How did they (cast Othello) in Othello

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You may remember the character of Othello. Described by many of the other characters in the play as ‘the moor’ or even on one occasion ‘his moorship’, he is called an ‘an old black ram’ with ‘thick lips’ and ‘black Othello’. Some of the characters conclude (rather unfairly) ‘it cannot be that Desdemona will long continue her love to the Moor.’  Having read Othello you would naturally conclude that Shakespeare had in his company an actor who might have some physical resemblance to the man just described. If you have seen Othello on the modern stage you will have noticed that most of the actors who have taken the role are marked out by some form of racial difference. An African man in a white western cast, or (in some cases) a white man in dark skinned African cast. Modern remakes of Othello respond to the question of casting in a variety of ways it is very rare for Othello to be cast as someone who physically blends in with the rest of the cast. So who was the original Othello? None other than Richard Burbage – Thin lipped, pink cheeked and a slightly gingery blond.

Richard Burbage

Who as you can see here would have blended in rather well with Shakespeare’s other actors. So successful was Burbage as Othello that his ability to move the audience was recorded in an Elegy written on his death

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead,
Which he revived, to be revived so.
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
King Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside.

Shakespeare wrote his plays in full knowledge of his company of actors, indeed there are clear examples of his knowledge of his actors informing his play writing. So it was not an accident that Burbage played Othello, it was not a case of him taking the role until someone more suited to it was found. It is possible, but by no means certain, that Burbage blacked up (painted himself black) for the role. What this casting choice highlights though, is not the Tudor theatre’s use of soot, but their faith in the power of words. In my opinion it is no accident that the other characters label Othello so repetitively in the way they do. On the modern stage this obsessive labelling can be very effectively used to highlight the racist attitudes of many of the characters. But for Shakespeare it served a rather different purpose, to reinforce a difference that Burbage did not naturally possess. Shakespeare seems as happy to use words to paint Burbage’s face as he is to let words  paint a dark cold night at the start of Hamlet – when it was played at 2pm on an outdoor stage.


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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