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As part of The National Theatre’s ongoing Platform season of talks and events, I recently attended a fascinating talk from Neil MacGregor about his latest book Shakespeare’s Restless World. MacGregor’s reputation precedes him, as Director of the British Museum, and former Director of the National Gallery. He is also very well known for one of his prior literary offerings, A History of the World in 100 Objects (originally a radio series for the BBC).
It is so very difficult to say anything about Shakespeare and his plays that has not been said before. Yet MacGregor’s method of using objects to show us what Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have appreciated in his plays was absolutely refreshing.
This discussion at the National, chaired by Kate Mosse, focused largely on Othello, and threw up a number of compelling questions in the space of a brief 45 minutes. MacGregor’s charisma and his innovative ways of thinking about Shakespeare kept me engaged throughout, bringing Othello to life for me in an entirely new fashion.
He began by providing some enlightening background on Venice as it would have been perceived by the audience of Shakespeare’s era and, in turn, what bearing this would have on the way they viewed Othello. Venice was at that time regarded as the most fashionable, chic place in the world. It is a place that an English audience would largely have recognised through objects, particularly, of course, glass – one of the great sources of Venetian wealth.
Venetian women also carried with them a certain reputation. As MacGregor playfully put it, Shakespeare’s audience willingly believed that all Venetian women were in fact whores at heart. A chapter in Shakespeare’s Restless World – rather wryly entitled “Sex and the City” – deals specifically with this perception of Venetian women. This gives us, the modern audience, an entirely new perspective on why Othello responds so strongly to Iago’s claims that Desdemona is being false. Desdemona, as a Venetian, would have carried this reputation with her, and this goes some way towards explaining just why Othello is so easily persuaded into believing that she has had an affair with Cassio.
MacGregor went on to make the enlightening point that it was only in Venice that all races were in fact accepted and lived relatively peaceably together. One person that could have been the very model for Shakespeare’s Othello was the ambassador to the Sultan of Morocco, who was the first black ruler to be received in England in 1600. Shakespeare would have certainly been aware of him. Although it may be difficult for us to initially comprehend, MacGregor leads us to understand that a Shakespearean audience would in fact have seen nothing unusual in a black character being the protagonist in Othello. Additionally to this, those who saw the ambassador in 1600 would certainly have referred to him as a ‘noble Moor’ – precisely how Othello is perceived.
Following on from these insights, the floor was then opened up to questions for MacGregor. Firstly though, Kate Mosse briefly directed a couple of her own questions to him. She wondered whether Othello could have been set anywhere other than Venice? MacGregor’s response was simply “no question” as “no other city had Jews and black people living peacefully together” at that time. However, the people of London were beginning to realise that it would be in their financial interest to become more like Venice in order to prosper. As he so eloquently put it, Venice was the “laboratory in which London sees its own future.”
When Mosse then asked the intriguing question of how the common public of the time would have received the play, MacGregor honestly answered that we know very little about how the lower classes would have perceived Othello.
However, perhaps the question from an audience member that drew a particularly fascinating response from MacGregor and Mosse was that concerning the handkerchief in Othello. As we are all aware, the handkerchief plays a pivotal role in confirming Othello’s unfounded suspicions – it is key in moving the action of the play along to its final conclusion.
However, two other significant points were drawn out with regards to the handkerchief. MacGregor stated that, as an embroidered handkerchief, it was a valuable object. Kate Mosse reiterated something Nicholas Hynter (Director of the National Theatre’s current sellout production of Othello), had said at the last Platform event – namely, that Othello was the child of a slave and would have had nothing much to give. This grants the handkerchief with greater dramatic power and symbolism. Othello gave one of his very few possessions freely to Desdemona, highlighting the strength of his love and trust in her. This, in turn, makes Desdemona’s perceived betrayal all the more galling for Othello.
One of the final questions from an audience member quizzed MacGregor on his favourite object he encountered when researching Shakespeare’s Restless World. MacGregor rather charmingly and amusingly answered the “fork” (which was a new luxury invention in Shakespeare’s time). He said he could imagine a story, a whole “human drama”, behind this new novelty object; a twenty-year-old who may have been to Italy, gone to the theatre and dropped it. He drew a parallel between this and the way he himself painfully smoked French cigarettes when he was younger in order to show his great sophistication.
Kate Mosse concluded the discussion by reiterating the wonderful phrase used by MacGregor in his latest book, about the “charisma of things”. She could not praise the book highly enough, very enthusiastically emphasising that it “ripples through every page”, and that it made her want to “see lots of plays anew, through a new set of eyes.” I was certainly gripped by this discussion and the new ways in which it made me think about Shakespeare’s plays. As a consequence, I was very willing to pick up a copy of the beautifully decorated book myself, and I very much look forward to delving into it in greater depth.