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Faculty Profile: Wendy Wall Drives One Book One Northwestern

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October 3, 2006 | by Stephen Anzaldi

The first selection for the One Book One Northwestern program is, oddly, not a book. Or is it? It's a play...William Shakespeare's Othello. It's also a film and a song and a dance. "There are so many ways the story comes alive in its afterlife," says Professor Wendy Wall, Chair of the English department and coordinator of the inaugural campus-wide reading program. "Othello lends itself to rich narrative perspectives, touching on concerns such as racial conflict, psychological jealousy, and female heroism. These are hot button issues that continue to engage our attention today. I hope people appreciate the play for its dramatic power as a piece of writing and maybe gain a newfound sense of its international and historically diverse reach." As the engine driving One Book, Wall has overseen the creation of a series of Othello-themed readings, seminars and performances this fall for the entire University community.

What are some of the qualities that make Shakespeare so enduring?

He is a master of language. So the texts are incredibly rich. It's astonishing to see what students discover within scenes and passages, be it about character or emotional states. But whatever their interests, students ground their ideas very closely in the text's powerful and resonant language. Shakespeare also takes us to a world that's gone by. When I approach the plays from this perspective, students resist me a bit because they hear me saying that Shakespeare is not relevant today. But what I'm really saying is, isn't it liberating to experience a completely different way of thinking about things we think of as pretty fundamental, like identity or sexuality or love? Those concepts, we think, are unchanging, yet Shakespeare's texts are just remote enough that they're become mysterious and intriguing. They raise issues important to us today, but usually in a way that educates us into a different way of thinking altogether.

As a storytelling method, how does a play differ from a novel?

Performed scenes add another dimension to a story. It's not just words on a page but the imagined space of scenery and live bodies. On stage, it changes from night to night. It's vibrant and alive. In Shakespeare's day, most people encountered Shakespeare's writing as plays. But today, his works are part of the international curriculum. Most people encounter them as a book. While Shakespeare is the most canonical author in the Western world, his plays are always in flux because we imagine them as performances that are everchanging.

What is a key theme you enjoy in Othello?

In Iago, Othello gives us one of the most deliciously evil villains we've ever seen. He is able to reel someone in with just a few words. He spins a psychological web around the other characters that is dazzling. So the play offers a villain who gives us a lesson in rhetorical power. I think that this dimension makes the play complicated and very interesting. Because Iago talks directly to us, we become complicitous with him.  When I ask my students who among Shakespeare characters they'd want to be, most quickly choose some morally upright character. Then they think about it and come to Richard III or Iago, who are both just morally awful but amazingly compelling.

Are there other themes to look for?

The theme of racial conflict and the difficulty of being an outsider trying to assimilate to an alien culture. Othello is the first black character on the English stage endowed with heroic stature. Earlier Moors on the London stage had largely been villains or underdeveloped characters. But in Othello, we see a military hero who acts in the name of honor. Othello falls prey to Iago's plots because Iago is able to bring to the surface Othello's racial self-doubt, his profound skepticism that a Venetian woman such as Desdemona could actually have been so bold as to choose him above all over men. The play traces, in intricate detail, the poisonous effects of a certain kind of racism, and in this regard, it was unusual in its day.

People have commented that this is a terrible play in how it depicts women. Desdemona is passive for much of the play and when she dies at the end, she takes the blame for her death. But I see it differently. First, I think about the fact that Desdemona at the beginning of the play is one of the most bold and erotically frank heroines on the stage. She announces in court that she can't imagine living without her husband. Her decline into passivity is precisely the point of the play. And I also might respond by asking, what about Emilia? It turns out that at the end of the play, the hero is a serving woman, Desdemona's gentle friend. Emilia is the only woman able to the truth to the state. She's the only reason that people can identify her husband as the culprit. And she dies nobly for her refusal to “go home” and be a good wife. Shakespeare writes many scenes where Desdemona and Emilia explicitly talk about the plight of women in their day. The play takes this issue seriously. 

Finally -- and this is my favorite theme -- this is a play about not trusting your senses.  It's really a story about theatre. Iago has the characteristics of the best kind of improvisational actor. And if you think about Shakespeare in his own day, he's writing at a time when people criticized the stage for being immoral and too powerful. Public theaters were actually banished from the city of London and had to built outside city walls. Yet Shakespeare writes a play that really scrutinizes his own job, and gives his critics some ammunition. For Iago is an actor who shows how the world can be turned into theatre. And the outcome isn't good.

Are you in a book club?

I am. The group reads fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes we see films together.

How does that experience inform your work on One Book?

I realize that in my book group, I'm fascinated by the different ways in which people come at a text. It was this experience, in part, that made me want to plan an event for the One Book One Northwestern project where faculty members from different disciplines discuss the text. In the roundtable, "A Sociologist, Historian and Literary Scholar Read Othello," we want to show how people with different training think of “evidence” differently and start with different assumptions about reading.

How can a song or dance heighten our understanding of Othello?

When Verdi made Othello into an opera or when Jose Limone adapted it to dance form, these artists offered a fresh translation of the play. Watching these other creative expressions shows us how its themes can come to life differently. It also makes us aware of the way that sound or bodily movement can create a mood or concept.

How did you become a fan of literature?

My mother was a high school English teacher. When I was a child she'd let me help grade her Romeo and Juliet quizzes. So as an 8-year-old I knew who Mercutio and Tybalt were. My dad owned a printing business. In fact, my first book was on print, authorship and gender during the English Renaissance. So it was through the lens of my family life that I kind of found a way to engage with the texts I loved to read.