Contextualizing Othello: Ishmael Reed, Caryl Phillips, and Djanet Sears

  • Peter Erickson


Novels by Ishmael Reed and Caryl Phillips make a major issue of Othello.1 Both writers surround Othello with material whose effect is to place the play’s literary stature and cultural status in question. The generic means by which this end is achieved are different. Reed’s Japanese by Spring is an academic novel in which the primary source of contextualizing documentation is the debate known as the “culture wars.” As a historical novel, Phillips’s The Nature of Blood uses history as its contextual mode. In both cases, the insertion of Othello is especially dramatic because it is strategically delayed until the novels’ midpoint. One reason for the delay is to build up the larger context and to allow time for this context to make its claims on us. For it is the external context that will counteract Othello’s automatic canonical appeal.


White Woman Black Woman Contextual Mode African American Culture Black Actor 


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  1. 1.
    Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring (New York: Atheneum, 1993)Google Scholar
  2. Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood (New York: Knopf, 1997).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Reed’s own tenure denial at Berkeley is discussed in Jon Ewing, “The Great Tenure Battle of 1977,” in Conversations with Ishmael Reed, ed. Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995), 111–27.Google Scholar

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© Peter Erickson 2007

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  • Peter Erickson

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