- Shakespeare on Screen: “Othello.” ed. by Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin
Shakespeare on Screen: “Othello” is the latest addition to a series begun in 2003 by Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. As the editors note in their preface, seven collections, each devoted to a single play or group of plays, were published between 2004 and 2013 by Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre; with Othello, Cambridge University Press has taken over the series. Each collection covers films from the era of silent film to the present and includes an extensive bibliography. In addition to the best-known English and American films based on Othello, this volume includes adaptations from Mexico, Brazil, India, Canada, Italy, and Spain.
The introduction highlights the central challenge for adaptations of Othello: how to transfer the play’s representation of race and gender to cultures distanced from early modern England by space and time. Hatchuel and Vienne-Guerrin begin with [End Page 140] a discussion of films that maintain Shakespeare’s text. Next they turn to adaptations that transform the language, plot, and characters, such as Andrew Davies and Geoffrey Sax’s Othello, set in twenty-first-century London’s Metropolitan Police Department, or Tim Blake Nelson’s O, the story of a high-school basketball star. They conclude with looser adaptations that use the Othello material as a backdrop for characters whose actions mirror aspects of Shakespeare’s plot.
Victoria Bladen surveys the techniques that Othello films rely upon to convey Shakespeare’s “powerful narratives of difference” (25): shots of maps and globes suggest spatial dynamics; exotic costuming signifies Othello’s otherness; grotesque imagery underscores the marvelous and the monstrous; and nets, bars, and cages highlight the characters’ entrapment. All these choices locate Othello outside the margins.
The chapters that follow roughly divide into the three categories explored in the introduction. Peter Holland begins with a reexamination of Stuart Burge’s film of Laurence Olivier’s stage performance as a blackface Othello (1965). Although the film’s representation of a white actor impersonating a black man remains offensive, it has much to tell us about the early modern construction (and performance) of blackness. Sébastien Lefait then turns to Orson Welles’s Filming Othello, a 1978 movie about the making of Welles’s 1952 Othello. In what at first seems like a documentary, Welles reedits selected scenes to impose a more director-centered perspective on his earlier work.
Peter J. Smith moves to the twenty-first century in what he terms “‘tethered presentism’” (76) to discuss Davies and Sax’s Othello, televised in 2001, in the context of several racially charged incidents, including a 2012 investigation of the Metropolitan Police Force’s inaction after a white gang attacked and killed a black teenager. To this American, the racism Smith unpacks is also reminiscent of incidents that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Ronan Ludot-Vlasak’s examination of intertextual references in Nelson’s O raises—but does not answer—the question as to what impact such references make if the viewer is not knowledgeable about the texts being referenced. Put together, these chapters highlight the impact of viewers’ cultural backgrounds on their own readings of Shakespeare film.
Generic expectations are also critical to audience response. Florence Cabaret contends that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara draws on conventions of the “masala mafia film”—“action, crime, romance, comedy with song-and-dance”—to offer “a reading of contemporary liberal (independent) India negotiating the fast rhythm of domestic changes in terms of politics, economics and social as well as moral values” (108). Aimara da Cunha Resende describes the Mexican Huapango, whose setting on a rural cattle ranch is reminiscent of a western, and the Brazilian Otelo de Oliveira, which satirizes stereotypes of Brazil as a contemporary tropical paradise. Each appeals to a distinct, culturally specific audience and exploits generic conventions to do so.
The next three chapters foreground Othello’s theatricality with a discussion of films that...