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The Merchant of Venice and Othello

Royal Shakespeare Company | Stratford, UK

Performance Date: July 1-2, 2015

James O'Rourke

October 23, 2015

This RSC season features two instances of counterethnic casting: a Palestinian Christian Shylock, and a black Iago. Iqbal Khan’s Othello is more successful than Polly Findlay’s Merchant. I will outline the aims and the mixed results of Findlay’s bleak Merchant before focusing on the substantial achievements of Khan’s Othello. This Merchant makes little use of Makram Khoury’s Shylock. The production focuses instead on showing how the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio destroys Portia’s naïve hopes for a fairytale marriage. Jamie Ballard plays a manic Antonio who is furious at everyone and everything. In the absence of scenery (the set is metallic and bare, and backed by a paneled mirror back wall), he chews at his nails whenever he pauses ranting. The bitter tone is set in the opening scene; as soon as Bassanio and Antonio are left alone, Antonio kisses Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Bassanio long and hard on the lips, but the moment Antonio expresses some doubt about his ability to extend yet another loan, Bassanio looks disgusted and begins to walk away. Portia is played by Patsy Ferran as a wide eyed ingenue, and her moral character is improved by cuts of both of the instances in the text where Portia refers disparagingly to Morocco’s “complexion.” Shylock, too, is cleaned up by the cutting of “I hate him for he is a Christian,” which becomes simply “I hate him for that he lends out money gratis.” This cut, as it gives a greater weight to the stereotype of the mercenary Jew, trivializes Shylock more than it improves him. The sanitizing of Portia and Shylock is offset by the virulent xenophobia of the Venetian Christians; both Antonio and Salerio spit directly into Shylock’s face. Even in the trial scene, however, the focus is less on Shylock than it is on the rivalry between Portia and Antonio over the worthless Bassanio. When Antonio asks Bassanio to remember “whether Bassanio had not once a love” and plants another big wet one on his lips, the disguised Portia looks on aghast. The fury she then turns on Shylock is clearly depicted as the result of her shock at seeing her husband’s true relationship with his “good friend Antonio.” Shylock’s fate is just a sideshow to this domestic quarrel; by the time he hears the final terms of his punishment and offers his defeated consent, he is halfway out of the theatre, exiting through an aisle in the stalls. The treatment of racism throughout the production has the didactic simplicity of a schools production (one can almost hear Mister Garrison from South Park saying “Now it’s mean to spit on Jews, nkay?”), while the sexual politics are unfortunately reminiscent of the brief nineteen-eighties row between queer and feminist criticism, when queer critics lamented the disappointment of Antonio’s love for Bassanio, and feminist critics complained that the homoeroticism of the transvestite stage offered no place for women. The bickering between the married couples at the end of this Merchant is deeply embittered, and when they leave Antonio alone on stage, staring furiously into the audience, there is little reason to believe that they are any happier than he is.

Iqbal Khan’s Othello is carefully thought out, brilliantly executed, and provocative in its conception of the play. The production features two pieces of surprising casting: Lucian Msamati’s black Iago, and Hugh Quarshie’s Othello. The surprise in the latter case comes from Quarshie’s well known reluctance to play Othello on the grounds that, as Quarshie put it in his 1998 essay “Second Thoughts about Othello,” there is a danger that an effective naturalistic portrayal by a black actor of a black man who murders a white woman will only reinforce racist stereotypes. Quarshie’s Othello is not the typical majestic Moor. His speeches to the Venetian Senate are delivered not as grand rhetorical performances but as plain debunkings of Brabantio’s accusations of charms and witchcraft. He also appears to display a genuine affection towards Desdemona, and it seems unlikely, in the play’s opening scenes, that this unassumingly elegant gentleman has either the passion or the inner anxiety to become a wife murderer. The transformation of Quarshie’s Othello takes place through what initially looks like a heavyhanded intrusion into the play: the military setting becomes an excuse for an Abu Ghraib scene when, just before Othello’s interrogation of Iago and his epilectic fit in 4.1, a hooded prisoner is brought on stage to be tortured while Othello supervises and takes notes. The torture instruments are then redeployed, as a threat, when Othello demands “ocular proof” from Iago. While the introduction of the modern torture context is jarring, it reminds an audience that Othello’s assimilation into the ruling class of Venice masks the means by which he got there: by killing people. When that capacity for violence, which has served both his interests and those of the state, is brought into the domestic sphere, it results in the murder of Desdemona.

It could be expected that the casting of a black Iago should suggest a strong bond between Othello and Iago, and distance them from the white characters in the play. There may be some basis for this formation in the text; Iago is a Spanish name, which suggests that both Iago and Othello are soldiers of fortune, now selling their services to the richest city in the region. Khan’s production, though, clearly identifies military culture, and not racial camaraderie, as the pathology that leads through misogyny to murder. This Othello and Iago do not seem particularly close at the outset of the play. Othello’s upward social mobility distances him from Msamati’s Iago; Quarshie speaks BBC English, while Msamati (who grew up in Tanzania and Zimbabwe) speaks with an African accent. Quarshie’s Othello moves easily into the more refined strata of Venetian culture. He dances gracefully with Desdemona, and when, in soliloquy, he disputes the premise that his age might lead to some disillusionment on her part, he breaks off a few dance steps and smiles at the audience. When Othello and Iago are with their military comrades, though, Othello becomes one of the boys. In the Cyprus scene that leads to Cassio’s drunken quarrel with Montano, Khan again interpolates some modern action; the racially mixed group of soldiers engages in a rap contest between Montano, played by the black actor David Ajao, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s white Cassio, and the high spirited fun becomes strained as Cassio begins to brag on behalf of “whites.” The scene clearly shows that it is not racial difference in itself — which everyone jokes about as the scene begins — but the hypermasculine energy of male competition that ultimately draws the scene into a violent confrontation. When Othello stops the quarrel and banishes Cassio, he is not the distinguished general who dances with Desdemona, but the alpha male who is capable of imposing his will on a unruly crowd of armed men.

As good as Quarshie is as Othello, the star turn in this production is Msamati’s Iago. Msamati begins as a powerful and engaging stage presence, who easily intimidates Rodrigo and charms the audience with his ironic commentaries on the irreproachability of his own actions and the stupidity of his enemies. This Iago, though, has his own demons; in a familiar, Freudian take on his character, Msamati’s Iago is disgusted by human contact, and obsessively wipes his hands or lips if they are ever touched by another person. The more compelling and original dimension that Msamati brings to Iago is a profound sense of existential despair. He scorns everyone in Venice, including his wife, and in the absence of any real human connection he puts a game in motion and watches it unfold. He is shocked when Emilia presents him with the handkerchief, and when he is left alone on stage with it, he holds it out incredulously to the audience. This is the first moment in which he begins to believe that his “yet confused” plan might actually work. He is not delighted by this prospect; he is amazed. When Msamati’s Iago proclaims that “This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite,” he does not really care which way it turns out. He is sick of living in a world full of idiots who see no value in him, and he is determined that either they go, he goes, or both. His first complaint in the play — that even his brother in arms, Othello, has cast him aside — has left this Iago with a deep sense of bereavement. As Msamati brilliantly shows, a man who knows his price, but who must live in a world where no one else knows it, can be both a lonely and a dangerous being.

James O'Rourke is Professor of English at Florida State University. He is the author of Retheorizing Shakespeare through Presentist Readings (Routledge, 2012) and numerous articles on Shakespeare and on British Romanticism.

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