The first full day of the 2023 Blackfriars Conference began on a solemn but very necessary note. Matt Davies gave a beautiful memorial speech in honor of James Loehlin, who passed away from cancer recently. The presentation was passed to Dr. Ralph Allan Cohen who also shared passionate sentimental memories about this incredible man. The presentation was closed with statements from Ronan Melomo and Molly Martinez-Collins, who each attended Shakespeare at Winedale that James ran for 23 years. This memorial allowed every person here to know a little more about this amazing man than they did before.
Dr. Patricia Akhimie “The Goodness of the Night: Editing Othello”
Dr. Patricia Akhimie, Director of the Folger Insitiute began with a content warning regarding the brief depiction of white actors in black face and then dove into sharing about her work on the textual editing of Othello. Her goal as an editor is to make Othello fully available to all people, in particular those who identify as racially “other.” Her focus is on racial language with an eye for damaging stereotypes.
Dr. Akhimie used a reference to “thick-lips” in the text as an example of harmful racial stereotypes in the text of Othello, who is “identified in the play as a moor and described as having dark skin.” Akhimie cited the definition of thick-lips as a derogatory racial epithet, noting a use of the term in Titus Andronicus as well as Othello. Akhimie began discussing the history of black face, which involved deciding “how black” Othello would be, based on the changes to a white person’s appearance in order to don black face. This led into an examination of illustrations of moments in Othello, with specific attention to Brabantio’s threat of violence, following Othello’s marriage to Desdemona, shrouded by darkness and surrounded by torches. This moment in Act 1 Scene 2 includes the line “put up your bright swords,” implying that the characters in the scene have drawn their weapons. Brabantio, Akhimie notes, accuses Othello of bewitching Desdemona. She then discussed the impact that the night-time setting for this confrontation could have on audience members, drawing connections between this moment in the text of Othello and modern crimes wherein “black bodies are subject to the violence of officers.” While there are no other stage directions other than the entrance of Brabantio and accompanying characters, Akhimie draws attention to the implied stage direction in “put up your bright swords.” Akhimie referenced Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Othello, wherein he inserts a stage direction indicating when the characters draw swords. Akhimie discussed the production history of Othello, analyzing the implications of the varied staging choices made in this scene.
Akhimie asserts that editorial work is crucial for creating space in anti-racist readings. Akhimie is a proponent of avoiding the insertion of staged directions, as she views this act as an act of interpretation. She offers the style of editing, wherein she includes marginal glosses as opposed to definitive staged directions, as one that invites the reader to act more self-sufficiently, producing meaning for themselves.
Akhimie argues that omission, or, editorial silences, has an ethical dimension: they are a product of their sociopolitical context, with “power for good and ill.” She believes the choices of editors can “enhance rather than critique” Othello’s subjugation. Akhimie stresses the importance of editing this scene in particular because only a handful of editors have opted for a marginal gloss in this scene, but rather inserted an authoritative decision on the location and presence of violence in this moment. She connects the work of editors with documentation and witnessing, alluding to the sore lack of fair and accurate documentation and witnessing of black bodies throughout history, a problem that persists today.