Tuesday, February 1, 2022

More on Othello and Blackface

ast month I wrote on the unfortunate choice of a University of Michigan professor to show his class a film version of Othello in which the protagonist was played by a white man (Laurence Olivier) in blackface. The professor fell afoul of students, and subsequently of administrators, not so much for showing the film as for failing (as his critics saw it) to contextualize the production: to say something about the tradition of white men using blackface to play this famed Shakespearean character. Even had the professor done so, he might not have realized that the part of Othello was actually created -- that is, it was scripted -- for a man in blackface.

This is not just to acknowledge that in 1604, all Shakespeare's characters, and those of his rivals, were played by male whites, except for the characters in elaborate masques written and staged in private palaces for the aristocracy, in which women sometimes took part. (The women were also white, of course. Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness is an interesting example of a play written to be performed by women in blackface.) It's a given that the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world was not a racially diverse milieux, although it's not impossible that of the hundred or so black Londoners of the early seventeenth century, one or