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I studied Othello for my Leaving Certificate examinations. I really like that play, so drama studies was one of the few classes I looked forward to. Our teacher decided to take us to see a production of Othello showing in the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. The director had made an interesting choice. While a white actor in blackface played the Moor, he cast the part of Iago with a black actor. This was intended as a comment on the racial politics surrounding productions of the play in the past. Thankfully it is rare to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production featuring a white actor in the main title anymore. Unfortunately the overall play that we saw was fairly mediocre. I will never forget the actress playing Desdemona slipping into her native D4 accent mid-speech: “O-thell-looah”. Yikes.
I will always remember that play though, as it showed a certain bravery in attempting to reinterpret Shakespeare, who has become a sacred cow that we mere mortals are not allowed to doubt. I love the language of the plays, the sonnets, I love the mystery as to the Bard’s own identity, I love his use of propaganda in the historical plays – but above all the work of William Shakespeare was intended to be entertainment. Its richness and wit were part of the package, but in the years since his work has been raised on a pedestal, become abstract, divorced from the sense of fun often present in the plays. His writing is full of profundity, but it also was intended to get a laugh.
By divorcing the ‘genius’, of Shakespeare’s plays from the content – be it frivolous, thrilling, or indeed a ‘weepie’ – we have done his memory a huge disservice. He is the dry, dusty voice of academic lectures, while the height of wit enjoyed by the likes of his audiences has been replaced by: Hallo ladies, Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me, sadly he isnt me…
“Hey Mike, get this Bill Shakespeare on the blower, I think we have the purrfect guy for that Othello part!”
McCreery and Del Col’s story begins with the history of Prince Hamlet. Exiled from the castle of Elsinore following his murder of Pelonius, his friend Rosencrantz confesses to him that he and Guildenstern have been commanded by King Claudius to make him a captive of the King of England. Before Hamlet can decide on a course of revenge, he is visited by a dreadful vision, which in turn is interrupted by an attack of pirates.
The ship lost, his friend dead and Hamlet barely escaping with his life, he comes to on the shores of England. He is welcome by King Richard III (notice anything) who informs him of a prophecy by three witches (nudge, nudge) that he is to kill an evil god known as Shakespeare (meta!). Richard promises Hamlet that if he does this his father will be returned to life and his evil uncle Claudius dethroned. The Danish Prince agrees and accompanied by the king’s aide Iago (eep!) sets off on his quest.
This book is great fun. Shakespeare’s villains including Richard, Iago, Lady MacBeth and Don Jon conspire to destroy their own creator, whereas rebels known as ‘prodigals’, such as Juliet Capulet, Othello and Falstaff seek to prevent their enemies from succeeding. In this ‘England’, Shakespeare is a literal god, whose power is represented by a talismanic quill that Richard wishes to possess. The villains of course plot and scheme against one another, while the ragged band of heroes try to convince Hamlet to do the right thing and protect the innocent country folk harried by murderous soldiers in service to the king.
There are a number of other books out there, such as Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables that are similar to this, although I imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, particularly the Midsummer Night’s Dream storyline, is the primary inspiration for this mash-up of ‘high’, and ‘low’, culture. My personal favourite example of this trope is Bugs Bunny abridging Wagner’s Ring Cycle to seven minutes!
However, this book earns bonus points for making Othello bad-ass. Check out that panel up top.
Here’s a fun, unpretentious mash-up of classic literary figures and an action/adventure story. Great fun.