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  • Foul Pranks:Recognizing Vice Principals as a Comic Othello
  • James Newlin

"I'm not proposing that you spend years studying Shakespeare …"

– Donald Trump, Think Like a Champion1

Jody Hill and Danny McBride's Vice Principals, which premiered on the premium cable network HBO in the summer of 2016, is one of those shows that is "not for everyone."2 The pitch-black comedy tells the story of two white, male high school administrators who are passed over for the position of principal and, in turn, dedicate themselves to sabotaging the black woman who unexpectedly becomes their boss. The main characters' antics range from the juvenile (spitting in their boss's coffee) to the criminal (burning her house to the ground), with director Hill staging many scenes less to elicit laughs than a sense of dread.

Vice Principals is a particularly caustic example of "cringe comedy."3 It can be startlingly profane. Vice Principals is also, I will argue in this essay, an uncannily faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello.4 Both texts depict two resentful, white underlings undermining not only the career but also the life and reputation of the person of color to whom they are subordinate. And, in fact, Vice Principals includes a number of references that suggest its parallels with Othello are intentional, including a scene set in a classroom where the play is being taught.5 I suspect the series would be of interest to scholars of Shakespearean adaptation merely due to its novel (and perhaps misguided) translation of genre. Yet I contend that it is precisely in presenting Shakespeare's tragedy as a dark comedy that the series demonstrates its striking fidelity to its source text.

At least since Thomas Rymer denounced Othello as a "Bloody Farce, without salt or savour" in 1693 (146), critical readers have identified the [End Page 197] play's structure as at least partly comic in its design.6 Indeed, before Iago has even begun to perform his "double knavery" upon Othello (1.3.393),7 the play-text presents a portrait of a joke taken too far, when, for the delight and discomfort of Emilia and Desdemona, Iago "miserab[ly] prais[es]" women's "foul pranks" (2.1.139, 142). Of course, by the end of the play, Iago has performed far worse "tricks" himself (2.1.171). By translating Iago's own foul pranks into a cringe comedy, Vice Principals may provide a vision of the play as close to what Michael Bristol calls its "comedy of abjection" as we are likely to see.

If the pranks performed in Vice Principals are somehow faithful to those of Othello, it is not surprising that the series' reception was initially mixed. HBO's original series are frequently celebrated as the paragons of "prestige television," but upon Vice Principals' premiere, reviewers initially decried the show's "staggering toxicity" (Loofbourow).8 Yet critical appreciation for Vice Principals grew during the 2016 fall election season, with several online publications noting that the show's portrayal of white, male resentment "explains" the candidacy of Donald Trump.9 Considering the series' relationship with Othello, this increasingly positive reception recalls a recent body of writing relevant to Shakespeare studies, which Jeffrey R. Wilson calls "Public Shakespeareanisms."10 These think-pieces—such as Stephen Greenblatt's much-discussed New York Times editorial, "Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election"—similarly laud Shakespeare's power to explain our current political milieu. If, as its celebrators have it, Vice Principals can "explain" our current realities, we might ask whether it is in fact the show's appropriation of Othello that enables these insights.

By transplanting Othello's narrative into the current political moment, Vice Principals makes a kind of claim about the former's prescience. In particular, Vice Principals explores the parallels between the portrayal of white resentment in Othello and in the rhetoric of the American far right—namely, the central role played by misogyny, especially in the form of cuckold jokes, for both. Yet what I interpret as the show's "uncanny" fidelity to Othello concerns form, as well as politics. As a matter of genre, the series is eerily faithful to an uncanny vision of Othello—the...