For all the main characters suffer spiritual exile including Iago. It is not that there is something wrong with the Canon, for many of us the conversation changed the moment we came into forcible contact with Western Culture. It is the resolute excluding and silencing of the thoughts of Othello’s countrymen that a decolonial, deteritorialising project seeks to address. We seek to delink, not to debunk, to sever from hegemonic mechanisms of cultural extermination and marginalisation. Perception disjuncts enslaves us in inarticulate silence.
There is an absence of a way of seeing and appreciating the cultural interiority of difference. When we decolonize we seek to put flesh on such absences. Such an approach re-evaluates the nature and function of theatre, theatre training, education paradigms and knowledge production. The ultimate question is who and how many of us wish to be and stay in the same conversation?
1. Bloom, Harold Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human, (Fourth Estate, London, 1999) 17
2. Bloom, Harold Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human, (Fourth Estate, London, 1999) 445
3. Kwei-Armah, Kwame: My problem with the Moor. The Guardian 7 April (2004)
4. Quarshie, Hugh: Second Thoughts About Othello’ International Shakespeare Association Occasional Paper Paper No 7 (1999) 5
5. Okri, Ben: Leaping out of Shakespeare’s Terror: Five Meditations on Othello. A Way of Being Free, (Phoenix, London, 1997)
6. Lugones, Maria: Pligrimages/Perigrinajes. Theorizing Coalition against Multiple Oppressions. (Rowman and Littlefield 2003)
7. Quarshie, Hugh: ‘Second Thoughts About Othello’ International Shakespeare Association Occasional Paper Paper No 7 (1999) 5
8. Bradley,!A.!C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. (2nd!ed. London: Macmillan,!1905).
9. Loomba, Ania: Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford University Press (2003) 95
10. Loomba, Ania: Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford University Press (2003) 111
11. Okri, Ben: Leaping out of Shakespeare’s Terror: Five Meditations on Othello. A Way of Being Free, (Phoenix, London, 1997) 75
Note all quotes from Othello have been sourced from the Shakespeare Navigator http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/othello/T12.html
Othello by W. Shakespeare or a summary
A.C. Bradley Shakespearean Tragedy 1905. Lectures V and Vi on Othello http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/bradley/
Bloom, Harold The Western Canon, chapter 1, An Elegy of the Canon.
Othello primary source – Cinthio’s Tale 1855 translation http://www.shakespeare-navigators.com/othello/Osource.html
Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story http://www.ted.com/talks
Binyavanga Wainaina: How To Write About Africa http://www.granta.com/Archive/92/How-to-Write-about-Africa/Page-1