Week 9 (Spring ’21): Othello in Performance

Now that we’re finished reading Othello, we come to the fun part: watching a performance! I’ve selected a very recent (2016) performance of the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC consistently produces high-quality, accessible renditions of Shakespeare’s plays. They tend not to make overly provocative or “artsy” choices, and they always adhere closely to Shakespeare’s text without cutting anything, all of which makes them a good resource for courses like ours. Use the link below to log in with your Le Moyne credentials:

https://0-search-alexanderstreet-com.library.lemoyne.edu/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C3884653

Remember that closed captions can be turned off or on.

If you have any trouble with the above link, here is the homepage for Alexander Street, the digital library I’m using to get us access to Shakespeare performances. You can visit this page (also requires Le Moyne login) and search for Othello:

https://0-search-alexanderstreet-com.library.lemoyne.edu/

Discussion Board

Post a comment about the 2016 RSC production of Othello below.  Consider answering any of the following study questions:

1. How does this production deal with Othello‘s racially charged content?  Do they make any choices that seem intended to reinterpret this content for a modern audience?

2. Were there any moments where the production changed your understanding of the play?  Explain how.

3. Do you have comments on any other significant decision made by this production–casting, direction, editing, artistic direction, use of props, etc.?  Is there something that you would have done differently?

24 thoughts on “Week 9 (Spring ’21): Othello in Performance”

  1. #2. Within the live performance of the play, something did surprise me. When reading the play, I was picturing Othello to be the only African American character because the play is so racially motivated and Othello’s main characteristics revolve around him trying to prove himself as worthy. I was very shocked to see Iago played as an African American man because I feel that that defeats the purpose of Othello’s character development as well as his struggle within this society. Also, I loved being able to visually see Othello’s character transformation as the play goes on. In the written version, we see that Othello’s language changes from very sophisticated to not-so-classy, and he ends up talking just as Iago talks. In the performance of the play, it was cool to see how Othello’s wardrobe also changed. When we first meet Othello, he is decked out in a royal-looking outfit which looks very expensive. By the end of the play, he wears worn out military clothes, just like Iago.

  2. I like how there are moments where Iago speaks directly to us, and the lighting on the stage complements this very well. When Iago utters his thoughts (around 31:00), the setting is not a physical place but represents the inside of his mind because he is talking to the audience and not to another character. The absence of light on stage not only reminds me of the limitless boundaries on one’s thoughts (as the mind is not limited to such space, if that makes sense), but the color of the dark background illustrates and emphasizes Iago’s evil revenge plot.

    I also like how the play mainly surrounds Iago’s perspective. By this, I refer to specific parts when the world around him either stops or continues (very slowly around 41:00) faintly in the background as he speaks to himself and to the audience about what he is thinking or feeling inside. Some examples include Cassio holding Desdemona’s hands to comfort her and when Othello embraces Desdemona in his arms upon his return from sea.

  3. This production deals with the racially charged content of Othello by casting, not only Othello but also Iago as black Africans. I believe that the production did this to handle the race issues in this play and reinterpret them for a more modern audience. In the play, originally, it is sort of expected that Othello is the only African character since many of the other characters are from Venice and refer to him as the Moor, but in this interpretation of Othello, they decide to cast Iago as an African too, to make it seem like the other characters in the play are not as racially motivated. This applies especially to Iago since, in the original play, he seems to hate Othello partially for his race and is always calling him derogatory names, but in this version, since Iago is also black it makes it seem more like Iago is just a villainous person who is willing to tear down anyone to get what he wants. I believe this decision made Iago look much more evil.

  4. A significant decision made by this company was to not only cast Othello as a black man, but also Iago. This decision stood out to me and confused me because throughout our discussions of Othello, I had come to the conclusion that Iago was written to be racist against Othello because of his darker skin. With Othello and Iago now having the same color skin, it makes me rethink Iago’s motivations. I still believe that Shakespeare wrote these two characters with the intention of them being two different races, but with this change, I believe that the 2016 production team realized and recognized this aspect of the play. They intentionally disregarded it in order to make the audience more open to experiencing the play as a whole as they may have believed audience members would be too angry at the racism plot to take in the rest of the play. While I am not sure if I agree with this decision, I think it was the right one to make the play more digestible for modern audiences.

  5. I think that there were many significant decisions made by the production team for this play in relation to casting, directing, editing and artistic direction. For casting, I think it is interesting how they chose a tall character to play Cassio. I think this was a good decision, it makes him look more important and builds on what he was described like in the text. I also liked how during Iago’s speech of his thoughts to himself about his plans he was going to carry out towards Othello and the other characters, the production chose to light the stage red and have the characters move slowly. This helped me to understand that Iago wasn’t actually speaking to anyone else, they were just his thoughts and emotions he was saying to himself. Another choice, I thought was interesting was the choice of modern music during the scene when Cassio drinks. The play is not set in modern time, so I think this added comedy to the play for the audience.

  6. A change in the performance that stood out to me was making Iago a black character. I pictured most of the characters in the play, especially the main characters (apart from Othello), to be white, and it caught me off guard to see Iago played by a black person. I was confused in the very beginning when I saw this and didn’t realize it was actually Iago. I think this casting takes away from the emphasis on Iago’s racism, which contributed to his villainy. His racist views were a large part of what fueled his evil acts against Othello, and I think that the casting of a black character in his place was a poor choice when trying to fully flesh out Iago’s character as Shakespeare intended.

  7. The production of Othello makes some smart choices to handle the racism that is present in the play. The most obvious change to deal with race is casting Iago as an African along with Othello. Iago can be very racist at times in the play, but the sharing of a common race may lessen the racial jokes Iago makes. To add, modern racial stereotypes are also mentioned in the production during the party scene. Cassio and Montano have a music “battle” of sorts and bring up many stereotypes present today. The play intentionally includes stereotypes for both black and white people to not exclusively slander African people. The inclusion of the music battle also allows the audience to understand the themes of the play better. Racism from the past is being tied with racism of the present and is shown in the form of a rap like song. Modern audiences can connect with modern racism and current popular styles of music like rap. The 2016 production of Othello does a nice job of expressing racism and intertwining it with current struggles people face.

  8. 1) Do you have comments on any other significant decision made by this production–casting, direction, editing, artistic direction, use of props, etc.? Is there something that you would have done differently?
    – The significant decision that was made by this production in relationship to casting. For casting-wise, I found it to be interesting that they cast Othello and Lago as Black men. I pictured the cast to be filled with white men, and it caught me by surprise. It took me a while to figure out who Othello and Lago were. Also, the ” battle” between Cassio and Montano had me off guard. But this battle allowed the audience to understand the theme of the play. Racism still occurs in the present, and it’s being tied to the past in the form of a rap. Overall, I enjoyed this production of Othello, since it ties into what certain people face on a daily.

  9. Honestly what caught me the most off guard about the production and casting of this play was that they cast Iago also as an African character. I feel like this really took everyone off guard because they expected the villain of the play who was also racist in points throughout the play to be white and not black. In my opinion I can see why they might have done this to kind of lessen the racial discrimination throughout the play to focus more on the plot of the play and to also appease to the taste of the modern audience that was watching the play live. I for sure would not have done it this way because I would want to stick to the play that Shakespeare wrote and to make it as similar as possible in my live production of Othello, overall I still think that they did a superb job but I personally would have done it a little bit differently.

  10. In an earlier discussion post, I remember saying how this could be a hard-to-watch play and I think I underestimated that just a tad, haha. There were some scenes where my jaw was dropped and I was so stunned how well they acted out the scenes so well. I really liked how Iago’s character talked out to the audience and how the settings changed. I felt like this was a really good production of Othello!

  11. There were many instances in this live performance that changed my understanding of the play. I have always been a visual learner so being able to connect faces with characters was helpful in guiding my understanding of the overall play. Before watching this performance, I didn’t realize how close Iago and Othello’s relationship really was. I thought they were acquaintances that kept each other around just to keep their status, but I now realize that they were actually good friends. At least, Othello was good friends with Iago, but not as much the other way around. Watching the play also helped me understand Iago’s overall character better. While reading, I couldn’t understand why the other characters would keep him around because of how malicious and vile he was, but after seeing his character in action I now see how deceptively friendly he was to those around him and how the other characters fell victim to his lies.

  12. Before watching this production of Othello I was expecting it to be boring and not that interesting to watch because it was a live production. I was definitely wrong though, I think the actors did a great job of keeping the audience’s attention and that the creative sets and props helped as well. One thing that stuck out to me was the dramatic music that they played during scene changes. In my opinion, the music used between scene changes caught my attention because it left me wondering how they were going to act out the next part of the play.

  13. A significant decision that helped to deal with the racially charged content was that Iago was casted as a black man along with Othello. In the book, it seems that Iago discriminates Othello because of his race. Now, it makes me feel that Iago is just a naturally evil person and will do anything to get at people, even if his comments apply to himself. I also think this helped to deal with the racially charged content in the written play because it makes the discrimination seem to be not based on race. Though the original meaning was based on race, this version helps to avoid anger from the audience.

  14. Like many others have commented, the largest change the Royal Shakespeare Company made was casting Iago as African. Initially, I did not mind this change. Because I do not know much about theatre, I assumed that this choice was just made to make things more interesting by making the cast more visually diverse for the audience. Somewhat stupidly, I assumed that beyond that, I should not look into it or think about the choice too much and its implications for the plot. Essentially, I was just watching the play assuming Iago was white for plot purposes as Shakespeare intended, but played by someone black just to add some diversity to the cast, or because the director felt that that specific actor was the best choice to play Iago, or to differentiate this production of Othello from others.
    However, after reading other people’s comments, I realized I am supposed to interpret the plot with Iago actually being black. I like that this change makes it so that Iago is driven by competitiveness and insecurity rather than simply shallow racist motives, as I believe it makes for a more interesting character. However, overall, I do not like the casting change, as I believe the general plot points do not make as much sense with Iago being black.

  15. In this play I expected Othello to be the only one casted as African American. I expected Iago to be white because of how racist his character is in the play. I think they casted and directed the play like this to not anger people in our time. Iago most likely would have been white in Shakespeares time because racism was ok then but now it would put the audience off. I actually like that they did this because its almost as if the directors are saying we do not condone this behavior so we will give the role to an African American man. This is something shakespeare wouldve never done.

  16. I found this production of Othello particularly interesting because of the artistic choice to mix modern and traditional aspects of war and society. For starters, this production chose to cast a woman amputee as the duke, which leads the audience to believe that this play will be more progressive. Yet, there is still the issue of racism that Othello in particular deals with. He is still a character who is dehumanized and called a moor. While at the same time, the casting of Iago (and a few other background characters) as a black man, who does not get the same negative treatment as Othello, makes one wonder why Othello in particular is treated so poorly. Another interesting collision of modern vs traditional is shown through the use of props and costumes. For example, the costumes are an odd mixture of silhouettes. The men wear suits and uniforms that are not of the fashion of Shakespeare time, while women wear dresses more akin to the world of game of thrones. It’s also interesting how the production chose to add modern tech as military props. All of this combined makes the play seem like it’s from an alternate reality.

  17. A significant casting choice made by the company was to not only make Othello of black descent, but also Iago. I thought that this was an interesting choice and I did not see the effect of it all that well. Othello is a racially charged play and Iago is the character who attacks the title character with derogatory comments. To have Iago black made me feel like the racially charged comments were not as effective. Coming from a theatre background, I understand that when you’re casting, it is best to go with the better actor for the role. This very well may have been the case in this company’s production, but I feel that making Iago black as well took away from the plot as a whole.

    After reading some of the other responses about this casting change, I can see where people are coming from about it being used to lessen the blow on the audience, but my teacher for my directing class told us yesterday, that as much as he loves Othello, he could never direct it because of how racially charged it is for these times. I believe that my director has the right idea. I feel that this company should have stuck to the script when it came to casting Iago.

  18. The decisions made by the production were the casting since I assume that Iago will be played by a white man but making Iago a black man is maybe based on dealing with race. Since we know that Iago is someone who is racist and back in Shakespeare those characters will be played by someone who is white. In the book, we see how Iago is being towards Othello because of his race but seeing the characters in a real live play makes it seem that is just Iago is an evil person more than a racist person. I think the decision with this is that since times have changed the company maybe didn’t want to anger the audience and wanted to stick to the modern society today.

  19. After watching the play I was shocked to see Iago played by an African America due to how racist he is. I personally think watching Othello in our day and time with all the world problems that have been happening with racism it is not a good production to be showing. During the time of Shakespeare writing the play I feel like racism was not as bad as it is today. It was also a little shocking to see that Othello was also African American. I noticed in the book that Iago was very hateful towards Othello but now after watching the play Iago is truly an awful person. Iago pretty much does anything to hurt everyone around him.

    1. After watching the Othello performance, I was surprised to see how the play was casted. Like several of my classmates have said, I did not expect for Iago and Othello to be played by African Americans. I think the director chose to do so to help eliminate the racist factor that we are already dealing with while reading the play. Choosing to this makes the play more enjoyable and inclusive overall. I think it changes the audience’s perspective since going in we’d think the character would be played by a white man, but the dynamics take a spin and change our whole view on the play. I enjoyed this play and so far it is my favorite.

  20. When I started watching the production, I was not expecting Iago to be African along with Othello and it honestly kind of confused me at first — it took me a minute to realize that it was actually Iago. I think that this choice of casting was a very interesting one and it allowed a new perspective on the play. In Shakespeare’s original play much of Iago’s language toward Othello is racially charged and it seemed like a major motivator for his actions against him, but with them both being the same race it allows us to explore other possible motivators. I think preserving the originality of the play is important, but I liked the different perspective this casting gives.

  21. Something that surprised me in the performance was that they casted Iago as an African American male. I had to look over at the subtitles to see who it was because I didn’t think it was Iago. I think a big focus in this play is that Othello is African American and the racism surrounding that, and Iago being the villain of the play it surprised me that they casted him as an African American too. With Iago being so bad towards Othello and racism being a big part of this play, I expected Iago to be white along with all the other characters in the play. I feel like casting Iago also African American took away a lot of the differences between Iago and Othello.

  22. So one thing that shocked me was the fact that they casted Iago as a black man in the play instead of a white man. The only reason why I say this is because Iago was really racist and it would just make sense to cast Iago as a white man racist against a black character, for play purposes. That is what Shakespeare probably would have done if he was alive today. Another thing that shocked me was how good the play actually was, I’m not one for plays and live performances and I’ve been in a couple myself. But the play really was good and I enjoyed watching it 🙂

  23. I found it very interesting to see Iago being played like a Black American since in the play Iago shows so much distaste towards Othello. Perhaps they cast whoever fit the role best and did not look at race. I think that with Iago being passed up for a promotion it really solidified his drive against Othello. In this context the hatred that Iago had towards Othello was not out of race like how it seemed while reading the play. Since they are from the same race it became more clear that the live action adaptation looked to base Iago’s hate towards Othello as something more spiteful than racist.

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