Othello and the Everyman

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By Kelsey Ridge, the Shakespeare Institute.

Golda Rosheuvel as Othello - Photograph by Jonathan Keenan

Golda Rosheuvel as Othello – Photograph by Jonathan Keenan

I was drawn to Gemma Bodinetz’s Othello at Liverpool’s Everyman largely for its high-concept approach: Othello (played by Golda Rosheuvel) is a lesbian.  An Othello with a lesbian Othello and bisexual Desdemona is one I believe can illuminate the text’s issues and is one I have wanted to see for years.  Unfortunately, despite the clarity of the concept, this production never managed to execute the necessary depth to achieve luminosity.  Its weak spots largely surround what had been key to its concepts: gender and queer sexuality.

A production that gender-swaps Othello but not Roderigo or Cassio suggests that Desdemona had entertained courtship from men before falling in love with Othello and is bisexual.  This would be significant in terms of both refreshing the text for 21st-century context and discussing important issues.  In such a production, the misogyny that underlies Othello’s actions are updated to biphobia – instead of making the female character buy into the idea that women are inherently inconstant and lustful, the lesbian accepts the cultural idea that bisexuals are unfaithful and promiscuous.  That issue is worth addressing.

Furthermore, this concept could address issues in both the wider culture and the queer community.  While some sources on domestic violence and queer women aggregate bisexuals and lesbians, research shows that in both the UK and the US, bisexual women are more likely than their homosexual and heterosexual counterparts to experience domestic violence, a situation probably exacerbated by biphobia in both the queer community and wider culture.  (Notably, this production, unlike most others, did nothing to engage with the idea that the white heterosexual relationship between Iago and Emilia is also abusive.) The production, then, would tackle racism, the issues faced by powerful women and queer women in broader culture, and biphobia in the queer community.

Sadly, rather than embracing the social relevancy of a bisexual Desdemona, the production seemed stymied by it.  First of all, no one uses the term bisexual.  It does not appear in the reviews of the play, and in a post-show discussion Gemma Bodinetz positioned Othello as Desdemona’s “first girlfriend” without attaching anything else to that.  That position has an unseemly air of contempt for non-gold-star lesbians (the idea that lesbians who never slept with men are somehow superior to lesbians who did) and an underlying sense that bisexuals must not exist in this version of reality.  Secondly, speaking of language issues, the production had a dubious relationship with gender-swapping words to make space for a female Othello, let alone a queer one.  Although Iago once sarcastically (complete with air quotes) remarks that Othello will prove to Desdemona a “dear ‘husband,’” two other times the term husband is applied to Othello unironically.  Such moments made it seem like the production did not have a firm handle on how they were using the text to tell their story.  Thirdly, Bodinetz, talking about the ‘neuroses’ that develop from being someone’s first girlfriend, treated Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona as a justified behavior instead of as a sign that Othello has ingested the ideas of a toxic culture.  That kind of talk – not wanting to ever be someone’s first same-sex partner – would be familiar to bisexual people.  (Bodinetz also referenced concerns attached to being someone’s first Black significant other – the first that your partner might hold white supremacist views and treat you as a piece of “exotica” – but did not discuss a logical distinction between a Black person’s concerns about white supremacy and a monosexual’s views on bisexuals.)  Othello’s ‘neuroses’ also seem messy if one does not see the misogyny refracted to biphobia: reviewer Claire Brennan felt that as the production did not clearly in-universe justify Othello’s ‘misogyny,’ “The problem is one of coherence. […]While the character Rosheuvel presents is credible, the world she inhabits, therefore, is not.”  The critique of biphobia would have been useful in addressing that issue.  Thus, instead of commenting on or criticizing biphobia and monosexism in both the queer community and wider culture, the production instead uncritically perpetuates them.

I find myself wondering if the issue was the failure to consider the existence of bisexuals during the rehearsal process.  At the very least, it appears no bisexual people were consulted in the creation of this material.  When questioned about the relationship between her production and modern biphobia, Bodinetz acknowledged she had not considered it and could not provide an answer.  (Bodinetz also acknowledged that Emilia’s speech to Desdemona about ‘these men’ made little sense considering Desdemona does not have a man in this version, but she found herself unwilling to lose the set speech.)  Bodinetz brought up Rosheuvel’s sexual orientation during the post-show discussion as a way of demonstrating the show’s queer bona fides, but no one else’s, suggesting Rosheuvel was the only openly queer cast member.  I do not wish to imply that Rosheuvel can be held accountable for all monsexism or biphobia in the performance – such values are pervasive in our culture – but it seems the show would have benefited from hearing more than one voice on these issues.

I still believe that this concept under different management could work and make an interesting statement in our modern age.  However it would require more attention to be paid to the way the text is being changed by casting choices, and it would require more attention to be paid to the real life concerns being commented on.  It would almost certainly require listening to a more diverse collection of voices with more relevant experience.  Without this attention, in this case, the unfortunate end result was that what could have been an evocative and relevant production instead felt half-baked and fell flat. It did not have to.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Kelsey Ridge

Kelsey Ridge is currently working towards her Ph.D. at the Shakespeare Institute. She received her M.A. in English (Shakespeare in History) at University College London and her B.A. at Wellesley College, where she studied English and East Asian Studies. Her research interests include feminist theory, the War on Terror, and Shakespeare.

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