Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Othello

Photo: Liz Lauren

Othello is famously a play about difference. Most obviously, it is a play about racial difference. In Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s recent production, however, directed by Jonathan Munby and set in a present-day pseudo-American context, “difference” represents a moving target. The lines of difference constantly shift throughout the production to
emphasize various models of inclusion and exclusion based on race and ethnicity, to be sure, but also on religion, class, nationality, and—perhaps above all—gender.

The themes of inclusion and exclusion, tribalism and othering, are apparent from the first spoken scene, in which Roderigo and Iago convene outside Senator Brabantio’s home, evidently a condo in a building that, in its imposing, stripped-down neoclassicism, strongly resembles those around Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The men buzz on the intercom to Brabantio’s building, initially talking to him through the speaker; a physical wall separates the two malcontents from the Senator. As they deliberately stoke his racial and sexual anxieties, however, Brabantio’s alliances shift. He first only deigns to talk through the intercom’s speaker, and then opens a window to shout at Iago and Roderigo in person—but still maintains his distance from them behind a wall, remaining physically as well as socially above them.

Soon, though, Iago and Roderigo close that gap by making Brabantio imagine that they all have an enemy in common: the black Othello. Eventually, Brabantio descends and emerges outside, literally joining the same level as Iago and Roderigo. The model of difference in the scene, which was initially drawn according to class—the Senator putting himself above the common soldier and his friend—has now shifted along racial lines. Brabantio sets out with Roderigo—once “the worser” but now “good Roderigo”—to apprehend his daughter and “the Moor.”

On a dark city street, Brabantio confronts an impeccably dressed Othello and follows him to meet the Duke. The setting transforms into something that looks suspiciously like the White House’s Situation Room, images of which have been widely circulated in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. The resemblance is disturbingly apt, considering that the Venetian Duke has just been informed of an incoming military threat from an Islamic force, the “Turks,” or the Ottoman Empire. This military conflict between the West and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam, represents one vector of difference at work in the production, and fundamentally informs its approach to the play.

Munby has gone out of his way thus far to establish Othello as a Venetian insider in religious and military terms. Even before Iago and Roderigo take the stage, the performance opens with an extratextual scene of Othello and Desdemona’s wedding—a conspicuously Catholic ceremony during which Othello wears his military uniform, marking him not only as a general but also as a member of the Christian Venetian community.

Yet, when Brabantio interrupts the Duke’s meeting to complain about his daughter’s marriage to Venice’s greatest general, he treats Othello as an outsider, tossing around ugly, racially charged language. Othello is Christian, he is a respected member of the military, and he has just been asked to lead a dangerous campaign against a huge empire—but he is still the outsider here. In Venice, it seems he may never fully belong. This will change, however, when the scene shifts to Cyprus.

The DC-like backdrop rises into the ceiling, revealing a military installation closely resembling images of American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sirens sound and lights flash in warning when anyone comes in or out—here, the stakes of inclusion and exclusion are very high indeed. Men wearing desert camouflage fight the elements: high-strung, they are ready for violence and war. But of course, a storm destroys the Turkish fleet and contains the threat of battle. Othello and his men have arrived at Cyprus, ready to kill and be killed, and suddenly have nothing to do.

Also newly arrived is Othello’s wife. When Desdemona enters this military zone, she could not look more out of place. In contrast to the soldiers’ fatigues, she wears impractically high heels and carries a designer handbag. It is clear that this is not Desdemona’s space.

Here, though, Othello is one of the guys. And while the men still sometimes refer to him as “the Moor,” Othello’s racial difference is downplayed in Munby’s Cyprus. In the military, Othello has found a space where he belongs. He wears the same desert camo as the other soldiers. The uniform aligns them all. So, too, does, gender—for Othello is not only a military man on Cyprus, he is a man. His wife is now the outsider. And the longer she stays, the more she will stand out.

Take, for instance, the extratextual scene during and just after intermission. On stage, the soldiers entertain themselves with karaoke. Eventually, they will gang up on Desdemona as she enters wearing a fetching, bright blue ensemble: they follow her around the stage singing The Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.” She giggles and plays along, but her difference from them is never more apparent than it is at this moment. In its blocking and choreography, the scene pits the men, wearing combat fatigues and huge knives at their sides, against a willowy, super-feminine woman. At the back of the stage is a bulletin board with a large sign labeled “Wall of Shame.” It’s covered in photos of women, presumably the sexual conquests of the men on base. Evidently, the soldiers here treat women as disposable objects. And so however adorable the men’s musical bravado may seem, this scene ultimately sees Desdemona standing down a pack of large and frankly intimidating men in a way that grotesquely anticipates the very frightening violence of the play’s conclusion.

At that conclusion, as Desdemona dresses for bed, the men who sang to her will return, silently, like ghosts. They will assemble at the front edge of the thrust stage in a line, advancing on the small, lonely woman. She doesn’t see them, but they’re there, surrounding her. It is a display of an aggressive male gaze on a vulnerable female body. For the life of her, the production tells us, she’ll never fit in with them.

Significantly, though, Desdemona is not the only woman on the Cyprus base. Iago’s wife Emilia is also present—and in this production, she is a soldier. This treatment of Emilia is particularly interesting. She is a woman working desperately to survive in a man’s world. She wears combat fatigues, just like the men, and adopts a masculine posture that contrasts sharply with Desdemona’s aristocratic femininity.

Once Desdemona arrives, though, Emilia is treated as nothing more than another woman. Emilia has risen up through the ranks in an environment hostile to her sex, has worked to prove herself, training her body and instincts (as her impressive self-defense skills show late in the play). And just because she is a woman, she has been removed from her duties to carry around the purse of a privileged interloper, Desdemona, who treats her like a servant. As Emilia’s face and body language show throughout the first half, she clearly resents it. Eventually, however, in reaction to the frightening masculine aggression of the men around her, Emilia aligns herself with Desdemona. The women slowly begin to unite, creating in the end a community of two. They become more and more physically intimate throughout the second half of the play, finally embracing tenderly in Desdemona’s femininely appointed bedroom.

The women will make their own alliance, but it is the hyper-masculinity and endemic misogyny on the base that, in this production, seems to explain something about Othello’s quick turn, his willingness to blame Desdemona and do her such violence. He loves her, it seems, but she’s not one of them. On the base, she’s an outsider, and outsiders are not to be trusted.

Indeed, this toxic, tribalistic masculinity is only exacerbated by the conditions of a war that never comes: these men, Othello included, have been preparing for battle, for violence that has not materialized. It’s as if they need something to fight, something to exclude and cast out. It should have been the Turkish invaders, but they never arrived. So if the outsider does not show up, the men will find and fight an outsider within.

When Emilia finds Desdemona’s body in the last scene, she turns viciously on Othello. Suddenly he is not one of the guys at the base, he is not her commanding officer. He is nothing more than a Moor. Emilia’s racially charged language in this scene is often discomfiting for audiences who celebrate her as one of Shakespeare’s great feminist characters. But sadly, in this production, which highlights the myriad ways “difference” can be constructed and even weaponized, it fits.

In Venice, Othello was the outsider. Here on the base, the women have taken that role. But in the end, after he has turned on Desdemona for no good reason, Othello must be excluded from the community. Emilia, like the other Venetians, needs to find a way to make him different. That’s the thrust of the play, really: what can we use to impose difference upon someone we want to exclude for some reason? What can we do or say to make him not belong?

As the playtext and this CST production both suggest, the measure of “difference” is unstable and arbitrary. Its goalposts can be moved whenever it is convenient. As such, it is subject to manipulation by the likes of Iago, who in the end goes silent, refusing to explain anything. The play itself, too, refuses to offer any answers. Only this is clear: the real problem is the ideology of difference itself.

Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renais­sance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her re­search has been supported by several nationally competitive fellow­ships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Comple­tion Fellow­ships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.