The following article appeared in the
Greenfield Recorder on Thursday, July 26, 2001.
Shakespeare Company shows tragic truth in 'Othello'
By RAY HARRIS, Special to the Recorder
Racism, domestic violence, political infighting and duplicity may seem to be inventions of our own time, but Shakespeare knew and wrote about them in his very moving account of the rise and fall of Othello, the Moor of Venice.
In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the time of the play, the city-state of Venice was the chief competitor for the trade routes of the Mediterranean against the Ottoman Turks who had made deep incursions into Europe and North Africa. It is not inconceivable, then, that the Venetians may have been allied with the Moors and Berbers, who were also fighting the Turks, and that they might have drawn upon the services of a Moorish military leader to lead their own armed forces. This is the situation in "Othello," derived by Shakespeare from an earlier story published in Venice in 1566.
Othello, a black man, falls in love and secretly marries Desdemona, a beautiful young woman who is the high-born, accomplished daughter of a Venetian nobleman. This is problem number one that is introduced when Desdemona's father is told, with all the rancor of modern racism: "Zounds, sir, you're robbed. For shame ... Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul. Even now an old black ram is tupping your white ewe ... Arise, arise ... or else the Devil will make a grandsire of you."
The main problem, though, is the villainous and duplicitous Iago who has been passed over for second in command by Othello in favor of his lieutenant, Cassio. Iago hates them both for this and plots their downfall.
Being a military man and naive in the ways of high society and politics, Othello is easy prey for Iago's plan to turn him against his wife by intimating an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. The plan works only too well and Othello accuses his innocent wife unjustly (in disturbing scenes of spousal abuse) and finally kills her in a jealous rage. When he finds out how he has been enticed into killing a woman he still loves, Othello kills himself.
The role of Othello used to be played regularly by a white actor in black face, even in our own time, which is hard to imagine in light of attitudes that have undergone a sea change since the 1960's. Thankfully, we now routinely expect to see an African-American in the role and the Hampshire Shakespeare Theater has given us an outstanding leading man for the part in Aaron Crutchfield.
After the first explosion of overt racism in the play, Shakespeare obviously wants us to focus on Othello the man and not the color and ethnicity of the Moor. Crutchfield does indeed bring the audience's focus on a man loyal, valiant and noble, but bedeviled by the suspicions and jealousy inspired by Iago.
Iago, as played by William Stewart, is convincingly villainous, the hale fellow, well met who will stab you in the back as soon as look at you.
The villain can even be funny at times in his scheming, but Stewart's power shines out best when he spits out the expletives "Villainous whore" and "Filth, thou liest" as his wife, Emelia (Christine Stevens) finally exposes him for what he is and for what he has done.
The rest of the cast members show themselves to be accomplished performers all, and one of the highlights of the performance is that the actors' delivery is done so well that you don't have any trouble following the Shakespearean dialog. There is no loss of attention during the three hours of performance.
The audience-remained riveted throughout.
Co-directors Sarah Wilson and Dean Acheson point out in their program notes that the world of the play is imbued with violence: "The violence of war and its aftermath, psychological violence, violence between men, and, most potently, domestic violence ... there is no redemption to it ... apart from the destruction of those who wrought the violence."
Sarah Wilson further warned that "It may make many audience members uncomfortable. My intention was not to offend, but to try to stay truthful to the play." I didn't notice anyone in the good-sized audience being offended; it was more that we were kicked in the gut and came away all the more thoughtful for it and more understanding of our own moral weaknesses.
Along with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear, this is one of Shakespeare's best that you will want to come to know if you have not seen it before, or to see again if you have not for awhile.
Performances are evenings at 7 p.m., outdoors under the stars at the Hartsbrook School on Bay Road in Hadley. July 26 through July 29, and Aug. 1 through Aug. 5. I suggest you call for directions if you don't know the area: 548-8118, or visit the web site: www.hampshireshakespeare.org. Tickets by phone, at the door, at Atticus Books, Amherst, and Beyond Words, Northampton are $12; seniors and students $9; under eighteen $6.