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Cultural Differences in Shakespeare's Work

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3636 words Published: 11th Jul 2018

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Shakespeare in Performance

This essay will explore the cultural difference of two Shakespeare, Othello performances. The two performances used are Stuart Burge’s 1965 adaptation and Oliver Parker’s 1995 version.

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 the son of John Shakespeare a glove maker, and Mary Arden the daughter of a farmer. Within the Elizabethan class system Shakespeare wouldn’t have be destined for great things as he wasn’t born into a significantly wealthy family. It is possible that Shakespeare was brought up as Catholic; Romeo and Juliet is a Catholic play. Shakespeare attended grammar school In Stratford his education would have been very intense in language, Latin, Greek and possibly modern language like French, his schooling would have also been heavily religious. Shakespeare would have been expected to leave school and go into law grammar schools trained for professionals. Shakespeare didn’t continue his education at university and age 18 married Anne Hathaway and lived a quiet life having his first child, Susanna in 1583 then twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Historical accounts of Shakespeare in the first seven years of his children’s lives are classed as “lost years”, due to there being no reliable accounts in this period. It wasn’t until the late 1590’s that Shakespeare was writing plays although in them times writers would write under a false name so critics couldn’t dismiss their work. By around 1591, 1592 Shakespeare had written 57 plays in the space 20 years this is a colossal amount especially as a play writer in the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616 the same day as his birthday.

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The importance of Setting

The plot Othello is taken from an Italian story Un Captitano Moro some critics believe, written in 1565 by Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio, the story about a Moorish general deceived into believing his wife is being unfaithful. Shakespeare added important characters to the story Iago, Roderigo, Desdemona’s father and Brabantio, Shakespeare implies the action of the play runs over some course of time although it could be perceived as being set over a period of a few days. Shakespeare also developed the complex villain Iago compared to the minor one in the original.

Shakespeare’s audience would have believed in The Great Chain of Being, that determined the natural order of events. God being the top of the hierarchical chain, Shakespeare used the Great Chain of Being as a concept to emphasise the tragedy in Othello and struggle with love and Desdemona and Iago’s jealous passion.

Othello, the Moor of Venice scholars believe was written in the period of 1601-1604, Queen Elizabeth had died in 1603, people worried what would become of governess since Elizabeth’s death a lot of the fear is portrayed through Shakespeare’s plays of successful succession and governance. The Protestant Church of England was created by Henry, Elizabeth’s father there was concerns that the religion might fail after Elizabeth’s death in a Catholic came to power, and a foreigner to rule.

Although the title implies Othello occurred in Venice it took place in Cyprus, having said that Shakespeare’s stage directions are very basic and minimal so directors that remake Shakespeare’s pieces can decide where the plot is set. In the period when Shakespeare wrote Othello Venice was a Republic that thrived on multiculturalism, it was major for international trade, Venice had colonial power also respectful of different cultures and religions. Venice was a charming, safe, peaceful location.

Cyprus when Shakespeare was in school was under power by the Ottoman Turks, Cyprus was the home of wine and prostitutes full of deception and death. Geographically located between the Middle East, Europe, Mediterranean and Northern Africa the religion is Christian and Muslim, a prime place for religious and racial violence.

Although critics believe Othello was adapted by Hecatommithi, the time period that Shakespeare wrote Othello Venice would have been a highly important trading link between the East and Europe. Venice would have been sending ambassadors from Venice and the East to Elizabethan England Shakespeare may have studied theses ‘exotic strangers’. Venice and Turkey during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries would have been at wars thus Othello being the general of the Venetian war. Shakespeare cleverly adapted a plot surrounding the issues of the day and explored a twist on race, jealousy and deceit.

During the Elizabethan period, black people were not regarded as slaves, in 1601 Queen Elizabeth granted the diplomatic rights which allowed deportation, due to fears of overpopulation. Although the salve trade was not established during this time, the black race was considered inferior. Othello is a revolutionary cultural work, as the Moor Othello is portrayed as a civilized noble Christian who was wrongly deceived forced audiences to rethink the racial status during the early 16th century. Moor was a term used by the Elizabethans referring to Muslim Arabs or North Africa who had conquered Spain in the eighth century. Moor’s were Elizabethans believed, sinful, animalistic and murderous. It is interesting that Shakespeare represents Othello as the wrongly deceived victim, and Iago the Caucasian the typical More stereotype.


The tragedy of Othello, the Moor Whom Is general of Venice, promotes his lieutenant Cassio, leaving Iago enraged with jealousy. Othello fell in love and married Desdemona daughter of Brabantio, the Venetian senator. Iago uses Desdemona and Othello’s love as a tactic in his revenge. Iago manipulates Othello into thinking his wife is having an affair with Cassio, Othello outraged kills Desdemona before killing himself the story concludes with Iago’s unmasking and execution.

Stuart Burge’s 1965 Othello Laurence Olivier

The first English language film of the play Othello was released in December 1965 by director Burge, Burge was born in Brentwood Essex in January 1918 and died in 2002. Burge was the director of the Nottingham Playhouse between 1968-74 then went onto be artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre in over the period of 1977-80. This is the only Shakespeare adaptation that all leading actors were nominated for Oscars. The film was nearly exactly the same as stage production the release did not make use of music of exit music. Burge’s version of was the first English Othello shot in colour it had previously been done in Russian. This was the first of Shakespeare’s original text created into a full length British feature. Lawrence Olivier played Othello and acted in blackface, critics over the years have argued the origins of Othello being black or Arab. Othello has been played by white and more recently black actors, Laurence Olivier’s version was performed in blackface. Olivier went into detail of his black face performance in his autobiography; “Black all over my body, Max Factor 2880, then a lighter brown, then Negro number 2, a stronger brown. Brown on black to give a rich mahogany. Then the great trick: that glorious half yard of chiffon with which I polished myself all over until I shone… the lips blueberry, the tight curled wig, the white of the eyes, whiter than ever, and the black, black sheen that covered my flesh and bones, glistening in the dressing room lights”. (L. Olivier 1965)

In Olivier’s autobiography; Olivier, Laurence. Confessions of an Actor, Olivier proclaims in his and the directors minds the blackface wasn’t done in a “minstrelsy” way it was done as costume to make him up as African with innocent intentions of playing Othello.

The text Othello is not completely clear on Othello’s race, subsequently because Shakespeare would not have been completed educated about the people that lived in North Africa. In 1966 the civil rights movement was at its highest in America racist discrimination and stereotypes were challenged the aesthetic of the Olivier’s blackface was out of date and political incorrect.  Although in Europe, the civil rights movement wasn’t as big as America with the last white actor blackface Othello taking place in 1990 by Michael Gambon. The New York Time’s published an article about Olivier’s performance that stated;

“Outrageous impression of a theatrical Negro stereotype, Olivier an end man in an American minstrel show”. (the New York times, Bosley Crowther)

Burge’s adaptation of Othello definitely brings the issue of race to the forefront, most of the racial language is present as in the 1604 original text; “thicklips”, being the first derogatory offensive language aimed at Othello

Act one, Scene one. Venice. A street.

Roderigo: “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe if he can carry’t thus!”

References made by Othello regarding his race are interpreted as intended by Shakespeare, delivered with doubt;

Act three, Scene three. The garden of the castle

Othello: “Haply, for I am black”. Intending that because he is black, he is not as sophisticated as other people. Burge directed Olivier as a stereotypical African, exaggerated gesture and accent with his costumes ethnic and predominantly barefoot, with a rosary necklace.

Burge’s performance has been regarded by critics as “the greatest performance of the 20th century”. (Peter Rainer) and was nominated for four Oscars, winning one.

“Olivier is the first of the great twentieth-century British actors who has created a brilliantly original interpretation of Othello… (Olivier’s) Othello is a man of gigantic stature but he is not a man of titanic thought; and by no means is he “umo univerale,” a man of many sided character, typical of the Renaissance. This Othello came into the world from a less civilised society. He Is very close to nature, to the earth. He has had no time to absorb the culture of the new world surrounding him. With all its glitter, this world is in fact trivial and mean… Othello’s simple soul makes him vulnerable to the pretty contrivances of the environment. A civilization that is false and untrue kills the simple-minded man… this is what Olivier; the actor shows us. (in Tynan, “Othello”. National Theatre Production, 108).

“Every modern, white actor, takin on Othello, feels obliged to explain why he’s not playing him black, which was surely Shakespeare’s intention, when the unspoken reason is that to “black up” is as disgusting these days as a “nigger” minstrel show.” (Laurence Olivier, 1986)

Each generation can use pieces of Shakespeare’s texts his writings are timeless, an Author who makes plays relatable to different generations thus why Othello has been adapted countless times since 1601, in some adaptations of Othello the play is portrayed mostly on the jealous and devious theme. Burge’s approach to play directions however have been deemed as a play about race.

“A film version of the 1965 production released on DVD by Warner Home Video in 2007. Olivier’s blackface performance makes this film adaptation a difficult object of study, but since it makes Othello a play about race in a way so disturbing for postmodern sensibilities, it is a valuable tool for exploring racial difference as a theme. And especially for considering the play’s particular resonance with contemporary racial politics”. (R, C. Evans

In an article by the New York Times published February, 1966 reporter Bosley Crowther describes how America portrayed Olivier’s performance;

“Seeing as how the drama critics in England were unstinting in their praise of the lush stage production of Othello in which Sir Laurence Olivier played with the National Theatre of Great Britain a couple of years ago, it may seem rude of an American film critic to voice some startled expectations to the motion picture made of the play by a British company. One bold and singular aspect of this production immediately impels the sensitive American viewer into a baffled and discomfited attitude. This is the radical make up Sir Laurence has chosen to use in his powerful and passionate characterization of the jealous Moor. He plays Othello in blackface! That’s right, blackface not the dark-brown stain that even the most daring white actors do not nowadays wish to go beyond.  What’s more, he caps his shiny blackface with a wig of kinky black hair and he has the insides of his lips smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red. Several times, in his rages or reflections, he rolls his eyes up into his head so that the whites gleam like small mil agates out of the inky face”. (B. Crowther 1966)

Burge’s adaptation of Othello is clearly one that caused a stir, with the controversial blackface. The period in which Burge adapted the version the culture was changing surrounding racism, racist terms and what is politically correct.

Professor Tony Howard University of Warwick believes “for Olivier race wasn’t an issue, race was an interesting factor in the play and he chose to make it paramount. The result of that was that I know some black actors that saw the play and were appalled by his imitation of stereotypical behaviour, and I know other black actors who saw the play and were inspired to become Shakespearian actors because of the sheer admiration for what he did”. (T. Howard 2013).

Oliver Parker’s 1995 Othello, Laurence Fishburne

Oliver Parker an English film director born 6th September 1960, directed Othello played by a black actor Laurence Fishburne classed as not an outsider in this version as the actor is of African descent. Having said that the racial tensions and most of the racial language still applies in the film. Fishburne, plays a more confidant, cocky Othello in this version he also wears the same costumes as most of the cast, with earing’s in his ears he blends in well with the rest of the cast unlike in Olivier’s version. The choice of music and camera shots sets the racial tension in a different way than previous adaptations with the use of drums during the consummation of Othello and Desdemona also during the Cyprus  celebration. The film doesn’t generally focus on Othello’s race but more so on the tragedy of the story and Iago’s jealousy.

Parker’s adaptation is more satisfying as a film rather than Shakespearian text, the original text is very heavily cut with many original rhythms not included.

The plot and characters remains the same as the original text and Burge’s, parker sets the film within the same time period and location as the two explored. Parker’s version is however modernised and update some areas of the film, parker has changed the interpretation of Iago’s character slightly also cutting much of the original text. Parkers use of Othello’s dreams allow the audience access into Othello’s agony over his suspected wife’s adultery, this opened the door to the audience in a new light, something that the original monologue and Burge was unable to achieve.

The issue of Race in Parker’s version is watered down and limelight’s the character of Iago and his evil plan. Iago’s direct camera soliloquies, via direct camera shots portrays his devious intentions, Iago’s true nature is heightened in Parker’s adaptation through this technique compare to Burge and the original text.

In Act one, Scene three Iago shouts to Roderigo to “put money and love into his purse” Iago is trying to deceive Roderigo into giving him money so Iago will make Desdemona fall in love with Roderigo. When Iago leaves this scene, the camera zooms in on Iago’s face to music building up that creates tension, Iago then recites this original quote from the text;

Act one, scene three


“Thus, do I ever make my fool my purse:

For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,

If I would time expend with such a snipe.

But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:

And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets

He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;

But, I for more suspicious in that kind,

Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;

The better shall my purpose work on him.

Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:

To get his place and to plume up my will

In double knavery-how, how? Let’s see: —

After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear

That he is too familiar with his wife.

He hath a person and a smooth dispose

To be suspected, framed to make women false.

The moor is of a free and open nature,

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,

And will as tenderly be led by the nose

As asses are.

I have’t. it is endgender’d. hell, and night

Must brin this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

During the speech by Roderigo, Parker’s gives the audience a subsequent plot for throughout the play as to why Iago wants to kill Othello. Parker directs Iago to look straight into the camera whilst declaring his hatred for Othello this ‘breaks the forth wall’ including the audience on the whole experience. Iago speaks in a hushed monotone to music playing in the background thus adding theatrical drama, the camera then pans down to a chessboard. Iago places a white queen, black king and a white knight on the board parker does this to replicate Desdemona, Othello and Cassio. The colour of the chess pieces also play a very clever crucial part in the film highlighting the racial but also the use of a chess board highlights the manipulation and game playing from Iago.

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Parker directs Fishburne to play overtly sexual compared with the Burge version and original text. Parkers directions continues shows Desdemona and Othello in bed together in a number of scenes to modernize the version to appeal to a different audience. Parker has Othello’s dreams filled with adultery presented with Desdemona in bed naked with Cassio, in the Burge version the characters are a lot more innocent.

Othello’s visual image of Desdemona and Cassio, allows for his fear to come alive with the help of Iago’s manipulation Othello remembers what Desdemona’s father said to him;

Act one, Scene 3 A Council-Chamber.


Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:

She has deceived her father, and may thee.

This line is continuously played in Othello’s head throughout the film, giving Othello confirmation that the affair to real as Desdemona is deceiving him just as she did her father.

“Once you get to Act three, Scene three, it’s like being caught up in a huge surf. You are pounded by experiences and overwhelming feelings that oscillate violently. Sometimes within one sentence I go from passion and adoration to the most extreme expressions of loathing and self-hatred I’ve ever had to try to get close to”. (Laurence Fishburne, 1996)

There are a few predominant themes that flow through both versions of Othello and the original text;

Love, passion, jealousy, betrayal along with reputation and honour.

love being the force that overcome a large obstacle in the marriage of Othello and Desdemona, although Othello loves Desdemona he gives her his heart he doesn’t give her his mind and he doesn’t trust her, he is deep down insecure.  Their love was tragically lost by the passion of Iago and his jealousy love to Iago is leverage, he declared his love to his friends but does the ultimate betrayal. The love between Cassio and Desdemona that is misinterpreted. Passion comes from Othello and Desdemona two lovers that political looked down on for the marriage but still going ahead with their passion anyway. Jealousy is a trait that is both in Othello and strongly Iago.

Multiculturalism, Religious Suspicion and Racism.

The Venetian Republic was known as a culturally tolerant society, that welcomes cultural traditions, however Othello and the merchant of Venice being set in Venice, portrays jealousy, race and xenophobia. Shakespeare’s Othello predates the slave trade and biological classification. Othello being a Moor in Shakespeare’s time could relate to someone from the Middle East or Spain not necessarily Africa.

Reference List

Othello. (1965) film. Directed by Stuart Barge. GB: British Home Entertainment. {film}

Othello. (1995) Directed by Olive Parker. GB: Warner Home video. {DVD}

Colin, Phillip C. and Kuhn, Francis X. (2002) “Othello: New Critical Essays” Brockport Bookshelf. Book 218.

Othello: A Critical Reader Robert. C. Evans Bloomsbury Publishing (2015)

(T. Howard 2013) Othello at the National Theatre www.nationaltheatre.org


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