Othello on stage
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The history of Othello is in part a history of how the title role has been played, and by whom. ... Without a strong Moor at the center, the play cannot succeed. ...

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Othello

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Othello on stage

Othello on Stage

by Garry Walton, Meredith College


Othello

The history of Othello is in part a history of how the title role has been played, and by whom. Though repeated productions of the play have demonstrated that Iago, not Othello, is in many ways the starring role, the part of Othello is crucial. Without a strong Moor at the center, the play cannot succeed.


Othello

  • The first actor to perform the role of Othello was Richard Burbage, the leading actor in the Kings Men and the man whom Shakespeare had in mind when creating the part. No illustrations exist of Burbage as Othello, though the following portrait is the most famous of this actor.


Othello

  • Burbage was the leading actor of the Kings Men.


Othello

Though it is impossible to know what makeup or costume Burbage wore in this role, it may be that his stage appearance owed something to the illustrations of national costumes and races portrayed by the Italian woodcut artist Vecellio in 1598.


Othello

Vecellios sketches show 1598 Venetian fashions.

Here Vecellio depicts a courtesan, a Moor, and a newly married Venetian lady.


Othello

Whether or not he knew Vecellios woodcuts, Burbage would have certainly known of the Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, depicted in the following portrait from about 1601.


Moorish ambassador to queen elizabeth

Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth


Othello

  • Some of the early performers of the plays title role seem to have taken this 17th century Moor as a model. For example, the noted 19th century Italian actor, Tommaso Salvini, donned an Oriental garb which seems to allude to the earlier Moorish portrait.


Tommaso salvini

Tommaso Salvini

The Italian Salvini was the first Othello reported to have struck his Desdemona.


Othello

The illustration for Nicholas Rowes 1709 edition, showing a black Othello in British army uniform, reflects an 18th century stage tradition and may depict Betterton.


Othello

This illustration from Hanmers 1743 edition of the play shows an Othello at once darker and more domesticated than Rowes. It may be based upon the dignified performance of James Quinn, who wore an English military uniform, a large powdered wig, and white gloves over blackened skin.


Edmund kean 1814 1833

Edmund Kean, 1814 - 1833

The most famous Othello of the 19th century was Edmund Kean, whose great innovation in the role was to portray Othello as a tawny Moor, not a Negro.


Othello

Kean stressed the Oriental nature of Othello in props and costume as well as color. In the famous final scene, he entered Desdemonas bedchamber with a lighted lamp in one hand and a naked blade in the other.


Othello

Someartists, determined to stress the traditional color of the hero, depicted Keans skin tone in the part as dark.


Othello

The first black to play Othello was Ira Aldridge. A Maryland native, he was accepted on stage only in England and Germany in the 1830-1840s.


Othello

Though Aldridge played Othello in Germany and Russia, he was not welcome to enact the role in antebellum America.


Othello

Contemporaries report that Edwin Forrest (1840s) enacted Othello with an unexpected scale and fervor of the passions. He was reportedly a robust, vigorous, muscular actor with a magnificent voice.


Edwin booth played iago from 1863 until the mid 1880s

Edwin Booth played Iago from 1863 until the mid-1880s


Alternating with henry irving as iago edwin booth also played the part of othello

Alternating with Henry Irving as Iago, Edwin Booth also played the part of Othello


American robert mantell 1911

American Robert Mantell, 1911

Mantell returned to the Oriental look for his performance early in this century.


Paul robeson the first black american to garner praise in the role in america starred in the 1930s

Paul Robeson, the first black American to garner praise in the role in America, starred in the 1930s.


Othello

Robeson opened in London in 1930 with noted stage actors. Reviewers and audiences focused most on seeing a Negro make love to a white woman and throw her around.


Othello

Robeson, son of a former slave, saw Othello as a noble warrior; his director Margaret Webster, who played Emilia, saw him as a primitive.


Othello

When Paul Robeson as Othello kissed Uta Hagen (Desdemona) on Broadway in 1943, it marked the first time a black actor kissed a white actress on a major American stage.


Orson welles and micheal macliammoir in the 1951 film

Orson Welles and Micheal MacLiammoir in the 1951 film


Anthony quayle and barbara jefford stratford 1954

Anthony Quayle and Barbara Jefford, Stratford, 1954


Othello

Welles and Suzanne Cloutier in the 1951 film-- he required her to dye her hair for the look of innocence and angelic grace.


Othello

The most famous stage Othello in this century was Laurence Olivier, who played a dark, ferocious primitive and said: Its tremendously sexual because its a black man.


Othello

Oliviers exotic casual dress stressed his intimacy with Maggie Smiths Desdemona.


Othello

Olivier and Billie Whitelaw mimic the earlier pose of Quayle and Jefford, with the added contrast of skin tones.


James earl jones

James Earl Jones

Just as Olivier was wowing London audiences with his black-faced portrayal of Othello in 1964, a young black American called Jim Jones was beginning his New York run in the part. He is shown here in 1981 in a Broadway performance with Christopher Plummer.


Paul scofield with felicity kendal london 1980

Paul Scofield with Felicity Kendal, London, 1980

This performance stressed Othellos age more than his race.


Anthony hopkins othello and bob hoskins iago from the 1980 bbc film

Anthony Hopkins (Othello) and Bob Hoskins (Iago) from the 1980 BBC film


Ben kingsley in the late 1980s revived the oriental othello

Ben Kingsley in the late 1980s revived the Oriental Othello


Ben kingsley s othello victimized by david suchet s iago

Ben Kingsleys Othello victimized by David Suchets Iago


Othello

Baritone Willard White and Ian McKellen starred on stage in a 1990 Stratford production.


Laurence fishburne and irene jacob in oliver parker s 1995 film

Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob in Oliver Parkers 1995 film

The recent film continues to dramatize the inter-racial love story, now nearly 400 years old.


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The R-rated films ad campaign stressed the sensuality of the story.


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But as the following painting illustrates, the sensuality of this play was being emphasized long before the 1995 film.


Of all these choices which othello do you prefer why

Salvini

Kean

Aldridge

Forrest

Booth

Mantell

Robeson

Welles

Quayle

Olivier

Jones

Scofield

Hopkins

Kingsley

White

Fishburne

Of all these choices, which Othello do you prefer? Why?


Othello

Here is a link to a great site on the Web for artwork inspired by Shakespeares plays:

Shakespeare Illustrated.


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