Othello, The Minstrel
Joel B. Levine MD
Near the end of his unequaled career, the literary critic, Harold Bloom, predicted that Universities would soon relegate Shakespeare to a graduate seminar attended by only miscreants and outcasts. Bloom was always the curmudgeon but his consummate sense of literature , in its time, proved prophetic.
In yesterday’s paper, albeit the New York Post, there is a confirmed story of a renowned Professor at the august University of Michigan being both suspended and punished for showing a revered motion picture of Shakespeare’s Othello. What was so offensive was that Oliver, at the time at the peak of this talent, was shown “ in blackface”. This was the height of racial insensitivity, an affront to the “ safe space” of a music class, and flagrantly offered without a “ content warning”.
If you ever wanted to affirm that we have fully lost our way, this story will do it. First, Othello was a Moor, a General of the Army whose country of origin was never revealed in the play. Trans Atlantic slave trading had not started in 1600, so a reference to “ blackface “ as symbolic of our racial history is simply wrong. Shakespeare did refer to the Moor as “ black” but only to compare his darker skin tone to the generally alabaster English. So why did he make Othello “ black” when the essence of the play is jealously. The likely answer is remarkably pedestrian but appropriate to the time as Shakespeare’s plays were for popular appeal.
In 1600, the King of Barbery visited London. The people of England were taken by his charisma and he was literally on parade with broad acclaim. He was a guest of the Queen and Shakespeare’s acting company was asked to perform at the Court. In the following year, Shakespeare began Othello and ended the writing in 1604. The Kings name was Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anounk. At the time, there was no word for Muslim and all Moors were referred to as Turks and all Turks as Moors. In fact, Shakespeare used that term of reference, “ turning Turk”, when English sailors, captured by pirates, refused to return to England.
Shakespeare then used Othello’s skin color as a dramatic contrivance for Iago seeking to strip Othello to his “ essence” and, in so doing, create the tragedy of his suicide. The Barbery King had provided Shakespeare with a luminous figure to use as a metaphor for the effect of corrosive human emotions and relationships.
Othello was not about race, the blackness was not about race, the character being drawn from a contemporary celebrity. For a University not to know this and succumb to both a woeful lack of knowledge or dishonor intellectual discipline is breathtaking. To process this as racial insensitivity is a kind of societal madness. This is why Miller wrote , “ The Crucible”.
Worse still is the damage done to an esteemed academic. His career has been ruined by this nonsense. It is wrong at every level. Factually wrong, unjust, lacking a due process for justice, any protection of academic freedoms and , worse still, prideful at the ruination of a scholar for unscholarly reasons.