Shakespeare Play Reading


1. Understanding and inter­preting Othello — Folger Shakespeare Library online 

2. Top five Shakespeare plays that speak to the 21st century

3. Read SHAKESPEARE in a DIVIDED AMERICA  by James Shapiro .( 

New York Times ‘Ten Best Books of 2020’) Copies available in SA Libraries 

 1. Folger Shakespeare Library 

Understanding & interpreting Othello– 

Othello and Blackface

Ayanna Thompson and Ian Smith discuss the use of blackface in perform­ances of Othello and a critical new insight about Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Insider’s Guide: Deception in Othello
Explore key scenes with dramaturg Michele Osherow and actors from Folger Theatre’s 2011 produc­tion of Othello.

Insider’s Guide: Language in Othello
Explore the power of words and language in this play with dramaturg Michele Osherow and actors from Folger Theatre’s 2011 produc­tion of Othello.

Editing Shakespeare: Word Choice in Othello
Barbara Mowat, co-editor of the Folger Editions, discusses how different word choices affect how a line of Shakespeare can be interpreted.

Desdemona and Emilia: The testament of female friend­ship in Othello
Explore how the play’s central female friend­ship between Desdemona and Emilia stands in contrast to the rela­tion­ship between Othello and Iago.

Cervantes, the Moors of Spain, and the Moor of Venice
Learn why Othello, of all Shakespeare’s plays, is the one that is most frequently compared to Spanish liter­ature in the age of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.

Performing and adapting Othello

Ira Aldridge
Learn about 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge and his pion­eering role as Othello.

Shakespeare in Black and White
In this podcast episode about Shakespeare and African Americans, hear clips from a landmark Broadway produc­tion starring Paul Robeson.

Shakespeare and opera: Jealousy and tragedy in Verdi’s Otello
The artistic director of Washington National Opera comments on the Italian opera inspired by Shakespeare’s play.

Q Brothers — Othello: The Remix
In this hip-hop adapt­a­tion, Othello is a rapper who rockets to stardom when he teams with a diva named Desdemona.

2. Top five Shakespeare plays that speak to the 21st century

With Shakespeare Week upon us, Emma Smith – author of ‘This Is Shakespeare’ and professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University – picks the bard’s most 2020-applicable works, from ‘Othello’ to ‘Pericles’

Phoebe Fox, second from right, in the National Theatre’s 2017 production of ‘Twelfth Night’
Phoebe Fox, second from right, in the National Theatre’s 2017 produc­tion of ‘Twelfth Night’ ( Marc Brennan )

When fellow play­wright Ben Jonson called Shakespeare “not for an age, but for all time”, he was right. But only up to a point. 

Shakespeare has been a cultural and theat­rical constant for four centuries, but different plays have waxed and waned in popularity. When Charles II was restored to the English throne, Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear to echo this new politics.

The Victorians loved Cymbeline because its moral, resourceful heroine Imogen – as performed by Ellen Terry – seemed a perfect form of womanhood. We didn’t know what to do with a play about a cynical and unwinnable conflict which no-one really under­stood, until the Vietnam War, when Troilus and Cressida found its voice. 

Here are the plays that speak to the early 21st century (and hardly a plague in sight).

1. Twelfth Night 

Twelfth Night’s jaunty subtitle “What you will” is the keynote for its wry accept­ance of human desires. It capit­al­ised on the Renaissance frisson of male actors in female roles, turning it back on itself by depicting a female character who spends most of the play as a man. It’s long been seen as a play that flirts with same-sex passions, and changing stage depic­tions of the erot­ic­ally charged scenes between Orsino and Cesario, or Olivia and Viola, or Antonio and Sebastian, have charted changing societal attitudes to sexuality. For the 21st century, though, the focus is slightly different. Time to say goodbye to the old idea of a “cross-dressed” heroine, and, instead, to stop dead-naming Viola, to accept their (yes, their) chosen self-identity of Cesario, and to stop patron­isingly assuming that Orsino is somehow confused about who he’s coupled with at the end of the play. 

2. Othello

If Hamlet’s exist­en­tial intel­lec­tual hero made him the poster-child for Victorian ideas of the tragic hero, and the unflinching cruelty of Passchendaele and Hiroshima made King Lear seem a parable for the suffer­ings of the 20th century, then the tragedy for the glob­al­ised 21stcentury must surely be Othello. As the play’s location moves eastwards from Christian Venice to the more (and still) contested territory of Cyprus, its deep concern with forms of belonging and alien­a­tion are revealed. We used to under­stand the identity of Shakespeare’s “Moor” as primarily racial, but the word actually signalled to early modern audiences a religious category – Muslim. Now that religious wars, discrim­in­a­tion and genocide reor­ganise the globe on sectarian grounds, this play strikes a bitter chord. As his final speech acknow­ledges, Othello is both Christian and “Turk”, both the defender of Venice and the enemy within. The tragedy is that his composite identity is seen as impossible and unsus­tain­able in the world of the play. 

3. Measure for Measure 

When Measure for Measure was dubbed one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, it wasn’t entirely a compli­ment. But, like the taste for salted caramel, we now prefer our comedies less sickly sweet, with an unre­solved edge. Perfect for the unhappily-ever-after mood, Measure for Measure gives a jaundiced view of sex, human commodi­fic­a­tion, and power. It speaks to #MeToo, but is not entirely on-message: Shakespeare writes the encoun­ters between the hypo­crit­ical politi­cian Angelo and the novice nun Isabella with an intensity and shared intel­li­gence that is deeply troubling. She does not in any way welcome his sexual propos­i­tion, but their fraught inter­views stand in for all the play’s off-stage court­ships, pillow-talk, and flir­ta­tion. No one else in the play troubles to engage Isabella’s spiky, astute mind, even as that is, for Angelo, only a route to her body. Measure for Measure is a Shakespearean comedy for grown-ups. 

Paul Ready and Romola Garai performing in ‘Measure for Measure’ at the Young Vic in 2015 (Keith Pattison)

4. King John 

This bril­liantly sardonic and decentred history play shows us a country without proper lead­er­ship. Forget all that “once-more-unto-the-breach” heroism; forget the divine right of kings; forget Shakespeare’s poetry of feudalism – this is a play about would-be Machiavels, contested sover­eignty and a political assas­sin­a­tion that is, really, a medieval clusterf***. We don’t get – as elsewhere – the rightful king and the chal­lenger, but something much messier. It’s no accident that the central character is called “Bastard” – a figure for triumphant personal and political ille­git­imacy. Ironic, uncon­vinced, at an oblique angle to the hopeless mach­in­a­tions of the politi­cians and merciless in stripping away their rhet­or­ical self-justifications, the Bastard is this play’s comprom­ised hero. His final lines, often quoted out of context, echo with this caustic insight: “Naught shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true.”

5. Pericles 

Pericles is a dramatic gazetteer studded with place names – Tyre, Pentapolis, Ephesus, Mytilene. To earlier gener­a­tions with different preoc­cu­pa­tions, this itinerary recalled the travels of St Paul and the locations of his New Testament corres­pond­ents. But for the 21st century, this dangerous criss-crossing of the Mediterranean recalls the desperate migrant passage from the Arab-speaking world to southern Europe, with Greece and Sicily as partic­ular hotspots. Pericles’ voyaging is at once geograph­ical and psycho­lo­gical: encoun­tering a complex world, dealing with grief and loss, he is in flight from himself. Only reunion with his family can centre him and re-establish home as an emotional, rather than a spatial, location. The fairytale ending doesn’t take away the real insights about human selfish­ness, fear, and the persist­ence of hope that structure Pericles’ maritime equi­valent of a road movie. (And yes, there is a plague, but it only kills bad people.)