Blurring the lines in Othello

By Francis Sinclair

The RSC’s production of Othello, which cast British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati as Iago, was largely praised as a tremendous success. The justification of the praise largely noted that casting a black Iago removed race as a motivation for the antagonist’s hatred of Othello, thereby provoking a new perspective on Shakespeare’s artful misanthrope.

This aim to shift focus away from the racist concerns of the play are consistent with other modern performances of Othello, as in Adrian Lester’s modern-dress production where the colour of Othello’s skin is largely ignored. Given Iago’s references to the adulterous relationship he imagines between his wife and his military superior – Iago spits “nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him wife for wife” – it is unlikely that race was ever a motive in his heinous acts.

Rather, it seems that the primary consequence of Msamati’s role is that both Othello and Iago become equally susceptible to the racism of a white Venice. As the play progresses, we see Othello suffer under the crippling insecurity which inevitably rises from his minority position and interracial marriage within a racist high society. Iago aggravates this insecurity.

A black Iago does not only secure Othello’s credibility as a character. It also portrays Iago as fouler than ever before.

In this light, the effects of Msamati’s casting are more evident. As the only other black man in influential Venice, he inevitably holds a position of trust with his superior and an implicit understanding of Othello’s hardship; a powerful combination which gives Iago perfect leverage over Othello. Msamati’s Iago thus works to counter a popular criticism of Othello: why did the protagonist never suspect his unfaithful ensign? Responses deemed unsatisfactory refer to Othello’s trustful nature, and the pair’s closeness arising from their military endeavours. This third element, of a common victimhood, grants more substance to the case.

But a black Iago does not only secure Othello’s credibility as a character. It also portrays Iago as fouler than ever before. To manipulate and subsequently destroy Othello by tormenting him with insecurities stemming from the very racial minority of which he is a part is tantalisingly scandalous. More disturbingly still, we hear the vilest racially charged words emanating from Iago himself, including the depraved words to Brabantio, “even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” But far from undermining Msamati’s Iago, such remarks add to the barbarity of his character: Iago, in intense perversity, becomes a man willing to indulge in a graphic hypocrisy of prejudice.

It is remarkable how an ostensibly implausible character shift can dramatically alter the tone of the play. It is sometimes difficult to see an experimental tweak such as this as anything other than a mindless alteration, a revision for the sake of a revision; Jude Kelly’s “photonegative” production of a white Othello in Africa, for example. The RSC’s production, however, avoids such misconduct, and rather provides a provocative twist in Shakespeare’s tragedy of resent.

Image: Othello at the Globe, Amit Lennon via Flickr

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