Oliver Parker's sexual thriller suffers
from the presence of Shakespeare's racial sensibilities and the
absence of his poetry.
Alan A. Stone
Iago launches the first act of Shakespeare's
Othello by shouting into the stillness of the Venetian night,
"The old black ram is tupping your white ewe." With
that Negrophobic alarm, Shakespeare's most cunning and mysterious
villain rouses Brabantio, the father of Desdemona, and exposes
the raw nerve of White racism—the archetypal fear of the
sexually triumphant Black man. Laurence Fishburne is the first
actor I have ever seen bring to the role of Othello the smouldering
sexual vibrations that keep this nerve pulsating.
Fishburne is certainly far from the best actor to have played
the part: Laurence Olivier filmed his own stage version; Orson
Welles constructed a flawed but brilliant film; James Earl Jones
toured on stage in the part. And all these actors gave heroic
dimension to Othello: Olivier gave him effrontery, Welles fury,
Jones dignity. Fishburne now gives him sexuality. Though he may
not read the lines as well as his predecessors, his visual presence
on the screen is stunning. Exactly as director and screenwriter
Oliver Parker intended, Fishburne's Othello is heightened so that
he is at least cinematically equal to the Iago of Kenneth Branagh—arguably
the English-speaking world's greatest living actor. On stage,
without the artifices of the "magic lantern," without
closeups of Fishburne's face, and with all of Othello's poetry
to be spoken, this production would have been a disaster. But
Parker reconceived Shakespeare's as a sexual thriller, and knew—in
his first feature film—how the camera could help.
Filmmakers have a bag of tricks unique to their medium, which
audiences now take for granted, but which were once astonishing.
Biographers report that Wittgenstein insisted on sitting in the
front row at movies because he wanted to be overwhelmed by their
images. Sartre shared his childhood movie-going passion with his
young widowed mother. As he explained in his autobiographical
Words, it was their fantasy-land escape from an austere reality.
Later he would analyze the medium to demonstrate how much more
mind control over the audience the movie has compared to the stage
play. In the theater the stage set is fixed in time and place;
members of the audience are free to look wherever they choose.
They need not attend to the actor who is speaking, but can focus
on a piece of furniture, a minor actor, or the spotlighting of
the stage. In the darkened movie house, a member of the audience
can only close his eyes or submit and follow the moving images
on the screen. The actors are larger than life, and a director
can force the entire audience to watch a single face on the screen
waiting to be kissed. The separate members of the audience are
constituted as an anonymous collectivity of voyeurs peeping through
the camera's keyhole. The director who commands the camera thus
has more power over the audience than any actor, and the camera's
compelling visual images have more impact than the actor's words.
But Shakespeare is primarily about words; an actor's challenge
is to speak the poetry, capture the deeper meaning, and sustain
the dramatic intensity. One might therefore expect the film versions
of his plays to be disastrous. Not so. There have been many marvelous
films of Shakespeare plays. Olivier and Branagh both did Henry
V in versions that rival each other but surpass any stage production.
The same can be said of Zeffereli's Romeo and Juliet, Mankiewicz's
Julius Caesar, and Peter Brook's magnificent King Lear. Director
Oliver Parker's film falls far below this standard, but then Shakespeare's
Othello is a peculiarly challenging text.
Fifty years ago, Paul Robeson played Othello on Broadway to wildly
enthusiastic audiences. But Othello has become a notoriously difficult
stage play to perform and it can be painful, even distasteful,
to watch. It is the only Shakespeare play about which many thoughtful
people have said that they prefer Verdi's operatic version. The
problem in every modern performance is that Othello is so unreflective,
Desdemona so helpless, and Iago so mysteriously evil that the
painfulness of the storyline is unmitigated: There is no one with
whom the audience can identify and empathize. Unthinking jealousy
compounded by racism is a better formula for the stylistics of
an opera than an engrossing theatrical performance.
Comparison with the Merchant of Venice is instructive. Both plays
are set in Venice, the great maritime city-state of Marco Polo
and Andrea Doria, an empire of its time, which imported ethnic
and racial diversity along with commercial goods; this made the
Rialto a natural setting for tales of racism and anti-semitism.
But as in Shakespeare's other plays that invoke racial and ethnic
stereotypes, these Venetian plays reveal the cultural biases that
confine even Shakespeare's genius. Jessica, Shylock's daughter,
is saved by stealing some of her father's fortune and running
off with a Christian spendthrift. And, although audiences remember
Portia for her line about mercy, she strips Shylock of every single
penny and his religious identity as well, forcing him to convert
to Christianity on pain of death, much as the Inquisitors of the
Church did to his brethren. Although Shylock has his great speech
(". . . does a Jew not have feelings . . ."), Shakespeare
wastes little sympathy on him. The audience was meant to be amused
by the judgment meted out to this vengeful Jew.
Although Othello has been assigned nobility and great poetry,
he is one of Shakespeare's most unreflective characters. Unlike
Shylock, who reflects on his status as a Jew and is bitterly aware
of his degraded position as such, Othello never questions his
Blackness or reflects on his precarious position in a world of
White men. Othello acts, overreacts, has epileptic seizures, suffers
terribly, but does not reflect. Taking Iago's bait of jealousy
without caution or consideration, he flashes into violence against
his innocent bride. Bradley, the famous Shakespeare scholar, says
that "Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple.
He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free
from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites
his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect."
(It is no answer to say that Othello is a warrior; after all,
Macbeth is a much bloodier warrior, and he reflects on his situation.)
Recognizing Othello as different in this way is not the same as
understanding why Shakespeare conceived the Moor as so simple
and unreflective. Reading the Venetian plays, however, one might
well conclude that though Shakespeare understood almost as much
about anti-semitism and racism as we do today, his knowledge about
Jews and Blacks was narrowly circumscribed by stereotype.
Thus the difficulties for 20th century audiences. Thus, too, the
standard tactic of the directors seeking to reach them: give the
roles of Shylock and Othello to actors of enormous talent and
star power in the hope that the actor will transform the character
and give it grandeur. Lawrence Olivier did this with both roles
brilliantly but it was a theatrical trick, not a solution to the
fundamental problem of the stereotyped protagonists.
Oliver Parker had a different idea. Cognizant of Othello's empty
unreflectiveness, he filled the void with sex and violence, all
of it realized through Fishburne's visual presence—made
all the more stunning because someone had the ingenious idea of
tattooing the side of his shaved head, making him unforgettably
Fishburne will be remembered as the wife-battering Ike Turner
of Tina Turner's autobiographical What's Love Got To Do With It?.
The film had a great impact in England and Fishburne's performance
earned him the role of Othello. Parker was looking for a Black
actor who would give Othello an Ike-Turner-edge of sexual intimidation
and violence. The idea was to make the erotic relationship between
Othello and Desdemona the emotional fulcrum of the play. Parker's
experience playing Iago in repertory had convinced him that for
modern audiences the play had become unbalanced and the relationship
between Othello and Desdemona had lost its dramatic energy. Othello
was supposed to be Shakespeare's most psychological play, a drama
of private passions, but the diabolical evil of Iago and his hatred
for the noble Othello was more intriguing to modern audiences
than the almost platonic love relationship between the noble Moor
and his childlike Desdemona.
Fishburne's physicality and his stilted American speaking of the
lines make him the embodiment of the alien "other" summoned
from the racist's nightmare of miscegenation. The casting for
all of the other parts is bold, creative, and in line with this
premise. Desdemona, in particular, is not the blond-haired ingenue
we have come to expect in traditional productions. The sensual,
dark-haired Swiss actress, Irene Jacob, has been given the role.
And although Shakespeare's Othello says "she loved me for
the pains I have suffered," this Desdemona, speaking in heavily
accented English, conveys the full measure of erotic chemistry
that can precipitate a sudden elopement.
This is not Shakespeare's Desdemona, who asks Emilia, her maid
and Iago's wife, whether women are ever sexually unfaithful to
their husbands. Desdemona cannot believe the truthful answer;
that is the measure of her virginal naivete. Parker has sacrificed
all these innocent lines. Irene Jacob's heavily accented reading
labors over her few lines; like Fishburne, she earned her part
because of her erotic screen presence. Critics who object to this
heavy-handed vulgarization of Shakespeare's play must concede
that in the 20th century, when ten-year-old children are sexually
sophisticated, Shakespeare's Desdemona would be something of a
An ambitious director might have bitten the bullet and cast a
very young girl as Desdemona. But adding discrepancies in age
to racial difference would have provoked even greater outrage
than Irene Jacob's fleshy and sensuous Desdemona. She is an erotic
match for Fishburne on the screen and Othello does not have to
be crazed to imagine her making love to another man—especially
after Parker inserts a scene in which Othello watches Desdemona
dance with Cassio, with a spark of sensual pleasure in her eye.
All of this makes Othello's jealousy more believable.
Though Parker sacrifices the complexity of the play and most of
its greatness to make it coherent for modern sensibilities, Branagh's
Iago somehow survives, and with new dimensions. Othello and Iago
in Shakespeare's play are in a certain sense more intimate than
the Moor and his bride. An orthodox Freudian reading of the play
uses this intimacy to resolve the mystery of Iago's evil nature
into his repressed homosexual attraction to the vibrantly sexual
and brutal Moor. And in the film the body language between Fishburne
and Branagh implies dominance-submission, sadism-masochism.
Fishburne may not accept the Freudian reading, but an improvised
scene demonstrates his psychological understanding of the relationship.
In a show of brute strength he holds the scheming Iago's head
underwater until the man almost drowns. According to Freudian
formulas, the subordinate Iago first feels sexual jealousy because
he has projected his own repressed passive and masochistic desires
onto his wife Emilia; his first soliloquy of revenge tells the
audience that Othello "has done my service in Emilia's bed."
In his own paranoid mind a victim of sexual betrayal, Iago has
the blueprint of the idea to make Othello believe he has suffered
the same fate.
The Freudian interpretation, as usual, overstates the case, but
the play certainly suggests this motive for revenge. Iago reiterates
the charge in his second soliloquy. Furthermore, when Emilia realizes
what Iago has done, she immediately attributes it to his unjustified
belief that she had betrayed him with Othello. The attribution
comes so quickly that Iago must have accused her of betrayal.
And Fishburne's Othello would seem to justify such beliefs. He
is the kind of man Iago would take pleasure in hating.
Several stage actors have played this Freudian Iago, most notably
Christopher Plummer. His Othello (James Earl Jones) stabs him
in the groin at the end of the play to punctuate this reading.
Branagh's Freudian gesture is less obvious. In his conniving interchanges
with Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, his Iago sometimes assumes
a seductive feminine demeanor, wooing them with yielding words
and promises. There is a particularly striking scene after Othello's
arrival in Cyprus where the celebration of the Turkish fleet's
destruction has become a drunken orgy. In a cart rocking above
them the camera reveals, without being overly graphic, that a
couple is having intercourse while below a gleeful Iago embraces
Roderigo and deviously sets him on to further machinations.
But if Branagh's performance suggests repressed homosexuality,
he is too great an actor to let Freud dominate Shakespeare. His
mercurial Iago has not one great motive but rather several, all
suggested in Shakespeare's text. He has served Othello faithfully
for many years in campaigns of war only to have Othello appoint
Cassio, an untested soldier, over him—at least so he claims.
Thus Iago has been doubly wronged by the Moor; resentment and
envy abet sexual jealousy. So Cassio is a perfect target against
whom Iago will foment Othello's jealous rage. Furthermore, the
play gives us reason to believe or suspect that Cassio is from
the ranks of Italian gentlemen while Iago is a self-made man.
Such parvenus fare poorly in Shakespeare's plays; they are overreaching
and flawed in character, and even when they are wronged they end
badly. Iago, one of these, is not just a vengeful malefactor,
but a con man and a thief as he manipulates Roderigo, Desdemona's
embittered suitor, to sell all he has and "put money in your
pocket," most of which ends up in Iago's purse.
Branagh's Iago is also caught up in the momentum of his own improvisations,
as in his evil deeds he mirrors the inexplicable creative genius
of his creator. Iago, like Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare's many
imaginary selves—this one can imagine unimaginable evils.
When Othello finally grasps the full extent of Iago's malevolence,
the Moor demands an explanation but Iago, in a fitting show of
intransigence, takes a vow of silence. And Othello understands
that this is as it should be. Iago is a perfect villain who will
not give us the satisfaction of fully knowing his reasons—he
offers neither confession nor contrition. Evil can have no complete
explanation. Branagh, who did one of this century's greatest Hamlets
on stage, has now given us a superb Iago on film.
But Branagh's triumph may have defeated Parker's film. His Iago
is everything but what this film needed—a blood and guts
racist. Parker describes Branagh's performance as down-to-earth
rather than "diabolical"—but he did not come down
to the prosaic level required by the screenplay. One cannot escape
the feeling that the guileful Kenneth Branagh knows where all
the great actors before him have gone and now charts his own course.
Parker's frequent closeups of Fishburne's glowering dark eyes
keep Branagh's Iago from stealing the whole show. But Iago can
be found in Shakespeare's play; Parker created Jacob's Desdemona
and Fishburne's Othello.
Parker thought out very carefully every detail of his screenplay
and if Shakespeare purists disapprove, as surely they must, it
is not because Parker fails to understand the beauty of Shakespeare's
poetry or the tragedy of Othello. Fully realizing Shakespeare's
genius, Parker and Branagh aim to bring more people into his temple.
Branagh certainly knows how to do traditional Shakespeare but
he also realizes that a production that will pack the largest
theater in London does not translate into the medium of film and
will not pack the movie houses. And he realizes, too, that British
actors with the training and skill to read Shakespeare's lines
may have neither strong screen presence nor box office drawing
power. Moreover, his theory is that the problem cannot just be
laid on the shoulders of the film-going audience. An outsider
from Belfast, he believes that some of the blame belongs to narcissistic
English Shakespeare traditionalists.
He tried to break the English mold in his film version of Much
Ado About Nothing by including American movie stars. But try as
they might, Denzel Washington and the other Hollywood actors simply
could not master Shakespeare's language. Shakespeare's comic scenes
in the play are based on a lunatic but ingenious sequence of malapropisms
which carry the opposite meaning of the speaker's intention. The
humor was entirely lost in Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves' American
translation, even if one knew the arcane lines being spoken. Nonetheless,
the high-spirited musical-comedy feeling of the film did succeed
in attracting a new audience to one of Shakespeare's less well-known
comedies, and grossed almost $50 million at the box office. Branagh
is now doing a four-hour film Hamlet with a most unlikely array
of Hollywood actors. It will either be a disaster, or a miracle.
Parker's Othello succeeds better than Much Ado About Nothing in
integrating its diverse and non-Shakespearean actors, but at great
cost. The film opened in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial,
and some of the film's backers must have been thanking their lucky
stars expecting to cash in on the American craze. But if the television
drama fascinated the public, Oliver Parker's did not. Othello
is not a bad film, and it is cinematically beautiful, but it has
failed to find a new audience for Shakespeare and is very far
from an enlightening interpretation of one of his most difficult
If Shakespeare's own Othello was the Elizabethan stereotype of
an African savage, Parker's version is the modern stereotype of
the inner-city Black. Parker's Othello has no fall from innocence,
no defining tragic moment, and Fishburne offers no more than his
physical presence. Parker hoped that sexual passion would bring
emotional coherence to a play that has puzzled Shakespeare critics
for two centuries. But he addresses the racial problem by eliminating
Othello's grandeur and Desdemona's innocence—a solution
that required him to sacrifice most of their poetry and the miracle
of their love.
Othello by most accounts was the tragedy written after Hamlet,
when Shakespeare was at the height of his powers. But unlike Hamlet
with its Ghost, Macbeth with its witches, or Richard III with
its bloody scheme of royal succession, Othello is an un-Shakespeare-like
tragedy without supernatural forces or great political-historical
significance. And is there any other noble hero in the Shakespeare
canon who hits his wife in public, treats her like a whore, and
kills her with his own hands? Shakespeare's script prepares us
to be shocked by that public blow—the tragedy's defining
moment. The old warrior Othello loves Desdemona because she pities
him, not because she excites him. And the Moor gives assurances
in every respect that he will be gentle with his innocent bride.
Othello is the very antithesis of Iago's Negrophobic black ram.
Far from Fishburne's incendiary Othello, Shakespeare's Moor assures
us that the days of his hot-blooded youthful excesses are finished.
He can conduct the war against the Turks without being distracted
by his new bride. Frank Kermode compares Othello and Desdemona
in the first act of the play to Adam and Eve before the fall.
Be that as it may, when Othello strikes Desdemona the audience
sees the beast in man revealed, and that savage beast is a Black
man. Shakespeare's Othello speaks sublime poetry but he confirms
Elizabethan stereotypes of race.
But the failure of Parker's film is less severe when measured
against the Olivier and Welles films. Pauline Kael might now prefer
to expunge her rhapsodic review of the Olivier production from
her collected works. She opined that no Black actor, not even
Paul Robeson, could bring to the role of Othello what Olivier
had. But an Othello in black (or brown) face is an affront to
contemporary sensibilities. And the brilliant Olivier production,
as Kael herself admits, "isn't even much of a movie."
Branagh described it as a narcissistic English interpretation
of Shakespeare. Orson Welles is not English, but in black face
he is today as out of place as Olivier, and his Othello is more
notable for its exotic cinematic style than its substance. The
failure of all three films suggests that Shakespeare's play may
have no contemporary cinematic solution. And this is because it
was written for an audience that could accept racist stereotypes
as truisms without acknowledging their own racism.
I mentioned earlier that many people prefer Verdi's opera to Shakespeare's
play. Shakespeare's poetry, surely, is at least the equivalent
of Verdi's music. The most useful insight into Shakespeare's Othello
emphasizing the poetry comes from Bradley's lectures. Though he
acknowledges all of the play's difficulties—the pain and
dismay produced in the audience by the sudden explosion of savagery
that comes from the noble Moor—he makes brilliant excuses
for Shakespeare's racist stereotype. He quotes with approval Swinburne's
line that "we pity Othello even more than we pity Desdemona."
He acknowledges that no rationalization satisfactorily explains
this unsettling tragedy and that the many troubling issues it
raises "cannot be decided by argument." More simply,
I would say, no solution will make the racism of Shakespeare and
his audiences disappear.
But Bradley's consoling insight is that Othello may be Shakespeare's
greatest poet and if we read the play and its poetry "with
all our force" we will feel these objections less. Parker's
Othello does not and cannot provide us that consolation. Unfortunately,
with all its technical powers over mind, the medium of film has
found no way to heighten, or even to convey, poetry's magical
Originally published in the April/
May 1996 issue of Boston Review