Prof. Stephen Greenblatt Explores ‘Othello’ With IUG Shakespeare Class

03 - Jun - 2020

Via Zoom, the English Department at the Islamic University of Gaza has held an online session with Professor Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, who is a Shakespeare expert.

This session comes among a group of lectures with Shakespeare specialists around the world as a part of Dr. Refaat Alareer's Shakespeare class at IUG. Attended by around 50 students, Prof. Greenblatt's lecture discussed Shakespeare's famous tragedy 'Othello' in the light of its history and postcoloniality.

Prof. Greenblatt, who is one of the founders of the school of New Historicism, started the lecture by taking the students back to the Elizabethan era's historical and political contexts. He discussed the relationship between 17th-century England with the Moors and the image of Arabs and Africans that Shakespeare's society had. After this introduction, Prof. Greenblatt discussed the issue of race in 'Othello' and the questions of the outsider, the insider, and the enemy.

Dr. Alareer thanked the John Cogan University Professor for accepting the invitation and joining Shakespeare class' students in their discussion regarding 'Othello'. "My students have always been especially interested in 'Othello'," Dr. Alareer said, "though most of them find it hard to identify with Othello as an Arab Muslim character because usually he seems to insist on distancing himself from his origins."

Dr. Ayman Elhallaq, Assistant Professor of English literature at IUG's English Department, expressed his profound gratitude to Prof. Greenblatt for the informative lecture and serious discussions it raised. Dr. Elhallaq pointed to the discrepancy he sometimes see in critics who consider Shakespeare anti-semite for the way Shylock was portrayed but do not look at Shakespeare as racist for the way Othello was portrayed.

Students, who lively participated all along the lecture, addressed some key questions about 'Othello' from racial and post-colonial perspectives. Rahf Elhallak, a senior student at the English Department, who still could not believe she was talking to Prof. Greenblatt, joined the discussion of the historical context of the play and the racist nature of the Elizabethan drama audience. Bringing the subject of white supremacy to the discussion, other students participated and stated their opinions of Iago's character, as well as Shakespeare's claimed racism.

"As an Arab person, I do not like to be represented the way Shakespeare represented Othello," Ahmed Nehad, another student, commented. "Arabs and Muslims do not like to be represented this way. Black people who are proud of their identity would not like to be represented this way." Moreover, in the light of literary historicism, he highlighted the importance of understanding the present-day by bringing literature to it the same way readers understand literature by going back to its time expressing his admiration for the professor's latest book 'Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics '.

Dr. Alareer, who brought the Black Lives Matter movement and its struggle against white supremacy into the discussion of Othello/’Othello’ wondered whether certain audiences nowadays view Iago, rather than Othello, as hero of the play who fought of Othello’s attempt to infiltrate the purity of the white Christian European society. A valid question, according to Dr. Refaat Alareer, is who is punishing who at the end of the play when Othello killed himself. Was his punishing the Christian/European part in his or was he still insisting on pandering the racist Europe by killing whatever Arab/African/Muslim origins that remain in him?

Using a portrait of William Shakespeare wearing an anti-coronavirus face mask as his Zoom account avatar, Dr. Alareer thanked the students and the guest for helping the course succeed despite the current circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the end of the session that lasted 90 minutes, the students expressed their gratitude to Prof. Greenblatt for his time and valuable discussions.

In the light of Iago’s dominance in the play, Dr. Elhallaq believed that Iago was acting as a playwright himself which might in a sense reflect Shakespeare’s racism. In his part, Prof. Greenblatt agreed that Iago “is someone who is manipulating [and] creating the scene” and believed that Shakespeare was warning people then and today against people who abuse means of entertainment such as literature and the theatre to spew racism and bigotry.

 “Shakespeare is ...exploring in a kind of uncomfortable and]disturbing way the ethics of being a playwright, of manipulating people, of moving them into positions, of using them, of using their emotional lives… Shakespeare actually was interested in a complicated way all his life in the ethical problems of being a playwright. And I think in ‘Othello’ he used Iago to explore those problems in the most powerful way he ever did,” concluded Prof. Stephen Greenblatt.