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Othello on Stage. by Garry Walton, Meredith College.

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othello on stage

Othello on Stage

by Garry Walton, Meredith College

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.
The first actor to perform the role of Othello was Richard Burbage, the leading actor in the King’s 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.
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.

Vecellio’s sketches show 1598 Venetian fashions.

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


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

Some of the early performers of the play’s 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.


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


This illustration from Hanmer’s 1743 edition of the play shows an Othello at once darker and more domesticated than Rowe’s. 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.


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

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

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.


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


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.

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.

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.”

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

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.

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

The most famous stage Othello in this century was Laurence Olivier, who played a dark, ferocious primitive and said: “It’s tremendously sexual because it’s a black man.”


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 Othello’s age more than his race.

laurence fishburne and irene jacob in oliver parker s 1995 film
Laurence Fishburne and Irene Jacob in Oliver Parker’s 1995 film

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


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
















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

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

Shakespeare Illustrated.