Othello and the Ambivalences of Italian Blackface

Authors

  • Shaul Bassi Center for the Humanities and Social Change, Ca’Foscari University of Venice
  • Igiaba Scego Center for the Humanities and Social Change, Ca’Foscari University of Venice

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-8530.22.05

Keywords:

Othello, Shakespeare in Italy, blackface, colonialism, postcolonialism, fascism, film, adaptations, popular culture

Abstract

Blackface is a cultural practice that appears ubiquitously in Italian history cutting across the political spectrum; it also lends itself to suprising anti-racist actions. This essay examines the use of blackface from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century by looking at its appearance in popular culture and, contextually and dialectically, at its adoption in selected performances of Othello, a play that holds special meaning in Italy because of its famous operatic adaptations. Africa and blackness were often represented in Italian visual arts in the early modern period, but the early colonial ventures of the new independent Italy create a new exotic imaginary that is particularly manifest in popular culture. Othello is influenced by new African discourses but it allso exists in a parallel dimension that somehow resists facile political interpretations. The colonial ventures of post-unification and Fascist Italy do not reverberate in any predictable manner in the growing popularity of the play. After World War II new forms of exoticism emerge that will be subverted only by a new postcolonial scenario that also coincides with a re-emergence of racism. Against the respective historical backdrops, we examine the idiosyncratic versions of blackface by Tommaso Salvini, Pietro Sharoff, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carmelo Bene, and Elio De Capitani to suggest continuities and discontinuities in Italian interpretations of Othello.

Author Biographies

Shaul Bassi, Center for the Humanities and Social Change, Ca’Foscari University of Venice

Shaul Bassi is Professor of English Literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, where he directs the Center for Humanities and Social Change and the Master’s Degree in Environmental Humanities. His publications include Shakespeare in Venice. Exploring the City with Shylock and Othello (with Alberto Toso Fei, 2007), a critical edition of Othello (2009), Visions of Venice in Shakespeare (co-edited with Laura Tosi, 2011), Experiences of Freedom in Postcolonial Literatures and Cultures (co-edited with Annalisa Oboe, 2011) and Shakespeare’s Italy and Italy’s Shakespeare. Place, ‘Race’, and Politics (2016). He directed the Creative Europe project “Shakespeare In and Beyond the Ghetto” (2016-2020).

Igiaba Scego, Center for the Humanities and Social Change, Ca’Foscari University of Venice

Igiaba Scego, born in Rome in 1974 to a family of Somali origins, is a writer and independent scholar. She holds a PhD in education (on postcolonial subjects) and has done extensive academic work in Italy and abroad, including a two-year fellowship at the Center for Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Among her books in English are the novels Rhoda and Oltre Babilonia published by Two Lines. Her memoir La mia casa è dove sono (Rizzoli) won Italy’s Mondello Prize in 2011. She is a contributor to the magazine Internazionale and the newspaper Avvenire. Her latest novel, Adua was published in English by New Vessel Press (US), Jacaranda (UK). Her new novel La Linea del Colore (Bompiani) is due for publication in 2021 by Other Press.

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Published

2020-12-30

How to Cite

Bassi, S., & Scego, I. (2020). Othello and the Ambivalences of Italian Blackface. Multicultural Shakespeare: Translation, Appropriation and Performance, 22(37), 67-85. https://doi.org/10.18778/2083-8530.22.05