Goats and Monkeys

by Derek Walcott

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Critically examine the poem "Goats and Monkeys".

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"Goats and Monkeys," by Derek Walcott, is a reassessment of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in William Shakespeare's play Othello.

The poem begins with a retelling of the scene at the end of the play where Othello, overwhelmed with misplaced jealousy, strangles Desdemona until she is dead. Walcott writes of Othello that "He is Africa." This is perhaps a scornful acknowledgement of the racist point of view that Othello, being animalistic, easy to anger, and irrational, represents all black people. Indeed, it is easy to read the character of Othello in Shakespeare's play as a racist stereotype. Throughout the poem, Walcott foregrounds and perhaps satirizes this animalistic presentation of Othello in Shakespeare's play, referring to him as Desdemona's "sacrificial beast, bellowing, goaded, / A black bull snarled." This impression is compounded by the poet's choice of title, which is a phrase taken from the play when the villain, Iago, is actually referring to the supposed lust of Desdemona.

Towards the middle of the poem, Walcott continues to satirize this racist depiction of Othello. In the play, Desdemona is presented as the paragon of saintly virtue and chastity, so that when Othello kills her at the end, the audience is left in no doubt that Othello is, by contrast, ungodly and depraved. Walcott highlights this racially provocative dichotomy between saintly and devilish, or white and black, by bluntly describing the "Virgin and ape, maid and malevolent Moor." It's as if Walcott here is mocking the two-dimensional stereotypes that the two characters represent.

In the poem, Walcott compares Desdemona to Pasiphaë, a character from Greek mythology. Pasiphaë was cursed to be attracted to a bull that was given to her by Poseidon. As a result of sexual relations with the bull, Pasiphaë gave birth to the minotaur, a monster which was later confined to a labyrinth and given annual offerings of young maidens to eat. Walcott asks of Desdemona, "couldn't she have known / Like Pasiphaë, poor girl, she'd breed horned monsters?" The rhetorical question here seems a little flippant, or sarcastic, especially with the addition of the clause, "poor girl." The point that Walcott is perhaps trying to make with this comparison, however, is that the presentation of Othello as the bull to Desdemona's Pasiphaë is, like the Greek myth, only an allegory meant to convey a wider message. That wider message is, according to Walcott, a blatantly racist one, that black men are animals who have no place with virtuous, innocent white women.

At the end of the poem, Walcott declares that the character of Othello is "no more / Monstrous for being black." As the last line of the poem, this seems to be the point that Walcott wants to resonate the most. This final line separates Othello's "monstrous" character from the color of his skin and insists that the latter has nothing to do with the former.

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