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Othello's Island 2015

at the Severis Foundation • Nicosia • Cyprus


Speaker: Arlynda Lee Boyer (University of Toronto)

Title: “The Other Interracial Marriage in Othello




“Virginia Woolf once searched for Shakespeare's sister,” Celia Caputi Daileader writes. “I would like to ask, where is Othello's sister?” The answer that she and several other critics arrive at is that Othello’s sisters have been “pointedly erased” from history, and that their erasure has everything to do with sex. Critics, however, have been busily recovering various Dark Ladies, with all their sexual implications, within both the Shakespeare canon and early modern history. I would like to suggest another potential Dark Lady of Shakespeare, this one hidden in plain sight in a play that is all about race. I propose that “Othello’s sister” is present in Othello’s very own play—not Bianca, the character sometimes cast with a woman of color playing her, but Emilia. Was Emilia black?


This paper argues that the character of Emilia might be both read and cast as a black woman, and considers the interpretive and performative possibilities in such a move. First it considers the present-day uses of such a reading and discusses the ways that modern theatre practitioners have experimented with race in casting Othello. Then it suggests a sort of thought experiment: imagining a Jacobean performance tailored to the interests of the new royal family—specifically Anne’s interest in black entertainers—a performance that in Emilia gives us one of the first depictions of an African woman on the English stage and an exploration of the racial and gender dynamics in not one but two interracial marriages. A black Emilia, married to a white Iago, is, critically speaking, a completely new Emilia, and a completely new—and even more richly meaningful—Othello.





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