Shakespeare and cinema

Shakespeare on the screen: The sexing up of ‘Othello’ (because race is still too controversial)

Despite several easily adaptable elements, ‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’ is simply unfilmable or much too filmable.

Geoffrey Sax’s television film of William Shakespeare’s Othello (2001) opens with the camera lingering over Dessie (Desdemona, played by Keeley Hawes) murmuring in her sleep. It is such murmurings that hammer at the heart of John Othello (Eamonn Walker) as he gazes at her. She stirs, and a detail shot of dark and white fingers interlinking is followed by a bedroom scene. The film, adapted in modern language, goes ahead to show a wild Ben Jago (Iago, played by Christopher Eccleston) announcing his “luv” for the Moor. The camera then shoots a racially loaded police routine in a crime-ridden London not too far from the present.

Is Othello a racial or racist story? The matter is fairly argued by writer Oneyeka Nwelue:

“We overlay our 21st century ideas on everything that has gone before; fascism, Nazism, slavery…and then we place it back on the 15th and 16th century where it shouldn’t necessarily be.”

In the five words that comprise its title – Othello, the Moor of Venice – Shakespeare sets the stakes for his protagonist – that of an outsider, a foreigner. Being foreign is what matters most, along with the anxiety and disquiet that this brings to “not a jealous black man, but a jealous man,” said Willard White, who played Othello in Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company stage version in 1989. “All of us can be guilty of enacting a situation – it’s not a question of colour,” White said. “We point fingers, say it’s those people over there because they’re white or black or Chinese or whatever. But these are human questions: fear, the quest for love, for survival. .. Yes, some of the language is racist, and characters are racist …But it’s not the only thing in the play.”

Interestingly, however, the “photo negative” version of Othello on stage in 1997, which cast Patrick Stewart as a white Othello amidst an entirely coloured cast, didn’t draw audiences.

Patrick Stewart in ‘Othello’ (1997).
Patrick Stewart in ‘Othello’ (1997).

The sexing up of the play for the screen has involved the florid visuals of Othello’s tormented hallucinations as seen in the Laurence Fishburne-Irene Jacob starrer directed by Oliver Parker in 1995 and even less subtly in Sax’s film. Celebrating the theme of “black is beautiful,” both these versions award maximum attention to the often semi-clothed body of the protagonist. Fishburne is finely burnished and has a predatory stealth, while Eamonn Walker in Sax’s adaptation has crackling electricity, but neither carries the appearance of a man who has “slipped into the vale of years”. Frankly, Desdemona’s choice of husband is quite enviable.

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‘Othello’ (1995).

While Parker keeps the initially innocuous and then incriminating handkerchief of the play, Sax replaces it with a silk robe that is later sent to be examined for semen secretions to check Desdemona’s fidelity –or lack of it. Iago’s homoerotic overtures to Othello are made in private interiors. To illustrate just how far he is able to manipulate everyone in the name of “luv”, Sax’s film shows an upside-down Lulu (this film’s Emilia, played by Rachael Stirling) with Iago bringing her to a sexual climax.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006), starring a super droopy Ajay Devgn and an uber-anaemic Kareena Kapoor, is more a sexed-up tale of caste stigma and badland violence than a love story. True to the convention of narrow-eyed men playing Iago (Kenneth Brannagh and Ian McKellan), Saif Ali Khan is Tyagi, the Iago of this film. The prefix Langda (limp) is added to his name for us to especially note his gait, which cartoonishly illustrates his crooked, crooked ways. Iago’s graphic and specific imagery (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe”) is replaced with Langda Tyagi’s generic abuse – the lingo of the land. But in Omkara, far more than the language is lost in translation.

Ajay Devgn and Saif Ali Khan in ‘Omkara’.
Ajay Devgn and Saif Ali Khan in ‘Omkara’.

Locations in the text of Othello are consequential to the plot developments. Cyprus makes all Venetians foreigners to each other as well as to themselves. In unfamiliar terrain, everyone is more vulnerable and prone to a pettiness that gnaws at their innards. Soliloquies of desire and distress find their representation in the disorienting aesthetics of Orson Welles’s Othello (1952). Drifting away from textual moorings and replete with signature Wellesian tropes and chiaroscuro, a looming redux of Citizen Kane thunders upon us from battlements and rumbles in Gothic interiors. An Othellophile would find enough to pick to pieces, and however sexed-up, Welles’s film is arresting.

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‘Othello’ by Orson Welles.

The Bard’s play contrasts foreign and native, patriarchy and feminism, old and young, experienced and vulnerable, familiar and unfamiliar, virtue and vice and, above all else, the psychomachia, or struggle of the soul, with which every character wrestles. Following three devastating deaths (Desdemona, Othello and Emilia), there are provisions for the takeover of Cyprus by Michael Cassio and the punishment of Iago as per the laws of Venice. Havoc has been wreaked, trust has been broken, lives have been lost, but order is restored and justice assured.

Restructuring Othello in cinema has led to a variety of conclusions, quite at variance with Shakespeare’s own. In Omkara, the betrayed, distraught and hysterical Emilia of the story (played convincingly by Konkona Sensharma) slashes her husband Langda Tyagi to death before contemplating her own end. Welles takes us back to the prologue of his film in which a funeral procession, silhouetted against the sky, now makes for the final fade-out. Sax concludes his film with a smug, decorated Iago speaking to the camera. “It was luv,” he says. “Don’t talk to me about race, politics and stuff like that.”

Perhaps Othello, despite appearances and easily extractable elements, is simply unfilmable, or much too filmable.

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A debate on whether ‘Othello’ is a racist play.

For previous stories in this series, see Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Macbeth.

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