Othello is a play that has always fascinated me, not just for its superb writing, but also because of the complete delight an audience experiences in being so complicit in the action. Other than Iago, not one of Shakespeare’s characters—with the possible exception of Prince Hamlet and Richard III—takes us so deeply into his confidence, explains his rationale, and then sets about a course of villainous actions that we are made aware of before the victims experience them. Why do we not leap from our seats and cry out for Iago to stop? Why do we not inform the innocent of the ambush that has been set for them? Why do we sit and delight in this macabre, charming, and ruthless man’s success?
The dark, physiological, and exotic nature of the play made me think hard about this production’s setting. To a Jacobean audience, Venice represented a cultured world where law and strong Christian beliefs were upheld. By contrast, Cyprus might have suggested the complete opposite: a Mediterranean island of the “other,” of barbarism and evil forces. I looked for a world where Venetians, Cypriots, Turks, and Moors might co-exist—a time when conflict and mistrust between people was abundant, where racial divides were defined by religion. It became clear that the world I was looking for was the Christian Crusades of the 13th century and that Othello might take place on Cyprus during a holy war, with the Knights Templar fighting the Muslims.
Learning that Cyprus was in fact a very strategic point for many of the Crusades and that in 1202 Venice was the rendezvous for the fourth Crusade, I felt that the period and style would suit this production very well. Within this context the references in the text to witchcraft and the black arts—allegedly used by Othello to woo Desdemona—became very potent. It also made sense of how he justifies her murder as a “sacrifice,” a necessary purification. I could imagine the powerful religious insignia on the clothes of this period, the chivalry of the Knights Templar, and the determination of an iconoclastic central character to affect and destroy the noblest, most virtuous, and most stoic of this time.
So why might we side with or be drawn to Iago when we know many of his reasons to be false? Might we share some commonality with him? Certainly we still live in a world of hate crimes and racial profiling. We often choose to fear and remain ignorant of those whose faith may differ from our own—Christian, Muslim, or otherwise. Resentment can still be felt when an “outsider” is accepted and embraced by the ruling hierarchy. Might there be a little part of Iago in us all? Perhaps, when we laugh at, or with, this pernicious villain, we recognize a bigotry that lies deep with in us?
I hope you’ll enjoy Othello.
— Robert Richmond