By Amardeep Singh, July 2021
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, and it’s both dark and for many audiences, problematic in various ways. Because it’s one of the few classical works of theater that features a Black man in the leading role, it’s been a play particularly popular with Black actors -- despite also being problematic, both for the way it depicts Othello (who commits a shocking act of violence), and for the misogyny that seems to undergird Othello’s suspicions of Desdemona.
Morrison’s adaptation centers Desdemona rather than Othello (hence the title), but it does more than that. It also puts forward a character who doesn’t actually appear with a speaking role in Shakespeare’s play (“Barbara”/Barbary), who is described at one point as Desdemona’s mother’s maid. Morrison reimagines the story with that (presumably African) woman playing a prominent role in raising Desdemona, and gives her the voice of moral authority in the story. In short, Desdemona, Morrison’s adaptation of Shakespeare, is a feminist and Black-centered (Africa-centered) adaptation of one of the most famous -- but also famously problematic -- Black characters in the English Canon.
Black actors who have played Othello on stage and screen include: Lawrence Fishburne (1995, film), Mekhi Phifer (2001, in the film O), James Earl Jones (who first played Othello on stage in 1955!), Chiwetel Ejiofor (2008, on stage), and Paul Robeson (1930, on stage). Interestingly, despite the strong suggestions of racial otherness in the text of the play, there’s also a tradition of white actors playing the role of Othello as well -- quite a number of very famous actors have played the character, including Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles. Many of them did so in blackface (this was actually quite common & not seen as particularly controversial until the 1990s). Lawrence Fishburne became the first actually Black actor to play Othello in a major film adaptation -- in 1995.
Is Shakespeare’s Othello Black?
Othello is described as a “Moorish” general in the Venetian army. Part of the question is what “Moorish” meant in Shakespeare’s time. A Moor could be someone from north Africa / the Maghreb; “Moor” comes from the same root as “Morocco.” “Moor” was an “exonym” -- meaning it was a term used by Europeans to describe people in North Africa and perhaps sub-Saharan Africa as well -- but it was not a term Africans used to describe themselves. In short, a Moor could have a range of complexions, from a light-skinned complexion essentially identical to a Venetian/Italian to dark-skinned.
That said, there’s quite a bit of language in the play that suggests Othello must be visibly racialized:
E. A. J. Honigmann, the editor of an Arden Shakespeare edition, concluded that Othello's race is ambiguous. "Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory. As critics have established, the term 'Moor' referred to dark-skinned people in general, used interchangeably with terms such as 'African', 'Somali', 'Ethiopian', 'Negro', 'Arab', 'Berber', and even 'Indian' to designate a figure from Africa (or beyond)." Various uses of the word black (for example, "Haply for I am black") are insufficient evidence for any accurate racial classification, Honigmann argues, since black could simply mean swarthy to Elizabethans.
Othello is referred to as a "Barbary horse" (1.1.113) and a "lascivious Moor" (1.1.127). In 3.3 he denounces Desdemona's supposed sin as being "black as mine own face". Desdemona's physical whiteness is otherwise presented in opposition to Othello's dark skin: 5.2 "that whiter skin of hers than snow". Iago tells Brabantio that "an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88). When Iago uses the word Barbary or Barbarian to refer to Othello, he seemingly refers to the Barbary coast inhabited by Berbers. Roderigo calls Othello "the thicklips", which seems to refer to Sub-Saharan African physiognomy, but Honigmann counters that, as these comments are all intended as insults by the characters, they need not be taken literally.
However, Jyotsna Singh wrote that the opposition of Brabantio to Desdemona marrying Othello – a respected and honoured general – cannot make sense except in racial terms, citing the scene where Brabantio accuses Othello of using witchcraft to make his daughter fall in love with him, saying it is "unnatural" for Desdemona to desire Othello's "sooty bosom". Singh argued that, since people with dark complexions are common in the Mediterranean area, a Venetian senator like Brabantio being opposed to Desdemona marrying Othello for merely being swarthy makes no sense, and that the character of Othello was intended to be black. (Wikipedia entry on Othello)
It seems important to acknowledge that there’s at least a debate here, though the majority of critics have sided more with Jyotsna Singh’s interpretation than with Honigmann’s. (Othello himself says it: “haply for I am black”...)
Shakespeare's Othello: Brief Plot Summary
Othello, as mentioned, is a powerful general in the city-state of Venice. (This is before the modern nation-state, “Italy” existed.) He is of Moorish background, but has loyally served the Duke of Venice, Brabantio, for many years. Othello’s assistant Iago makes a decision to take down his boss, in part because he’s annoyed that Othello has promoted another man above himself. Morrison has said in interviews that she found Iago’s presence in the play overwhelming and frustrating -- he barely lets anyone else get a word in edgewise -- and in her version she writes the character out entirely. Othello has secretly married the Duke’s young daughter, Desdemona. Brabantio confronts him, and demands an explanation. He explains that it was his stories of combat overseas recounted to Desdemona that led her to fall in love with him; she publicly confirms that she loves Othello. The Duke gives his assent
As the play progresses, Othello is repeatedly tricked by Iago into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Her maid Emilia plays an unwitting role in the deception involving a handkerchief. Finally, Othello strangles Desdemona in her bed. Once the plot is revealed (by Emilia, only realizing her own role in the tragedy now), Othello stabs Iago (not fatally), then takes his own life.
The origins of Morrison’s Desdemona
This project started with a conversation between Morrison and Peter Sellars, a director of experimental theater and operas. Here’s how the New York Times framed it in an article published in 2011:
— A decade ago Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and Peter Sellars, the experimental theater and opera director, got into a fierce argument about Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He said it was a terrible play that made no sense and had outlived its usefulness. She said he was dead wrong.
The conversation led to a creative pact: Mr. Sellars would stage “Othello”; Ms. Morrison would find a way to talk back to Shakespeare. In 2009 Mr. Sellars created a four-hour, futuristic, high-tech “Othello” that was greeted with mixed reviews in Europe and criticized in New York, where it was presented by the Public Theater and the Labyrinth Theater Company, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, and John Ortiz as Othello.
Now Ms. Morrison has delivered her part of the bargain in “Desdemona,” a production directed by Mr. Sellars that opened in this Paris suburb on Oct. 13 at the Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers and ran through last Friday. Part play, part concert, it is an interactive narrative of words, music and song about Shakespeare’s doomed heroine, who speaks to the audience from the grave about the traumas of race, class, gender, war — and the transformative power of love. (New York Times, 2011)
In the foreword to Desdemona, Sellars gives us his account of Othello and Shakespeare’s understanding of Africans and Africa:
Shakespeare’s Othello is a permanent provocation, for four centuries the most visible portrayal of a black man in western art. It is a play seething with innuendo, misinformation, secrets, lies, self-decption, cruelty, and strangely luminous redemption. IT has been read by generations as a coded, indirect reference to the coded, indirect layers of justice and injustice that move across racial lines in Western societies. Because the play is so intricate and ultimately disturbing, much of its performance history has reduced it to a kind of puppet show of a brilliant but dangerously mad black man framed by a devil on his left (Iago) and an angel on his right (Desdemona).
What was the reality of Africa for Shakespeare? Did he know any Africans? Clearly the man who called his theater ‘The Globe’ was interested in Africa, and his two ‘multicultural’ plays set in Venice, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, are filled with references to Africa. (Desdemona, 7)
Here’s what Peter Sellars says in his introduction to the play:
This project grew out of an astonishing line which appears late in Act IV of Othello. Othello has just visited Desdemona in her bedroom and threatened her with terrifying and pointed menace. He leaves, and Desdemona, deeply shaken, asks her companion, Emlilia, to help her get ready for bed. Entering an eerily emotional twilight that will lead to her violent death, she tells Emilia that she can’t get a certain song out of her head. She learned this song, she tells Emilia, from her mother’s maid, Barbary, who died wile singing it, of a broken heart.
In one line, Shakespeare has suddenly given us a series of startling images. The appearance of the word ‘mother’ tips us off -- Shakespeare’s plays are filled with mysterious, missing women and this is only the second reference to Desdemona’s mother in the entire play. But it is the word ‘Barbary’ which triggers surprising associations. In seventeenth-century London, ‘Barbary’ meant Africa. The Barbary pirates were hijacking British vessels off the coaset of Africa, enslaving their white, British crews. In 1600, a delegation of ambassadors from the Barbary court, Africans of high degree, splendidly dressed, arrived in London to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth. That advent stirred much discussion in London. That Shakespeare, writing Othello in 1603, uses the name “Barbary,” implies that there is another African character in the play.” (Desdemona, 7-8)
Some readers might be confused by this, since for many modern editions the spelling is “Barbara” not “Barbary.” But 18th & 19th century editors of Shakespeare modified the spelling of the maid’s name. The original spelling in the first Folio edition of Othello was actually “Barbarie” -- for which “Barbary” is actually an appropriate and reasonable adjustment.
My mother had a maid call'd [Barbary]:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of 'willow;'
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side,
And sing it like poor [Barbary]. Prithee, dispatch. (Othello, Act IV, Scene iii)
A few lines later, Desdemona actually sings the song:
[Singing] The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;
Lay by these:--
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon:--
Interestingly, in Morrison’s Desdemona this song is the only part of the play she cites directly -- though she gives the performance of the song to ‘Barbary’ herself, not to Desdemona.
Morrison's play might be difficult for some readers to follow, in part because one needs to know Shakespeare’s play at least somewhat, and partly because there are many different voices and modes in play. The dialogue that appears in a smaller Serif font is spoken aloud by the characters -- though I believe most of the parts were actually all voiced by a single actress in the versions of this play that were performed on stage at various venues in 2011-2012.
The larger font “sans serif” segments are transcriptions and translations of songs that are performed in the play by Rokia Traore, a famous Malian singer and guitarist. (You see her in the Youtube video.) Traore wrote those songs herself, all except the Willow Song (which comes from Shakespeare), and one of the songs towards the end (which Morrison wrote).
Another thing that should be mentioned: the play is set after Desdemona and Othello are already dead. They are in a kind of afterlife space -- where they can revisit what happened in their lives & make judgments. Othello’s mother also appears as a character, as does Desdemona’s mother (neither of whom are in the Shakespeare at all); they meet and recognize each other.
Here is an excerpt from a performance of Desdemona: