Heretic’s Foundation XIII: The End of High-Concept Shakespeare?


By John Hudson
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

For most of the 20th century and now into the 21st, high concept approaches to Shakespeare have driven many productions, leaving trails of misunderstanding in their wake. Although I am usually skeptical about the impact of theater reviews, the almost unanimous response to Peter Sellars’ recent Othello has given me hope. The critical response will not help those poor souls who bought tickets to the now-closed show, but it may give serious pause to any producers and directors contemplating future high concept productions of the Bard.

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The Daily News, noting that “a stampede of people” headed for the exits “with no plan of returning,” made me suspect New York theater audiences are also getting fed up with paying good money for productions that abuse the text and the playwright’s intention. John Simon of Bloomberg News, wielding his trademark verbal scalpel, suggested that the audience should have stormed the box office seeking refunds, calling this Othello an “obscenity,” “abysmal” and full of “absurdities.” Newsday’s Linda Winer noted that the production discarded the play’s meaning and — like so much high concept Shakespeare — tries to make it “a play about something else,” while New York magazine called it “painfully adrift,” an Othello that not only “lost its moorings” (great pun) but has “almost nothing intelligible to say.”

I assert there is no need to resort to high concept for Othello to be exciting, interesting or relevant. As the critics indicated, Sellars’ attempt at creating contemporary meanings, through high-tech staging and alterations to the characters’ cores, made the play much less interesting.

Othello is a play about a handkerchief. If Sellars and his production team had read the academic research on the play, they would have realized that one key element is the identity of the handkerchief itself. It is referred to 27 times as a handkerchief and three as a napkin, like the same item of clothing in As You Like It. Only one other piece of clothing in the early 17th century was oddly known both as a napkin and a handkerchief: the soudarion, the face cloth laid over Jesus’ face in the tomb. The Geneva Bible translation called it the “kerchief”; the Bishop’s Bible called it the “napkin” (John 20:7). This is why the playwright adds in to Othello peculiar details about the handkerchief that are not in Cinthio’s original story: that it was sewn in prophetic fury; it was “dyed in mummy” (III.iv. 74). That’s why the object is “proof of Holy Writ” (III.iii.322-24), why it is a “wonder” (III.iii.101).

Understanding the identity of the handkerchief is key to understanding why Desdemona is smothered (V.ii. 83) — unlike in the source text, Cinthio’s Un Capitano Moro, where she is struck on the back and then has her skull broken. It also explains why her death takes place on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus lay in the tomb with the handkerchief over his face. This is commemorated in church liturgy by the snuffing out of the candle flame — just as Othello snuffs out Desdemona’s life like a light. Scholarship shows that Othello was created as a rewriting, indeed a covert parody, of the characters of the jealous Joseph and the Virgin Mary from the Mystery Plays, supplemented with texts from the canonical and apocryphal gospels. Othello is a fascinating allegory — I believe an anti-Christian one. The playwright’s real underlying meanings are much more compelling than Sellars’ attempts at contemporary relevance.

John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.