Looking for the Moor
Hugh Quarshie is a Ghanaian-born British actor. He is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and played Othello in Iqbal Khan's production on the main stage of the RSC in the summer of 2015. But not without some soul searching.
He's not convinced that Shakespeare actually knew any black people and wonders if the persona of Othello is simply derived from literary and theatrical convention. He also suspects that if Shakespeare had little or no awareness of black people, his characterisation of Othello could be regarded as lazy; if he did, then his approach borders on bigotry and the role should be seen as a stereotype about which black actors should think twice.
It's a provocative starting point.
In adapting a story about a jealous, uxoricidal Moor, was Shakespeare endorsing a racist view which performance conventions have further reinforced? If a black actor plays Othello does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate and even true?
When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the wrong way of looking at black men, namely that they are over-emotional, excitable and unstable? Of all the parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should not be played by a black actor.
Othello's race and colour do not simply determine the reactions and responses of other characters to him; they also go some way to explaining his actions. Shakespeare suggests that Othello behaves as he does because he is black. And to suggest that a person's behaviour is racially determined is, by definition, racist.
Producer: Roger Elsgood
An Art and Adventure production for BBC Radio 3.
First broadcast in July 2015.