To Believe or Not Believe

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Lester Purry as Othello and Cheyenne Casebier as Desdemona, in the Guthrie’s Othello.

“Belief affects every aspect of our lives,” said English Professor Peter Stallybrass. He was addressing a group of students, faculty, alumni, and patrons of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts before a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello by the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, which was on campus in March.

Stallybrass is also co-director of the Penn Humanities Forum, which has chosen “belief” as its organizing theme for 2003-2004. His talk was one of several special events at Annenberg that supplemented the Guthrie’s performances; it also featured a dinner catered by Bitar’s Middle Eastern restaurant. (The production was set in Cyprus.)

Othello asks, ‘What is trust?’ and ‘What does it mean to have trust?’” Stallybrass continued, in his soft British accent. “Love is more about belief than we can imagine. Love is like seeing the structure of the universe.” When love fades, things fall apart. Shortly before Iago begins weaving his web of deception, Othello says to Desdemona, “When I love thee not, chaos is come again.”

“Why does Othello lose his belief? It’s the notion of trusting, putting yourself into someone else’s place,” Stallybrass said to the hushed audience outside Zellerbach Auditorium. “It’s the notion of the fear of putting yourself in someone else’s hands; Iago doesn’t have that much work to do. The thing with jealousy is: what you can’t know is what another person is thinking.” 

—Patrick Brugh C05

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