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Historic Portrayals of Othello

Page history last edited by Lindsay Harris 14 years, 6 months ago



Cultural-Historical Portrayals of Othello


On Stage & Screen


The history of Othello is in part a history of how the title role has been played, and by whom.  Centuries of productions of the play have demonstrated that the role 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.


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 Oriental garb, a possible allusion to this portrait of the Moorish Ambassador.






The Italian Tommaso Salvini was the first Othello reported to have struck his Desdemona.




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.


The first black man to play Othello was Ira Aldridge.  A Maryland native, he was accepted on stage in England and Germany but unwelcome to perform in ante-bellum American in the 1830-1840s. 



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.  





In 1911, American Robert Mantell returned to the Oriental look.


In the 1930s, Paul Robeson was the first black American to garner praise for his portrayal of the role.



When Paul Robeson as Othello kissed Uta Hagen as Desdemona on Broadway in 1943, it marked the first time a black actor kissed a white actress on a major American stage.




Orson Welles and Michael MacLiammoir in the 1951 film.



Anthony Quayle and Barbara Jefford in the 1954 film.


  Laurence Olivier, in blackface, paired up with Maggie Smith in perhaps the most infamous portrayal of Othello in 1964.



In 1981 James Earl Jones performed on Broadway with Christopher Plummer.



Paul Scofield with Felicity Kendal in London in a 1980 performance, stressed age as a more important factor than race.



Anthony Hopkins (Othello) and Bob Hoskins (Iago) from the 1980 BBC film.



Sir Ben Kingsley in a 1980s production, revived the oriental Othello.



Willard White and Ian McKellan starred on stage in a 1990 Stratford production.


Laurence Fishbourne and Irene Jacob in Oliver Parker's 1995 film stressed the sensuality of the 400 year old inter-racial love story.


The movie poster for the newest filmic adaptation of Othello, Tim Blake Nealson's O (2001), which displays telling images of an angry Mekhi Phifer, a nervous Julia Stiles and a driven Josh Hartnett. The poster is tagged with the words "Trust. Seduction. Betrayal." 

Other Media:


Paul Robeson discusses "Othello"


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AFI's Article "Contemporary Youth Meet Shakespeare, Again" by Vicki Botnick




American Film Institute posts a short article on Modern Shakespeare Adaptations










NPR's Neal Conan's Podcast "Rethinking Othello In The Age of Obama"


From the public radio station's show, Talk of the Nation  


The Podcast 



Rethinking 'Othello' In The Age Of Obama.mp3 




Source: NPR.com  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113169694                               


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