Sometime during the mid-seventeenth century, a reader and book collector named Frances Wolfreston recorded her thoughts about William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Inscribed in a 1655 edition of the play now held at the University of Pennsylvania, her assessment concisely reads, “a sad one.” Wolfreston’s commentary preceded Thomas Rymer’s notorious, but far more famous misreading of Othello as “a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents’ consent, they run away with Blackamoors,” and provides a valuable example of literary criticism from a woman during Shakespeare’s own century. In their utter simplicity, her words seize on the heart of a tragedy that continues to raise important questions about foreignness and gender.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s elegantly wrought production of Othello delivers on these counts, and is particularly successful in its attempt to present Shakespeare’s tragedy to a twenty-first-century audience. Director Jonathan Munby brings us a dynamic rendition, one that seizes upon wartime tensions between foreign and other, us and them. This tension finds expression in the tragedy’s central character, the Moorish general of Venice, Othello (played by a venerable and stately James Vincent Meredith) and his relationships with his wife Desdemona (the confident and amiable Bethany Jillard) and the cynical and manipulative ensign Iago (a pacing, charismatic Michael Milligan). Rising above these actors’ chemistry, however, is this production’s imposing set, a brutalist concrete edifice representing Venice, and a towering medley of chain-link, barbed wire and corrugated metal characterizing the Venetians’ stronghold on Cyprus. This scenery produces an inescapable sense of surveillance and enclosure throughout the tragedy. In spite of Othello’s insistence upon the foreign and otherworldly (Othello is an “extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” known for his “travailous history”) this production defers and denies that foreignness, only allowing us to glimpse Cyprus briefly through the Venetians’ overbearing security checkpoints. The continuity between the two sets offers the impression that Othello and his soldiers do not truly come to know Cyprus, but merely construct a second Venice abroad, an effort that ultimately undoes them all.
Parallels between the Venetians’ campaign and the United States’ current entanglements in the Middle East are not lost on this production. Othello, Iago and a convincing and sympathetic Michael Cassio (Luigi Sottile) could be mistaken for modern American troopers with their beige camouflage and cries of “Hooah!” In one of the most intense moments of this production (during the famous “temptation scene” in which Iago plants jealousy in the mind of the Moor of Venice), an enraged Othello plunges Iago’s head repeatedly into a water cooler as he cries, “If thou dost slander her and torture me / Never pray more, abandon all remorse!” This breaking point, a disquieting visual echo of waterboarding and other literal torture methods used by Americans against foreigners during the last decade, illustrates brilliantly how Shakespeare’s language enables us to confront our personal and political demons. The choice here was bold, and effective.
Another striking decision in this production of Othello is a musical number appearing immediately after the intermission, which primes the audience for the heightened sexual and domestic conflicts of the play’s final acts. With the set dressed up for a military-style Christmas banquet, a handful of Venetian soldiers dance around the stage as one of their fellows croons the lyrics to Drake’s sensational R&B hit “Hotline Bling”—fittingly, a song about a jealous lover unable to get over his ex. This scene of masculine camaraderie is a definite crowd-pleaser, but a poster of photographs paraded around by the soldiers emblazoned with the words “Wall of Shame” testifies to the company’s more sinister side. If this only hints at the soldiers’ sexual engagements with native Cyprus women, the sudden appearance of the distinctly foreign-accented prostitute Bianca (a tenacious Laura Rook) with Cassio offers a glimpse into the unfortunate human consequences of these entanglements (she ends up in handcuffs). On the one hand, at least in this production, what was meant to be a political conflict between the Venetians and the Turks winds up being a domestic conflict between the Venetians and the inhabitants of Cyprus, whom, with the exception of the Bianca, we never really see. On the other hand, the central conflict truly exists between the Venetians and themselves, though it uses the same terms of sexual corruption. When Othello calls Desdemona a whore, farcically treating Emilia as a bawd and tossing money in a mocking gesture of payment, we witness a man desperately clinging to Iago’s poisonous suggestions, desperate to what would keep him sane, what would keep him a Venetian and not a foreigner. At one time or another, all the women characters in Othello are called “whore,” a word that Shakespeare uses more in this play than any of his other dramatic works.
For these reasons, it was a very smart move to cast the Venetian Duke as a woman and to costume Iago’s wife Emilia as a soldier. These decisions offer fresh staging possibilities, but they also amplify the play’s crucial questions about gender and power. Though she only appears briefly in the first act, the authoritative Duke of Venice (Melissa Carlson) exists in this production as a dominant and capable woman overseeing the hyper-masculine military world of occupied Cyprus. Meanwhile, clothed literally in a warrior’s uniform, this production’s beer-drinking Emilia (Jessie Fisher) is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, supporting with her own physical might the claims she makes for women’s equality. “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them,” she says to a seated Desdemona in one of this play’s most powerful scenes. For modern audiences, this Emilia makes a case for women’s participation in the military, insisting upon the similarities between men and women, and speaking and acting with conviction against her husband’s wishes when her testimony is needed most. One might speculate that the women in this successful production of Othello would have been of special interest to Wolfreston, whose opinion of this great tragedy—“a sad one”—remains true in 2016.
Andrew S. Keener is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he researches drama, literary translation and the publication and use of bilingual dictionaries and grammar books in Renaissance England. He also has interests in rare book exhibit curation and computational approaches to language and literature. He holds an MA in English from North Carolina State University and a BA in English from Boston College. Read More…