The American Civil War lasted from 1861 – 1865 between the North or the Union and the South or the Confederacy. Approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives, and it is now known as the bloodiest war in American history. When the Confederacy surrendered at the end of the war, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment which emancipated all slaves in the United States.
Many of the soldiers in the Civil War were volunteers; one such faction was the zouave. Originally, zouaves served in the French North African army, during an 1831 war. However, the legacy of the volunteer brigades of zouave soldiers was adopted by volunteer soldiers during the Civil War. Their uniforms were incredibly distinct; the trademark red pants, navy coats, and red headgear. The majority of zouaves fought on the side of the Union, and during the First Battle of Bull Run they earned the nickname “Red Legged Devils.” The significance of the legacy of the zouave soldier is present in our adaptation of Othello. Othello’s faction of troops identify as zouave soldiers, and appear as such in the play.
Crimes of Passion
The murder of Desdemona at the end of Othello is often referred to as a “crime of passion,” which is generally defined as a crime committed due to a sudden strong emotional impulse such as rage or heartbreak. The most prevalent example is when a spouse catches their partner cheating and reacts directly out of their emotional turmoil in a violent manner.
In a court of law, a crime of passion (if it can be proven) is generally considered manslaughter, meaning there was not a deliberate and/or premeditated intent to kill. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, compared to other murder victims, familial murder victims were more often:
- – female than male: 45%
- – killed during the daytime: 39%
- – killed in the victim’s own home: 82%
Below is a table that details the statistics about familial crimes.
Fearing What We Don’t Understand
400 years after its conception, Othello still has the potential to make tempers flare. It is almost impossible to separate the text from the debate over contemporary racism. For example, productions of Othello across the country still find themselves under attack when the character of Othello is cast as anything other than black.
In Seattle, Green Stage Theatre Company worked its way through the entire Shakespearean canon, performing some plays up to four times before completing the canonical tour in 2014 with its production of Othello. However, the play was met with considerable controversy because the actor that was cast as Othello was half Indian, half Chippewa. Audiences and the Seattle theatre community were outraged, and accused the actor of not having the authority necessary to play the “black” role. Due to this lashback, Green Stage Theatre Company has since removed Othello from its production history online.
The actor, Johnny Patchamatla, found the concern ironic. He viewed the character as a man who has been “othered;” an outsider. As an actor of color, he was often not considered for “white” roles, but after being cast as one of the most famous characters of color, he was being criticized for not being dark enough, or not fitting into a specifically “African” ethnic identification. He made a very moving statement in response; “I’ll never forget the first time a kid called me ‘nigger,’ because I didn’t know what it meant. I was 7 years old. [I] went home to ask [my] dad—an aeronautics engineer—what that meant and saw his face crumple a bit. He tried to explain racism to me.” (The Stranger, A Paler Shade of Moor)
The reason to produce Othello today is therefore clearly evident. The immediate dehumanization of Othello within the world of the play is echoed inversely in the world without. Actors who do not fit perfectly into the mold of “black” are immediately discarded from consideration for acting the role. In this case, life has begun to imitate art in a vicious cycle of racist ideology.
A Paler Shade of Moor by Brenden Kiley: A review of Greenstage’s recent production of Othello in Seattle, in which the importance of racial distinction in modern theatre is discussed.
Shakespeare’s Colors by James Schultz: In which race in Elizabethan England is explained, along with race as a convention on the Elizabethan stage.
Shakespeare and Race by Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells: A book that deeply discusses the meaning of race in Elizabethan England.
Race and Sex in Renaissance England
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame,
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
Sonnet 127 by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s England enforced a racial binary; one was either white or colored. The word “Moor” was not exclusive to people of African descent, but also applied to indigenous inhabitants of India, North America, Indonesia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.
The origin of race during the Renaissance was largely debated between two theories; that the difference in skin color was because of sun exposure, or that it was a curse by God to indicate a person’s wrongdoings. Due to England’s color prejudice, it was common in to perform in blackface to symbolize the character’s sinful or evil nature.
Stereotypes were already prevalent in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience, for in 1526, Leo Africanus wrote in his History and Description of Africa, “no nation in the world is so subject unto jealousy; for they will rather lose their lives, than put up any disgrace in behalf of their women.”
Sex in Renaissance England was at the forefront of the culture’s mind; many historians classify this as a time of sexual hyperactivity. Sex outside of one’s marriage was not only common, but expected, much like the Latin American concept of “machismo.” The common belief was that women had a much higher libido and much lower constitution than men, and had to be watched carefully in order for their purity not to be compromised.
A majority of marriages at the time were arranged by the parents of the man and woman. Once married, laws in England dictated that the woman was legal property of the man, and so seducing a man’s wife was likened to stealing an item from his home. Adultery was an accusation that was punishable by death, and since divorce was not an option and an annulment was difficult to obtain, many unhappy marriages ended in bloodshed.
Chronology of Shakespeare’s England
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3
Richard III and The Comedy of Errors
Anti-alien riots break out in London
Titus Andronicus and Taming of the Shrew
Plague shut down London theatres
Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost
Shakespeare joins the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
King John, Edward II, and The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare’s first son Hamnet dies
Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV, Part One
Shakespeare’s sonnets completed
Ireland rebels against England until 1601
Henry IV, Part 2 and As You Like It
Henry V, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing
The Globe Theatre opens
The War of Theatres; satire is banned in prose and verse publications until 1602
Merry Wives of Windsor and Hamlet
Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida
All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Othello
Queen Elizabeth I dies, James I (James VI of Scotland) becomes king of England
Plague closes London theatres and sweeps through England, killing 1 in 5 people
King Lear and Macbeth
Antony and Cleopatra
Coriolanus and Timon of Athens
Plague closes London Theatres
The Winter’s Tale
Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen