Goats and Monkeys

by Derek Walcott

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

“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 terms, most often as a bull. So the title remains elusive, yet extraordinarily suggestive.

In the poem’s five stanzas, uneven in length, free in structure, and rich in imagery, Walcott recounts the story of Othello and Desdemona. The first stanza records their sexual union. The next reveals the passion of Desdemona, who has been “Dazzled by that bull’s bulk”; still, the poet asks, should not the “poor girl” realize that tragedy awaits her? The third stanza recapitulates the first two, elaborating on their sexual passion and foreshadowing the cruelty that the black Othello will inflict on his white lover. The fourth stanza tells how Othello “arraigns” Desdemona’s “barren innocence” by accusing her of infidelity, as though her whiteness “limns lechery”—“limn” meaning to illuminate. In the final stanza, “this mythical, horned beast”—possibly the goat from the zodiac, or maybe the mythological bull—murders Desdemona in a “bestial, comic agony.”

While this summary covers the main points of a story already well known, it does little justice to the way Walcott has echoed Shakespeare’s text. In fact, he also echoes a number of other texts in a less obvious manner. The sustaining metaphor of Othello as the earth and Desdemona as the moon brings to mind the structure of seventeenth century metaphysical poetry by writers such as John Donne and George Herbert. Walcott also assumes that the reader knows the Greek myths of Pasiphaë and Eurydice.

This poem, though, comprises no mere retelling of the story Shakespeare had already retold, no mimicry of metaphysical poems, no slavish dependence on mythology. Walcott’s impressive exercise in intertextuality holds larger intentions.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

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...

(This entire section contains 481 words.)

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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 labyrinth—an elaborate maze of passageways—until he was slain by Theseus. In the second stanza, the poet speaks of Othello’s mind as a “hellish labyrinth” in which Desdemona’s soul will be swallowed.

The other allusion recalls the story of Eurydice, wife of Orpheus, who died from a snake bite and descended into the underworld, from which Orpheus almost rescued her. Like Minos—and Othello—he brings about his beloved’s destruction, in his case by looking back at her, which he had been forbidden to do until they reached the earth. Eurydice must return to the underworld, and Orpheus loses her the second time. Thus the “hellish labyrinth” of Othello’s mind assumes another meaning, compared now to the Hades that swallows Eurydice and, by implication, Desdemona.

Walcott, perhaps taking his cue from the strong sexuality of the passage in Othello, fills the poem with charged sexual imagery, which serves to delineate in another way Desdemona’s innocence and Othello’s corruption. Othello’s “earthen bulk” presses against the white Desdemona’s “bosom,” his “smoky hand” charring her “marble throat.” “Virgin and ape,” “maid and malevolent Moor” they are called, as the “panther-black” man violates the “white flesh.” Othello’s sexuality conjures up “raw musk” (the odorous sexual secretions of various male animals) and “sweat,” his penis a “moon-shaped sword” girded by fury, while a “white fruit/ pulped ripe by fondling but doubly sweet” describes Desdemona’s sexuality.