William Shakespeare's Othello is only moderately interested in questions of race and racism. For Shakespeare, Othello's blackness was mainly a plot device. Though the bard did demonstrate concerns about racial and religious prejudice, in Othello and The Merchant of Venice, his interest in the tragedy of the Moor was principally psychological. For Shakespeare and his contemporary audience, Othello was about jealousy, hatred, and vindictiveness.
The play has aged well, as have all Shakespeare's plays, but not, perhaps, in the ways Shakespeare's contemporaries would have predicted. In Shakespeare's time, it would have been acceptable for Othello to kill his wife, had she truly been unfaithful. What made Othello a tragic criminal to Shakespeare and his Globe audience was that the Moor misjudged his wife. That is no longer the case in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This age does not recognize Othello's right to murder his wife under any set of circumstances. We do, however, live in a time that has become increasingly sensitive to race issues. The civil rights movement of the 1960s paved the way for the sometimes stifling political correctness of the 1990s and early 21st century. Film versions of Othello made since the 1960s reflect our time's preoccupation with race. This paper will look at several film versions of Othello in this light. Filmed versions of the drama--directed by Orson Welles (1952), Stuart Burge (1965), Oliver Parker (1995), Tim Blake Nelson (2000), and Geoff Saxes (2001)--visually boost or minimize the race factor in the story, subject to the political ideas of their time.
In the first Hollywood version of Othello (1952), directed by Orson Welles, race was not an issue. Instead, Welles' film dealt with the psychological aspects of the plot while providing a vehicle for Welles' celebrated experiments in camera angles and use of light and shadows. Douglas Brode states, "Wells was fully aware that Shakespeare had been a pre-Freudian psychologist" (154). Brode adds that, in the early 1950s when the psychological film was at its peak, Othello served Welles' interest in Freudian psychology (154-155).
According to Michael MacLiammoir, who plays Iago to Welles' lead, Welles believed Iago was impotent and a closet homosexual who married Emilia, played by Faye Compton, as his cover so he could pass for heterosexual. In his published diary of the making of the film, Put Money in Thy Purse, MacLiammoir goes on to say that Welles' Iago has a hero's crush on Othello, and becomes upset and jealous as a hurt lover when Othello gives a promotion to Cassio, played by Michael Laurence, instead of him. To add insult to injury, Othello is rumored to have slept with a frustrated Emilia. In Welles version, both the director and Iago buy this motive. When Iago sees Othello and Cassio, played by Derek Jacobi, joined together as brothers, it is too much for Iago. According to Brode, Welles was adamant that MacLiammoir, appear, with the help...