Othello and Racial Performance

How was racial difference constructed and performed in Shakespeare's theater? As the critic Dympna Callaghan famously reminds us, "Othello was a white man." That is, because Africans were barred from self-representation on the Renaissance stage, white English actors impersonated blackness for the first two hundred years of Othello's production history. In this seminar, we will study the historical contexts and material conditions of racial impersonation. How were racial prostheses, wigs, cosmetic ointments, artificial extremities, and dyed textiles mobilized by white, male actors to represent Africans, Jews, Muslims, and Native Americans (among other groups) on the Renaissance stage? What is the political import of racial performance, and how did the theater help consolidate oppressive structures of power? Looking forward, we will also brainstorm ways to explore and critique more modern instantiations of racial impersonation (like digital blackface and Hollywood casting patterns) with high school students and conceptualize techniques for evaluating more recent performances of Othello.

Though actors of color were banned from playing Othello until the nineteenth-century, the Anglo-African actor Hugh Quarshie has also questioned the complexities built into casting the play's titular role. "If a black actor plays Othello, does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate and even true," Quarshie questions, noting that "when a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men?" (1998). Engaging a broad range of unique (and often contentious) performances of Othello, we will evaluate the values and limitations of competing casting models, such as "original practice" performances that employ blackface, race-blind productions, and ensembles that feature all-black casts. We will also brainstorm assignments that encourage students to envision and propose a modern-day, race-conscious performance of Othello.