The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)