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Community Responses to Othello: Katherine E. Young

Community Responses to Othello

STC’s vision is to create theatre that ignites a dialogue and that connects classic works to our modern world—this vision is especially true for Ron Daniels’ production of OthelloIn the context of world events, this tragedy is one of the classics that seems most timely, relevant and urgent.

For that reason, we have invited some members of our community to craft responses to Othello and to all of the questions this production poses in whatever form calls to them—whether that means poems, songs, pictures, essays, stories or anything in between. We hope these responses, which will be published online throughout the run of the show, will help further the dialogue between STC and the community and help provide our audiences with another lens to view this current production.

Now, without further introduction, please enjoy the response to Othello from poet Katherine E. Young:

A Reflection and A Poem

The Moor Browses Books in Baghdad
A poem by Katherine E. Young

The first time I saw Othello was at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York: Othello was played by James Earl Jones, Iago by Christopher Plummer. It’s a measure of how memorable that performance was that it’s also the last time I saw the play. As a Southerner who witnessed the effects of segregation and racism on my own community, I had no trouble reading race as a dominant theme in Othello; in fact, it was hard for me to imagine there might be any other way to interpret the play.

On March 5, the night I attended the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Othello, I walked across seventh Street from an earlier event at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. That event commemorated the March 5, 2007, bombing of Baghdad’s historic Al-Mutanabbi Street, a street famed for its booksellers, a place central to the literary and intellectual culture of Baghdad. Some 30 people were killed. Poet Amal Al-Jubouri introduced a short film, Forgive but Never Forget, that tells the story of one family whose lives were forever changed by the bombing.

Books may have been sold on Al-Mutanabbi Street even as Shakespeare was writing Othello. Of course, it’s unlikely that Shakespeare knew the degree of Western Europe’s debt to the Arab world in areas such as science, mathematics and commerce (to name just a few). In any case, Shakespeare’s Othello is a military man, a man of action: he fights where he’s employed to fight. But Othello’s cultural and religious heritage of Islam, so often elided in productions that foreground issues of race, is overdue for attention. Indeed, Othello’s final speech, in which he asks to be remembered for his service to the Venetian state (among other things) also refers to Aleppo and Arabian gum trees. The paradox of a Moor fighting Turks on behalf of Venetians is well worth highlighting.

Like all great art, Shakespeare’s plays display new richness when they resonate in a time and place their author could not have envisioned. Honor, honesty, duty—qualities so prized by Othello—motivate men and women still, and not just those with whom we happen to agree. The great tragedy of Othello—and not just Othello—is the Moor’s enslavement to high-minded ideals that sometimes bear scant relation to the lives of the human beings over whom he holds sway. Hence, this poem.

The Moor Browses Books in Baghdad
by Katherine E. Young

                                       My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
                                       Shall manifest me rightly.
                                       —Othello, I, ii

On the Baghdad street best known
for booksellers, a cameraman pans
the brand-new kitchen of a café
passed down, father to son, for generations.
One son—the old man says in the film—
had brought his child to work that day.
Other sons boiled coffee, paid bills,
took out the trash. The car bomb
blew up all five sons, splattered them
across the café walls; the old man himself
found his grandson’s headless corpse.
He says this calmly, clearly—as if
he’s telling someone else’s story.

Here in Washington, DC,
where the film’s being screened,
spring clenches its bony fist again,
pale shiver of cherry blossoms
dotting gnarled tree limbs.
Panhandlers zip their jackets,
jangle change; someone sings
Teddy P. through a portable mic.

At the theater next door, the Moor
darkens his brows; Desdemona
slips out for one last smoke.
Waiting for the curtain’s rise,
a couple in row D recounts
what they remember of the plot.
“But what’s his motivation?” asks the woman,
“The cause of all that hate?”
“It’s mentioned early,” says the man,
“Something petty, I forget.”
When, in Scene One, the villain hisses
his reasons, the man nudges the woman:
here, pay attention!

The Moor’s still offstage—but we know
he’s lurking in the wings: one hand
might be settling a wayward badge,
the other fingering a scar’s smooth seam.
Perhaps he’s soundlessly mouthing
the tale that makes women swoon:
how grand, how inscrutable is this man!
Is he badge, scar, costume, tale,
all of these at once—or none?
Is he an honest, an honorable man?
He clearly thinks so. We think:
how poorly he knows himself.

But what should we expect of the Moor?
Is he not skin of our skin, bone
of our bone, brother in all but name?
Perhaps he, too, once passed
through Baghdad: perhaps he lingered
as we would on the booksellers’ street
where, one day, someone else’s sons
—also men of parts, of titles, of equally
perfect souls—will nudge a carful
of explosives toward a parking spot.

Here, pay attention!
The old man in the café on the rebuilt street
where they sell books even now is saying
“For my country, for Iraq,
I’d give my sons again.”

Again the Council urgently convenes.
Backstage, the props mistress checks her list:
handkerchief, hairpins, pillow, sheets.
A thousand and one nights,
a thousand-thousand and one nights,
again and yet again
—sheer stupidity of it all!—
a man whose soul’s in shreds
will smother the woman who loves him,
will murder another man’s children,
will sacrifice his sons.
Here, pay attention!
For now, at last, they summon the Moor
—haste you, Sir—entreat him
most piteously to sally forth,
save the Civilized World once more.


Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist, and translator of Two Poems by Inna Kabysh. Her translations from the Russian won third prize in both the 2011 and 2014 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender competitions.


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