Course: Othello’s Story
Length: 3 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
Instructor: Stephen Greenblatt
Quote:We’ll look at the ways in which Shakespeare’s characters tell stories within the play––about themselves, to themselves, and to each other. We’ll consider, too, how actors, directors, composers, and other artists tell stories through Othello in performance. By focusing on storytelling, we can see how the play grapples with larger issues including power, identity, and the boundary between fact and fiction.
This is one of three moocs (the others are Hamlet’s Ghost, and Shylock’s Bond) taught by Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespeare and early modern specialist I first encountered through his captivating book on medieval humanism The Swerve. If you’re unfamiliar with the play and want a straightforward interpretive approach, the Wellesley or Adelaide moocs might be a better option, but for those who are familiar with the play, this course offers some highly interesting explorations of different adaptations.
The first week is a general introduction to Shakespeare’s life and times, a unit that’s included in all three moocs. We then move on to look at how Othello uses language to define himself, and at the boundary between truth and lies, including the question of whether fiction is itself a lie. Included is an examination of some of the black actors who have played Othello: to wit, Ira Aldridge, who toured Europe in a highly successful production in the 1850s (yes, during the age of slavery in the US), and, in the 1930s, Paul Robeson, who toured England and the US. It’s worth noting that Robeson sometimes had trouble finding lodging while on tour in the US, and the company refused to play in segregated venues.
In the final two weeks we turned to the examination of different retellings of the play, both in opera and in contemporary theater. Both Rossini and Verdi wrote operatic versions of the play in the 19th century, making changes in action and motivation for dramatic and practical purposes. And then there’s Othello in the Seraglio, a 21st century reworking of the play by an American musician of Turkish/Cypriot ancestry, set in Cyprus and fusing jazz, music from the Ottoman empire, and European classical music of the same era. An extended interview with the composer is a highlight of the course.
The final week focused on an extended interview with playwright/director/actor Keith Hamilton Cobb, whose American Moor is not a setting of the play but an “exploration of the American black male through the metaphor of Shakespeare’s Othello”, as he puts it. It’s a one-man dramatization of an audition, by a black actor, for the role of Othello; at one point, he sits on the stage and tells us, “That’s how it begins: a little white man, asking me if I have any questions about how I, a large black man, enacting the role of a large black man in a Shakespeare play about a large black man that has been for the last 50 years the province of large black men; no, I ain’t got no questions. But you should.”
Everyone comes to a class like this with different goals, but for me, the last two weeks were extraordinary, and worth taking the course in themselves.
Graded material for each week consists of a short set of multiple-choice questions, participation in several discussion forum topics, and an assignment question to be posted to the forums. The second and third of these aren’t graded, except for completion, which is self-reported. I took the course as a recreational mooc, so I did only the multiple choice; these make up about half the score, so some written work is necessary to earn a passing grade. Whether you wish to cheat or not is between you and your conscience.
Othello might be my favorite Shakespeare play, at least my favorite of the tragedies. It’s also perennially contemporary. This course may not give a scene-by-scene description of the action, but it shows how it has been transported across times and cultures, while still retaining its original core.