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Shakespeare – Othello and Race

5. Othello in Performance

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In this module, we think about issues of race in the performance of Othello, focusing in particular on: (i) the figure of Ira Aldridge (1807-67), the first black man to play Othello; (ii) the figure of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the second black man to play Othello, his views on what the play was about, and the racist stereotypes found in the (positive!) reviews of his performance; (iii) the extent to which Robeson's own status as a black man in 1930s/40s America affected his performance, and the extent to which Robeson drew on the character of Othello in his fight for African-American civil rights; (iv) the conventional view of the Renaissance as a period of enlightenment and (religious) toleration, compared with the reality for non-Europeans in this period; (v) Hugh Quarshie's famous essay 'Second Thoughts About Othello' (1999), in which he argues that Othello perpetuates racist stereotypes about black men; (vi) the key differences between actors and audience in Shakespeare's time and in the modern theatre; and (vii) the relevance of the themes of racism, classism and sexism in Britain, America and elsewhere today.


In this course, Professor Ania Loomba (University of Pennsylvania) explores the question of race in Shakespeare's 'Othello'. In the first module, we think about what race meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, exploring the long history of blackness in European literature, and considering some of the key historical changes in 15th- and 16th-century Europe that contributed to changing attitudes about race. In the second module, we think about the extent to which Othello's jealousy is presented as being dependent on his race – to what extent, in other words, is his jealous because he is black? – before turning in the third module to consider the interplay between sex, sexism and racism in the play, especially the extent to which Othello's status as a victim of racism is linked to his status as an agent of sexism. In the fourth module, we delve a little deeper into this topic by thinking about the interplay between race, sex and class in the play, before turning in the fifth and final module to consider the issue of race in the performance history of Othello.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.


Ania Loomba is the Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She researches and teaches early modern literature, histories of race and colonialism, postcolonial studies, feminist theory, and contemporary Indian literature and culture. Her writings include Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (1989), Colonialism/Postcolonialism (1998), and Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002). She has co-edited Post-Colonial Shakespeares (1998), Postcolonial Studies and Beyond (2005), Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion (2007) and South Asian Feminisms (co-edited with Ritty A. Lukose, 2012). She has also produced a critical edition of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (2011)

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Loomba, A. (2021, November 02). Shakespeare – Othello and Race - Othello in Performance [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Loomba, A. "Shakespeare – Othello and Race – Othello in Performance." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 02 Nov 2021,

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