Reading Othello and Much Ado About Nothing last week sent me on a major Shakespeare binge. I wanted to watch both of them since Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read. Not having any theatre productions handy, I opted for Netflix. Kenneth Branagh plays a wonderful Benedick and an inspired Iago. I was so ready to see them both again, but Netflix let me down, as it does most of the time. I found a version of Othello with Laurence Olivier in it, and I figured he’d make a great Iago. Except he did not play Iago. He played Othello. In blackface. Oh my God. I was appalled until I remembered it was filmed in 1965 and they couldn’t show a black man kissing a white woman. Not quite yet. Yet I found it so disconcerting that I turned it off.
Which made me rethink Huckleberry Finn. I wrote a few weeks ago that is should be taught in schools. Seeing Laurence Olivier in blackface has changed my mind.
I am a huge fan of the book. I reread it often but it is jarring seeing that word all over the book. I still think everyone should read it, just not in school. Just because using the N word and blackface spoke to the audience of their day doesn’t mean we have to put up with it anymore.
My introduction to Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet in tenth grade English class. The teacher had us read it aloud, with everyone assigned a part. That has to be the worst way to teach Shakespeare, read aloud by fifteen-year-olds who do not want to read in front of their peers, reading words that seem mostly foreign to them, done in a flat, monotone voice.
“But it’s the greatest love story ever told!”
Come back and tell me that after you’ve read Pride and Prejudice. Romeo and Juliet met on Sunday evening at the Capulet’s party. The only reason Romeo was there was because he knew Rosaline was going to be there, the woman he was all June Moon Spoon in love with Sunday morning. That romance ended the moment he set eyes on Juliet. They got married on Monday, last spoke to each other on Tuesday (despite what Baz Luhrmann showed in his movie, Juliet did not wake up before Romeo died. Nice shock value for moviegoers but much more tragic the way Shakespeare wrote it) and were both dead by Wednesday. Greatest love story of all time? Pfftt. They were sixteen and thirteen. It wouldn’t have lasted.
It is a great morality tale about the evils of hatred. Tybalt killed Mercutio because of the feud, Romeo killed Tybalt because of the feud, their love was doomed because of the feud. The feud is so meaningless Shakespeare doesn’t even tell us what caused it or when it happened. It’s just ingrained hatred; it’s just habit that’s been passed down through the generations.
Still. it is a great story and probably the second-most quoted Shakespeare play of all time. It just doesn’t cut it for me as a tragedy. I need more gore. I need more blood. I need more betrayals. I need more sword fights. I don’t want anybody to get out of it alive.
I need Hamlet.