The Poem

“Goats and Monkeys” provides an excellent example of intertextuality—that is, it relies on an earlier text but in itself becomes an altogether new work, sometimes called the “echo-text.” The epigraph from William Shakespeare’s Othello (1604) announces Derek Walcott’s source, one he expects the reader to know. The lines come from act 1, scene 1, of the play and are spoken by Othello’s jealous ensign, Iago, as he reveals to Brabantio that his daughter, Desdemona, has run away with the “blackamoor” Othello. In these charged lines, the “black ram” (a male sheep) depicts Othello and the white ewe (a female sheep) Desdemona. “Tupping” means they are “even now” engaging in sexual intercourse; “tupping” is synonymous with “ramming,” the kind of pun that would appeal to Walcott, whose poetry abounds in elaborate wordplay.

The poem’s title is not altogether clear. Lecherous men are sometimes called goats, and when made to act like fools they are dubbed monkeys; in the play, Iago sees Othello as a lecher, then sets out to make a fool of him. Yet that seems a rather literal and oversimplified reading. Men whose wives are unfaithful to them—as Othello thinks Desdemona is—are derisively called goats. The goat is also part of the zodiac, to which the poem alludes. While Walcott never describes Othello specifically as a goat, he does at one point refer to him as an “ape” and refers to him throughout in bestial...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Forms and Devices

To underscore Othello’s blackness and Desdomona’s whiteness, the poet transforms Othello into the earth, Desdemona into the moon. The first stanza, when Othello seduces Desdemona, describes an eclipse: The earth (Othello) covers the moon (Desdemona), and “God’s light is put out.” The poet compares Othello to Africa, as “a vast sidling [furtive or fawning] shadow” that obscures the moon—or the white world represented by Desdemona. Throughout, this black/white imagery, stemming from the introductory metaphor of earth and moon, accentuates the poem’s apparent racial overtones. As Walcott extends the elaborate comparison, he refers to “the sun of Cyprus,” an apt allusion in that Othello and Desdemona flee to Cyprus once she has left her father’s Venetian home.

Then, to make Desdemona’s plight more resonant, the poet compares her to doomed women from Greek mythology, Pasiphaë and Eurydice. Pasiphaë, the daughter of the sun god and wife of Minos, fell in love with a bull that Poseidon had given to Minos. Like Othello, Minos brought about his wife’s downfall, for he refused to sacrifice the bull; as punishment, Poseidon cursed the faithless Minos’s wife Pasiphaë, decreeing that she would unite with the bull and “breed horned monsters.” From this union came the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Walcott turns Othello into another Minotaur, the beast who wreaked havoc on innocents in his...

(The entire section is 481 words.)