Text, performances, films, and commentary on Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.

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Monday, December 01, 2014






OXFORD PRINT                                  KINDLE


HELEN VENDLER                            STEPHEN BOOTH














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Sunday, September 30, 2012


 Sep 30, 2012

Please see the new site for videos about the sonnets:

Quick Flick's theme, Fragile, several months ago, I chose to make a film of Sonnet 65. The question Shakespeare asks, "How in this rage can beauty hold a plea?" seemed to me to suggest that Shakespeare's discussion of the fragility of beauty would make an appropriate film for this theme.

A study of the poem, however, reveals that it is not beauty that is fragile. The material things, even the most solid -- "rocks impregnable" and "gates of steel" --- are fragile. They "are not so stout. " Eventually, no matter what, "Time decays."

In fact it is beauty and love that become immortal through art and poetry.


(Note: In the context of all the sonnets, #65 would usually be taken as about an older man talking about a younger man or boy. However, nothing in the sonnet itself identifies the speaker or the subject in any way. In this film, the usual context is ignored, and "My Love" is taken to be a young woman. )

Meagan English as "My Love" from SONNET 65Posted by Picasa

I posted the film,
SONNET 65 , on Google video.


Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

In this poem, Shakespeare is just a little tentative about the power of poetry to preserve love, declaring...

...if this miracle have might
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

That is, he is not sure; it would be "this miracle" if it really works.

Shakespeare reaches a similar, and stronger, conclusion on the preservative power of poetry in sonnet 18, when he says, of the "...eternal lines..." of poetry,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.


Shakespeare is not one for simple readings, and there are two huge ironies.

First, there is the omnipresence of death shadowing the love. Specifically, in 65, the word "still" in the last line has spooky overtones of the stillness of death, harking back to

... where, alack
Shall Times best jewel from Time's chest lie hid

(where "Time's jewel" is "my love," and Time's chest is the grave).

I ended the film with a still photograph of "my love" to make this connection.

The second irony is that, of course, even though

...my love may still shine bright (65)


...this gives life to thee (18)

nowhere do we get any information about who "my love" or "this" actually refers to. So if Shakespeare had actually been promising someone eternal life though his poetry, he did not deliver on that promise!


  • It starts off with lots of "s's"
    brass, stone, boundless sea, with this, is no stronger...

  • Then in the middle the sounds are full of hard "k's" and "g's"
    alack, Time, chest, wrackful, back,

  • and the conclusion is a reconciliation of sounds,
    black ink, still shine, bright.

  • There are many negative words, including three "nor's" in the first line alone.
  • There are many words about time, including
    Time (3), mortality, summer, days

  • There are five lines that begin with the letter "O," including three that begin with "O" and two that begin with "Or".

  • Other key words are also repeated or paired:
    beauty, steel & brass, stone & rocks, hand & foot

  • Much of the poem is expressed in rhetorical questions, which convey great anguish.

  • The most unusual construction is
    "...what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?"

    On it's face, this is a strange mixed metaphor. The presumptive answer to the question is that it is the hand of the poet that can thwart the swift foot of Time marching toward decay and death.

In this poem, the speaker is anonymous. There is no clue to the character of the speaker except for the words, "my love" in the last line. The speaker and the love could be of either sex. (In the context of all the sonnets, #65 would usually be taken as about an older man talking about a younger man or boy. However, nothing in the sonnet itself identifies the speaker or the subject.)

  • Time wears all material things down.

  • Love and beauty gain immortality through art.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012


adapting the sonnets as plays

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets.  Well, not exactly.

There are 154 poems in the famous collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  But, in fact, one of the poems, number 126, has only 12 lines and is rhymed aa bb cc dd ee, so it’s not really a sonnet like the others.  Some other sonnets are slightly defective, with an extra line or a missing word. It’s also worth mentioning that sonnets numbers 153 and 154 are quite different from the others.

In addition to the sonnets in this collection, there are several sonnets that Shakespeare himself used as dialog in the plays, the lines sometimes shared between characters, notably in Romeo and Juliet.  For example, in Act I scene 5, Romeo and Juliet share a sonnet, trading lines and quatrains as dialog. (See NOTES, below.)

Some other sonnets, probably by Shakespeare, apparently have also been published, including one that appears to be the first draft of a more familiar sonnet.

The remaining 151 sonnets – counting slightly defective ones, and ignoring numbers 153 & 154 and those sonnets from the plays – are usually loosely grouped into two categories: those said to be about a young man and those said to be about a sultry “dark” woman. 

Most often, the sonnets are taken to be in Shakespeare’s voice and more-or-less autobiographical.

I want to forget that and treat the sonnets very differently.

There is no guarantee the published order is what was intended by Shakespeare.  In fact, some of the sonnets seem to be out of order – given their similarity in theme to other sonnets some distance away. Many of the sonnets do not actually identify even the gender of the speaker or of the subject; the speaker is assumed to be Shakespeare, and the subject is inferred from the sonnets published position. The meaning of many of the sonnets is ambiguous. Depending on – for example – how the grammar is interpreted, the sonnet can mean quite different things.  One famous example is in the final phrase of the last line of Sonnet 116 when “I never writ nor no man ever loved” can mean either “No man has ever loved anyone,” or “I never loved a man.”

Shakespeare was a playwright as well as a poet, and in the plays he speaks in the voice of each of the characters.  I want to take a selection of sonnets out of their usual context, re-arrange them, and see what life each has when it is combined with other sonnets to tell a story. Each sonnet will be the dialog of some character. The text of each sonnet will be honored, and there will be no a priori assertion about who is speaking or who they are speaking to, except what makes sense in the new context.

The sonnets seem to contain several threads of stories, and several characters; for example:

An older man.
A young man
A young man who is as beautiful as a woman
Two poets
A woman with a dark complexion
A woman with dark eyes
A woman with dark hair
A man (or men) and a woman (or women) who love each other
A woman (or women) and a man (or men) who are unfaithful to their lover
A person who travels away from his love.
A person who is sick
A person who possibly dies
A person (or persons) who are lonely and forlorn
A man (or persons) who do not want children
And a person urging them to have children.

The usual interpretation conflates these possibly different characters as follows:

  • The Younger Man -  the young man, the beautiful young man, an unfaithful lover, and the person who does not want children
  • The Rival Poet -  a rival for the Young Man’s affection
  • The Dark Lady of the Sonnets – a woman with dark eyes, dark hair and dark complexion, who is a passionate lover and unfaithful
  • Shakespeare – Will, the older man, the first poet, and the person urging the Young Man to have children, the lover of the Young Man and the Dark Lady and possibly others, the lover threatened by the Rival Poet, and an unfaithful lover.


It is very interesting to look at each sonnet for only what is contained intrinsically within it, and possibly separate some of these different personae into separate characters, letting the different characters tell their stories of love and betrayal in their own words through the sonnets.

This approach frees the sonnets from the prison of “lyric verse,” and liberates the fierce meanings and emotions they contain, which are sometimes obscured by the notion of these sonnets as “poetry”.

It should be noticed that the ability to do this depends in part on the fact that the sonnets describe elemental human emotions and behavior, and do not depend, like the plays do, on the customs of Elizabethan times, or on the circumstances of the real or mythical environment in which each play is set.

For this reason, plays built from sonnets can be completely modern, or, more accurately, timeless.  All that is necessary is for each character to be the kind of person who would naturally talk that way.

So the goal in performing the play – having mastered the verse and the language and the meaning – is to for each character to speak the lines to the character they are talking to as natural dialog, with a purpose, an intention, an objective, a state of being, an emotional state, and a life that exists in the circumstances that have been given in the play up to the moment. In other words the sonnets are acted with all the technique of modern, natural theater.

I should re-emphasize that part about “having mastered the verse and the language and the meaning”. In order to act the sonnets, one must first master the poetry. Acting is the second step. A brilliant teacher, William Packard, proposed a method of attacking the performance of poetry that I believe actually works: More or less in this sequence, in brief it is…

1.      First learn the poem;
2.      Then understand the poetic structure;
3.      Train the ear to hear the poem (by speaking it out loud over and over and over and over and…);
4.      Then find the elements in the poem on which you can mentally and physically focus as you perform the poem;
5.      Then understand the meaning of the poem;
6.      And only then can you work on acting...

I have constructed several plays from the sonnets: (Each is quite different from the others, sometimes with the same sonnet having quite a different role and meaning in one play than it has in others. In fact, I have found it especially interesting that the same sonnet spoken by  different characters at different times and places in the same play, can become very different in its meaning and emotional content.)  I should note that – in the spirit of sonnets having multiple possible interpretations – the three principal characters in these plays are Will (an older man), Dawn (Will’s true love – a woman), and Eve (the Dark Lady of the sonnets).

A one-sonnet, one song, 2 minute play (or video).

A two character, 10 minute play about an explosive love.

A two (or three) character half-hour short play, about two characters who are in love. The older man has a brief affair with the Dark Lady, and then returns to his first love to deal with his betrayal.

A full length play with three characters, and Elizabethan music and dance integrated into the story, which describes a three sided love triangle and all its complications; with some additional themes, notably the older man’s illness.



LOVE IS MY SIN had a lightly staged performance before an audience Off-Off-Broadway a few years ago.

An abridged LOVE’S FINE WIT had a staged reading with Elizabethan songs and music before an audience at the Cornelia Street Café in New York on Shakespeare’s birthday this year.

The future…

I would love to do a commercial production of the full length play – I have ideas for who would direct that and play the characters.

I would also like to bring a staged version of the sonnet play to colleges, together with a workshop: train the students in Packard’s method of performing poetry; work with the students to help them understand the sonnets, and then have the students perform. 

What would Shakespeare think?

I suspect that Shakespeare actually created several of the sonnets in conjunction with writing plays and other works: that he thought of at least some of them as dramatic, and not necessarily as lyric, autobiographical poetry. There are, for example, similar ideas and echoes:

  • Between parts of Othello and the Dark Lady sonnets
  • Between parts of the Rape of Lucrece and sonnet 129 “The expense of spirit…”
  • And between several sonnets and Love’s Labours Lost
  • And in Romeo and Juliet, as mentioned above, Shakespeare explicitly uses a sonnet, himself, as dramatic speech, sharing lines between the two lovers.

However, I somehow doubt there was an Off-Off-London theater in Shakespeare’s time that ever produced a play from the sonnets.

And if the sonnets really are autobiographical…

Even returning to the classic notion of the sonnets as autobiographical, having looked at the sonnets from this new, intense approach, fresh insights into the richness, subtleties and force of the sonnets – and what that might mean about their author -- have been gained!

References & Links

Two important books analyzing the sonnets are:

Booth, Stephen – Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Vendler, Helen – The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

An important book about the music from Shakespeare’s plays is:

Duffin, Ross W – Shakespeare’s Songbook.

Some articles about sonnet plays from QPORIT:


            (includes the script of a ½ hour 2 char play constructed from the sonnets)

(with a rumination on the art of making plays from Shakespeare’s sonnets)

Other links to QPORIT:







The Sonnet in Romeo and Juliet Act I scene 5

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand(100)
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.(105)
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. (110)

Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Maggie Siff is a shrew.  

In all too many productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, the "shrew" is not a shrew, but just a bit cross with her language, and the play makes no sense: there is no shrew to tame. In this production, Maggie bursts onto the stage in an obnoxious roar.  Katharina is a shrew. It justifies, explains, and humanizes the whole play.

Andy Grotelueschen appears on stage announcing he's there to find a woman. When he hears that Katharina is available, has a rich dad and a fine dowry, he's pleased; and when he hears she's feisty and more, and worse, (and more worser! still), he's delighted. It's a challenge, a game he's happy to play. And he spells out his method, so there's no question he's about to play a game he's going to enjoy... and is playing to win.

Andy Grotelueschen and Maggie Siff
Photo by Henry Grossman

This production of Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew, with Maggie Siff as Katharina and Andy Grotelueschen as Petruchio, directed by Arin Arbus at Theater For A New Audience (TFANA) is enjoyable, understandable, entertaining and generally excellent.

Theatre for a New Audience Presents  
The Taming of the Shrew
 By William Shakespeare 
The Duke on 42nd Street
Andy Grotelueschen and Maggie Siff
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

The Taming of The Shrew (TTOTS) is one of Shakespeare's early plays, based on several sources from which different plot elements of the play are taken (including a whole tradition of plays about "taming" women). It was published long after it was written, and there is only one version of the play.  (This, of course, leaves open the possibility that the play we have is not exactly what Shakespeare wrote -- that it might contain parts he did not write, and that parts he did write might be missing.)

Another play, published anonymously (close to the time when TTOTS) was first written, called THE TAMING OF A SHREW (TTOAS), contains both similarities and differences to Shakespeare's play.

Structurally, both plays begin with a section, called the "Induction," in which a passed-out drunk is discovered by a rich man, who decides to play a prank: he dresses the drunk, Sly, as a rich man and instructs his attendants to convince Sly when he awakes that Sly has just awoken from a years-long drunken madness, and that he is really a rich man.  Then the rich man arranges to have a play, namely "The Taming of The Shrew" performed for Sly.  So TTOTS is actually the play within the play, introduced by the "Induction".

The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, are all politically incorrect plays. Shrew is about misogyny, Merchant is about a merciless money-lending Jew, and Othello is about a black man drawn to jealous murder of his innocent white wife.

Modern stage directors typically deal with these unPC themes in some combination of three ways: 

-- most often, they emphasize the humanity that Shakespeare gives his character ("Hath not a Jew eyes?");  

-- least often, they embrace the slur ("And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?" ... "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe."); 

-- and sometimes, they deny the obvious political incorrectness and try to create an interpretation of the play that enables a politically correct production.

-- less typically, they find a way to finesse the incorrectness of the story.

Arin Arbus uses a combination of all these techniques.  

Most obvious, in this production, is denial:  the play in this production is not misogynist: Petruchio does not "tame" Kate, but rather allows her to find herself. Petruchio is playing a game; Katharina is an obnoxious shrew only out of frustration with her inability to communicate with her family and her dislike for any apparently available suitors; and when she warms up to his game and realizes she is in tune with Petruchio (impressed, though skeptical, that he says everything he is doing is for her benefit), Katharina and Petruchio truly fall in love and Katharina can dispense with the bad behavior and become herself.  She is not changed, not tamed, but allowed to self-realize her true nature. 

As for the other techniques, the production embraces Katharina's early shrewishness, and the production gives all the characters their full measure of humanity and realistic behavior.
Moreover, this production includes the "Induction," the first scene of the play (often omitted from a staging)  which establishes "The Taming of the Shrew" as a play with a play, finessing its unPC theme by giving it an extra measure of distancing, or plausible deniability as to its intrinsic misogyny.

The production does have some problems: while the lead characters are terrific, and speak clearly and understandably; and most all the acting is excellent, some of the speeches of some of the characters are at times completely incomprehensible.

Also, Bianca, (played nicely by the pretty -- tho' improbably tall for her character -- Kathryn Saffell, in her OB debut), and the Widow (Owen Fouere) rather suddenly and without dramatic justification turn from ostensible models of "good" behavior (in contrast to the shrew) at the beginning, to models of truculence against whom Katharina can then rail at the end.

As mentioned before, in the script of The Taming of The Shrew that has come down to us from some years after Shakespeare's time, there is an "Induction," an opening scene which sets up the play, "The Taming of The Shrew" as a play within a play, performed to a drunk who has been dressed up by a rich prankster.  The "Induction" is the only scene in which the framing characters appear.  

In this production, the characters from the framing -- which is placed inexplicably in the Wild West -- sit in the audience throughout the evening to watch the performance of TTOTS , and even have a few words borrowed from another play ("The Taming of A Shrew"), in which there is also a framing device.  But then there is nothing more.  It would have been more satisfying at the end of the play, even if the framing characters had no more words, to -- at least -- give them a bit of business (perhaps a spotlight on the character, Sly, at the end as he applauds the play he's seen, or show him walking away from the scene thoroughly confused, or still drunk and fast asleep), to complete the framing.

A talk-back after the show (there's another after the Saturday April 14 matinee) made some interesting points.  Julie Crawford, from Columbia University stressed the idea that the play as written by Shakespeare embraces simultaneous and conflicting interpretations, while Robert Michels, a Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell was interested in the interpretation of this production which centered -- as described above -- on the way that Katharina and Petruchio find love with each other.

There was also considerable discussion at the talk-back of the framing device of the Induction which, in addition to serving to distance the play from its presumptive misogyny, also casts a spotlight on the fact that in the original productions of this and Shakespeare's other plays, the roles of women were played by boys and men; and that the role one plays in society can seem to change so easily, here just by dressing up in better clothes. 
This production of THE  TAMING OF THE SHREW is to be highly recommended.  It plays through April 21.

For more information and tickets:

THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE (TFANA) is one of New York's most important theaters for the consistently excellent production of Shakespearean plays.
TFANA has put together a detailed analysis of the play and this production:
The Taming of A Shrew (Anonymous), similar in some ways to The Taming of The Shrew (TTOTS), is often taken to be a garbled version of  (a possibly early draft of) TTOTS,  with elements, perhaps, of other plays as well:






(Note: Please check that you are getting the format and version you want; 
the same play comes in many variations!)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011



A reading (with music) of Shakespearean sonnets

As the dialog of an intense love triangle

And a concert of Elizabethan music and song.

With Katie Fabel, Jessica Crandall, Heli Sirvio, Hank Heijink, Eric Roffman and friends*


April 23, 2011 at 6:00


Advance reservations at 212 989-9319 are strongly recommended!

Help us celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday with LOVE’S FINE WIT, a reading (with music) of Shakespeare’s most popular, most powerful, and most complex sonnets – rearranged as the dialog of an intense love triangle, with lust, betrayal, loneliness, and the triumph of true love. And a concert of Elizabethan songs and music!


*(Performers subject to their continuing availability.)

So... I arranged for a concert with some terrific singers and musicians, and I rearranged Shakespeare's sonnets for a reading. It tells the story of an intense love triangle. The sonnets, heard in this context of a dramatic story, as the dialog of the characters, reveal hidden and unexpected meanings and gain new power. Shakespeare was both a poet and a dramatist. Rather than taking the sonnets as his sort-of-maybe biographical musings, we are taking each sonnet out of its context, away from the usual ordering, and taking each sonnet for itself, then giving it a new context in its role in this dramatic story. Shakespeare in his plays was famous for giving each character his own voice. The sonnets seem to speak out in a whole range of different voices and moods. By taking the sonnets as dialog, as the voice of different characters, and not just WS's own voice, these different voices and moods have a new opportunity to be heard.

Several years ago I did a quite different arrangement of the sonnets:


In fact, one (almost defining) feature of the sonnets is that they are ambiguous. The same line can often be taken in two quite different ways, with quite different meanings, depending on how one interprets the syntax. (For example, take another look at the famous last line of sonnet 116!) This ambiguity helps make it possible for a sonnet to gain additional meaning and clarity by giving it a context in which it inherits the specific circumstances laid out by the previous speeches.

In filmmaking and film editing this is a familiar process. A shot of a man looking into the distance becomes a quite different shot, with different emotional content, depending on whether it is preceded by, say, a scene with a cute dog, a beautiful woman, a violent murder, an empty field of wild flowers, or a war.

LOVE'S FINE WIT, the particular rearrangement for this event, I think, tells a very interesting and moving story.

The Shakespearean songs, by the way are integrated into the story. They come from Ross Duffin's wonderful book, Shakespeare's Songbook (which also includes a DVD of many Shakespearean songs), and he himself was both encouraging and helpful in several e-mails.

The date, April 23, is special. Counting back from the date of his baptism, April 23 is usually considered Shakespeare's birthday. So we created this show as part of a three day celebration of Shakespeare's birthday at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

HOPE YOU'LL COME. Be sure to make reservations early!

Advance reservations at 212 989-9319 are strongly recommended!

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Saturday, October 03, 2009


John Ortiz as Othello, Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, and
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago in OTHELLO
Photo by Armin Bardel

The LAByrinth production of Othello, (here's the text) directed by Peter Sellars, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, John Ortiz as Othello and Jessica Chastain as Desdemona, is a feast for students and directors of Shakespeare, but quite skimpy on the delivery of emotion, especially in (what is usually) the cataclysmic conclusion.

There are many strange features in this production, some of which help illuminate the richness of the play, some of which confuse the audience and dissipate the power of the story and some of which actually do both.

Peter Sellars, of course, is best known for opera productions which have a reputation for quirky originality.

The first striking feature of the production is the slow pace at which the actors speak. This allows an audience unused to Shakespearean language to understand and process far more than is ever possible when the actors (as Hamlet suggested) speak their words trippingly on the tongue. Audience members (and actors) are allowed to savor and appreciate the poetry and the words.

For audiences used to the rhythms of modern films, and more interested in the experience than the details, however, this rich but 4 hour long presentation can seem plodding and tedious.

A second feature of the production is that Desdemona's father Brabantio is cut out of the play, characters are combined, and suddenly the characters pull out cell phones and start talking to each other across the room and on microphones. This gets the play off to a shaky start (not to mention the fact that the sound system seemed to be flaky for a while the night I saw the show). People new to the play, and those who know the play by heart are equally able to be confused about who is who and why they say what they say, at the beginning. (Not surprisingly, the appearance of the cell phones provoked some not very supportive laughter from the audience.)

The play is set (mostly) in a military base in Cyprus. This provides a universal, timeless environment in which to enact the tragedy.

However, Sellars does not seem to take this setting seriously. Hoffman, with a pot belly, and casual clothes, never in uniform, is vocally a great Iago, but physically impossible to imagine as a candidate for Othello's next in command. Other characters are in and out of uniform, and the set design does not evoke a military base, except fleetingly.

In most productions, Desdemona is a problem: The relation between Othello and Desdemona (O & D) is vapid and unconvincing. Here, Desdemona is a strong, though naive character. And there is a lot of physical communication between Othello and Desdemona. They kiss a lot, and lie next to each other a lot. This is a big improvement over most productions. Yet it still seems like puppy love. Because of the open set design, the other characters can freely observe Desdemona and Othello making out on a super-modern, stylized electronic bed. But what they see and what we see is not what Iago describes to Brabantio, Desdemona's father:

IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe

This -- if taken to be an accurate representation of the O & D affair -- suggests that any glimpses we see of their physical relationship should be torrid passion, not innocent necking.

(If, in Sellars version, the intention is for Iago to be misleading Brabantio about the nature of Othello's affair, and the relation between Desdemona and Othello is intended to be depicted as almost High-Schoolish, then it takes away much of the urgency of the whole play. Note -- Since Brabantio is not in this production at all, I was a little confused at the time these lines were delivered, and it is hard to remember how these lines were used in this production.)

It was Sellars intention to create an Othello for the Obama generation. Sellars seems to consider most productions of Othello as demeaning to blacks in general and Othello in particular. It seems to have been Toni Morrison who changed his mind about the play (
see the video interviews -- click on see all!)

In assessing the treatment of Othello in the play, realize that here is a black man, in white Europe, hailed as a great soldier, loved by a beautiful white woman for his character, having sex with her (and possibly other women), marrying her despite some objection by her father, and commissioned for an important military expedition. This is in a play written more than 400 years ago. How many modern plays, TV shows or movies treat a black character in an interratial sexual/romantic relationship and interratial career, with such importance?

Othello, the man, the general, is not a puppet for a simple anti-black propaganda play; he should be taken seriously by the director, the audience and the world. He is a great man and a terrible killer. And his interratial marriage is at the center of the play. The play is about the reaction of all the characters to Othello, his position, and his beautiful wife.

So I think it is a mistake, even in accentuating other aspects of the play, as Sellars does brilliantly, to minimize the importance of the basic thread. The relation -- the interracial relation -- between Othello and Desdemona should not be minimized. Indeed it should be maximized to the extent of exhibiting a physically provocative -- rather than timid -- passion. (In the "pre-Obama world" a black man would not be shown coupling with a beautiful white woman. The "post-Obama world" should portray these people as they are created in the play.)

Generally speaking, the casting of a Latino as Othello, and a black man as Cassio, and a big black woman as a combination of characters, does support Sellars stated ambition of making the play more about universal issues, and less about a stupid, credulous, murderous black man than is perhaps (he believes) usually the case. Liza Colón-Zayas as Emilia, Iago's wife, excellently carries Sellars' idea of how her character's silence is as important as Iago's deception in deluding Othello, and how her courage in revealing the deception unwinds the plot. (However, casting Philip and Liza as a couple is dubious; they are not convincing as a married couple.)

Indeed Sellars'
essay and video interviews about the production are extremely interesting. He did accomplish what he set out to do. But, as so often happens, it is what he did not do and did not focus on and therefore did not do, that cause the weaknesses in the production.

It is at the end that the play has the greatest and strangest lapses:

1-- The classic line:

OTHELLO: Put out the light, and then put out the light

is not matched with any action that makes sense of the line. Othello is walking in meaningless circles around the bed.

2 -- The stylized electronic bed does not allow or evoke the emotions raised by the lines:

DESDEMONA: Prithee, tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets: remember;

The wedding sheets, which should carry enormous emotional power, are missing from the bed, and can not deliver the message they should carry to Othello (and to the audience).

3 -- And finally, Ortiz simply does not produce the physical or vocal strength necessary to convey the powerful emotions that would illuminate this twisting of Othello from lover to killer and then convey the cosmic remorse that suddenly erupts when he realizes what horror he has committed; how he has been deceived, betrayed and destroyed.

So, all in all, I enjoyed this production and learned much from it, but did not exit from the theater emotionally devastated!

This is only the beginning of the "Othello Project," for Peter Sellars. According to the
notes distributed at the theater, Sellars and Toni Morrison are discussing a prequel to Othello, called "Desdemona," starting from the stories that Othello told Desdemona so that she fell in love with him. And Sellars is planning to return to Othello as well as Toni Morrison's "Desdemona," in part with the idea of developing a film. This project should be exceptionally illuminating to all those who love Shakespeare.

In addition, on Sunday October 4, there will be a free panel discussion about Othello:


"Is It Possible?": Othello in the Age of Obama

Luis Argueta, documentary filmmaker;
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of Tisch School of the Arts;
Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx; and
Carmen Peláez, playwright and actress.

Moderated by Dr. Avery T. Willis, who has collaborated with Peter Sellars as an assistant director and dramaturg since 2006.

OTHELLO Sunday Speakers Series


General Admission Lobby opens at 2:15PM

NYU Skirball Center
566 LaGuardia Place & Washington Square South

Here are some interesting links:

WEB VIDEO -- James Earl Jones -- Othello's Testimony:

Kenneth Branagh's version:

Paul Robeson as Othello & Uta Hagen as Desdemona:

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