EVERYDAY SHAKESPEARES: CONFRONTING OTHELLO AT THE MALL
In my latest book project, "Everyday Shakespeares," I explore the collection, trade, and traffic of Shakespearean visual culture, focusing on the historical development of what we will eventually think of as a postmodern, fragmented, or hybridized Shakespeare. I launched this project in the fall of 1998 by looking at nineteenth century "extra-illustrated" volumes of Shakespeare available in the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection. These editions of individual Shakespeare plays were supplemented with original art, previously published woodcuts, paintings and prints of Shakespearean scenes, and sometimes contemporary newspaper clippings and cartoons. I am interested in the production of these volumes as social acts, and the ways that concepts like individualized production, authorship, or genius become complicated as the books were circulated. How do we interpret the cutting of the illustrations, the timing of its placement within the scene, its relationship to the other illustrations included in the rest of the volume? When readers select and include what we think of as images from the "public domain" (newspaper ads, already published or printed illustrations) how are the images' status as "public" transformed when included in volumes in private collections?
As my final project for the Folger "Shakespeare in an Age of Visual Culture" seminar, I have produced an extra-illustrated book of my own : a volume of Shakespeare's Othello illustrated with fragments from contemporary cultural images of black masculinity and interracial desire. I bring together elements of the Victorian Extra-Illustrated book, the family photo album, drag king shows and other forms of performance art, and public protest.
With my two helpers, Elizabeth May and Amy Sickles, I took photographs of Othello "scenes" staged in public places in State College, Pennsylvaniamy home town for the past four years. I wanted to recast the publicness of Desdemona's and Othello's coupledom in a way that would be pertinent to late twentieth century racial and gender anxieties. Outfitted as a late twentieth century butch and femme couple, Othello (played by me) and Desdemona (played by Amy Sickels) tried on rings at a mall, and went shopping together at a grocery store. I recast the scene of Othello's murder of Desdemona as a shopping trip for mattresses, complete with the testing out of vibrating beds. As Karen Newman, Arthur Little and Michael Neill have pointed out, by the end of Othello, the marriage bed becomes for the audience a locus of desire and anxiety surrounding the couple. The play constantly postpones giving us the ocular proof of this desire in action, until our desire to watch them culminates in a kind of murderous frenzy. I wanted to emphasize that it is the closeting of this desire that produces its violence and monstrousness. But what would happen if we exposed this desire to light? I wanted to use the spectacle of two women frolicking in a mattress store to illustrate what happens when desire coded as socially "perverse" is outed. I've also been interested in the triangulated desire between Iago and Desdemona. Using the codes of butch and femme, I cast Iago and Desdemona with the same actress to think further about the similarities between the two. I allowed Iago and Othello to have their own public courtship scene, this time in the more masculine atmosphere of the hardware store.
Each public performance was captured on Polaroid, 35 mm black and white and color film snapshots. I then inserted these photos in a cheaply Xeroxed reproduction of the 1623 first Folio edition of Othello, along with other bits of related cultural flotsam and jetsam: images of Sir Lawrence Olivier blackening up and working out in preparation for his 1962 National Theater production of Othello, Catherine Opie's photographs of "drag kings," my own homemade "drag kit", which includes a fake mustache, a tube of bright red lipstick and black shoe polish, and several icons of "perverse" black masculinity, including (the artist formerly known as) Prince, Emmett Till, O.J. Simpson, and Little Richard.
Here are some of the ideas that I wanted to highlight:
1. I wanted to compare public suspicion and obsession, hysteria of Othello and Desdemona's marriage, with issues of gay marriage and interracial coupledom now and in my own particular local climate.
2. Following the play's subtitle, Othello, Moor of Venice , I wanted to think more about "Venice" as both an ideology and as a space of commerce and trade, and then reset the play in a State College, Pennsylvania mall. How are African American people treated as customers there? How are lesbians treated as customers? How do you act like a lesbian in public? How do you act African American in public? When in an interracial couple, are both women considered "black" by association? How does one experience surveillance in this kind of space?
3. I wanted to acknowledge and somehow shake off the cultural baggage that one inherits as an African American Shakespearean studying race. Othello is such an overdeterminedly tragic figurenow more than ever. Is it possible to still glean pleasure from this stereotype? How can we rewrite the tragedy as an exploration of forms of pleasure and power? For example,
I wanted the textures of the book to be concrete and "now." The look of the Xerox copy telegraphs contemporaneity and, along with the jagged, unprofessional lines of my scissor cuts, the integration of hand and machine. As a final gesture, I bound the book with pieces of my grandmother's favorite black curly lamb-fur coat. I wanted to make this book personal as well as public. In particular, I chose this kind of fur because it reminded me of my own hairkinky African American hair cut extra short, so close to the scalp that my scalp gleams through and the curl becomes a wave. I wanted to invite the reader to hold the book and enact and enjoy (without guilt) the fetish of blackness with the eye coordinating with touch. And somehow, I also wanted to convey the pleasure that comes from taking risks. (My grandmother would kill me if she knew that I cut up her coat!)
5. I wanted this project to combine multiple forms of visual registers, mediums, times of performance, and levels of repeatability. This is a project that is meant to be performed as well as read, which helps me to open up some of the ways that we think of the book as a medium of communication. The bookis teacherly as well as an object. It evokes a series of occasions.
6. Finally, I would like this project to open up what might be considered reasonable contexts or sources for a scholarly project. Which do we choose as the project's point of origin: Shakespeare's writing of Othello? The publication of the First Folio? Our days at the Mall? My presentation to the Folger Visual Cultures class? Does it matter that one of the actors for this project had never read Othello but had seen the film with Laurence Fishburne? My sources include Shakespeare, Foucault, the 1993 " Black Male" exbibit at the Museum of American Art, Prince music videos, my grandmother's coat, Laurence Olivier, my experience of buying a mattress in a small town, my haircut, my crush on a girl, two semesters at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Judith Halberstam's work on female masculinity, a conversation in a bar , a debate in a class financed by the Mellon Foundation. Some of these multiple sources and occasions are readable, rendered by the Xeroxes. Others require my telling.
Parallel Texts: Shakespeare Publishing History
Approximating Early Modern Art: An Accommodation
Everyday Shakespeares: Confronting Othello at the Mall
Picturing Desdemona: Verbal Imagery, Iconography, and Screen
Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media