Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video

By Lynda E. Boose; Richard Burt | Go to book overview
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2

RACE-ING OTHELLO, RE-ENGENDERING WHITE-OUT

Barbara Hodgdon

On Friday, 17 June 1994, Shakespeare became a voice-over for a moment of American cultural history. Reporting that a suicidal O.J. Simpson lay in the back of his Ford Bronco holding a gun to his head, CBS television anchor Dan Rather glossed the flickering image of the vehicle, parked before Simpson's Brentwood home, by saying that he was reminded of Othello, in which a black man, suspecting his white wife of adultery, kills her and then himself. As though shopping for a good story, Rather had mined the literary archive to imagine an ending which, by courting the obsessive fictions that attach to Othello's color, could mask the culture's racism in Shakespearean suicide and its attendant admission of guilt. What was later dubbed “The Night of the White Bronco” did not of course replicate Othello's ending, but in the days immediately following Simpson's arrest, charged with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, further evidence (in this instance, as in the play, a media-ted term) connecting these events to the critical, theatrical, and cultural legacy of Shakespeare's play proliferated.

There was, for instance, the uncanny resemblance between Othello's final speech (“speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well”) and Simpson's “suicide note” (“If we had problems it's because I loved her too much”). 1 And, as though echoing the famous “dirty still” from Laurence Olivier's 1964 Othello, in which Olivier's black make-up has smudged Maggie Smith's white cheek, Times 27 June cover framed a blacked-up police mug shot of Simpson with the headline banner, “An American Tragedy.” Even the (patriarchal) state agreed. For after all, Simpson had done it some service, and they knew it. On 23 June, Richard Halverson, Chaplain of the US Senate, evoking II Samuel 1:25 (“How are the mighty fallen”), spoke of how “our Nation has been traumatized by the fall of a great hero, consoled “the unnumbered, who have been disillusioned by the fall of their idol, and prayed “for a special dispensation of grace for this American hero, his loved ones and all who are hurting irreparably by this event” (Congressional Record, no. 81). In this narrative, Simpson moves from “great hero” to “American hero” isolated in tragic splendor; never named, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman are simply dismissed as “victims.”

-23-

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