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  • Authentic Protest, Authentic Shakespeare, Authentic Africans:Performing Othello in South Africa
  • Natasha Distiller (bio)

Hugh Quarshie famously declared Othello a play that black actors should avoid: "If a black actor plays Othello does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate... namely that black men... are over-emotional, excitable and unstable?"1 Ben Okri, referencing the reception of Shakespeare's tragedy by critics and audiences,2 said that if Othello were not originally a play about race (as indeed it was not in the modern sense of the term), its history has made it one.3 By now, Othello both invokes and confounds modern notions of race and racial difference, speaking powerfully to the long history of misogyny it has facilitated.4 The play also points to the ways in which race and gender are imbricated in one another and co-depend.5 The meaning of Desdemona's whiteness and femininity depend on each other, as do Othello's blackness and masculinity. As Celia Daileader has pointed out, Desdemona's punishment for being an unruly woman is symbolized by and through Othello's racial identity.6

One might say that Othello both is and is not about race and racial difference, a play that invokes a relation between gender and the range of human cultures, religions, civic belongings, and/or appearances that we now encode as "race." Whichever ideological frame one chooses to read through (an early modern construction of Moorishness, a postmodern antiracism, a feminist awareness of domestic violence, a combination of these, or any of the other possible lenses one could apply), to understand the play one must recognize the ways it explores the experience of difference as emotionally fraught at best, potentially dangerous at worst. There is no tragedy without Othello's vulnerability to Iago and [End Page 339] Desdemona's vulnerability to Othello. And Othello and Desdemona are vulnerable precisely to the extent that they deviate from what Venetian society decrees they should be.7

Othello is a play about the vulnerabilities of difference and how difference is constructed and supported by the culture in which the protagonists find themselves. Its performance and reception histories too, as Quarshie, Okri, and a host of critics have demonstrated, reveal an odious story of white patronage and racism encoded in the construction of a literary and theatrical Anglo-American canon. In a recent assessment of the reception history of the play, Philip Kolin considers Othello to be "a cultural seismograph, measuring the extent and force of gender, racial, or class upheavals in any society that performs the script."8 As such it has been particularly useful as a focalizer of neocolonial conversations: "The generic dark-skinned identity of Othello encapsulates a mythology of exclusion that has become deeply relevant to various writers in the context of contemporary racism."9 Of course, not only writers but other artists have responded to the story of Othello's betrayal (by Iago, of Desdemona). This returns us to Quarshie's reservations about the play. What can it mean today? To what extent can it transcend its history? What exactly are the parameters of Shakespeare's meanings about what we have come to call race? Is Othello, in the parlance of antiapartheid theater, capable of being a protest play, or not? As Jonathan Dollimore asks:

Does the fate of Othello confirm, qualify, or discount the charge that this play is racist?... is it endorsing that process [of displacement onto the outsider], or re-presenting it for our attention? If the second, then it still remains indeterminate as to whether we, in attending to that process, repudiate or endorse it. Critics and audiences of the play have indisputably done both.10

In this larger context, then, what happens to Othello when it is performed in South Africa? Is the play's concern with racialized difference (and its relation to gender difference) reduced or released by being performed in a place obsessed with race? This is a complex question that in its most complicated form may be used to ask, what does, or can, Othello mean to Africans? This is a question also about the meaning of Shakespeare to Africans, and in Africa. These statements are...


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pp. 339-354
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