Letting Go of Othello

Chris Ofili, Jealousy (detail), from Othello, 2018. © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

Though it is not usually characterized as such, Shakespeare’s Othello is a “problem play,” one doubly so. There’s just enough carnival to render its status as tragedy troubling, despite the emphatic announcement of its full title, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the final chapter of his Shakespeare’s Festive World, François Laroque excavates the festivity and festivities that undergird and undermine Othello’s darkness, showing how even the lyric richness of Othello’s speech has an air of pestilent farce, just as the depth of his pain is rooted in and by Iago’s brutal comic energy. Moreover, that Othello is a moor of Venice means that the problem of the color line, which W. E. B. Du Bois locates in the twentieth century at its outset, is a problem of the centuries, whether we are talking about the seventeenth, twentieth, or twenty-first.

And it’s not so much that Shakespeare has given an early articulation of the Negro Problem; it’s that, instead, he has given Negroes a problem. There’s some shit we have to deal with in the wake of this play, a toxic atmosphere with which we must contend. The greatness of the play is not lessened by its being thus problematic; and this is because, rather than in spite, of how that greatness is bound up with the intense and gorgeous flatulence the play produces and gives off and plays with, its author slyly glancing at someone or other of us, asking, Did you cut that one? Often, as if in payment for the dis/honor of being so addressed, because look how good and how horrific it is to be addressed at all, we’ve taken responsibility for Shakespeare’s ill wind, embracing it like a sail, or riding it like a wing, in the interest of some outward or upward mobility—which is to say, nobility—that it can only seize, not send. So that the terribly beautiful, evilly compounded genius of it is that what we are constrained to do with Othello when we enact him is act like him.

White fantasies of blackness underwrite both the play and its main character such that Othello’s dignity—given in an insistence upon his dignity that renders him all but absolutely undignified—becomes the charge of a series of great black performers, from Ira Aldridge to Laurence Fishburne. Part of the respectability they would bring to and find in both character and play resides in their refusal to allow, from instance to instance in the more recent history of the play’s production, the character to be portrayed by a white actor in blackface, particularly insofar as such an actor might succumb to the tempting imperative to reveal the Moor as dupe and as duplicitous. Tragedy ought not be let to fall into comic foolishness, especially when black folks and our dignity are involved, by way of the indignities of voluntary conscription. It’s not that tragedy doesn’t so fall from time to time in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, whether in what folks are wont to call tragedy proper or in various comical or historical or comical historical excursions into the realm of the tragic, as when Polonius breaks the law of genre when he would recite it, or in Hamlet’s all-but-slapstick inability to act, or the silliness of Richard of Bordeaux’s sadness; it’s just that in those cases it is generally assumed to have nothing to do with us either in Hamlet’s or Richard II’s themes or casting, Shakespeare’s invention of the human, there, being not but nothing other than his invention of whiteness, too.

Isn’t it absolutely appropriate, then, that a white actor should enact, and be thoughtfully responsible for, a white fantasy of blackness? But that’s just a black fantasy of whiteness and its mythic capabilities. Wherever and whenever we are, black performers of Othello can’t simply allow him to be a lying fool like every other human subject. Interestingly, this is part of the logic driving an equally impressive line of black actors’ refusal to embody the Moor that stretches from Sidney Poitier to Harry Lennix. Either way, black folks are enjoined to take responsibility for white fantasy and solve a problem not of their own making.

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Chris Ofili, Fight (detail), from Othello, 2018. © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

 

Because he is so clearly in love with Othello, whose power to seduce is given in that he is both impossible to love and not to love, Chris Ofili responds to him by beautifully and brilliantly declining to take responsibility for him. Because of this, Ofili’s portraits of Othello, which somehow incorporate both performative enactment and nonperformative refusal, might open up new pathways in the history of Othello’s portrayal. When we consider the double valence of the word “portray,” as the act congeals into an artist’s portrait or is dispersed in an actor’s portrayal, things clear up in the blurring of the line between thing and event. What does it mean to portray Othello when the beauty of the language of that role, or the depth of human feeling it bears, is still filtered through the protocols of blackface no matter who plays it? “One” who has never been conferred the status of one, in spite of having the imperative to be one mercilessly imposed upon “him,” is compelled to search for, draw forth, extract, pluck out the mystery of a character who is, as Frantz Fanon would say, enslaved to his appearance.

To portray is already to activate a range of rigorous attention to the presentation of the self which is not one, all across the sensual register of its surfaces, in the service of drawing or drawing out the mysterious depths of the inapparent. But what are the protocols for portraying a character who is always so clearly acting, so consciously performing, so emphatically disappearing? What is there in this role beyond oratorical expression, particularly insofar as it seems to have been devised to do nothing so much as constitute the occasion for that question? And how can the product of such devising be envisaged? Can Othello be given a face, or can his face be found, and saved, if that face is black or blackened? It is as if the role that instantiates the irreducible question concerning the superficiality of the “role” had to have been filtered through what Fanon calls “a racial epidermal schema.” Is there, or can there be, an experience of Othello that lies, as it were, underneath the surface that will have been Othello’s occasion? Could such an experience transcend the limits of its occasion? Is there anything other than a lie lying beneath Othello’s skin? How one might draw that, or draw that out, is a practical aesthetic question whose utterance, along with every other one of its procedures for solution, hides and presupposes the question concerning a violent ethics of extraction.

Is it right to marshal the forces of composition, improvisation, and interpretation to get at the soul of Othello? Of course, this surreptitious question bears and hides another: Does Othello, who is given as a function of surface made over to servility’s enactment of nobility, have a soul? Does Shakespeare offer soul or a profound and problematic soullessness in Othello? And what does it mean when the one who is sent to find/extract that soul is constrained also to provide it? At stake is individuation’s vacancy, which is different from its failure. What if the problem is not that Othello suffers (from) that impurity, of which Fanon writes, that infests or interdicts the worldview of the colonized but, rather, that he suffers from and in such impurity’s absence? What if blackface is required to reveal this perfect vacuum, a poverty which, then, black actors are enjoined to alleviate whether they play Othello or not? Then, Othello is pursued while in the guise of the pursuer. Eloquent, reticent suit is his livery; his habit is given in the arrogant pride of every humble act of speech before the seigniory, by whom he is insatiably wanted. ’Tis strange, ’tis passing strange, ’tis pitiful, ’tis wondrous pitiful, this unvarnished vanishing he undertakes if, in fact, there is no soul within Othello’s house, which is his language. In this case, Twelfth Night’s Olivia is Othello’s imperfect, anticipatory analogue; and this question of suit, pursuit, and merely seeming arises again, all the way down to the echoic oohs and ohs, like the babbling gossip of the air, which their hollow presences generate. Remember how, in drag, Viola answers a question posed by Olivia, who would be wooed by her, about how she would be wooed by her? In response, Viola declares, while wooing Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, a subjunctive intention to violate Olivia, the beloved of the one she serves, and loves, that she would:

Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house.
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night.
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.

Similarly, we are and would be pierced by the opulent confusion of air and wound in Othello’s wooing. We are, along with Desdemona, enveloped in the penetrative depth of his sounding and, like her, are compelled to give, in return, a world of sighs, which Ofili converts to something visible in the curvaceous drawing and drawing out of his portrait. He who would portray Othello must so pursue that constantly unsatisfied suitor in order to attain the empty individuation they must share, expose, and so disperse. In this regard, “portray” carries “betray” like some extra baggage. This touches upon the tricky changing of suit to which Othello confesses when he relates the courtship of his bride. In telling the state the story of how he played his cards right with Desdemona, Othello—always cognizant of the need to regulate the way it wants him—plays, again, his cards right with the state; in narrating his pursuit of Desdemona, which consists of inducing her pursuit of him, Othello’s consent is revealed as the demure function of his own design:

……………………….These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. Which I, observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

Consider what it is to have drawn from the object of one’s desire a prayer for one’s own consent; consider the ethics of such mutual beguiling and pursuit in suited semblance, against the grain of any notion of suitability even in chaste ceremonies of talking and listening, which renders soul vulnerable, achievable in all her movement inside and outside the house, to the rhythm of all his soft-spoken breaking and entering; then, listen to the rich proliferation of “soul” in Othello’s first act and see if you can see if Othello has one, or any, even when, especially when, he declares his soul’s perfection.

There’s a constancy of inauthentic seeming that Othello is made to stand for. It is as if, on the one hand, he knows that he stands for it while, on the other hand, not knowing that he cannot know what he stands for. Iago is, in this regard, epiphenomenal, speaking of Othello that which Othello cannot speak. Rather, constrained to represent without knowing that what he represents is inauthenticity, Othello keeps saying that he is what he is while constantly showing that he is not. “But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” Othello declares to Iago, his ancient id-like alter ego and projection, “I would not my unhousèd free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.” Love has demanded his dissimulation, and domesticated him, so that he can pursue and win his object, which is, in fact, that of and for which he both plays and is the object, a double operation that obliterates the separable integrity of its elements. The blurring of just being and just playing is their disappearance, and the impurity that remains, and which Othello enacts, and of which he is the enactment, is not something he can then claim as his own. He thinks he knows when he’s just playing, and he thinks he knows when he’s just being, but he never knows that when he’s doing one he’s always also doing the other and is, therefore, never doing either one. Being is not what it is but he’s not even that. Othello seems, and serves his seeming up to others so they can devour it. He beguiles them into asking for a consent that, in any case, he could not have withheld. He seems to be a semiotic vector, a semantic event, a perfect flaw or fault through which the ethical pressure that accrues to a metaphysical mistake is released as the already-given sexual and racial content of a murderous home. Sovereignty’s forced, unforged performance couldn’t be given more emphatically than in the tragic burlesque of blackface situation comedy.

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Chris Ofili, Handkerchief (detail), from Othello, 2018. © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

 

Having been constrained and enticed to care for such a radically unlovable character; having been forced and gratified to bear the way he represents us; having been compelled and enabled to extract nobility from servility, then commonness from nobility, while recognizing in his blatant humility a general aspiration we are supposed to feel, and share: What does Ofili draw out of Othello? A set of variations on the forehead. What’s inscribed there? Why is it inscribed? Who is Othello that he is or can be written on in this way? Is this an imposition of Ofili’s or something he reveals, or redoubles, reveling in what is already given in Shakespeare? Does Ofili discover the real Othello or remask him? How to disclose the one who is not real, who is not one, who cannot be? Does etching enlighten or benight? Is there a truth now on the skin that in another way the skin had always hidden? Othello is an experiment in black personhood for which black persons are not responsible. Why did Fishburne take it on? Why did Lennix take it on by seeming to disavow it? How does Ofili now refuse it?

In offering us a classic mix of improvisation and revision, moving forward by looking back in wonder into the wreck of Othello’s life, which is the disastrous chance he was never meant to survive, Ofili gifts Othello with a run of extravagant bindis meant to match the eighthead luxury of his forehead. Many peoples say the forehead is the point at which creation begins; this is more than simply an Athenian urge. Rather, a general mandala forms around some surrealistic spot, and energy is retained in Ofili’s swift impromptus. His profligate lining out of the tragedy on Othello’s head is an ornamental document of what’s in Othello’s head, which, then, Othello’s face is constrained, serially, smilingly, to celebrate in tears.

Ofili’s embroidery of Othello’s visage, which Desdemona says she saw in Othello’s mind, which sounds a whole new level of what seems, turns inscription into a kind of speech, a retelling of that prospective telling Othello invokes “of one whose subdued eyes, / Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum.” That resin, when mixed with water, becomes varnish—tears thereby both marring and authenticating the tale Othello’s face now tells in the rapid flow of Ofili’s inscription, eroding the hard gloss of himself that Othello projects in impossible self-protection. Gloss’s multiple edge is, in this regard, insistent: interpretation, as in some movement beneath the surface, combines with a hardening, decorative concealment of surface. There is a scratched-up luster, both extemporaneous and nonarbitrary, which Ofili reveals in redoubling Shakespeare’s own redoubled revelation. Shakespeare creates a character for whom there is, and can be, no nonperformative moment. He imposes upon us a terrible gift that performs that imperative to perform, which somehow seems to be Othello’s alone, which those of us who share it nonetheless are constrained to recognize.

To find something in Othello, then, requires digging, scratching, some elaborate corrosion of the corrosion of and to which Othello is subject. Othello’s lyrical bellowing is supposed to countermand the general order of antiblackness that his blackness gives while bearing the general dissolution of the very idea of Europe even in his protection of it from “the general enemy Ottoman.” No servile service to the state could be more grand or futile; and the futility is revealed in the grandiosity, which is serial. Every staging, every production, every iteration is doomed to mar the portrait of sovereignty it projects and would protect. There’s a kind of commerce between Othello and Falstaff in Verdi’s late work that anticipates Ofili’s moves along music’s way, past portrayal and portraiture to some more general passing through, an operatic unworking of personality, its (dis)placement in passage, which, of course, Shakespeare pre-anticipates, his tragic figures always falling apart into something that feels almost atonal, the flipside being the comic social entanglement of the Eastcheap Ensemble. Verdi gets at that by way of a kind of chromaticism whose analogue on the face of Ofili’s Othello is a crowdedness of line befitting an “extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.”

That’s how those marks remark a way for black folks to worry Othello, within the terrible history of our having to worry about him. Ofili writes a subtle, (P)an-African, meta-Caribbean extension of what Aimé Césaire does through and with Caliban, what Kamau Brathwaite does to and for Sycorax, amplifying and embellishing, in pulling and pulling away from, the trigger of visibility. Who is Othello’s mother? Something of how she is purloined and misconstrued is unsaid but seen in the inscription that disappears her in the berries of her disappearing handkerchief. Where was she taken? How will she be recovered? She is as quiet, too, as Algerian danger, but Ofili’s audiovisual stylus—not with engraving’s dot-matrixed burr but rather in more directly handed, looped adornment—says something deep occurs when marking is also sounding. In this regard, Ofili’s all but phonographic sensitivity lets us listen to obscurity and look at silence.

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Chris Ofili, Suicide (detail), from Othello, 2018. © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

 

Ofili’s Othello is festive through his tears, which ought not surprise us since, again, Shakespeare’s Othello is rife with festivity, Iago’s acidic clownishness corroding the ground upon which patriarchal sovereignty should walk, since a state has to state in black and white, like Adrienne Kennedy’s movie star. Ground is doubly at stake in Ofili’s etchings. The needle marks corrosion on the ground, etching allowing the flow that engraving seizes, which brushstroke thickens unto the line’s plush unwieldiness. In these etchings, a cursive discursivity ensues as mellifluous counterpart to Othello’s speech—which is his game—like a secondary rhythm. Ofili’s Othello is a weighty calypsonian, a fat man with the hard blues, to which antiblackness corresponds in general but incompletely. And the aphrodisiacal force of Othello’s talk is so smooth that you can close your eyes and almost hear him say, Come up and see my etchings.

He is, in this regard, like another old Shakespearean seducer who spirits youth away from its proper, sovereign, patriarchal bonds. So that the Falstaffian fleshiness Ofili brings to Othello’s face in having found it there already—the fullness he draws both to and from it—is fitting even as it always threatens to exceed the compass of the frame in an unhousèd freedom that is aligned with what Nathaniel Mackey calls “unhoused vacuity.” That his flesh is inscribed redoubles the fleshy inscription in which he’s given in and by Ofili. Like Falstaff, Othello is overblown, cartoonish, given to “giddy stilt.” He’s a windbag, who let Iago, his invention, blow smoke up his ass. Like Falstaff, Othello talks shit a mile a minute—talks way more than he fights—and their resemblance asks us to consider whether Othello’s honor is anything other than hot air, as Falstaff intimates of honor more generally in the public/private staging of this soliloquy in Henry IV, Part I:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

Ofili’s Othello is a goodly, portly man, a corpulent, and this indicates a complex dis/possession of appetite, as if he were a rake all along, prone to some boastfully inadvertent owning up to his capacity to enchant given in immodest declaration of his modesty. His rap is so strong, in this regard, that it makes you wish Othello had been played by Isaac Hayes. What if the entire catalogue of Ike’s Raps were a partially recovered edition of Othello’s pre-Othello speeches, giving us an amplified glimpse of his address to the ladies?

Of course, the difference between Othello and Falstaff is that Othello will have—or at least assert, both publicly and privately—his honor, which implies just that measure of self-deception that makes him serviceable for the state rather than essentially, even radically, useless to it. But what if Othello really did get down with Emilia? What if the one charged with portraying him were able to bring to and find in him the dissembler’s shit-eating grin? What new portrayals do Ofili’s imaginal portraits now make possible? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see a black actor play Othello without being responsible for Othello? At least Falstaff is “a huge bombard of sack” rather than honor’s empty vessel. Wouldn’t it be cool, now that Black Moses is gone, to see Danielle Brooks bring to and find in Othello’s “bombast circumstance” all and more of what she found in and brought to Beatrice in the Public Theater’s 2019 production of Much Ado about Nothing?  Her performance might carry out that triple negation that lets us know Othello ain’t about nothing noway. Bringing the noise of a trace of something she might see, after all, in the pungent perfume with which Shakespeare fills his lungs would be her way of providing that flavor we feel, showing Othello and Othello some black, corrosive love. We hate the shit we have to deal with in that shit because we love that shit. Othello has us at hello. Ofili lets Othello go.

 

Chris Ofili, Othello, 2019. © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

 

Fred Moten is a professor in the department of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003), Hughson’s Tavern (2008), B Jenkins (2010), The Feel Trio (2014), The Little Edges (2014), The Service Porch (2016), and Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) (2017) and is the coauthor, with Stefano Harney, of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013).

“Ofili’s Othello” © 2019 Fred Moten. William Shakespeare x Chris Ofili: Othello published by David Zwirner Books. Courtesy David Zwirner. Chris Ofili appears in conversation with the classicist Emily Wilson on Episode 11 of Dialogues, a podcast produced by David Zwirner.

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