Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /

Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Cultural, Racial, and Religious Difference in Shakespeare's Othello, Verdi's Otello, and Zeffirelli's Otello: A Critical Comparison

Martina Elicker (Graz)


Summary: This paper focuses on a critical comparison of the theme of Ot(h)ello's "otherness" as depicted in Shakespeare's play, the opera adaptation by Verdi/Boito, and the 1986 movie version by Franco Zeffirelli. The main aim of the analysis is to point out the different types of mechanisms at play in creating "otherness" in the three media: with the help of language, music, visual signs, etc. Ot(h)ello's character is clearly outlined and his life - past and present -, attitudes, religious beliefs, and cultural background are juxtaposed with those of the other characters firmly embedded in Western, Christian societies and traditions. For obvious reasons, Zeffirelli makes use of visual signs and symbols the most, at the same time drawing on (con-)textual elements of the play and the musical texture of the opera, and thus further emphasizes Ot(h)ello's outsider status among the Venetians and Cypriots. In the context of "The Unifying Aspects of Culture," it is particularly interesting to note Zeffirelli's own Italian Catholic background when discussing his selection of musical, textual, and visual signs which stress "difference", "otherness" - rather than "unity", "unification."


1. Introduction

This paper focuses on a critical comparison of the theme of Ot(h)ello's 'otherness' as depicted in Shakespeare's play, the opera adaptation by Verdi/Boito, and the 1986 movie version by Franco Zeffirelli. The main aim of the analysis is to point out the different types of mechanisms at play in creating 'otherness' in the three media: with the help of language, music, visual signs, etc., Ot(h)ello's character is clearly outlined and his life - past and present -, attitudes, religious beliefs, and cultural background are contrasted with those of the other characters firmly embedded in Western, Christian societies and traditions.

The depiction of the individual characters, and the adaptation and appropriation of the original story in the three media also clearly reflects the respective creators' own ideas and social and religious backgrounds: Shakespeare's England of the sixteenth century, Verdi and Boito's nineteenth-century Catholic Italy, and Zeffirelli's Italy in a Europe that is struggling to come closer together in the late twentieth century. For obvious reasons, Zeffirelli makes use of visual signs and symbols the most, at the same time drawing on (con-)textual elements of the play and the musical texture of the opera, and thus further emphasizes Ot(h)ello's outsider status among the Venetians and Cypriots.

By showing how difference is created in the three media, one can obviously become aware of the mechanisms behind such differentiation and learn about how to avoid difference in order to promote unity and unification.


2. Othello, the Shakespeare play

Shakespeare's play - most probably based on a tale in Ecatommiti [one hundred tales] (1565) by Cinzio - is a domestic drama, a tragedy of interracial marriage and racial difference. As Honigmann (1997: 31) points out,

[b]e he black or a north African Moor [...], Othello's otherness remains. He is more than a stranger, he comes from a mysteriously 'other' world [...]. Despite his self-identification with Venice and Christianity the Moor cannot shake off this mystery, a by-product of his dark skin.

It is clear that "all contemporary notions of decorum" are upset by the fact that "a black man lords it over Europeans, let alone marries an upper-class white wife" (Honigmann 1997: 29). Yet, in Othello racism coexists with the play's essentially sympathetic portrait of the Moor (cf. Honigmann 1997: 31).

Act I of the play in particular, the Venice scene (entirely omitted by Verdi/Boito), highlights Othello's racial and cultural background and juxtaposes it with that of the Venetians: it shows Brabantio's (Desdemona's father's) opposition to Othello and Desdemona's marriage, his doubts and fears in view of this interracial relationship with the Moor, and his anger over Desdemona and Othello's elopement. Although the racial/racist elements enforced by racist language can be found throughout the play (especially in comments by Emilia ["And you the blacker devil" V.2.129, "O thou dull Moor" V.2.224, "cruel Moor" V.2.247] and Iago [see below for examples]), they are most obvious in Act I, in which the combination of Brabantio's resentment and Iago's hatred of privilege, all directed against Othello, creates an atmosphere of foreboding (cf. Honigmann 1997: 63). In Act I, racist language is uttered primarily by Iago ["an old black ram" (I.1.87), "the devil" (I.1.90), "you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse" (I.1.109-110)], Roderigo ["thicklips" I.1.65), "To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" (I.1.124); "an extravagant and wheeling stranger" (I.1.134)], and Brabantio ["O thou foul thief" (I.2.62), "Damned as thou art" (I.2.63), "to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou" (I.2.70-71), "an abuser of the world, a practiser / Of arts inhibited and out of warrant" (I.2.79-80)]. "Moor" is sometimes used abusively in Act I and throughout the play (see above), sometimes neutrally, at times even positively, as in "the valiant Moor" (e.g. I.3.48 and IV.1.264), or "the noble Moor" (e.g. II.3.134).

Yet, Act I of the play also gives the viewer insight into the characters of Othello and Desdemona before they succumb to pressure: she, initially spirited and independent, is driven into passivity against her nature; he, originally calm and self-confident, later loses all self-control. Appropriately, Othello's language also changes markedly in the course of the drama: the beautifully controlled voice, the fluidity and confident expansiveness of his narrative voice give way to shorter sentences, questions, exclamations, hesitations in Act II ("staccato voice" Honigmann 1997: 80), which are clearly signs of a mental collapse from which he never fully recovers, although in Acts IV and V he appears to regain his earlier voice at times, but lapses back into a jumble of words each time (cf. Honigmann 1997: 79-80).

Othello and Iago are in some ways opposites or complementaries, yet in other ways they are curiously alike: both are professional soldiers who take their wives abroad on active service, both are jealous and envious, both feel betrayed by their wives, kill them, and thus in effect destroy themselves. Both are outsiders, both stand apart from their fellow men, both want to be accepted (cf. Honigmann 1997: 33).


3. Otello, the Verdi/Boito opera

Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito discard much of the racial undertones of Shakespeare's play in favor of an emphasis on the difference in religious practice(1) between men and women in 19th century Italy.(2) By omitting Act I of the play entirely, they play down the racial elements from the start. Only brief verbal reference is made to Desdemona and Otello's common history in the Love Duet of Act I of the opera, which - with the help of predominantly calm, gentle, harmonious music - serves to illustrate the two characters' original personalities (see Shakespeare's play, Act I). At the same time, Otello's few vocal outbursts in the duet, underlined perfectly by the musical texture played by the orchestra, give the listener an idea of the hardships of his past. His majestic first entry on "Esultate",(3) on the other hand, is the only instance in the opera to display Otello's heroic, controlled stance - the characteristic he is hailed for by the Venetians: a "superbo guierrier" ("proud warrior", as Desdemona calls him in the Love Duet of Act I).

There are only few instances in the opera in which reference is made to the different racial backgrounds of Otello and Desdemona. Like in the play, most racist comments are used by Jago in the opera as well, especially in Act I, Scene 1, when talking to Roderigo: he makes use of the term "Moro" ("Moor") repeatedly when referring to Otello, as in "odio quel Moro" ("I hate the Moor");(4) additionally, Jago describes Otello's physical attributes more closely in "Presto in uggia verranno i foschi baci / di quel selvaggio dale gonfie labbra" ("She will soon begin to abhor the murky kisses of that thick-lipped savage"), and in "ed io rimango / di sua Moresca signoria l'alfiere!" ("and I remain his Moorish Lordship's Ancient!"). Desdemona once alludes to Otello's African origin in the Love Duet of Act I:(5) "Ed io vedea le tue tempie oscure / splender del genio l'eterea beltà" ("And from your dusky temples I saw the eternal beauty of your spirit shine"); Otello, once under Jago's devilish influence, doubts Desdemona's love for him, putting at fault his age and the color of his skin in Act II, Scene 4: "forse perchè ho sul viso quest'atro tenebror" ("or that my complexion is of this dusky hue");(6) and in Act III, Otello addresses Desdemona's white skin twice, sarcastically, in "Grazie, Madonna, datemi / la vostra eburnea mano" ("Thanks, my lady. Give me your ivory hand"), and a short time later in "Datemi ancor l'eburnea mano" ("Give me again your ivory hand") (italics all mine). Otello's sarcastic remark doubtlessly also refers to Desdemona's (self-)proclaimed purity, with her whiteness ("eburnea mano") standing for her moral and sexual purity as well as her racial origin.

Unlike in Shakespeare's play, Otello's immediate entourage displays very little racism in the opera. In fact, his darker skin is made reference to only once, in Act III, Scene 8, after Otello has humiliated Desdemona in front of the assembled Venetian Ambassadors and the Cypriote crowd: the chorus sings "Quell'uomo nero è sepolcrale" ("This black man has a graveyard air") and "Poi sfida il ciel coll'atre puga" ("Now his dusky fist he shakes at heaven") (my italics).

It is obvious that Boito and Verdi were not as much interested in racial prejudice, but rather in religious difference - the difference in the ways men and women took part in religion, which in the late nineteenth century was felt to constitute an inherent incompatibility between men and women. Whereas women were usually firmly embedded in the religious community of the Catholic Church, men stayed outside the actual congregations (a phenomenon Parakilas [1997: 382] refers to as the "feminization of religious practices, of piety," evident in nineteenth century Europe). In the opera all three main characters and their motivations are defined explicitly in the three respective monologues, which are based on religious practices and conventions: Jago's "Credo"(7) in Act II; Otello's "Dio! mi potevi scagliar" ("God, thou mightest have tried me with afflictions of poverty, of shame")(8) in Act III; and Desdemona's "Ave Maria"(9) in Act IV. Desdemona, as a typical nineteenth-century woman, turns to prayer in times of despair, she addresses the Holy Mary and God directly in her final hours and feels a sense of security under the protective mantle of Catholicism. Both Otello and Jago, on the other hand, stand outside the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church; yet, as opposed to his general and the typical male in nineteenth century Italy, Jago has found his own "Credo" (Act II, Scene 2): "Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato / simile a sé, e che nell'ira io nomo" ("I believe in a cruel God, who has created me in his image and whom, in hate, I name"), and later: "Vien dopo tanta irrision la Morte. / E poi? e poi? - La Morte è il Nulla / è vecchia fola il Ciel" ("After all this mockery comes Death. And then? And then? Death is nothingness, heaven is an old wives' tale")(10). He reveals himself as a Nihilist who hates, who spreads hate, who seeks to destroy. In contrast, Otello displays his anger and frustration, also toward God, in his monologue "Dio! Mi potevi scagliar," accusing him rather than turning to him for help. The monologue expresses the "cry of a disillusioned believer who questions not the existence of God but his own capacity to find a place in the divine - and human - order" (Parakilas 1997: 381).(11) Hence, Otello's isolation from God comes to stand for his complete isolation from human company in general. Yet, Otello never sheds his Christian identity; on the contrary, he is driven by vindictiveness, fights a kind of 'holy war.' This is clearly illustrated by the rhetoric in the Jago-Otello vengeance duet "Sì pel ciel marmoreo giuro!" ("Yes, I swear by the marble heaven!")(12) in Act II - an "unholy oath" (Parakilas 1997: 377), which borrows language and gestures from the oaths sworn in operas of religious wars (e.g. Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots). The last words of their oath are "Dio vendicator!" ("God of vengeance!") and they effectively seal the diabolical pact of the two men.

Verdi's music makes Othello elemental: Otello becomes a "quarrel between drama and music" (Conrad 1996: 162), with the wittiness and explicitness of Jago's speech contrasting Desdemona's lyrical rhapsodies. In between these two poles, we witness Otello's progressing degeneration: he deteriorates vocally as well as psychologically from singing expressively ("Esultate" in Act I) to shouting (Act II) and finally stammering (Acts III and IV). While Othello, during the course of Shakespeare's tragedy, adopts more and more Iago's coarse imagery and patterns of speech instead of his own more dignified diction, Otello in the opera does so in musical terms: "Otello is reduced to singing Jago's music rather than his own" (Hawes 1994: 94). This is most evident in Act II's vengeance duet, in which Otello begins in his own voice, but is slowly led by Jago to finally join in with the latter's melody, culminating in the cry "Dio vendicator!" (cf. Hawes 1994: 94). Thus, Otello more or less imitates Jago and thereby loses his capacity for lyricism, which clearly illustrates Jago's increasing control over Otello as the opera proceeds (cf. Hawes 1994: 127-128). By Act III, Scene 3 - Otello's monologue "Dio! mi potevi scagliar" - Jago "has succeeded in depriving Otello of his music altogether" (Hawes 1994: 95): Jago's 'poison' has infiltrated Otello's mind to the extent where he literally cannot sing anymore; instead, he mumbles the first few lines, singing two pitches only, with the orchestra repeating brief motives reminiscent of Jago's melodic material of his "Credo."(13) Otello's assimilation is almost complete, and - as is true for any kind of cultural assimilation - it goes hand in hand with loss, in Otello's case the loss of his own 'voice', his own integrity, his own sense of truth and lie, of reality and illusion, of right and wrong. The fact that in the end Otello and Jago sound very similar as to their melodic lines reinforces their common, male outsider status among the Christian community. Unlike in Shakespeare's play, where Iago retains his gift of language while Othello's eloquence deteriorates drastically, Verdi and Boito succeed in emphasizing the common ground the two 'opposites' share in a society dominated by Catholic values.

Desdemona also comes under Jago's influence - also in musical terms - but as opposed to Otello, she does not unquestioningly follow the melody dictated by Jago. On the contrary, she turns Jago's material upside down, which can be seen best when comparing the renditions of Jago's "Credo" and Desdemona's "Ave Maria," both of which use religious imagery and the same key signature. However, his tonality is minor, hers the relative major; his vocal line descends, hers ascends. Thus, Desdemona appears as Jago's opponent, not only as far as morals are concerned, but also as to the musical motives used throughout the opera.

Hence, the symbolism suggested in the opera reinforces the Shakespearean drama's input: the principal characters emerge as larger than life, with Jago standing for "evil personified" (Donington 1990: 90), "Hell" - thanks not only to Verdi's music, but also to Boito's inclusion of the ingenious "Credo," which spells out the character's motivations only implied in Shakespeare; Desdemona for the good and innocent, "Heaven;" and Otello for "Everyman," torn between the two archetypes: he contains both the dark side of Jago (which he doesn't know he has got) and the goodness and truthfulness of Desdemona. At the end of Act III, in the very violent Ambassadors Scene, Otello curses his wife, but at the same time very tellingly addresses her as his "soul:" "Anima mia, ti maledico!" [my italics] ["My soul, I curse you!"]). Hence, by killing Desdemona, Otello ultimately also kills a part of himself.


4. Otello, the movie, and its depiction of religious and racial motives as a  means to reinforce Otello's 'otherness'

Franco Zeffirelli's opera film Otello was produced in 1986, starring Plácido Domingo as Otello, Katia Ricciarelli as Desdemona, and Justino Diaz as Jago. The movie was shot on location in Crete, in the harbor and castle of Heraklion, which recalls the original setting of Otello in Cyprus. As we shall see in the following, the actual setting of the castle, its interior in particular, is highly symbolic.

As with any transfer of one genre of art onto another, the adaptation of Otello, the opera, to the movie screen necessitated numerous changes. Apart from cuts of the musical score, Zeffirelli also added several musical numbers, such as the Arabian Dance in Act I and the Greek Dance in Act III, both of which Verdi had originally composed for Act III of the Paris (Palais Garnier) production of the opera in 1894 (cf. Citron 1994: 715; Brèque 1986: 215). Clearly this decision was made for cinematographic reasons and arguments found in Zeffirelli's own interpretation of the opera and Shakespeare play: Zeffirelli's main concern in the movie is the opposition of good and evil, Christianity (Catholicism in particular) and paganism (in its extension, possibly Islam). To create contrast and opposition he emphasizes religious motives and racial elements, primarily with cinematographic means, such as lighting, camera movements, zooms, flashbacks, visual symbols, the exploitation of color codes, and the like. Hence, the frequent use of Christian symbols - such as the crosses around the characters' necks, the crucifix (Byzantine style) in the cavern, the chapel-like cavern itself, the painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in Desdemona's bedroom - mirrors Zeffirelli's take on the Shakespeare play and the Verdi opera: he considers religious beliefs and actions the main motivations for the characters to act and react.

Consequently, the setting of the opera/drama on the island of Cyprus takes on an additional, highly symbolic meaning in the Zeffirelli reading as well: the island itself constitutes an outpost of Christian power surrounded by Muslim waters and lands. At the very beginning of the movie, the Christian congregation, waiting for Otello's return from the battle against the Turks, comes together in the chapel-like cavern and appropriately addresses their prayers to the crucifix, which reinforces the Christian undertones of the opera from the start. They pray to God to save Otello and his Venetian fleet and flag - both symbols of Venetian (i.e. Christian) fortune "in this hostile part of the world" (Parakilas 1997: 371). After the fleet is saved, its commander, Otello, dedicates his victory to the Venetians and their God: "Nostra e del ciel è gloria!" ("Ours and heaven's is the glory") (Act I). Of course, this victorious warrior is not a Venetian by birth, and presumably not Christian in origin, which in the film is highlighted even more by extreme close-ups of Otello's black face during his first entrance, "Esultate."

As alluded to above, Zeffirelli's inclusion of the Arabian Dance at the expense of the "Fuoco di gioia" in Act I also contributes a foreign element to the scene: it serves as an indexical feature, pointing to Otello's foreign background, possibly also foreshadowing events to come as a result of Otello's 'otherness.' Right from the start, the "Moor" is depicted as an outsider in a white, Christian society, in which he is celebrated for his heroic victories, yet remains marginalized - even though he is presumably a converted Christian - precisely for his black skin and foreign cultural and religious upbringing. In the very beginning, the two strands, 'white Catholicism' and 'otherness,' coexist in relative harmony, but as the story of intrigue and jealousy unfolds, the two elements get out of joint.

The colors used for clothes, make-up, and lighting clearly emphasize this polarization: Desdemona appears in light, mostly white gowns throughout the movie, and her extremely pale complexion is reinforced even more by effective lighting; frequently she appears against a dark background, which with the help of white-blue lighting creates a kind of halo around her silhouette. She is presented as an object of religious veneration, adored by the Cypriote crowd of women, children, and sailors, almost to the point where she assumes a kind of religious identity - "the woman as saint" (Parakilas 1997: 385; cf. Gier 2000: 255). Yet, the fact that Zeffirelli decided to cut her "Willow Song" in Act IV, which in the opera is one of the few instances in which Desdemona is given a voice as to her own emotions, her past, and her relationship to her mother, strips Desdemona of most of her character in the movie and reduces her to an idealized, beautiful but passive woman, a "woman-who-waits" (Citron 2000: 103) - in her bedroom, on her bed, for her husband and ultimately for her fate to set in; as a person she remains virtually unknown in the movie. She is depicted as a kind of prototype of a nineteenth century European woman, an 'everywoman', a woman that fits in so perfectly in her social and religious environment that one can't help but wonder how she could possibly have made the revolutionary decision to marry an outsider such as Otello. What Zeffirelli achieves, however, with his characterization of Desdemona - or rather the lack thereof - is an even more marked juxtaposition of marginalized Otello with a 'uniform' society, which his own wife and also his ancient Jago are part of. The latter, despite his devilish attributes and antics, is much more integrated into Venetian/Cypriot society than Otello, simply because he blends in with his white skin. Here Zeffirelli very obviously takes up references from Shakespeare's play to Othello as "the devil"(14) and plays with the old belief that devils were thought to be black (cf. Honigmann 1997: 122, footnote), making Jago more unsuspicious by highlighting his white complexion.

Otello's 'otherness', on the other hand, is primarily achieved by means of dark make-up, dark clothing, a flashback to his past as a boy slave in Africa, cleverly interjected by Zeffirelli during the Otello-Desdemona Love Duet of Act I, another flashback to his more immediate past as a war hero in the Venetians' fight against the Turks. A flashback to Brabantio's house in Venice additionally reinforces Otello's 'otherness', with Brabantio watching doubtfully and suspiciously the exchange of glances between Otello and his daughter Desdemona. This scene is clearly taken from Shakespeare's drama, as the first act of the play is entirely omitted by Verdi and Boito, and only alluded to in the Love Duet of Act I of the opera. Consequently, Brabantio never appears in the opera at all. Zeffirelli, however, takes up the verbal references to Venice in the Love Duet and skillfully interjects the flashbacks to Brabantio's home, recreating Otello and Desdemona's short common history.

The more Otello gets caught in the web of Jago's intrigues, the more he turns away from his obviously adopted Christian faith. The image of stairways spiraling down into the cavern of the fortress is effectively used by Zeffirelli at crucial points throughout the movie, in order to visualize Otello's descent as a human being, his progressing alienation from himself. While the repeated imagery of the arsenal full of spears and canons serves as a reminder of Otello's glorious past as a warrior, the fortress as a whole, the cavern, and the staircases become symbolic of the web of intrigues, insecurities, and frustrations Otello is caught in. By the beginning of Act IV he has renounced Christianity altogether and reverts to what seems to be African paganism. Half-naked and kneeling, he engages in a nameless candlelit ritual, takes his cross off his neck, and makes magic circles in the air with the chain and cross of his necklace. We see his shadow on the wall, in close-up, as if face to face. By now Otello seems like a savage performing some terrifying sacrificial rite. Finally he lets the cross fall into the fire - a highly symbolic scene. The orange-red lighting very effectively highlights the change within Otello, even more so since Zeffirelli chooses to move back and forth from the hot, pagan-laden atmosphere of the cavern - reminiscent of 'Hell' - and 'civilized' Otello turned primal (= a kind of "devil," see above), to the highly spiritual environment of Desdemona's bedroom, her singing of the "Ave Maria," turning to a portrait of the Virgin Mary and her child, at the same time holding on to her wedding gown - another symbol of Christianity. This juxtaposition of religious beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies reinforces the polarization of good and evil, and can only be achieved as grippingly and dramatically in a movie.

At the same time it highlights the film's greatest problem: the oversimplification of the drama, the double emphasis on Otello's otherness in both religious and racial aspects, which marginalizes the character to an extent unparalleled in the drama or the opera.(15) Otello is reduced to a converted Christian who in times of crisis, rejection, and disillusionment finds refuge in old pagan rites of his past, which in the end leads him to commit a kind of ritual murder - an act of justice in the light of the preceding ceremonies (cf. Brèque 1986: 216). It is clear that Zeffirelli's portrait of an Otello who slides "from rationality through irrationality and finally back to a primitive state prior to the acquisition of Christianity" (Citron 1994: 721) seems more rooted in the foregrounding of Otello's race in Shakespeare's tragedy than in the opera's emphasis on religious difference, resulting in the social division between men and women. Otello's paganism, together with Jago's devilish schemes, comes to stand for the 'evil' in the movie, while Desdemona's innocence and deep imperturbable religious faith symbolize the 'good'.


5. Concluding remarks

The three works clearly reflect the times and places in which they were written/produced: in Shakespeare's times, it was only natural that a foreigner of dark complexion and different cultural background would be considered an outsider, an intruder into Elizabethan society. In Verdi's times, on the other hand, different forms of religious practice within the Catholic Church were more relevant for Italians than racial differences. A hundred years later - still in Italy - racial, religious, and cultural differences were an important political and societal issue: hence, Zeffirelli's movie to a large extent mirrors his own Italian Catholic background.

The means with which these interpretations and appropriations are achieved are very different: while Shakespeare relies mainly on a play with words and on theatrical gestures, Verdi and Boito add a musical layer to their reading of the subject. Zeffirelli builds on both verbal and musical signs and additionally takes advantage of the manifold possibilities that are offered to a movie director: the location, moody lighting, the use of flashbacks, zooms, dissolves, close-ups and long-shots, and subjective camera movements ('the eye of the camera') are only some of the techniques Zeffirelli employs to involve the spectator in Otello's progressively distorted way of seeing the world, and he succeeds in doing so in a very captivating, immediate, and direct way only possible in a film. Thus it is primarily the movie director's choices on the technical plane that account for the fact that Otello's outsider status is emphasized to a greater extent in the filmed version than in either the opera or the play. Otello appears larger than life, incapable of fitting into society, rejected by his surroundings, isolated from the cultural, religious, and social structures around him - a marginalized and tormented character who ultimately falls victim not only to the pressures of a 'uniform' Christian society but also to an overwhelmingly powerful, (self-)destructive force inside himself.

© Martina Elicker (Graz)


(1) Religious practices are directly referred to in Shakespeare only in the final act, as in Othello addressing Desdemona before killing her, "Have you prayed tonight" (V.2.24).

(2) For an elaborate discussion of the difference between Shakespeare's Othello and Verdi/Boito's Otello see Hawes 1994.

(3) See Appendix for the complete text.

(4) When relating Cassio's "dream" in Act II, Scene 5, Jago also puts the word "Moro" in Cassio's mouth: "Il mio destino imprecco che al Moro ti donò" ("I curse the cruel fate that gave thee to the Moor") [my italics].

(5) See Appendix for the complete text of the Love Duet.

(6) See also Shakespeare: "Haply for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation" (III.3.267-268).

(7) See Appendix for the text.

(8) See Appendix for the complete text of "Dio! mi potevi scagliar."

(9) See Appendix for Desdemona's "Ave Maria."

(10) Jago's concept of heaven in a religious sense refers to an obviously female 'institution', no more than an illusion, a 'construct' in the female mind, part only of female discourse (hence "an old wives' tale") - a concept which clearly mirrors the division into female versus male religious practices.

(11) It is interesting to note in this context that the 'feminization of religious practices' extends to Desdemona's addressing the Holy Mary and Jago and Otello referring to a traditionally 'male' God - a revealing indicator also for gender studies.

(12) See Appendix for the text of the entire vengeance duet.

(13) The principal mode of the "Credo" is Phrygian, and the Phrygian inflection is also common in Otello's monologue. Appropriately, the Phrygian mode is traditionally associated with notions of loss, despair, grief, and death (cf. Hawes 1994: 95). For a detailed analysis of Jago's "Credo" see Hawes 1994: 60-68.

(14) For example I.1.90, where Iago is talking about Othello to Brabantio.

(15) Boito and Verdi actually see Otello as a kind of "Everyman" in the sense that he represents a typical nineteenth-century man alienated from organized religious practices (cf. Parakilas 1997: 375-376, 381-384; Hawes 1994: ix).


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Lorant, André (1994). "From Othello to Otello. Zeffirelli's Opera-Film". Shakespeare-Yearbook 4(Spring): 113-142

Masci, Claudio (2000). "La Traviata. Die Tonübertragung zur Fernsehaufführung von La Traviata in Paris". Production Partner Sept. 2001. (2003-12-28)

Parakilas, James (1997). "Religion and Difference in Verdi's Otello". The Musical Quarterly 81(3): 371-392

Wierzbicki, James (1987). "Opera on Film and Television". St. Louis Post-Dispatch Feb. 15, (2003-12-28)


Otello (Zeffirelli; Domingo, Ricciarelli, Diaz). Kinowelt Home Entertainment GmbH.



Otello. CD Booklet of the 1978 RCA recording. RCA 74321 39501 2.


Act I
Esultate! L'orgoglio musulmano
sepolto è in mar;
nostra e del ciel è gloria!
Dopo l'armi lo vinse l'uragano.
Rejoice! The Mussulman's pride
is buried in the sea;
ours and heaven's is the glory!
After our arms the storm defeated him.
Love Duet
Già nella notte densa
s'estingue ogni clamor,
già il mio cor fremebondo
s'ammansa in quest'amplesso e si rinsensa.
Tuoni la guerra e s'inabissi il mondo
se dopo l'ira immensa
vien quest'immenso amor!
Mio superbo guerrier! quanti tormenti,
quanti mesti sospiri e quanta speme
ci condusse ai soavi abbracciamenti!
Oh! come è dolce il mormorare insieme:
te ne rammenti?
Quando narravi l'esule tua vita
e i fieri eventi e i lunghi tuoi dolor,
ed io t'udia coll'anima rapita
in quei spaventi e coll'estasi nel cor.
Pingea dell'armi li fremito, la pugna
e il vol gagliardo alla breccia mortal,
l'assalto, orribil edera, coll'ugna
al baluardo e il sibilante stral.
Poi mi guidavi ai fulgidi deserti,
all'arse arene, al tuo materno suol;
narravi allor gli spasimi sofferti
e le catene e dello schiavo il duol.
Ingentilìa di lagrime la storia
il tuo bel viso e il labbro di sospir;
scendean sulle mie tenebre la gloria,
il paradiso e gli astri a benedir.
Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure
splender del genio l'eterea beltà.
E tu m'amavi per le mie sventure
ed io t'amavo per la tua pietà.
Ed io t'amavo per le tue sventure
e tu m'amavi per la mia pietà.
E tu m'amavi ...
E tu m'amavi ...
Ed io t'amavo ...
... per la tua/mia pietà.
Venga la morte! e mi colga nell'estasi
di quest'amplesso
il momento supremo!
Tale è il gaudio dell'anima che temo,
temo che più non mi sarà concesso
quest'attimo divino
nell'ignoto avvenir del mio destino.
Disperda il ciel gli affanni
e amor non muti col mutar degli anni.
A questa tua preghiera
"Amen" risponda la celeste schiera.
"Amen" risponda.
Ah! la gioia m'innonda
si fieramente ... che ansante mi giacio ...
Un bacio ...
Un bacio ... ancora un bacio.
Già la pleiade ardente
in mar discende.
Tarda è la notte.
Vien ... Venere splende.
Now in the dark night
every noise is silenced,
my beating heart
is lulled in this embrace and stilled.
Let war thunder and the world be engulfed
if after infinite wrath
comes this infinite love!
My proud warrior! How much suffering,
how many sad sighs and how much hope
have led us to these sweet embraces.
Oh! How sweet it is to murmur together:
do you remember?
When you told of your life of exile,
of its daring deeds and long?drawn pain,
and I listened, my soul ravished
by those terrors, and ecstasy in my heart.
I described the clash of arms, the battle
and the valiant rush to the mortal breach,
the assault, clinging like ivy with nails
to the bastion, and the whistling arrow.
Then you led me to the shining deserts,
to the burning sands, to your native land;
you told of the torments suffered,
and the chains and grief of slavery.
Your lovely face ennobled the story
with tears, and your lips with sighs;
on my darkness glory descended,
paradise and the stars to bless.
And from your dusky temples I saw
the eternal beauty of your spirit shine.
And you loved me for the dangers I had passed
and I loved you that you did pity them.
And I loved you for the dangers you had passed
and you loved me that I did pity them.
And you loved me ...
And you loved me ...
And I loved you ...
... that you/I did pity them.
Let death come! And in the ecstasy
of this embrace
may the supreme moment take me!
Such is my soul's joy that I am afraid.
I fear that such another divine moment
will never more be vouchsafed me
in the unknown future of my fate.
May heaven drive away all care
and love not change with changing years.
To this your prayer
let the celestial host answer "Amen."
May it answer "Amen."
Oh! I am filled with such intense
joy ... consumed with breathless longing ...
A kiss ...
A kiss ... and yet another kiss.
The burning Pleiades already sink
into the sea.
Late is the night.
Come ... Venus shines on high.
Act II
Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato
simile a sè, e che nell'ira io nomo.
Dalla viltà d'un germe o d'un atòmo
vile son nato.
Son scellerato
perchè son uomo,
e sento il fango originario in me.
Sì! Quest'è la mia fè!
Credo con fermo cuor, siccome crede
la vedovella al tempio,
che il mal ch'io penso e che da me procede
per il mio destino adempio.
Credo che il giusto è
un istrion beffardo,
e nel viso e nel cuor,
che tutto è in lui bugiardo:
lagrima, bacio, sguardo,
sacrificio ed onor.
E credo l'uom gioco
d'iniqua sorte
dal germe della culla
al verme dell'avel.
Vien dopo tanta irrision la Morte.
E poi? e poi? La Morte è il Nulla,
è vecchia fola il Ciel.
I believe in a cruel God, who has created me
in his image and whom, in hate, I name.
From some vile germ or atom base
am I born.
I am evil
because I am a man,
and I feel the primeval slime in me.
Yes! This is my creed!
I believe with a firm heart, as ever does
the young widow praying before the altar,
that whatever evil I think or do
was decreed for me by fate.
I believe that the honest man is
but a poor actor,
both in face and heart,
that everything in him is a lie:
tears, kisses, looks,
sacrifices and honor.
And I believe man to be the sport
of an unjust fate
from the germ of the cradle
to the worm of the grave.
After all this mockery comes Death.
And then? And then? Death is nothingness,
heaven is an old wives' tale.
Vengeance duet
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l'oscuro mar sterminator!
D'ira e d'impeto tremendo presto fia
che sfolgori
questa man ch'io levo e stendo!
(s'inginocchia anch'esso)
Non v'alzate ancor!
Testimon è il Sol ch'io miro,
che m'irradia e inanima
l'ampia terra e il vasto spiro
del Creato inter,
che ad Otello io sacro ardenti,
core, braccio ed anima
s'anco ad opere cruenti
s'armi il suo voler!
(alzando le mani al cielo come chi giura)
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo, giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l'oscuro mar sterminator!
D'ira e d'impeto tremendo presto fia
che sfolgori
questa man ch'io levo e stendo!
Dio vendicator!
Yes, I swear by the marble heaven!
By the forked lightning!
By death and by the dark destroying sea!
Let this hand which I raise and
stretch forth
soon blaze in wild transport of rage!
(kneeling beside him)
Do not rise yet!
Witness is the sun that I behold,
that shines on me and animates
the broad earth and the vast soul
of all Creation,
witness that to Othello I solemnly
dedicate heart, hand and soul,
if he will also arm his will
for the bloody work!
(raising their hands to heaven as in a solemn oath)
Yes, I swear by the marble heaven!
By the forked lightning!
By death and by the dark destroying sea!
Let this hand which I raise
and stretch forth
soon blaze in wild transport of rage!
God of vengeance!
Dio! mi potevi scagliar
Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali
della miseria, della vergogna,
far de' miei baldi trofei trionfali
una maceria, una menzogna ...
e avrei portato la croce crudel
d'angoscie e d'onte
con calma fronte
e rassegnato al volere del ciel.
Ma, o pianto, o duol!
m'han rapito il miraggio
dov'io, giulivo, l'anima acqueto.
Spento è quel sol, quel sorriso, quel raggio
che mi fa vivo, che mi fa lieto!
Tu alfin, Clemenza, pio genio immortal
dal roseo riso,
copri il tuo viso
santo coll'orrida larva infernal!
(Entra Jago.)
Ah! Dannazione!
Pria confessi il delitto e poscia muoia!
Confession! Confession!
La prova!
(indicando l'ingresso)
Cassio è là!
Là?! Cielo! Oh gioia!
God! Thou mightest have tried me with
afflictions of poverty, of shame;
made of my brave triumphal trophies
a heap of rubble and a lie ...
And I would have borne the cruel cross
of suffering and of disgrace
with unruffled brow
and have been resigned to the will of heaven.
But, O grief, O anguish!
Torn from me is the mirage
wherein I blithely lull my soul.
Quenched is that sun, that smile, those rays
by which I live, that give me joy!
Clemency, sacred immortal genius
of the roseate laughter,
now you must cover your holy face
with the horrible mask of hell!
(Iago enters.)
Oh! Damnation!
She shall confess her sin and then die!
Confession! Confession!
The proof!
(pointing to the entrance)
Cassio is there!
There?! Heaven! Joy!
Act IV
Ave Maria
Ave Maria, piena di grazia, eletta
fra le spose e le vergini sei tu,
sia benedetto il frutto, o benedetta,
di tue materne viscere, Gesù.
Prega per chi adorando a te si prostra,
prega nel peccator, per l'innocente,
e pel debole oppresso e pel possente,
misero anch'esso, tua pietà dimostra.
Prega per chi sotto l'oltraggio piega
la fronte e sotto la malvagia sorte;
per noi, per noi tu prega, prega
sempre e nell'ora della morte nostra,
prega per noi, prega per noi, prega.
Ave Maria ...
nell'ora della morte.
Ave! Amen!
Hail Mary, full of grace, elect
art thou among matrons and virgins,
O blessed one, blessed be the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus.
Pray for all who lie in prayer before thee,
pray for the sinner and the innocent,
and for the oppressed and their oppressors,
also to the wretched, show thy mercy.
Pray for those who bow their heads
beneath outrage and misfortune;
pray for us, pray for us
always and in the hour of our dying,
pray for us, pray us, pray.
Hail Mary ...
in the hour of death.
Hail! Amen!

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /

Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:

Martina Elicker (Graz): Cultural, Racial, and Religious Difference in Shakespeare's Othello, Verdi's Otello, and Zeffirelli's Otello: A Critical Comparison. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 3.7.2004    INST