Identity and Public Discourse: Reaction to Othello

Z Geography isn’t a blog about the arts, unless it is to opine upon the aesthetics of some map or graphic. The blog does precious little of that. What the blog has tried to do over the years is provide an outlet for my perspective. A forum to air my thought and opinions on things current and strategic. A vain attempt to add to the din that is public discourse in the 21st century.

It is under this framework that Z Geography will offer a critique of the Washington D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company’s adaptation of Othello. I have not read the play, nor have I acted, and I’m sure my experience would have been much improved if not for my fellow theatre patrons who either 1) fell asleep (and snored), 2) crumpled bags, 3) played with straws in plastic cups, 4) talked. But my perspective is as a younger, minority male.

The story itself is simple enough, for those who haven’t read or watched it before. A minority man (written by Shakespeare as a Moor, a North African Muslim), living and working in another society (Venice), tragically falls under the influence of his vengeful friend, Iago.

The obvious parallels to the United States in 2016 are clear. As the BBC points out (indeed the BBC video in the link is one reason I chose to go watch the play late), the play is meant to question ‘Can a Muslim be an American?’ The video features a discussion with the Pakistani-American actor who plays Othello. A quick glance through the Wikipedia page for Othello (reviewed prior) offers imagery often portraying Othello as black. In either case, Muslim-American or Black American, the premise remains the same – how does a majority society often treat its minority communities?

The play is tragedy so the particular outcome is grim.

One thing that I found unfortunate is Othello’s costume changes. In the beginning, i.e. when Othello is at his best, most amicable, he is portrayed in the attire of World War 1 British Army general officer or in shirt sleeves and slacks. Essentially, he is portrayed as a Westerner.

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World War 1, British General (The Marshals Baton.com)

Then as Iago’s influence reaches its tragic culmination, Othello changes garb. He abandons Western attire for decidedly Islamic dress.

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Man in thawb (Wikipedia)

To put it plainly, I felt that changing to Islamic dress, and turning away from the West, symbolizes his destruction. In effect, he others himself as the other Venetians have been doing all along (save his wife). Further, the scene in which Othello finally commits to revenge occurs after he kneels for prayer, another symbol of his descent.

To return to the BBC’s original question – “Can a Muslim be American”? It seems that “No, he cannot.” Because everything appears fine if a minority assimilates: take an American wife, and fight American wars. But the xenophobia remains, whether you where Western clothes or not. And when that xenophobia finally succeeds in destroying character, our hapless minority will revert back to his “other”, non-American self and go on a killing spree. After all, he was never American to begin with, right?

If the Shakespeare Theatre Company wanted to thoughtfully answer this question – they would have introduced Othello’s “Muslimness” as an integral part of his identity back in the beginning, not in the end. Because as shown, Othello seems to turn from one identity to another, albeit at the insistence of a sociopath.

Aside from this issue, this play does have another message. Accepting that costume changes as Othello’s change in identity, the play shows how complicit host communities are in radicalizing individuals. For though Iago is the most visible and persistent instigator of Othello’s decline – most of the other characters are prejudiced or biased. (It would have been interested to have made the Cassio character as something of an Affirmative Action apologist, reverse discrimination if you will). Doesn’t Emilia and Desdemona’s father also have some culpability in Othello’s decline?

The parallels here are obvious as Western government are left to wonder why their own citizens join the Islamic State (and if they aren’t, they should be). While there is an undeniable element of personal responsibility – nothing happens in a vacuum. Minority communities and, more importantly, majority societies need to take a critical look at their rhetoric and values.

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