The Problem of Blackface in Othello and the cartoons of Max Fleischer

       Shakespeare’s play Othello is my favorite of the Bard’s bunch. The way the play handles the problems of jealousy, trust, and sexual obsession make it a consistent port of call when thinking about anything related to the complexity and danger of human desire. However, one of the most difficult things about both teaching and learning the play is how it handles - and has often mishandled - the performance of race. This is not a new claim, and most likely anyone who has ever seen or read Othello can recall the Laurence Olivier adaptation produced in 1965, which usually generates discussion about the Anthony Hopkins performance from 1981. It is safe to say no obvious lessons were learned there. Racism is an irremovable aspect of the play’s plot and meaning, yet questions surrounding how to handle the historicity of the play’s performance are still difficult to answer. What I offer here is an educational approach that might help students think about racialised performance across geographies and historical periods.

 

(Folger Shakespeare Library)

This post presents a teachable mirror to the problem of blackface in Othello’s performative history through pairing the play with a Fleischer Studios cartoon titled Snow-White, released by Paramount Pictures in 1933. In particular, the ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’ segment from the short film is worth examining in relationship to blackface minstrelsy and the problem of racialised performance in Othello.

In his essay ‘Emblems of Folly in the first Othello’ Robert Hornback argues the play is a tragi-comedy rather than a strict tragedy, and it would have been received this way by early modern audiences. He points out the fact that ‘it is only relatively recently that commentators have begun to attend to the play’s employment of disturbing humor based on racial stereotypes to enhance its tragic effect’ (Comparative Drama (2001): 69-70). Hornback goes on to point out that reading the play in this way is linked to ‘popular associations with the natural fool available to audiences in the earliest performances of the play’, one of those associations being blackface (Hornback, 70). He discusses the fact that blackface, or performances done by white individuals ‘blacked-up’ were a popular form of entertainment in the period ‘precisely because in their exaggeratedly arresting physical otherness they contributed to the spectacle characteristic of the masque form’ (Hornback, 73). He suggests that while blackness was a symbol of evil in the period, it was also a symbol of folly and foolishness, particularly in Tudor morality plays (Hornback, 77-78). What this does to the play’s meaning is reposition Othello from tragic hero to tragic ‘clown’, ‘who is laughed at and abused because he is constructed as physically or mentally different or deficient as well as socially transgressive’ (Hornback, 93-94). However, Hornback argues that Shakespeare did this in order to ‘provoke sympathy and awake a painful self-knowledge in the audience members that they had been fooled into laughing at sadism’ (Hornback, 94). By positioning Othello as a blackface minstrel who is subject to the ridicule of the audience through laughter, the play begins to look much like other forms of minstrelsy white audiences laughed at. However, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be laughing with them.

Thinking about the way Renaissance audiences would have laughed at the play solely due to Othello’s race allows for new opportunities to engage students in their reading and discomfort with the way the play deploys racism. How might students feel about Hornback’s argument that Shakespeare did this in order to force the audience to take a look at themselves and realise they were being racist? Do they buy that? Do they think that Shakespeare’s choice is one that would work in the 21st century?

Over two-hundred years later and across the ocean, Americans were audience members of Shakespeare’s Othello. However, despite the time and geographical distance, Othello’s portrayal as a blackface minstrel remained unchanged. In the American context, the play solidified beliefs and fears for whites, and as Kris Collins argues, it perpetuated an audience ‘fascination with black male sexuality, the repression of white female sexual prerogative, and a pronounced anxiety concerning miscegenation’ (‘White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness’, Journal of American Culture (Fall 1996): 87). Collins points out that the play was extremely popular with 19th century audiences and was the ‘third most frequently performed Shakespeare play’ in the period (Collins, 87). What was perhaps the most important aspect of the 19th century blackface performance of Othello was ‘its proximity to the white female body’ (Collins, 88). This is where the character ‘Koko The Clown’ from the Fleischer cartoon comes into view as being both a meaningful and problematic companion to the play.

Part of what makes the Fleischer cartoon so innovative and intriguing is its display of Fleischer’s historically groundbreaking approach to mapping human movement by ‘rotoscoping’ (fun fact, rotoscoping was used in the original Star Wars films to animate lightsabers). Fleischer was the inventor of the technique, where a performer’s movements are projected onto a glass panel and then traced over in order to replicate the intricacies of these movements. In the special case of Snow-White and other Fleischer cartoons involving Cab Calloway, the jazz singer’s iconic singing and dancing would have contributed to the way audiences received the cartoons at the time. Now might be a good time to take a look yourself:

:

 

Watching the cartoon after reading Othello, you might notice some obvious similarities. Both stories involve a male subject pining after a female object who is dead. In particular, there is a focus on the whiteness of the female body in these cases. The lyrics of ‘St. James Infirmary’ include the lines ‘She’s stretched out on a long, white table / She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair’. It might be interesting to pair these lyrics with Othello’s first lines in the final act of the play: ‘Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster’ (Arden Shakespeare Third Series (1996): 5.2, 4-5). ‘St. James Infirmary’ has historical connotations with the ‘Unfortunate Rake’, which sounds much like the ‘fool’ version of Othello outlined in Hornback’s argument (Kenneth S. Goldstein, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, Folkways Records (1960). The backdrop of the musical number is also worth looking at closely with your students. The ‘Mystery Cave’ seems to be a portal to an apocalyptic underworld, where gambling and drinking are permanent fixtures of the environment, including racialised skulls reminiscent of 19th century scientific racism. As Nicholas Sammond points out, the ‘Mystery Cave’ is a ‘ghetto underworld’ (Birth of an industry: blackface minstrelsy and the rise of American animation (2015): 208). Koko is arguably a minstrel character throughout Fleischer’s work, but there is a particular racial ambiguity in Snow-White because of the extremity of his ghostly whiteness at the hands of the evil witch. However, as Sammond states, this ambiguity only ‘made more explicit the chain of signification between the minstrel and the inchoate and anxious desire for black culture that it represented’ (Sammond, 253). He goes on to make a point not dissimilar to Hornback’s. Sammond argues that these cartoons and their ‘humorous’ depiction of race ‘converted nativist hostility into a shared joke, a common experience of resistance’ (Sammond, 253). Another interesting parallel between Koko’s character and Othello, is that they are not the villains. While Othello does kill Desdemona, and the audience is privy to the murder, it is Iago who is the embodiment of evil in the play. In the Fleischer cartoon, the evil witch/step-mother is the one who has ‘killed’ (albeit in the classic cartoon case where death isn’t final) Betty Boop, and thus Koko mourns her death in the underworld.

        What do your students make of this connection? This might be an interesting point of call for discussion. The delayed death of Betty Boop is also another point to consider, in relationship to the delayed death of Desdemona. How does someone die after being smothered, and not during? In the Fleischer cartoon, we can see Boop’s eyes fluttering in the glass coffin as Koko sings and dances behind her in procession. Desdemona and Betty are both dead and not when they are mourned and desired. What does this mean for the white feminine body?

There are many more similarities between Othello and Fleischer’s cartoon. However, the major takeaways might be related to historical interpretations of blackness, desire, and the white feminine body. Having these kinds of discussions in class can be difficult, but they are also crucial when examining a play like Othello. The Fleischer cartoon offers a point of geographical and historical difference, while simultaneously locating a multiplicity of connections.

Some points to consider:

  • How do these texts configure race in their historical moment?
  • What do they do that is the same, and different?
  • How are these things related to their overall plot or meaning?
  • How do students think the scholarly arguments outlined here figure in the 21st century? How do these texts sit in their minds?
  • How does teaching and learning difficult texts with problematic content challenge you and your students?

Reading:

  • Collins, Kris. "White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness." Journal of American Culture, vol. 19, no. 3, 1996, pp. 87-101.
  • Hornback, Robert. "Emblems of Folly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor's Coat, and 'Muckender'." Comparative Drama, vol. 35, no. 1, 2001, pp. 69
  • Sammond, Nicholas, and EBSCOhost. Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. Duke University Press, Durham, 2015.
  • Shakespeare, William. Othello (Arden Shakespeare Third Series). Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996. Web. 6 Mar. 2018.