The Othello Conference on February 5 consisted of many fascinating workshops and talks, all encouraging those of us who attended to interact with the play in a much deeper and perceptive way. In sharing and debating our interpretations of the context, language and criticisms of Othello, our understanding of the play as a whole was strengthened and broadened throughout the day. Our ideas were cultivated further as we were lucky enough to be able to work with trained actors and see the dramatic techniques of Othello realised. Matilda and Tim invited us to guide them in the way we envisioned the play being performed, which really helped us to remember Othello's origins as a piece of theatre. Following this, we were even given the opportunity to tour Shakespeare’s Birthplace. This experience gave us a rich insight into the history surrounding his works, and to explore and further understand the context in which he was writing.
Dr Anjna Chouhan had some interesting and different interpretations of Othello, which some of us had not considered before. She suggested that Othello is a confused and easily manipulated protagonist, and used the example of his speech in Act 2 Scene 1 when he jubilantly greets Desdemona after his rocky journey through a storm at sea. She evidenced this with the frequent oxymoronic phrases Othello uses, such as “As hell’s from heaven” and “wakened death”. Where some of us had considered this to be an expressive outpouring of Othello’s passion manifesting itself in metaphor, she argued that it is actually a sign of his trying to prove his love to Desdemona in an exaggerated manner, just as he had had to go to great lengths to prove himself in every other aspect of his life thus far.
Dr Nick Walton encouraged us to consider Othello as a practical piece of theatre, as well as a piece of literature. Since Shakespeare was a shareholder in the Globe theatre where Othello would have initially been performed, he would have had an active interest in making his plays enthralling and sensational enough to consistently draw an audience. He made sure to include comic relief in the form of the character of The Clown, and appeals to human nature through his portrayal of love and hate, sex and drama, and complex social issues. Dr Walton suggested that Shakespeare used Othello’s race as a publicity tool - in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare had employed a ‘moor’ as the archetypal villain character, and so audiences would have gone into Othello expecting a similarly vindictive ‘moorish’ character. Hence, Shakespeare plays on contemporary stereotypes of people of colour to draw in a crowd, on the promise of scandal and otherness.
We were also given the chance to discuss the typicality of Othello as a Shakespearean Tragedy, and examined what makes Othello a tragic hero. We shared ideas on Othello’s steep psychological decline, and carefully dissected his final speech. We found that what seems to be a redeeming speech for Othello contains elements of pride and an adamance to secure his legacy as one who “loved not wisely but too well”. We also analysed the language of Iago, who despite not being the protagonist, has many interesting soliloquies and successfully charms the audience with his speech. This helped us appreciate the importance of the language Shakespeare uses, and to understand that every word was carefully chosen to achieve an effect. We learnt invaluable skills on how to close read Shakespeare, which can be extrapolated to any part of the play. As well as having the opportunity to hear from Shakespeare experts, we also gained a lot from listening to our peers’ interpretation of Othello.
We all found the conference to be a really memorable day, and would like to thank all of the speakers and actors at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for making this the case! Having gained a new depth of insight and understanding into Othello, this experience will undoubtedly prove to be invaluable as we continue to study the play.
Written by Serafina, Lauren, Haleema and Caila from King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls in Birmingham