Ruth Cowhig (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “The Importance of Othello's Race,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XII, No. 2, December, 1977, pp. 153-61.

[In the following essay, Cowhig argues that race is essential to the meaning of Othello.]

There has recently been general agreement amongst critics that Shakespeare conceived of Othello as a Negro, and not as the tawny Arab on whom Coleridge insisted with such vehemence. But there is a considerable gap between critical opinion and the ideas and assumptions that linger on, even when people have some degree of specialized interest. It is more than usually so where Othello's colour is concerned. To speak of a conspiracy of silence might be to use too strong a phrase; but there is a reluctance to disturb accepted ideas, and a Negro Othello has a greater novelty than the study either of critical writing or of stage history would lead one to expect—as I found when reading Othello with a group of adult students. The edition we were using included a series of critical essays, but none even mentioned Othello's colour; that it was an American publication had an obvious significance.

Eldred Jones's Othello's Countrymen has clearly established the familiarity of the Elizabethans with Negroes, especially in London.1 Traders with West Africa used them as interpreters and often brought a few home as gifts, or for the family household. Thus Shakespeare must have had opportunities for contact with Negroes, although there is no direct evidence of any. There was also a strong stage tradition which made use of Negroes in the role of villain or of villain-hero. As Shakespeare had himself followed this tradition with Aaron in Titus Andronicus, first performed between 1590 and 1592, it follows that his choice of a Negro as the hero of his tragedy of Othello, thus completely breaking the tradition, must have been deliberate. It is true that the plot was taken from Cinthio's Hecatommithi; but hardly any of Shakespeare's plots were original, and there was evidently something about this tale that led him to select it out of many. The story as it stands is crude and lacking in subtlety: the only thing that distinguishes it is that it is concerned with the love between a Moor and a young Venetian girl of high birth.

The reasons for Shakespeare's choice remain obscure, and we can only speculate about them; perhaps Shakespeare felt sympathy for aliens in an intolerant society, as is suggested by his treatment of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, though here he was hampered by an inflexible story, with the result that Shylock's moving speeches burst out of the framework of the play. In Othello there is no suggestion of deliberate social injustice; but one wonders whether, as he watched the humiliation of Negro slaves and servants, Shakespeare found himself imagining the feelings of proud men, perhaps of royal descent like Othello, whose black skins betrayed no blushes. ‘Haply for I am black’, cries Othello, as the first doubts begin to torment him: it is the first of the alternative reasons that he considers in trying to account for his betrayal, so that we cannot ignore his awareness of the colour barrier. Shakespeare has moved far from his acceptance of the traditional Negro in Titus Andronicus, whose colour reflects his evil motives:

Let fools do good and fair men call for grace,
Aaron will have his soul black like his face.

(III, i, 202-5)

Whatever Shakespeare's intentions may have been, we have to take seriously the importance of Othello's race in our interpretation of the play.

The first effect of Othello's blackness is immediately grasped by the audience, but not always by the reader of the play. It is that he is, from the beginning, placed in a position of isolation from the other characters. In the same way, Hamlet's black clothes isolate him visually from the rest of the Danish court. This isolation is such an integral part of Othello's experience that it is constantly operative, even if not necessarily at a conscious level. Anyone who is black would appreciate its importance in understanding the character of Othello. Before he appears, our attention is forcibly focussed on Othello's race. The speeches of Iago and Roderigo in the first scene are full of racial antipathy. Othello is ‘the thick-lips’, ‘an old black ram’, ‘a lascivious Moor’ and ‘a Barbary horse’, and he ‘is making the beast with two backs’ with Desdemona. The language is purposely offensive and sexually coarse, and the animal images convey, as such images always do, the idea of someone who is less than human. Coriolanus expresses his contempt for the plebeians similarly, through a series of animal comparisons. Iago calculates on arousing in Brabantio all the latent prejudice of Venetian society, and he succeeds. The union is, to Brabantio, ‘a treason of the blood’, and he feels that its acceptance will reduce Venetian statesmen to ‘bondslaves and pagans’. We, the audience, are not at first given any opportunity of forming our own opinion of Othello, although Iago's personal grievances over his lack of promotion may put us on our guard against his claims to impartiality.

Brabantio occupies a strong position in society. He is ‘much beloved’, and ‘hath in his effect a voice potential / As double as the Duke's’, if we can believe Iago. His attitude to Othello's race is as prejudiced as Iago's, though it is important to realize that he represents a more liberal outlook, at least on the surface. Willing to entertain Othello in his own home, it is he who makes Othello's meetings with Desdemona possible. His reaction to the news of the elopement is predictable. He is outraged that this Negro should presume so far, and at once concludes that charms and witchcraft must have been used, since otherwise his daughter could never ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on’. To him the match is ‘against all rules of nature’; only spells and medicines could make it possible ‘for nature so prepost’rously to err’. When he confronts Othello his abuse is no less bitter than Iago's.

Before this confrontation Othello makes his first appearance, and two characteristics impress us. First his pride:

I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege

(I, ii, 21-2)

Secondly, his confidence in his own achievements:

My services which I have done the Signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints.

(I, ii, 95-7)

It is difficult to estimate the reactions of an Elizabethan audience to this Negro, so obviously in control of the situation and so noble in his bearing. No black man remotely like him had ever appeared on the English stage before, nor has one since. However great his confidence, however, his colour makes his vulnerability plain to all. Brabantio is sure of the Duke's support, since he and the other senators ‘cannot but feel this wrong as ’twere their own’. He is disappointed, but he would probably have been right if the state had not been in danger and Othello essential for its defence. As it is, Brabantio gets cold comfort; he is to ‘take up this mangled matter at the best’. The Duke treats Othello as befits his position as Commander-in-Chief, addressing him as ‘valiant Othello’, whereas Brabantio never uses his name, calling him scornfully just ‘Moor!’. The First Senator gives Othello some support, but his parting words, ‘Adieu, brave Moor. Use Desdemona well’, while not unfriendly, reveal an attitude of superiority. Would a senator have made such an injunction to a newly-married general if he had been white, and an equal?

It is Desdemona's stand before the Senate that first breaks Othello's isolation. Her stature is immensely increased by the fact that he is black. Her passivity in later scenes cannot be seen as a natural docility after the spirited independence which she shows in her defence of the marriage. Beneath a quiet exterior lay the strength to resist the pressures of society; she was

So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation

(I, ii, 67-8)

The choice of words makes clear to us the kind of suitors who were unable to attract Desdemona, but there is no suggestion that Brabantio wished, like Capulet, to force his daughter against her inclination. The marriage is something that he could not anticipate, and Othello and Desdemona are trapped by their predicament, just as Romeo and Juliet were, but with the great difference that theirs is a mature match in which the couple are well aware of the seriousness of the step they have taken: ‘My downright violence and storm of fortunes’, Desdemona calls it. It is made very clear, in Othello's account of the wooing, that she had to take the initiative:

She thanked me
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

(I, iii, 163-6)

It is, of course, because of Othello's race; there would be no need for Desdemona to break with the long and absolute custom, that the man must speak first, in any but the rarest circumstances. Before the Senate she remains level-headed. In her speech about ‘divided duty’ she softens the blow, but does not try to avoid the issue. Finally, when she says that she ‘saw Othello's visage in his mind’, the audience has to make the effort to overcome, with her, the tendency to connect Othello's black face with evil. Brabantio's insistence that she is going against nature is repudiated. ‘Nature’ has a variety of meanings in Shakespeare's plays; in this one it is linked with Iago's cynical and materialistic outlook, whereas the love between Othello and Desdemona belongs to another plane.

The ease with which Othello succumbs to Iago's insinuations has puzzled many critics. Some have been led to a grudging admiration of Iago's ‘diabolic intellect’, while others have belittled Othello for being such easy prey. Dr. Leavis's analysis reduces Othello to a pitiable figure; he is ‘beyond any question, the nobly massive man of action’, but ‘his habit of self-approving self-dramatization’ is evidence of his egotism. Nevertheless, most playgoers have been deeply moved by Othello's suffering. Perhaps the explanation lies in Othello's colour, which Dr. Leavis does not think important: ‘his colour, whether or not “colour feeling” existed among the Elizabethans, we are certain to take as emphasizing the disparity of the match.’2 I do not think that Othello's colour can be relegated to a parenthesis in this way. It is the basic cause of his insecurity, which, when the part is played by a Negro, needs no explanation. Its origin is there for us to see. If we do need words to make it clear, they are there too. Iago harps mercilessly on the unnaturalness of the match:

Not to affect many proposed matches,
Of her own clime, complexion and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural.

(III, iii, 233-7)

The exclamation of disgust and the words ‘smell’ and ‘foul’ reveal a phobia so obvious that it is strange it is so often passed over. The attack demolishes Othello's defences simply because there is no defence against this kind of racial contempt. ‘For she had eyes, and chose me’, changes to:

Haply for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years …

(III, iii 267-70)

It is one of the most moving moments in the play. Othello's vulnerability is no surprise to himself, for he has had to marry in secret, and his confidence is based on his knowledge that his expertise is valuable to the state, not on the expectation of being valued for himself. Given Iago's hatred and astuteness in exploiting other people's weaknesses, which we see in the trap he sets for Cassio, the black Othello is easy game. We are not watching the collapse of a self-deceiving fool, but the baiting of an alien who cannot fight back on equal terms.

Othello's stature as a tragic hero is built up mainly through his prowess as a soldier. He is unique amongst Shakespeare's soldier heroes because he has achieved his position as general on merit, after hard and bitter experience. The early history described in the account of his wooing is typical of the experience of an African of his times who has been ‘taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery’. His whole life, since the age of seven, has been the precarious life of the soldier, and against this background his blackness is evidence of his outstanding ability. As a Negro, employed by the state of Venice, he receives tributes from all: he is ‘the warlike Moor Othello’, ‘brave Othello’, and ‘our noble and valiant general’. The war with the Turks is presented in a businesslike way as a national emergency, and the ironic undertones that we find in the presentation of war in the history plays (even Henry V gives us Williams's speech about the legs and arms and heads joining together at the latter day to confront the warrior king) seem to be excluded from Othello. The hero is marked by his self-control and refusal to be roused to anger, as in ‘Put up your bright swords for the dew will rust them’ and ‘Were it my cue to fight I should have known it / Without a prompter’. After Othello's disintegration we are sadly reminded of this moral strength by Lodovico's words: ‘Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?’ (IV, i, 261-2). The portrait is of a kind of soldier who does not exist elsewhere in the plays, except in minor characters. Othello tries to control emotion, unlike Henry V, who before battle has to:

Imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage

This emphasis gives his breakdown of control in Act III a more intense effect, and is also in direct contradiction to the conception of the Negro as a man swayed by passion which was current in Shakespeare's time.

The famous ‘farewell’ speech also becomes more meaningful when spoken by a black Othello. ‘The big wars / That make ambition virtue’, a phrase which one tends to accept as a piece of rhetoric, gains a literal truth, because the sin of ambition (and ambition was still reckoned as a sin) has been purified, in Othello, by courage and endurance, and by the fact that only ambition could enable him to escape the hardships and humiliations of his early life. The speech is not merely the longing for military action of the incurable romantic. The pride, pomp and circumstance, the spirit-stirring drum, and the rest must be seen in relation to the harshly realistic conclusion, ‘Othello's occupation's gone’. This moment reduced Kean's audiences to tears; it was a part of Othello's experience which Kean, with his precarious and uneven career, was well able to understand and convey. The realization that his career is irrevocably over throws an aura of nostalgia over Othello's war experience, so that he looks back at the trappings of war as a dying man looks back at life.

As we approach the tragic climax, when jealousy has taken possession, Othello behaves very like the Moor of ancient tradition; his irrational acceptance of the flimsiest evidence, his return to superstitious beliefs, his uncontrollable anger, and his resort to violence and revenge—all these are consistent with mediaeval tradition. Nevertheless, it seems to me unlikely that Shakespeare intended to go back to an acceptance of the popular preconceptions which he had flouted in the early scenes. Othello was very closely followed by King Lear, and in both plays Shakespeare seems to be exploring the basic nature of man, and especially the effect on that nature of the subservience of reason to the passions. In Lear reason is literally overthrown when Lear becomes mad, while in Othello jealousy and rage take control. By portraying the disintegration of a black hero whose nobility had been effectively established, Shakespeare was able to show man as the prey of his uncontrollable emotions with extra dramatic effect, and it suggests another reason for the choice of a black hero. No more extreme example of jealousy could be imagined than that of a man who kills the wife he deeply loves, but there would have been difficulty in making such a theme acceptable to the audience. If, however, the jealous husband who must commit the murder is black, it removes the crime of sexual violence from everyday surroundings and experience and makes the audience more prepared to accept it. By taking an alien from a strange cultural background the dramatist would feel liberated. True, it is made quite explicit that Othello is a baptized Christian, which brings him closer to the audience and separates him from the Turkish enemy. But once subservient to Iago, and having taken his terrible vow of revenge, Othello reverts to superstitious belief. Here, I think, lies the significance of the much-discussed speech about the handkerchief, although there are other possible interpretations. The Christian veneer is thin, and Othello is left exposed to unknown forces of evil. In the same way, Macbeth succumbs to the destructive influence of the witches once he has embarked on the series of murders; the first one involves the betrayal of the most sacred laws of kinship. Shakespeare's tragedies are much concerned with the precariousness of civilized behaviour in man.

The Russian actor, Alexander Ostumov, who set himself to study the part of Othello throughout his career, identifying with him as if he were a real man, saw the problem of the final scene to be that of acting the part so as to make people love Othello and forget he is a murderer. ‘Forget’ may seem an over-statement, but Shakespeare comes near to making it possible when Othello answers Lodovico's question, ‘What shall be said of thee?’ (a question which hardly expects a reply) with the words, ‘An honourable murderer, if you will’. Rather than being outraged by such a statement, we see in it a terrible pathos. Our sympathy for Othello is never completely destroyed. Here again Othello's colour plays some part. Throughout the scene he is a lonely but dominating figure. Emilia's horror at what has happened brings her racial prejudice to the fore: ‘O my good lord’, as she enters, becomes ‘you the blacker devil!’, ‘her most filthy bargain’, and ‘O thou dull Moor’. By this time the audience is expecting the event for which they have long been waiting, the unmasking of Iago. When it comes, Othello looks down at Iago's feet for the mythical cloven hoofs, and demands an explanation from ‘that demi-devil’, and we are once more reminded that blackness of soul belongs to the white villain rather than to his black victim. The term ‘slave’ is used several times: Montano pursues Iago, ‘for ’tis a damnéd slave’; Lodovico reproaches Othello for having ‘fall’n in the practice of a curséd slave’, and later refers to Iago as ‘this slave’. Slavery here represents degraded behaviour, and it is the deed, the ‘practice’ of Othello (who was once redeemed from slavery) that is slavish, whereas in Iago's case it is the man himself.

There is no record of any controversy over the type of Moor intended by Shakespeare until late in the eighteenth century. Before that the principal actor blacked himself as far as he could. Edmund Kean was the first to play Othello as a ‘tawny’ Moor and he was so successful in the part that he dominated the stage for many years. The Romantic critics, especially Lamb and Coleridge, reacted so violently against the idea of a Negro Othello that their views became firmly established. The great Negro actor, Ira Aldridge, played in London just as Kean's career was ending. In 1833 the critics wrote scathing reviews of his performance, although the audiences received him well. He did not play again in London for many years, but he did return in 1865, after playing in Othello all over Europe and winning many awards and medals. By that time he had more favourable notices; but although no other actor had much success as Othello during the rest of the nineteenth century, the question of colour remained unresolved. In 1876 Henry Irving played him ‘slightly tinged with walnut brown, according to the Edmund Kean precedent, so much applauded by Coleridge’.3 In 1881 he acted the part again, this time as black as possible, so that Ellen Terry records: ‘Before he had done with me, I was nearly as black as he.’ Neither production was successful.

The other outstanding Negro actor to play Othello was Paul Robeson. When he first came to London he studied voice and diction with Amanda Aldridge, Ira Aldridge's youngest daughter, who was only an infant when her father died in 1867. It is thus more than likely that some of the tradition of the first great Negro actor was passed on to the next, since Amanda would know many people who had seen her father's performances. Robeson first played in London in 1930, and his last performance in England was in Stratford in 1959: Aldridge's appearances in Othello covered thirty-nine years. It is an interesting example of the potential time-span of theatrical tradition.

These Negro actors did much to change the accepted ideas about Othello's colour, as contemporary tributes show. Two examples provide enough evidence that the importance of this question is not merely hypothetical. Theophile Gautier wrote of Ira Aldridge's Othello in St. Petersburg:

L’origine d’Ira Aldrigge le dispensait de toute teinture au jus de réglisse et au marc de café; il n’avait pas besoin de mettre ses bras dans les manches d’un tricot chocolat. La peau du rôle était la sienne, et il ne lui fallait nul effort pour y entrer. Aussi son entrée en scène fut-elle magnifique: c’était Othello lui-meme comme l’a créé Shakespeare, avec ses yeux à demi-fermés comme éblouis du soleil d’Afrique, sa nonchalente attitude orientale et cette désinvolture de nègre qu’aucun Européen ne peut imiter.4

When John Dover Wilson wrote his introduction to the New Cambridge edition of Othello in 1943, he recorded the lasting impression which Robeson made on him. His first heading is ‘The Moor’, indicating that he felt that the question of Othello's race should be considered before everything else. He writes:

I felt I was seeing the tragedy for the first time, not merely because of Robeson's acting, which despite a few petty faults of technique was magnificent, but because the fact that he was a true Negro seemed to floodlight the whole drama. Everything was slightly different from what I had previously imagined; new points, fresh nuances, were constantly emerging; and all had, I felt, been clearly intended by the author. The performance convinced me, in short, that a Negro Othello is essential to the full understanding of the play.

It is exciting to think that the truth of this view may be demonstrated by an infinite set of variations in the interpretations of the part of Othello, as more Negro actors undertake it.


  1. Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen, 1965.

  2. F. R. Leavis, ‘Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero’, The Common Pursuit, Chatto & Windus, 1952, pp. 136-59.

  3. Clement Scott, From ‘The Bells’ to ‘King Arthur’, 1897, pp. 83-8.

  4. Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Russie, 1895, pp. 254-6.


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Critics have not formed any sort of consensus about the role of race in Othello, despite the fact that the topic of racism continues to be one of the most predominant issues in modern scholarship about the play. Some commentators have held that Othello is not about racism, that Othello is essentially white, or that his race is irrelevant. This position, rather popular among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics, including Charles Lamb and A. C. Bradley, has sparked numerous responses among modern critics who maintain emphatically that race is the essential element of the play. Scholars who assign primacy to race in Othello can be divided roughly into three categories. Critics such as John Gillies, for instance, argue that Shakespeare was upholding the racist views of the Renaissance, and that the play advocates racism. Conversely, other critics, among them Martin Orkin and Emily C. Bartels, state that Shakespeare, through his sympathetic portrayal of Othello, was critiquing racism, and taking his society to task for its racist behavior. Finally, Michael Neill (1998) and other scholars argue that it is anachronistic to apply modern ideas of racism to an earlier period. These scholars maintain that Shakespeare and his audience would have understood race, a cultural construct, in a wholly different way than we do today.

Other theorists offer additional nuances to the analysis of race in Othello. Several feminist scholars, among them Karen Newman and Marianne Novy (1984), explore the relationship of gender and race. Newman's argument that Desdemona and Othello are scorned equally by Venetian society, and that Othello's race and Desdemona's freely expressed sexuality represent the same threat to the dominant white male society, has sparked a heated debate. In a second significant development of theory, such scholars as Paul A. Cantor and Emily C. Bartels, apply anthropologists' concepts of “Self” and “Other” to Othello. They argue that Shakespeare wanted to distinguish Othello from the rest of the play's cast, to set him apart, in order to make a point about society's propensity to vilify those who are not like the “Self.” Cantor maintains that the issue of race is a means unto an end for Shakespeare, allowing the playwright to create an opportunity for the dominant society to isolate, ridicule, even destroy Othello, and through the telling of the story Shakespeare warns the audience against such behavior. Many of these critiques liken the role of Othello with that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

A third trend in modern studies of the play is the examination of the ramifications of Othello across time and among different ethnicities. Critics explore the history of the play's production from the Renaissance (when people of color were relatively unknown to the audience), through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the height of the slave trade and institutionalized racism), and into the twentieth century with its move toward greater racial tolerance. Ferial J. Ghazoul studies Othello's influence on Arab culture and literature; Jyotsna Singh's work focuses on the impact of Othello on African and Asian writers. James R. Andreas (1992) compares the work of three twentieth-century writers who have manipulated the plot of Othello to highlight personal concerns about race in their society. Andreas concludes that “the play itself seems to incriminate Western society at large for its predisposition to the periodic, ritual slaughter of marginal and aboriginal groups and all whites—especially women—who consort with them.”

June Sturrock (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Othello: Women and ‘Woman’,” in Atlantis, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 1-8.

[In the essay below, Sturrock examines Shakespeare's attack on anti-feminist propaganda, arguing that in Othello Shakespeare urges the audience to recognize the worth of the individual.]

It hath ever beene a common custome amongst Idle, and humerous Poets, Pamphleters, and Rimers, out of passionate discontents, or having little otherwise to imploy themselves about, to write some bitter Satire-Pamphlet, or Rime against women: in which argument he who could devise anything more bitterly, or spitefully, against our sexe hath never wanted the liking, allowance and applause of giddy-headed people.1

Women in Shakespeare's England, as in the England of the Wife of Bath and Janekin, were among the easiest and commonest targets of satire. According to Louis B. Wright in his Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England, the increasingly active role of women during this period “aroused the ire of conservatives, who vented their displeasure in pulpit and pamphlet.”2 The mid-16th century publication of The School-House of Women (1542?)3 renewed the arguments for and against women which continued throughout the rest of the century. In the early years of the next century, partly through the license given by King James's notorious dislike of women, anti-feminism gathered momentum, and these years produced such works as Barnabe Riche's Faultes, Faultes, and Nothing Else but Faultes (1606) and Joseph Swetnam's The Arraignment of Lewde, Idle, Forward and Unconstant Women (1615) which brought public responses from outraged women. Throughout Shakespeare's lifetime, for all the glorification of Elizabeth, there was a living tradition of anti-feminism.

In Othello, Shakespeare takes this English tradition of satire against women and uses it dramatically and ironically: the old libels on women are voiced repeatedly by the speeches of the principal male characters while their falsity, inadequacy, and destructive nature are demonstrated amply by the actions of the women in the play. The anti-feminist invective of the play is weighed against the action of the play, in which all three women are almost entirely motivated by love and loyalty, and in which indeed their major function is to demonstrate various kinds of love and loyalty. Here, as elsewhere, Shakespeare makes use of current and facile generalizations about groups of people; he also compels us in various ways to question such generalizations and to recognise that any person's individuality and humanity signifies more than his or her membership of a group.

Iago is obviously the chief mouthpiece for such attitudes in Othello and especially for the attack on women. Although he is notoriously chameleon-like, adapting his attitudes and his bearing to his company and to his own complex motives—“I am not what I am,” he says of himself, (I.i.65)4—the one constant feature in his various guises, whether he is with Cassio, Roderigo, or Desdemona, is his contempt for women. When he is with Desdemona and Emilia, he makes this contempt appear like the jovial banter of a rough soldier. Cassio, indeed, half-apologizes to Desdemona for him in just these terms: “You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar” (II.i.165). When alone with his wife, Iago shows his contempt in dirty jokes and insults:

I have a thing for you.
A thing for me? it is a common thing—
To have a foolish wife.


With Cassio, Iago is more circumspect—no doubt the “daily beauty” in Cassio's life warns him off—but his description of Desdemona ignores her finer qualities and stresses her sexuality and availability; it is an implicit testing of Cassio's attitude to Desdemona: “She is sport for Jove—And, I’ll warrant her, full of game. … What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of provocation … and when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?” With Roderigo, who notably lacks daily beauty in his life, Iago is more openly cynical. Desdemona is a “guinea hen,” a “supersubtle Venetian,” and Roderigo's love for her is “merely a lust of the blood and the permission of the will” (I.iii.318, 364 & 339). With Othello, Iago plays on the comparative social ignorance of his General and calumniates Desdemona through a condemnation of Venetian women in general, thus making use of two traditions of prejudice:

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not let their husbands see. Their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone but keep’t unknown.


Whatever form this hostility takes, it is always present: one feature which Iago never quite discards or disguises in his contempt for women and indeed it is supremely useful to him.

His attack on women is inevitably the traditional attack; as Desdemona observes of his strictures on women, “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh in th’alehouse” (II.i.140). Iago's misogyny is such that he apparently feels that the highest possible feat of the best of possible women is merely trivially domestic: “to suckle fools and chronicle small beer” (II.i.159). Women, according to Iago, are idle, shrewish, ignorant, wilful, avaricious, vain and above all lecherous and adulterous—Iago accuses every one of the women of the play of faithlessness to the man she loves. Every one of these faults is a commonplace of the Elizabethan satirists' case against women. Thomas Nashe for instance brings all his learning—or perhaps all his invention—to the cause:

The olde Sages did admonish young men, if ever they matcht wyth any wife, not to take a rich wife, because if she be rich, shee wyll not be content to be a wife, but will be a Master or Mistresse, in commaunding, chiding, correcting & controlling … Socrates deemed it the desperatest enterprise that one can take in hand, to governe a womans will … Demosthenes saide, that it was the greatest tormente, that a man could invent to his enemies vexation, to give him his daughter in marriage, as a domesticall Furie to disquiet him night and day. Democritus accounted a faire chaste woman a miracle of miracles, a degree of immortality, a crowne of tryumph because shee is so harde to be founde.5

The views ascribed to Democritus here remind one of Iago consoling Othello by referring to the normality, even universality, of female adultery. “Think every beared fellow that’s but yoked may draw with you” (IV.i.65-67). On the common Elizabethan theme of the vanity of women Nashe writes:

She had rather view her face a whole morning in a looking Glasse then worke by the howre Glasse, shee is more sparing of her Spanish needle than her Spanish gloves, occupies oftner her setting stick then sheeres, and joyes more in her Jewels then in her Jesus.6

The related sin of female pride—indeed when reading some satirists one might almost be tempted to say female sin of pride—is usually central in the satirists' version of the female character. For Iago, “she that was ever fair and never proud” (II.i.149) is a rare, perhaps nonexistent, woman. For Arthur Dent, writing in 1601, female pride was almost literally earth-shaking:

And truly wee may thinke the very stones on the streete, and the beames in the house do quake, & wonder at their monstrous, intollerable, and excessive pride: for it seemeth that they are altogether a lumpe of pride, a mass of pride, even altogether made of pride, and nothing else but pride, pride.7

Rodney Poisson has written interestingly of the “Italianate antifeminism” of Iago, in an article which establishes the relevance of Renaissance anti-feminism to this play.8 There is no need to place the anti-feminism as particularly Italian: there is abundant anti-feminist material written in English, published in England in Shakespeare's lifetime. Iago's point of view would be familiar enough to the average member of Shakespeare's audience.

Shakespeare uses this ancient though still lively tradition to place Iago and his hatred and fear of women and sexuality. Indeed, Iago is presented as a character who is prepared to accept and to voice group hatred in general, and clichés about groups. Robert Heilman comments on Iago's use of plurals, generic singulars and abstractions to “subtly imply universal experience.”9 It is Iago too who uses the well-known contemporary national slurs: “Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander … are nothing to your English [as drinkers, that is]” (II.iii.79-80). It is he who condemns Venetian women with the traditional insult; it is he who stresses Othello's blackness and strangeness: Iago describes Othello as “an old black ram,” a “Barbary horse” (I.i.88,112) and “an erring Barbarian” and as a typical member of his race: “These Moors are changeable in their wills (I.iii.355). Because of this vision of people as grouped and labelled, he can speak of Desdemona's love for Othello as being, because it is exogamous, a sexual perversion, as displaying a “will most rank” (III.iii.232). And Othello tragically comes to accept this generalized view of his marriage and the generalized view of Desdemona.

For as Iago gradually takes possession of Othello, Othello loses sight of the actual Desdemona, his wife whom he trusts and admires and of whose love he has ample evidence; he sees instead only the sexual generalization, the woman, the Venetian, the stranger. Though his own senses assure him of her truth: “If she be false, then Heaven mocks itself,” he prefers rather to trust Iago's words. Indeed, this play is very much concerned with the power of words as opposed to the lesser power of evidence. Othello comes to see Desdemona as a “lewd minx” (II.iii.476), “public commoner” (IV.ii.73), “impudent strumpet” (IV.ii.81) and “that cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.89). Othello is, as Rodney Poisson points out, all the more easily convinced by Iago because Iago's accusations would sound all too familiar to him, as to any man or woman of the period. The pattern is ready waiting for any calumniated woman to be fitted into it, as Imogen was fitted into it, and even the unaccused Hermione. And Othello knew little of women and of the ordinary world of social intercourse:

Little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle


This is why Iago chooses to ruin Othello in the way that he does, realizing that Othello depends on his ancient's superior knowledge of the Venetian world and of women. Othello says of Iago:

This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit
Of human dealings


Othello, then, is a play which voices clearly a bitter hostility towards women and towards sex. Women are whores or madams, sheep and mares. But while voicing this attitude, Othello also demonstrates clearly, though with hardly any direct comment, a contrasting view, so that there is an ironic counterpoint between words and action. The actual women of the play compel our admiration partly for their command of the very virtues which Iago and the satirists believe them to lack. Desdemona has indeed been criticized as being excessively saintly. When Cassio greets her:

Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven,
Before, behind thee, and on every hand
Enwheel thee round


his words sound more like a description of her present state than a wish for her future state. Her chastity is so instinctive that she cannot imagine considering adultery. Her charity is almost beyond comprehension: despite her natural terror of death, she entirely forgives Othello to the point of lying with her last breath to shield him. She even forgives and prays for her unknown defamer, when Emilia guesses that such a person must exist: “If any such there be, Heaven pardon him” (IV.ii.135). Every speech in its very structure and diction shows her frankness and her simplicity: even her two lies reveal her nature, one in its childlike anxiety to avert the anger of an authority, the other in its final nobility. Above all, Shakespeare stresses Desdemona's love for Othello. He presents her with superb economy so that she becomes a sort of embodiment of love in speech and action. She is prepared to court Othello, to defy her father for him, to go to war with him, to bear his blows and insults, and to lie with her last breath for his sake. Indeed, as Winifred Nowottny has shown, it is the very strength of the love for which she marries a stranger which leaves her particularly vulnerable to Iago's insinuations in the temptation scene.10 For Othello too easily forgets that her bold actions are tokens of love, and in his lack of confidence in his own judgement of such matters, is made to think them rather signs of female depravity. He has been told that women are depraved: his knowledge that a woman can love is based merely on his own senses. Even by the end of the play, Othello has not fully grasped the completeness and depth of Desdemona's love, for if he had, he could never claim that he was “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” The comparative poverty of his love would be too clear. His love is rich enough in its power to delight: even when he is convinced of her adultery, his sense of her graces and talents compel him to acknowledge “the pity of it” (IV.i.197); even as he is about to kill her, he is overcome with her beauty. His love is also strong enough in its power to shatter lives. Yet it is less than Desdemona's in that it lacks the power of forgiveness, and of perfect trust. As Philip Edwards says, “the fact that he can allow suspicion of Desdemona to enter his mind … argues his love as simply not on her level.”11

Desdemona in her lovingness and virtue is obviously remarkable and exceptional. As such, she cannot really be seen as necessarily counteracting the views of the anti-feminists, as most of the satirists after all would be prepared to concede some remarkable exceptions to their rule—perhaps the Virgin Mary, perhaps the Virgin Queen. But, of course, Desdemona is not the only female character of the play. And if her virtues seem rare and remote, then those of Emilia and Bianca are much more readily imaginable and accessible—more human in that they are more flawed.

Emilia, indeed, voices the one explicit defence of woman in the play by stressing the common, flawed humanity of men and women, in much the same way that Shylock expresses the common needy humanity of Jews in The Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare's earlier Venetian play of justice and forgiveness:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us shall we not revenge?


In a similar vein, with similar rhetorical questions, and similarly to defend a hypothetical or proposed wrong action, Emilia points out the ordinary human fallibility of women:

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty as men have?


As E. A. M. Colman points out, “Emilia's apologia, even by its very pace and tone, establishes for Othello as a whole, the feeling that reasonableness still exists, that despite all the perversion and furies an ordinary recognisable world will somehow prevail.”12 Like her husband, Emilia is well aware of human weaknesses; but whereas he responds to such weakness with a kind of gloating contempt, her reaction is more humane and charitable. Emilia, in her basic humanity, has a most useful function in the play in that she provides a kind of release for the audience by voicing its ordinary spontaneous “low” reactions to the speech and actions of the major characters. For instance, after Desdemona's breath-taking prayer for her hypothetical accuser “Heav’n pardon him,” Emilia retorts “A halter pardon him and hell gnaw his bones,” (IV.ii.136), and in the final scene, she relieves the audience greatly by actually naming Othello a fool. She is not too scrupulous to pilfer the handkerchief, not too pure to use the word “whore” or to consider a suitably rewarded adultery; yet it should be noted that in these faults she is in a twisted way considering her husband's welfare. However, finally she rises above the moral level at which her marriage has established her: “Tis proper I obey him, but not now” (V.ii.195). In extremes, her instinct is for truth and for faithfulness to the best that she knows, which is Desdemona. She tells her husband in outraged love and truth:

You told a lie; an odious, damned lie;
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie …


I will speak liberal as the north.
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.


She shows an unquestioning courage in the face of the swords of both Iago and Othello:

Thou hast not half the power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt.


Like Desdemona, she dies at the hands of her husband; like Desdemona, she dies full of love, vindicating the person she loves best:

Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan
And die in music. [singing] Willow, willow, willow.
Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor;
So come my soul to bliss as I speak true;
So speaking as I think, I die, I die.


Ultimately, her motive and her values are the same as Desdemona's: Emilia's essential role as the revealer of the truth in this last scene of the play is an expression of love.

Indeed, this is true of all the women in the play. The third of these, Bianca, is of course foolish, inarticulate and ridiculous, but again what is significant and remarkable about her is her love for Cassio, a love which, like Desdemona's for Othello and Emilia's for Desdemona, is uncommon, in excess of what is normally expected: “I never knew a women love man so” (IV.i.111). Shakespeare rapidly establishes through her speech habits two significant elements of Bianca's love, its absurdity and its jealous tendency. Her absurdity is established through her use of the standard lover's hyperbole, appropriate enough in the lips of a Juliet but not on those of a whore:

What, keep a week away? Seven days and nights?
Eight score eight hours? And lovers' absent hours
More tedious than the dial eight score times
O weary reck’ning.


Her jealousy appears through vigorous, vulgar (and totally realistic) scolding:

This is some minx's token and I must take out the work?
There! [She throws down the handkerchief].
Give it to your hobbyhorse.


Both the jealousy and the absurdity are significant because Othello must see Cassio laugh at Bianca and think he is laughing at Desdemona, and because he must also see Bianca throw down the handerkerchief. These actions, which spring from her excessive passion, provide Bianca with a dramatic function. Her inordinate love gives her a role in the play, in the same way as Emilia's love gives her the role of revealer of the truth in the last scene, and Desdemona's love provides a basic tenet of the whole plot. And although like Othello Bianca is jealous, her love is not like his—ultimately destructive, but protective. Her love gives her courage, as it gave courage to Desdemona and Emilia; it gives her the courage to stay with the wounded Cassio, the courage to avow her actions to Iago, and to defy his condemnation of her.

Thus all the women in the play are lovers, are faithful and courageous. In contrast with most of the men of the play, with Roderigo, Cassio and of course, above all Othello, they are uncorrupted, unmoved from their avowed standards and acknowledged alliances. Under pressure from Iago's mastery of words and skill in manipulating established prejudices, Roderigo abandons his hazy sense of Desdemona's virtue and the special nature of his love for her, Cassio his abstinence, and Othello his trust in Desdemona; but Bianca, Emilia and Desdemona stay firm.

The intensity of this play, which is reinforced by its speed, the singleness of its plot, and its small cast, is made yet stronger by its constant references to heaven and hell, to the ultimate destination of the soul.13 All the main characters refer, however thoughtlessly, to redemption and damnation: the bitterest part of Othello's final sufferings is his sense of his eternal severance from Desdemona.

When we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven
And fiends will snatch at it.


This stress on eternal justice has an ironic relation with Othello's insistence on temporal justice, for this is in clear contrast to Desdemona's instinctive forgiveness. Whatever Shakespeare's beliefs were, and this is not at issue here, this play obviously uses in its “evaluation of justice in its relation to love”14 the Pauline contrast between the new covenant and the old, between grace and law, forgiveness and justice. It is, in this context, the women of the play who embody Christian values. They are motivated by love, not by justice, that is by the new covenant and not the old. Desdemona's love for Othello is larger than his for her because it includes agape as well as eros. Futhermore, their behaviour is Christian in that they are not transmitters of the pain they receive, as Iago is when he turns his large and general sense of being wronged into a brilliant campaign of destruction, or as Othello is when his agony of jealousy drives him to murder. Desdemona, in forgiving any wrong which has been done her, attempts to prevent that wrong from passing on, while Emilia, more effectively, finally insists on full publicity for the truth and thus prevents her husband's lies from doing any further damage.15

The issue between Iago and Emilia is honesty and dishonesty, as the issue between Othello and Desdemona is love and justice. Indeed, the complex interaction between the two marriages is illuminating. In this play, we see Iago deliberately lead Othello away from his trust in Desdemona, his wife, into corruption and folly. Desdemona, quite unconsciously, causes Emilia to be led from her trust in Iago, her husband, and thus from corruption and folly. Desdemona weighs against Iago not only with Othello but with Emilia. Man gravitates towards man destructively, woman towards woman redemptively. Emilia has an Othello-like role again in Act Five where, as Othello had before, she must face an accusation against her spouse. But in Othello's position, Emilia is direct, immediate: immediately and publicly she faces her husband with the charge against him and insists on verification. Othello had indeed also asked for verification:

Villain be sure thou prove my love a whore!
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;
Or by the worth of my eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath.


But this demand is satisfied more by its own dramatic force than by a proper answer and is in any case addressed to the wrong person. Othello is diverted by the extremity of his own emotion, and by the vehement expression of it, and yet it is sincere emotion. Emilia is not without feelings: indeed she’s almost dumbstruck: “my husband” she repeats incredulously; yet unlike Othello, she does not allow the strength of her feelings to divert her from action and the quest for truth.

Of course, part of the tragedy springs from the inadequacy of the women of the play, from Bianca's amorousness, Emilia's willingness to pilfer and above all Desdemona's reluctance to oppose and question Othello. Yet on the whole, the women of the play are dramatic contradictions of Iago's generalized and distorted view of human nature because they are concerned with love, and because, as John Bayley says in his discussion of Othello, “the capacity to love—though it contains the desire of possession—is quite separate from the urge to dominate by knowing and placing,”16 as Iago does.

The wide currency in Shakespeare's England of the traditional prejudice against women which Iago voices is demonstrated by the host of pamphlets with such titles as: The Proude Wyves Pater Noster; The deceyte of women, to the instruction and example of all men, yonge and olde; A glass to view the Pride of Vainglorious women; My Ladies Looking Glasse; The Slights of Wanton Maids and so on. This tradition clearly enables the jealous husbands of faithful wives in Shakespeare's later plays, Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes, to turn circumstantial evidence into an instant conviction of guilt and a hatred of woman—“there’s no motion / That tends to vice in man, but I affirm / it is the woman's part” (Cymbeline II.v.20-22). In Othello, such prejudice is used to place evil: Iago is placed partly by his use of such destructive and demonstrably false generalizations and cynical stock attitudes. And these attitudes in turn are implicitly and strongly placed by the very fact that they are the stock-in-trade of such a man as Iago.


  1. Esther Sowernam (pseud.) Ester hath Hang’d Haman … 1617 pp. 31-2, quoted by Juliet Dusinberre in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975) p. 180.

  2. Louis B. Wright, Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1935), p. 466.

  3. The School-House of Women was probably written by Edward Gosynhill: the date of its first edition is probably 1542, though the earliest copy extant is dated (doubtfully) 1550 by the Short Title Catalogue. See Wright, p. 468.

  4. All references to Shakespeare's works are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare ed. Hardin Craig (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1961).

  5. The Anatomie of Absurditie (1588) in Works ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, Rev. F. P. Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958) I, 12-13.

  6. Nashe, 18.

  7. The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heaven (1601) quoted by Wright, p. 479.

  8. “The ‘Calumniator Credited’ and the Code of Honour in Shakespeare's Othello,English Studies in Canada II (1976), 381-401.

  9. Magic in the Web: Action & Language in Othello (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), pp. 196-97.

  10. “Justice and Love in Othello,University of Toronto Quarterly, 21 (1951), 330-344.

  11. Shakespeare and the Confines of Art (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 126.

  12. The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare (London: Longman's, 1974), p. 126.

  13. See Magic in the Web, p. 251 for a descriptive catalogue.

  14. Nowottny, 330.

  15. Both the behaviour of these two women and its varying effectiveness is in keeping with their roles in the stories of detraction discussed by Joyce C. Sexton in The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare (Victoria, B.C.: ELS Monograph Series 12, 1978). She speaks of “the traditional sense that the victim of detraction is helpless” and goes on to discuss “the absolute necessity that the unjustly accused woman regain her good fame, that the truth be widely publicized” (p. 45). Such publicity for the truth is Emilia's achievement.

  16. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (New York: Basic Books, 1961), p. 205.

Graham Bradshaw (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Obeying the Time in Othello: A Myth and the Mess It Made,” in English Studies, Vol. 73, No. 3, June, 1992, pp. 211-28.

[In the following essay, Bradshaw explores whether Othello consummates his marriage to Desdemona, examining the element of timing in the play.]

Although it is factitious and distracting, the theory or myth of ‘double time’ is still respectfully trundled out in every modern scholarly edition of Othello, even the most recent.1 It has been as long-lived as Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear, which held the stage for a century and a half, and, like that adaptation, deserves to be firmly laid to rest. It betrays its bad nineteenth century provenance in three different (though related) ways. First, it expects Shakespearean poetic drama to repay an approach which (as C.P. Sanger's examination of the handling of time in Wuthering Heights famously showed) is more appropriate to mid-nineteenth century novels; this, as Jane Adamson crisply put it, leads ‘our attention away from Othello's obsession, towards the kind of details that might obsess an Inspector from Scotland Yard’.2 Secondly, it is bardolatrous, and offends against what Richard Levin has called the undiscussed principle of Knowing When to Give Up.3 For although the theory describes and depends on what is unashamedly called a ‘trick’, which makes a few scrupulous critics like Bradley and Emrys Jones squeamish, this is usually seen as an occasion for bardolatrous rejoicing. Finally, the theory cannot be separated from that nineteenth century tendency which found its glorious apotheosis in Verdi's Otello. Othello is the ‘Noble’ Moor, Desdemona is beatified, Iago is demonised—and, in the opera, even gets a satanic ‘Credo’. There is then no need for a drastically compressed time scheme, and indeed Verdi's lovers, like Giraldi Cinthio's in the Italian source story, have been married for some time: here Arrigo Boito, Verdi's brilliant librettist and collaborator in Otello and Falstaff, might just as well have claimed of Otello what he claimed of Falstaff—that he had returned the Shakespearean play to its native Italian source.4Otello is a work of genius, and the ‘Double Time Scheme’ a product of misguided bardolatrous ingenuity; but neither makes sense of (I want to say, more bluntly, the nineteenth century couldn’t make sense of) the dramatic and psychological effect of Shakespeare's purposefully drastic compression of the loose, indefinite ‘romance’ time in the Italian novella.5

As Emrys Jones emphasises in Scenic Form in Shakepeare,6 it is important not to confuse ‘double time’ with accelerated time, which is theatrically indispensable, commonplace, and usually untroubling. So, for example, nearly five hours of ‘stage’ time and less than a minute of ‘real’ time pass between that moment in 2.2 when we hear the Herald proclaim ‘full libertie of Feasting from this present houre of five’, and our hearing Iago observe in 2.3 that ‘’tis not yet ten o’clocke’. What follows in 2.3 is more remarkable, since the first night in Cyprus passes during this scene; Jones pertinently compares this with Richard III, 5.3, which takes us through the night before the battle of Bosworth. So, by the time the scene ends, the triumphant Iago can tell Roderigo that

Thou know'st we worke by Wit, and not by Witchcraft
And Wit depends on dilatory time,

and exclaim, with self-congratulatory cheerfulness:

Introth ’tis Morning;
Pleasure, and Action, make the houres seeme short.

(2.3.362-3, 368-9)

Indeed this is exuberantly and unnervingly witty: the surrogate dramatist who has produced chaos in this scene and whose reference to ‘Witchcraft’ gleefully recalls his earlier triumph over Brabantio seems here to be sharing a professional joke with the real dramatist, whose own skill in managing this scene's accelerated time has helped to ‘make the houres seeme short’.

The third act follows in similarly precipitate fashion. When Iago encounters Cassio again in 3.1 he asks, ‘You have not bin a-bed then?’, and Cassio reminds him that ‘the day had broke before we parted’; Emilia then enters, telling Cassio (and us) that the ‘Generall and his wife are talking’ of Cassio's disgrace—not were, but ‘are’, talking of it, now. Although Emilia has heard enough of this conversation to be able to assure Cassio that Desdemona ‘speakes for you stoutly’, while Othello ‘protests’ that he ‘needs no other Suitor, but his likings' to reinstate Cassio after a prudent interval, Cassio determines to stay for ‘some breefe Discourse’ with Desdemona ‘alone’. The brief glimpse of Othello in 3.2 shows him already busy with the day's work: the letters for the Senate have already been written, and he sets off to inspect the ‘Fortification’. By now the play is half over, without its being at all obvious that this is a play—the play—about ‘adultery’ and jealousy’.

Throughout this first half of the play the only indeterminate period of time is that taken up by the voyage to Cyprus, when (it is emphasised) Othello and Desdemona are in different ships. To say there is nothing troubling about this carefully managed compression of the Italian story's time scheme would be heartless: to be sure, it maximises tension and the continuity between the scenes in a theatrically impressive way, but it also ensures—takes pains to ensure—that the newly married lovers have so little time together. When Othello leads Desdemona off to bed some hours after their arrival in Cyprus (and immediately after telling Cassio to report the next morning at his ‘earliest’ convenience) he confirms that the marriage still has not been consummated:

Come my deere Love,
The purchase made, the fruites are to ensue,
That profit's yet to come ’tweene me, and you.


The stage direction for Iago's entrance follows these lines, leaving open the possibility that he arrives on stage just in time to hear Othello's words and perhaps register some malignantly interested response. Be that as it may, his next words show that Iago is well aware that the marriage still hasn’t been consummated, and he immediately insinuates, in his busy, tirelessly malicious way, that Othello is neglecting his official duties:

’tis not yet ten o’th’clocke. Our Generall
cast us thus earely for the love of his
Who, let us not therefor blame; he hath not yet made wanton the night
with her …


Learning that the marriage still hasn’t been consummated is, for the audience, a confirmation rather than a surprise—precisely because Shakepeare's handling of time has been both careful and suggestive, constantly bringing home how little time these lovers are allowed together. In the second scene they were interrupted by Iago's warning that Brabantio's posse is on its way. Then, after Desdemona's bold affirmation in the Senate scene that she would not be ‘bereft’ of the ‘Rites’, it was determined that the newly-weds would leave that night, in different ships; as Othello tells Desdemona, he has

but an houre
Of Love, of wordly matter, and direction
To spend with thee. We must obey the time.


And of course in 2.3 they are disturbed once again, by that riot which Iago engineers; after quelling the riot Othello goes off to dress Montano's wounds while Desdemona goes back to bed. Indeed, the accelerated time in 2.3 makes it impossible to know how much time the lovers have together before they are disturbed; although critics assume that the marriage is consummated, it is not clear whether this happens before or after the riot, or not at all.

I shall return to this point later, but advocates of the double time theory are more concerned that Desdemona hasn’t had time to sleep with Cassio. So, the ‘difficulty’ which—as the New Arden editor puts it—threatens to make ‘nonsense’ of the ‘dramatic action’ is that within the play's ‘short time’ there is no time in which ‘adultery’ could have ocurred. Nobody doubts that (as Frank Kermode assures us in the Riverside edition) Shakespeare ‘is clearly aware’ of this difficulty.7 But we are to suppose that, having taken such pains to get into it, Shakespeare ‘resolved’ it not by a real extension, or loosening, of the stage time, like that in the second half of The Merchant of Venice,8 but by what the New Arden editor, M. R. Ridley, describes as a craftily engineered ‘trick’: ‘What Shakespeare is doing is to present, before our eyes, an unbroken series of events happening in “short time”, but to present them against a background, of events not presented but implied, which gives the needed impression of “long time”’ (p. lxx). Instead of feeling uneasy about a play that must resort to a trick ‘to make the whole progress of the plot credible’ (p. lxix), the excited Ridley affirms that this ‘throws light on Shakespeare's astonishing skill and judgement as a practical craftsman’: ‘He knew to a fraction of an inch how far he could go in playing a trick upon his audience, and the measure of his success is precisely the unawareness of the audience in the theatre that any trick is being played’ (p. lxx). Dover Wilson similarly invites us to discover and marvel over ‘yet another piece of dramatic legerdemain, the most audacious in the whole canon, which has come to be known as Double Time’.9


One strange feature of this argument appears in that question-begging emphasis on a needful ‘impression’: since ‘short time’ is also, and no less, an ‘impression’ or dramatic illusion, it is hard to see what could prevent the one ‘impression’ jarring against the other. Moreover, although having an ‘impression’ of ‘long time’ is thought to be wonderfully helpful where Desdemona's (alleged) relationship with Cassio is concerned, it wouldn’t be at all helpful to any spectator who then began wondering about Desdemona's (actual) relationship with her husband. What would they be talking about? Where would Othello sleep for however many nights are in question? I hasten to add that I don’t for one moment think we do ask such questions, in reading or watching Shakespeare's play. But then Othello is constantly making us think, and dredging monsters in the mind—whereas the presumed point of creating the ‘impression’ of ‘long time’ is to prevent thought.

Another general difficulty is that the ‘trick’ can work only if we first notice, but then don’t think about, the various alleged ‘instances' and ‘indications' of an illusory period of ‘long time’.10 Here the argument becomes alarmingly circular, and also depends on an elaborate but confidently predictive set of assumptions about what our old, dim friend—the Audience as Monolithic Entity: a fabulous beast with many bodies but a single, unimpressive mind—can be relied upon to notice or not to notice. Evidently, we don’t reflect, when reading or watching Othello, that there has been no time for Desdemona to commit adultery. But then, it’s assumed, we would notice this, or would have noticed it, were it not for all those craftily planted ‘indications' of an illusory period of ‘Long Time’; and this in turn assumes that we will notice, and be tricked by, the ‘indications' of ‘long time’. Finally, this magic circle closes with the further assurance, or assumption, that we won’t also notice and reflect on the discrepancy between the ‘short time’ of the stage action and the illusory ‘impression’ of ‘long time’. Noticing that discrepancy would of course expose the very ‘difficulty’ which the ‘trick’ is to prevent us from noticing—along with other new difficulties which, we shall see, the ‘trick’ introduces. But later, as a kind of reward, we are also being invited to notice, and marvel at, this ‘legerdemain’ as a supreme instance of Shakespearean art. Part of the theory's appeal is that of feeling superior—of being initiated into a bardolatrous inner circle that knows how the trick works and is (as Catherine Earnshaw might say, but all this is very nineteenth century) incomparably above and beyond that dumb uncomprehending creature, the Audience.

Something is evidently wrong, but how much is wrong in Shakespeare's play? To take one of the ‘instances’, it is apparent—on reflection, if not in the theatre—that Lodovico's arrival in Cyprus in Act IV is implausibly rapid, and involves the sort of discrepancy which diligent editors are quite properly expected to spot, and try to account for. As the very diligent New Arden editor observes, ‘the government of Venice can hardly be supposed to recall Othello till there has been time for the report of the Turkish disaster to reach them and for them to send the order for recall’ (p. lxx). Here is a case where we might readily agree that Shakespeare has nodded. Perhaps he failed to notice the lapse; perhaps he noticed it but saw that nothing was to be done, since he could hardly postpone the play's climax for however many days would suffice to forestall such a fribblingly literal-minded objection. We cannot know either way; more to the point, we have little reason to care. So long as we do regard it as an instance of nodding—of Shakespeare failing to notice what few members of his audience would notice—it is not difficult to account for as a loose end, or unwanted consequence of Shakespeare's drastic compression of the Italian story's loose and indeterminate time scheme. However, it is a quite different matter to suppose that this is, as the New Arden editor tells us, a ‘very clear instance’ of the conscious, deliberate and wonderfully crafty way in which the Bard tricks us by including various ‘indications' of an illusory period of ‘long time’. Nor could we suppose that the trick works in this ‘very clear instance’ unless we believe what seems inherently unlikely: that the dim but sturdily reliable Audience (which, if we gave it a shape and form, might resemble Orwell's Boxer) could be counted upon to take in the ‘indication’, though without thinking any more about it.

Let us try another, instructively different ‘instance’. Beady-eyed sleuths have assumed that Bianca's complaint about Cassio's weeklong absence (3.4.173) must refer to a period of time spent in Cyprus:

‘Save you (Friend Cassio).
What make you from home?
How is’t with you, my most faire Bianca?
Indeed (sweet Love) I was comming to your house.
And I was going to your Lodging, Cassio.
What? keepe a weeke away? Seven dayes and Nights?
Eight score eight houres? And Lovers absent howres
More tedious then the Diall, eight score times?
Oh weary reck’ning.
Pardon me, Bianca:
I have this while with leaden thoughts beene prest,
But I shall in a more continuate time
Strike off this score of absence …


I have quoted so much of this dreadfully undistinguished exchange because I don’t want to be accused of special pleading: Cassio must live in army lodgings and Bianca clearly can’t, but it’s easy to see how the references to her ‘house’ and his ‘Lodging’ made double-time sleuths pounce—supposing that the week in question has passed in Cyprus, and that Cassio's fumbled excuse for his weeklong absence refers back to his catastrophe on the first night in Cyprus. Nonetheless, this must be wrong. If we do take Bianca's reference to a weeklong absence as another ‘indication’ of ‘long time’, then a moment's reflection is enough to suggest that the long time in question must be real not illusory, while the period of time spent in Cyprus must then be considerably longer than a week—since it is also being assumed that the liaison between Cassio and Bianca has run its whole course in Cyprus. We see the New Arden editor assuming this (without reflecting further) when he observes that, although there is ‘no doubt’ that Iago's reference to Bianca as a ‘Huswife, that by selling her desires / Buyes her selfe Bread, and Cloath’ (4.1.94-5) gives ‘Huswife’ its bawdy sense, meaning that Bianca is a courtesan, ‘there is also little doubt that Bianca is also a housewife in the normal sense, a citizen of Cyprus, with her own house, and not a mere camp-follower’ (p. 141). Norman Sanders hedges on this point in the recent New Cambridge edition, saying that ‘there is no clear evidence in the play for or against the idea that Cassio knew Bianca before he landed in Cyprus' (p. 189); but again a moment's reflection suggests what more is ‘clear’. For if the relationship was going on before the journey to Cyprus, there is no need to take Bianca's reference to a weeklong absence as an ‘indication’ of ‘long time’; moreover, the alternative—supposing that they have been in Cyprus for more than a week—produces a quite horrendous difficulty, since the business with the handkerchief in 4.1 is so important within the main action. Nobody can suppose that 4.1 is taking place on the second day in Cyprus and more than a week after the arrival in Cyprus. Iago acquires the handkerchief in 3.3, and that scene clearly takes place on the first morning in Cyprus. In the latter part of 3.4 Cassio enters with Iago and gives Bianca the handkerchief he has found in his ‘lodging’; in the next scene—4.1—she angrily returns it, having examined it ‘even now’ and found impossible to ‘take out’. Time passes between and during these successive scenes, but how much time? Pressing Ridley's argument to its logical conclusion would mean having to suppose that in the handkerchief scene we have that impression of ‘short time’ which the stage action establishes, and a cunningly contrived ‘impression’ of an illusory period of ‘long time’, and a logically inescapable impression of non-illusory ‘long time’.

The ‘double time’ theory cannot resolve this difficulty, since it is what has produced it. Nor can I believe that any spectator or reader who was not already distracted by the theory, and peering excitedly round every textual corner for ‘evidence’ to support it, could suppose that Bianca's complaint shows that a week has passed in Cyprus without also feeling some disturbance and dissatisfaction. Yet the difficulty dissolves if we forget the theory and stay with the ‘short time’. If the meetings between Cassio and Bianca in Acts III and IV take place later on the second day in Cyprus, Bianca's complaint about a weeklong absence then confirms that she was already Cassio's mistress in Venice—where he was already avoiding her, since he likes sleeping with her but has no intention of marrying her. The doting, determined Bianca has followed him to Cyprus, provoking Cassio's complacent complaint to Iago that she ‘haunts me in every place’ (4.1.132): she is a camp-follower in this literal sense, while he, like Mann's Felix Krull, understands that since he is irresistible he should try to make some allowances.


In the Italian story the captain is married; it is Shakespeare who makes his captain a ladies' man, invents ‘the faire Bianca’, and so provides his play with three couples or two trios of men and women with very different attitudes towards the opposite sex, sexual relationships, and marriage. It is not easy to believe that in inventing the Cassio-Bianca liaison Shakespeare never considered when and where it starts. If we suppose that it starts in Cyprus this produces far more problems than the only alternative—which is to stay with the ‘short time’. But then that also helps with two textual cruces, which have led editors who are loyal to the nonsense about double time to pronounce Shakespeare ‘careless’ in his handling of Cassio. They are another part of the mess the myth of double time has made.

We know from Othello's first speech to the Senators that he has spent the last nine months in Venice and found this first experience of civilian life enervating:

since these Armes of mine, had seven years pith,
Till now, some nine Moones wasted, they have us’d
Their deerest action, in the Tented Field …


We also know that during this period Cassio has been with Othello, who prefers him to Iago not only as his chosen lieutenant, but also as the close, trusted friend who frequently accompanied him in his secret wooing and knew of Othello's love ‘from first to last’ (3.3.97). The obvious need for discretion in that case explains Cassio's circumspection in the play's second scene when he pretends not even to know whom Othello might have married, and asks Iago, ‘To who?’ (1.2.53). Similarly, keeping to the ‘short time’ yields a consistent explanation of that other much debated ‘crux’ which is so often said to show that Shakespeare is careless or that the text needs emendation: Iago's apparently knowing but mysterious joke about Cassio being ‘A Fellow almost damn’d in a fair Wife’ (1.1.18) seems mysterious and is knowing because Iago already knows what we cannot yet know.11 Cassio is ‘almost damn’d in a faire Wife’ because, although he wants nothing more than a sexually convenient liaison with the ‘very faire Bianca’, she is determined to marry him—and because, for Iago, to be almost married is to be almost married is to be almost damned.

Iago clearly knows about the Cassio-Bianca relationship and its difficulties in 4.1, when we hear him planning to make use of that knowledge:

Now will I question Cassio
of Bianca,
A Huswife, that by selling her desires
Buyes her selfe Bread, and Cloath. It is Creature
That dotes on Cassio, (as ’tis
the Strumpets plague
To be-guile many, and be be-guil’d by one)
He, when he heares of her, cannot restraine
From the excesse of Laughter.


Unless we have been distracted by the ‘double time’ theory, it is also clear that whatever Iago knows about this liaison in 4.1, on the second day in Cyprus, must also have been known to him in the play's first scene, which takes place only hours before Iago and Cassio set off (again in different ships) for Cyprus. But the New Arden and New Cambridge editors have been distracted by the theory. Ridley explains in his long note on ‘A Fellow almost damn’d in a faire Wife’ that this cannot allude to Cassio's liaison with Bianca, since at this ‘moment he has not met her’ (p. 4)—just as Barbara Everett refers to, and supposes that Iago's cynical joke cannot refer to, ‘Cassio's future affair with the whore, Bianca’ (p. 209). And in the recent New Cambridge edition Norman Sanders recycles the idea that both Iago's remark and the way in which Cassio ‘appears to be completely ignorant of Othello's interest in Desdemona’ in 1.2 are ‘inconsistencies', and make the character of Cassio ‘something of a puzzle’ (pp. 189, 16).

I think this wrong, but it might be objected that the kind of explanation I am offering is embarrassingly like the argument for ‘double time’, which floats on an elaborate and implausible tapestry of assumptions about what an audience would or would not notice in performance. Yet there is an important difference.

Certainly, no spectator watching the play for the first time could know, when Cassio asks, ‘To who?’, that Cassio has reason to be discreet. Edwin Booth's recommendation that the actor playing Cassio should signal circumspection—letting on that there is something Cassio isn’t letting on—is pedantically fussy and dramatically unhelpful: even if we noticed and stored the signal we couldn’t make sense of it until the revelations in 3.3, while any such signalling would threaten to make Cassio seem the kind of friend who couldn’t be trusted to keep a confidence. Similarly, nobody watching the play for the first time and hearing Iago describe Cassio as ‘almost damn’d in a faire Wife’ could know about the liaison with Bianca and its difficulties. Shakespeare is giving Iago and Cassio lines that are consistent with their characters and situation—but the first-time spectator or reader is in no position to see how.

In other words, this kind of explanation is peculiar because it addresses a peculiar kind of ‘problem’: the problem is as remote as its solution from theatrical experience. No spectator would see the ‘inconsistency’ in Cassio's question, or start trembling before a ‘crux’. As for Iago's joke, since it is ambiguously phrased a spectator might feel uncertain how to take it, or might just mistake it, supposing that Cassio must be married and, for some reason, badly matched. The play has only just begun, Cassio has only just been mentioned, and we know nothing about Bianca. We are only beginning to put things together and make sense of what we are making out: in a significant sense we expect to understand, and have no reason to suspect that our information may be contradictory. In both cases the ‘problem’ or ‘crux’ appears only when we are studying the text closely and, as it were, reading and thinking forwards and backwards—or when we are reading the text in a modern scholarly edition and letting our eye be dragged down to the ballast of notes beneath the precious ribbon of Shakespearean matter. As that ribbon thins, we know that scrupulous editors have discovered a difficulty which we had better attend to, now, if we want to be sure we won’t forget its existence; but unfortunately, because editors are usually more concerned with the play as text than with the text as play, they rarely point out (or notice) when a difficulty which the text throws out and which has exercised generations of editors isn’t apparent in performance. The ‘problem’ is there in the text but, like its explanation, cannot be a part of our initial dramatic experience.

This peculiar kind of problem is best considered as a question about dramatic intention. Shakespeare clearly was in a unique situation to be thinking backwards and forwards, and wouldn’t have given Cassio his question or Iago that joke unless he thought the lines meant something when he wrote them. Shakespeare wrote quickly, and on the whole rather well, but he could write badly, as in that slovenly verse exchange between Cassio and Bianca; he could fail to notice some problems which are there in the text and there in the play, like Lady Macbeth's giving suck or Jessica's account of conversations between Shylock and Tubal which could only have taken place after her elopement; he could be negligent about minor matters and characters, like Lodovico's implausibly rapid arrival in Cyprus. But such things aren’t as surprising as it would be if, after taking pains to compress his time scheme and keep Othello and Desdemona apart, Shakespeare had carelessly given them an extra week or two in Cyprus without considering what they might do there, or talk about. As for Cassio and Bianca, Shakespeare is perfunctory about filling in the background of their relationship. Ibsen once remarked that he liked to work everything out ‘down to the last button’ before beginning to write; Shakespeare doesn’t attend to buttons so closely, but there is an important difference between not working things out and not making them clear. That an explanation is available within the play's ‘short time’ suggests that in this case—as indeed with Iago's joke—the perfunctoriness is that of a dramatist who is writing rapidly and with a very sure sense of his characters and their situations, but hasn’t paused to consider whether what is clear to him might seem less than clear to an audience. Once we comb through the text, putting together scattered references and weighing alternative possibilities, the text shows why the Cassio-Bianca relationship must have been going on during the same nine month period as Othello's secret wooing. To say this is not to suppose that Othello's specific reference to ‘nine Moones' would be noticed and remembered by every attentive spectator: the theatre is not a court or classroom, and we might well pay more attention to the information that this was his first experience of civilian life than to his specification of the precise period of time in question. The point is rather that we could expect, and can confirm, that Shakespeare thought carefully about what important matters need to have taken place before his play starts.


But now we can observe what is most strange about that basic assumption on which the ‘double time’ theory rests. It is always taken for granted that there is a ‘difficulty’ which, as Dover Wilson proudly observes, ‘might well have seemed insuperable to any ordinary dramatist’: ‘For, if Othello and Desdemona consummated their marriage during the first night in Cyprus, when could she have committed the adultery that Iago charges her with?’ (p. xxxii). This is true only if we are using the word ‘adultery’ in a strict, legalistic sense—but what warrant does the play provide for supposing that Othello is concerned only with what might have happened after his marriage?

Early in 3.3, the ever vigilant Iago hears Desdemona protest to Othello that she could not have ‘so much to do’ in pleading on behalf of that very friend who

came a wooing with you? and so many a time
(When I have spoke of you dispraisingly)
Hath tane your part …


Once Iago is alone with Othello, he can launch his first direct assault by concentrating on that very question to which Desdemona has just provided the answer:

Did Michael Cassio
When you woo’d my Lady, know of your love?
He did, from the first to last: Why dost thou aske?
But for a satisfaction on my Thought,
No further harme.
What of thy thought, Iago?
I did not thinke he had bin acquinted with hir.
O yes, and went betweene us very oft.
Indeed? I indeed. Discern'st thou ought in that?
Is he not honest?
Honest, my Lord?
Honest? I, Honest.
My Lord, for ought I know.
What do'st thou thinke?
Thinke, my Lord?
Thinke, my Lord? Alas, thou ecchos’t me;
As if there were some Monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shewne …

In capitalising on his new knowledge Iago must tread very carefully: if the marriage was consummated hours before, Othello is likely to know whether his wife was a virgin. Throughout this first stage of the assault what is in question is not the absurd suggestion that Desdemona has committed adultery with Cassio since her wedding, in what would indeed be ‘stolen hours'; Iago's insinuation, as he feels his way forward, is that something took place before the wedding, which can be expected to continue, and would explain Desdemona's passionate concern to have Cassio reinstated—and we see the ‘Monster’ emerging in Othello's own mind as he begins to make out what is in question. Similarly, when Iago later promises Othello that he will persuade Cassio to ‘tell the Tale anew; / Where, how, how, how oft, how long ago, and when / He hath, and is againe to cope your wife’ (4.1.85-6), this is not another ‘indication’ of ‘long time’, as editors tell us: Iago is once again conjuring up that nightmare of a promiscuous liaison which began when Cassio was the trusted friend who ‘very oft’ went between the lovers. This nightmare is familiar: the situation in the Sonnets is not as irrelevant as Dover Wilson supposes.

Yet this suggests that there is no ‘difficulty’ which requires a ‘needful impression’ of ‘long time’. Not only does the theory of ‘Double Time’ not work, or work to ruinous effect: it is redundant. At this point, and with these various objections to the theory in mind, it is worth quickly running through those other alleged ‘indications’ of ‘long time’ which are conveniently (and confidently) set out in the New Arden introduction and notes. The first two ‘instances’, involving references to the handkerchief, are perhaps the most troubling, but suggest negligence rather than the carefully laid foundation for the edifice of Double Time. The others are no more compelling than the ‘very clear instance’ of Lodovico's premature arrival (really an instance of Shakespeare nodding) or of Cassio's weeklong absence from Bianca (which makes good sense in the play's ‘short time’, and produces nightmarish complications if taken as evidence of ‘long time’).

(1) 3.3.296 [Iago's asking Emilia to steal the handkerchief ‘a hundred times’]. There is no reason to suppose that Iago had not often seen it. in Othello's possession or in Desdemona's when, in her girlish way, she kisses and talks to it (3.3.295).

(2) 3.3.313 [‘so often did you bid me steale’] Ditto; and, as Ridley himself observes, this ‘might have been on voyage’.

(3) 3.3.344-8 [Othello on ‘stolne houres of Lust’ which ‘harm’d not me’]. Othello's speech is rapid and excited, but makes better sense in relation to the lengthy period before the marriage. His reference to ‘the next night’ need not refer to the first night in Cyprus, unless we refuse to suppose that Othello could have kissed Desdemona before marriage.

(4) 3.3.419 [‘I lay with Cassio lately’]. That is, in Venice, where (as Iago now knows) Cassio was ‘very oft’ alone with Desdemona; the ‘foregone conclusion’ Othello tormentedly imagines would have preceded the marriage.

(5) 3.4.97 [‘I nev’r saw this before’] Desdemona (who has been pursued by other suitors) is simply saying that she has never before seen any sign that Othello is prone to jealousy.

(6) 4.1.50f [the ‘second Fit’ of ‘Epilepsie’]. Iago is lying about the earlier fit, in order to get rid of Cassio. Any direct confrontation between Othello and Cassio might be catastrophic, so he improvises cleverly, assuring Cassio that this has happened before and that he knows what to do.

(7) 4.1.85-6 [Iago's promise to make Cassio ‘tell the Tale anew’]. Iago is speaking of the whole period from the wooing to the present—and into the future.

(8) 4.1.132 [‘I was the other day talking on the Sea-banke with certaine Venetians’]. The conversation was taking place in Venice; ironically, Ridley finds in ‘Sea-banke’ a ‘suggestion of something raised above sea-level’—which might in turn have suggested Venice if Ridley were not so sure that Bianca is a Cypriot householder.

(9) 4.1.274 [Iago's ‘what I have seene and knowne’]. It is quite arbitrary to take this as an indication of ‘long time’.

(10) 4.2.23 [‘she’le kneele, and pray: I have seene her do’t’]. Othello's remark makes perfectly good sense if he has only ever seen her kneel and pray once, on their first night in Cyprus.

(11) 4.2.1-10 [dialogue between Emilia and Othello]. This is compatible with ‘short time’; Emilia was with Desdemona and Cassio, at the beginning of 3.3.

(12) 5.2.213 [‘a thousand times committed’]. Othello is speaking wildly, not attempting a sober calculation of what sexual feats a young hotblooded Florentine might manage; still, the exaggeration is less grotesque if the period in question includes the months (up to nine) of the wooing.

To dismiss this horribly long-lived idea that the play depends upon a trick to make its action credible is a critical relief, but historically disquieting—unless we can also see why the theory has had so long a life. Here, rather than simply dismiss it as groundless, we should notice how it is grounded on that willingness to generalise about the audience as a monolithic entity which has resurfaced in the ‘new’ historiscism12, and on a corresponding interpretative assumption which emerges very clearly in Dover Wilson's Cambridge edition: ‘An accusation of premarital incontinence would not have served either [Iago's] purpose or Shakespeare's, since adultery was required to make Othello a cuckold, and it is the dishonourable stigma of cuckoldry that maddens Othello once his confidence has gone and, we may add, greatly increased the excitement for a Jacobean audience’ (p. xxxii). This of course raises fundamental questions about what Shakespeare's play is ‘about’, but Dover Wilson tells us, and in terms which show that persisting nineteenth-century tendency to see Shakespeare's Othello in terms more appropriate to Verdi's Othello: in ‘its simplest terms’, ‘the tragedy of Othello represents the destruction of a sublime love between two noble spirits through the intrigues of a villain devilish in his cunning and unscrupulousness’ (p. xxx). These terms are indeed ‘simple’, or simplistic; they deliver a play very much less intelligent than Shakespeare's, not least by preserving the Romantic, Coleridgean assumption that murdering Desdemona would have been all right, or at least compatible with being very noble, if only she had committed adultery.


‘We must obey the time’, Othello tells his bride: the ‘rites’ she eagerly awaits must wait. But here too critics who are obedient to the myth of double time get into further difficulties. As I observed earlier, there is nothing in 2.3 to tell us—and the accelerated time makes it more than ever difficult to guess—whether the marriage is consummated before the riot, or after it, or not at all. The established assumption is that it is consummated, and some readings—like that in Stephen Greenblatt's immensely influential Renaissance Self-Fashioning—fall apart if we think that it isn’t.

Here it seems worth recording how my own experience ran counter to what critics and editors assume we ‘naturally’ assume. Having seen the play twice as a schoolboy before I ever read it, then read it several times before I ‘studied’ it and consulted critics, I had always supposed that the marriage wasn’t consummated. I still thought that in a 1979 article where I refered to the murder as this marriage's ‘poetic consummation’, giving that word ‘poetic’ the unfairly cruel sense it has in talk of ‘poetic justice’.13 That was unguarded, in assuming what is by no means an inevitable reading, and I found myself prompted to a more systematic consideration in 1983, when Essays in Criticism published an article called ‘Othello's Unconsummated Marriage’.14 The authors, T.G.A. Nelson and Charles Haines, carefully explored the whole question of whether we are to suppose that the marriage is consummated, and concluded that it isn’t. Since they were also arguing that Othello's behaviour is the result of unbearable sexual frustration their reading was diametrically opposed to Greenblatt's, though similarly reductive. Setting that aside, their textual arguments for thinking that the marriage is not consummated were unprecedentedly thorough, but open to three objections.

The first may well seem the most important to readers who assume that consummation takes place in 2.3. Nelson and Haines are confusing ‘stage’ time with ‘real’ time when they say that ‘Othello and Desdemona have hardly gone to bed when a brawl begins’ (p. 4), and that when Othello does, ‘in the end, get back to bed’ (after going off with the seriously injured Montano to tend his wounds), ‘there is, indeed, nothing left of the night’ (p. 5). Later, Desdemona's touchingly innocent assumption that the ‘pain’ on Othello's forehead is caused by ‘watching’ (3.3.289) confirms that Othello has spent much of the night looking after Montano, but doesn’t tell us how much. In other words, Nelson and Haines don’t reckon with the complications caused by accelerated time—which is not to be confused with double time. The second objection is prompted by what these critics say of the scene between the clown and the musicians at the start of Act III. Most critics ignore this scene; Nelson and Haines argue, like Lawrence Ross15, that its dramatic ‘point’ is to signal that the serenade is ‘ill-timed, for the even it is intended to celebrate has not yet taken place’ (p. 6). Unfortunately the persuasive argument that the incompetently executed serenade becomes a badly timed, inadvertently mocking charivari is shackled to a far from persuasive argument about Othello's ‘impotence’ and ‘temporary failure of virility’ (p. 17). The third objection seems to me the most important, and is that Nelson and Haines aren’t sufficiently concerned with the wedding sheets. Because they are disposed—like Leavis and Greenblatt—to pluck out the mystery of Othello by offering a psychologically reductive account of Othello as a ‘case’, their textual argument is weakened by their interpretative assumptions. More precisely, because they are so sure how the failure to consummate the marriage matters, they aren’t sufficiently concerned to specify when it most clearly matters, as the play unfolds. Here those sheets matter, quite crucially.

They evidently matter very much to Desdemona in 4.2—either because she has already lost her virginity on them or because she still hasn’t and still wants to. ‘Prythee’, she carefully instructs Emilia, ‘Lay on my bed my wedding sheetes, remember’ (4.2.105). And when Emilia returns in the next scene to assure Desdemona that she has ‘laid those Sheetes you bad me on the bed’, she receives this unnerving reply:

All's one: good Father, how foolish are our minds?
If I do die before, prythee shrow’d me
In one of these same Sheetes.


And in the penultimate scene the idea of bloodied sheets is inflaming Othello's mind, as he determines, ‘Thy bed lust-stain’d, shall with Lusts blood bee spotted’ (5.1.36).

Here, if anywhere, is a ‘difficulty’ which threatens to make ‘nonsense’ of the ‘dramatic action’—or, since an interpretative choice is in question, of all those readings which depend upon the assumption that the marriage is consummated. To take an extreme but influential case, Greenblatt's reading altogether depends upon his assumption that Othello ‘took’ Desdemona's ‘virginity’, ‘shed her blood’, and then not only noticed but became violently obsessed by the condition of the wedding sheets. So, in the final scene the play's ‘symbolic center’ becomes ‘increasingly visible’ (not before time, since there isn’t much left) as the raging Othello ‘comes close to revealing his tormenting identification of marital sexuality—limited perhaps to the night he took Desdemona's virginity—and adultery’.16 Yet this throws out a difficulty which Greenblatt doesn’t recognise because his sampling of the text is so partial, and because in offering his curious explanation of why the sheets matter so much to Othello he never explains, or asks, why they also matter so much to Desdemona. Part of the difficulty, put bluntly and indelicately, is that of understanding why, if Desdemona is no longer a virgin, she should want lust-stained sheets relaid. I dare say there is someone, somewhere, who believes that she is wanting to confront her husband with visual proof of her chastity, so that it is a great pity when Othello decides to put out the light. But that only underlines the other part of the difficulty, which is that of understanding what kind of mental defective could first take his wife's virginity and then, the morning after, become convinced of her continued infidelity. Here Greenblatt's reading might well seem to need—or, if it is not to become risible, depend upon—the double time theory which his ‘perhaps’ discreetly acknowledges. But that theory cannot help here, since 3.3 clearly takes place the morning after the first night in Cyprus, and not even the most convinced advocates of ‘long time’ suppose that Othello and Desdemona are making love between 3.3 and the murder. If the marriage isn’t consummated on that first night in Cyprus it isn’t consummated at all; here the double time theory merely blurs the textual and dramatic issues.

I had better add, since Greenblatt's reading is so influential, that its ‘historical’ component doesn’t help either. Where Leavis saw Othello as a deluded egotist Greenblatt sees him as a deluded Christian convert who is unhinged by the neurotic-making dynamics of ‘orthodox’ Christian (that is, Pauline) teaching on sexuality: so, the ‘dark essence of Iago's whole enterprise’ is to ‘play upon Othello's buried perception of his own sexual relations with Desdemona as adulterous’ (p. 233). Greenblatt's exposition of the ‘centuries-old’, ‘orthodox doctrine that governs Othello's sexual attitudes’ starts from Jerome's ‘An adulterer is he who is too ardent a lover of his wife’, and runs through Augustine and Calvin and other ‘orthodox’ warnings like that in the King's Book, ‘attributed to Henry VIII’, that a man may break the Seventh Commandment and ‘live unchaste with his own wife, if he do unmeasurable or inordinately serve his or her fleshly appetite or lust’. In other words, Greenblatt provides an old historicist cento of highly selective quotations which briskly cuts through many complicated historical and theological issues and is most obviously selective where it matters most—at the Renaissance end. There is no doubt that the desert fathers took up the Pauline exaltation of celibacy with an anti-sexual vengeance, and that—despite some dissidents, like the fifth-century Synesius of Cyrene—this then dominated ‘orthodox’ Christian teaching from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries.17 Nor can we soften the force of Jerome's fourth-century application of the stoic Xystus's ugly little maxim that ‘He who loves his won wife too ardently is an adulterer’ (omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est) by supposing that Jerome means that pleasure in marital sex should be ardent but not too ardent: in Jerome's majestic view any sexual pleasure is excessive and sinful. But this was not quite the view taken by Peter Lombard and Aquinas a millenium later, when they discussed Jerome's recyclings of Xystus's maxim, as appears in this modern theologian's commentary: ‘The man thus denounced is not, apparently, he who entertains too warm an affection for his wife, but he whose amor (that is, his desire for veneral pleasure—the word here does not mean ‘love’, as we understand it) is so vehement that it impels him to abandon the restraint which pays careful regard to the bona matrimonii, and incites him to treat her as if she were merely, like any other woman, a means of lustful gratifications’.18 On this view sexual pleasure is not sinful per se, although it cannot be pursued for its own sake without sin—a venial sin when sought within marriage, and a mortal sin when sought outside it. Greenblatt doesn’t make room for Lombard or Aquinas, and quotes Calvin's warning that ‘the man who shows no modesty or comeliness in conjugal intercourse is committing adultery with his wife’ as though Calvin thought on this matter like Jerome; yet Calvin specifically and very sternly repudiated Jerome's argument that ‘If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one’—affirming that sexual intercourse is a pure institution of God and that the idea that ‘we are polluted by intercourse with our wives’ emanates from Satan (not Paul).19 Greenblatt quotes from the ‘influential’ Raymond and Jacobus Ungarelli, but what of Luther, of Thomas Becon's The Book of Matrimony, or Erasmus's colloquies on marriage—where there is a direct link, not only with the ‘marriage group’ of Sonnets but with the witty sexual frankness of women in Shakespeare's romantic comedies? After quoting Nicolaus of Ausimo's warning that the conjugal act may be without sin, but only if ‘in the performance of this act there is no enjoyment of pleasure’, Greenblatt solemnly concludes that ‘Few summas and no marriage manuals take so extreme a position, but virtually all are in agreement that the active pursuit of pleasure in sexuality is damnable’—but are we then to conclude that Shakespeare's audiences would have thought that Desdemona's forthright declaration in the Senate of what Greenblatt himself describes as a ‘frankly, though by no means exclusively sexual’ passion was ‘damnable’? And if not, why not?

To return to the textual and critical issue: were it not for those references to the sheets, the question of whether this marriage has been consummated—whether Othello and Desdemona had slept together once, like Romeo and Juliet, or not at all—wouldn’t matter in the same way. It might still occur to us to wonder how Othello could entertain the idea of Desdemona's infidelity if, as Greenblatt supposes, he so recently ‘took her virginity’ and ‘shed her blood’; but such a worry would still be, as it were, dispersed through the latter half of the play. The references to the sheets—not to mention a strawberry-spotted handkerchief—are what make this worry immediately pressing and alarmingly definite. And that throws out another difficulty, the moment we ask what on earth Shakespeare is up to. I take it that we should ask that, ignoring the protests of those who prefer to talk of plays ‘emerging’ from ‘fields of discourse’, like poppies: one reason we don’t argue about how to interpret poppies is that poppies aren’t meant.20 And it seems inconceivable that, in so drastically compressing the Italian novella's time scheme, making Othello and Desdemona newly married lovers and then taking such pains to keep them physically apart, Shakespeare never considered whether this marriage was consummated. If we are to think that it is, Shakespeare should have been no less anxious than Iago that Othello shouldn’t consider (and that the audience shouldn’t notice Othello failing to consider) any physical evidence of Desdemona's virginity—especially in an age when it was not uncommon, after nuptials, to display the bloodied wedding sheets or a blood-spotted (strawberry-spotted!) napkin or handkerchief.

By now we might be relieved that the textual evidence of whether the marriage is or is not consummated in 2.3 is so uncertain. For if we think the received idea that it is consummated throws out too many problems, we are free to prefer the alternative reading. Desdemona wants the sheets to be relaid because she is still a virgin, and still poignantly longs for ‘such observancie / As fits the Bridall’ (3.4.147-8). When Othello determines that ‘Thy Bed lust-stain’d, shall with Lusts blood bee spotted’ he is tormenting himself with the deluded thought of what somebody else has done: as Montaigne might say, another bed, other sheets. Virginity, like a life, can only be taken once: in Othello's diseased, self-tormenting imagination all that remains for him to do—the only way in which he can ‘shed her blood’—is to murder her.

In the final scene that horrible tragicomic irony is given a still more dreadful twist. Just as Desdemona could not bring herself to say the word ‘whore’ in 4.2, Othello tells the ‘chaste Starres’ that he cannot ‘name’ the ‘Cause’, but will not ‘shed her blood’ (5.2.2-3). ‘Yet Ile not shed her blood … Yet she must dye …’: what he is talking about—what he has now changed his mind about—is not whether to kill her, but how. This resolution is still insanely ensnarled with his obsessive sense of what he has never done and thinks he can never do—and what his still virginal bride still hopes he will do, as she lies waiting for him on those relaid, unspotted wedding sheets. The murder is indeed this marriage's only consummation, and the ghastly parody of an erotic ‘death’:

And yet I feare you: for you’re fatall then
When your eyes rowle so. Why I should feare. I know not,
Since guiltinesse I know not: But yet I feele I feare.
Thinke on thy sinnes.
They are Loves I beare to you.
I, and for that thou dy'st.
That death's unnaturall, that kils for loving.
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether-lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very Frame …

Her ‘Rose’ is ‘pluck’d’ when the ‘Light’ is finally ‘put out’. I find myself wanting to ask not only Greenblatt but every critic who thinks Othello took Desdemona's virginity not long before, on this bed and these relaid sheets, how they understand Othello's horrible, wrenching words when he realises what he has done and bends over what is now a corpse:

Cold, cold, my Girle?
Even like thy Chastity.

Indeed he has not ‘shed her blood’: that final sniffing and snuffing has been his only ‘possession of this Heavenly sight’. The irony seems obvious, and ‘as grim as hell’.


  1. The double time theory was first outlined by John Wilson (‘Christopher North’) in Blackwood's Magazine, November 1849; April and May 1850. The lengthy discussion in the Variorum Othello, ed. H.H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1886), pp. 358-372, is rather more sceptical than the lengthy discussions in M.R. Ridley's New Arden edition (London, 1965), pp. lxvii-lxx, and Norman Sanders's recent New Cambridge edition (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 14-17.

  2. Jane Adamson, ‘Othelloas Tragedy: Some problems of judgement and feeling (Cambridge, 1980), p. 7.

  3. Richard Levin, ‘Shakespearean Defects and Shakespeareans' Defenses’, in Maurice Charney, ed., ‘BadShakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon (London and Toronto, 1988), pp. 23-36.

  4. See my essay ‘Verdi and Boito as Translators’, in James Hepokoski, Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 152-171. For an excellent discussion of what Otello owes to the nineteenth-century Continental understanding of Shakespeare see Hepokoski's ‘Boito and F.-V. Hugo's “Magnificent Translation”: A Study in the Genesis of the Otello Libretto’, in Arthur Groos and Roger Parker's collection, Reading Opera (Princeton, 1988), pp. 34-59.

  5. See the discussion of Shakespeare's treatment of Italian novelle in my Shakespeare's Scepticism (Brighton, 1987), pp. 22-4.

  6. See the very searching chapter on ‘Time and Continuity’ in Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1971), especially pp. 41-3 and 54-63.

  7. The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1199.

  8. I discuss this in ‘The Merchant of Venice: Does Jessica Lie?’, Meridian (October 1986), pp. 99-108.

  9. See John Dover Wilson's New Cambridge edition of Othello (Cambridge. 1957), p. xxxi.

  10. The quotations in this paragraph are all from Ridley's discussion in the New Arden edition.

  11. In Young Hamlet (Oxford, 1989) Barbara Everett discusses this at length, as ‘one of the best-known and longest-unresolved cruces in the canon’, and proposes that damn’d (Q: dambd) should read limn’d: pp. 208-225. The Furness Variorum footnotes cover five pages.

  12. At the outset of Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford, 1988) Greenblatt explains that the ‘“Shakespearean theater” is the product of collective intentions’ and ‘manifestly addresses its audience as collectivity’; it ‘depends upon a felt community’, and there is ‘no attempt to isolate and awaken the sensibilities of each individual member of the audience, no sense of the disappearance of the crowd’ (p. 5).

  13. ‘Another Sentimentalist's Othello?’, Dutch Quarterly Review, vol. 4 (1979), pp. 49-61.

  14. T.A.G. Nelson and Charles Haines, ‘Othello's Unconsummated Marriage’, Essays in Critisism, vol. 33 (1983). pp. 1-18.

  15. See Lawrence J. Roses, ‘The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare’, Studies in the Renaissance 7 (1960) pp. 225-240, and ‘Shakespeare's “Dull Clown” and Symbolic Music’, Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966), pp. 107-28. Curiously, these very scholarly essays both approach the issue that concerns Nelson and Haines by different routes, without pressing to their conclusion. They must have felt Ross was mumbling the game he dared not, quite, bite.

  16. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, (Chicago, 1980). p. 251.

  17. See Peter Brown's magnificent study, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988).

  18. D.S. Bailey, The Man-Woman Relation in Christian Thought (London, 1959), p. 137.

  19. See Bailey, pp. 171-2.

  20. See the queer but representative passage in Shakespeare: The Play of History (London, 1987) where Graham Holderness explains why ‘We have not … made the personal qualities of William Shakespeare our subject’: ‘with no disrespect to the writer's talents or powers, it seems safer to locate the drama's play of ideological contradictions in the heterogeneous and pluralistic fields of discourse from which it emerged, rather than to infer superhuman potencies in an “author” whose name may have been, for all we know, legion’. A work of art is worked.

Quotations from Othello are from the First Folio; scene and line references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

David Lucking (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Putting Out the Light: Semantic Indeterminacy and the Deconstitution of Self in Othello,” in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 2, March, 1994, pp. 110-22.

[In the essay below, Lucking explores Othello's attempts to assess and define his identity.]

One of the cardinal tenets underpinning contemporary theory in the fields of linguistics, semiotics and literary criticism is that enunciated in Saussure's famous assertion that the relation between signifier and signified is an arbitrary one. Although this intuition is by now indelibly associated with the author of its most celebrated formulation, very clear anticipations of the notion can be detected in the literature of preceding centuries.1 While the statements to which I am referring are predominantly philosophical in character, in the case of certain works the arbitrary nature of signification does not constitute a theoretical problem only, but is conceived instead as entailing potentially far-reaching consequences for all human beings. We are constrained to use signs in order to compose experience and render it intelligible but, because the signs we employ are only contingently related to the world we seek to impose them on, a radical incongruity between the sign and its referent can make itself felt at any moment. And because as culturally constituted beings we inhabit a world of signification, within the framework of which we formulate our own selves as well as the reality that surrounds us, this means that not only the codes we employ, but in the final analysis our very identities as well, are perpetually in jeopardy.

In this paper I propose to discuss the manner in which Shakespeare explores these ideas in Othello, a work that is vitally concerned with the nature of signification and the problematics involved in the interpretation of signs. My argument will be that Othello might instructively be analyzed as a dramatization of the existential consequences ensuing from the disruption of a single paradigmatic system of semiotic contrapositions, a system which Shakespeare himself habitually manipulated in the form of puns and other varieties of verbal play. Reduced to essentials, this system consists in the image clusters light/white/fair on the one hand, and dark/black/foul on the other, a structure of binary oppositions which embraces the sphere of values as well as that of physical properties, and which therefore establishes a parallel between otherwise discrete areas of experience.2 Although in exploiting such a pattern Shakespeare was drawing on a consolidated iconographical tradition, he did so in ways that were very much peculiar to himself, ways which are symptomatic of the critical and profoundly dialectical cast of his thought.

In the European cultural tradition at least, the clusters of words and images I am examining have been more or less consistently employed to refer to concepts which, although heterogeneous in character and even type, are nonetheless considered to be related by some degree of affinity. Light, or its associated colour white, might variously symbolize goodness, virtue, life, reason, order, truth, purity, or faith; while darkness, or the colour black, serves as the emblem of the contrary of all these things. These two image-families thus comprise categories which are mutually exclusive and yet formally related to one another if only in an antithetical sense—which is to say that a term in one cluster might be definable only in inverse relation to a corresponding term in the other. A considerable degree of semantic uncertainty inevitably arises therefore whenever any incompatibility emerges between different associations of the same term, when connotations are invoked which seem to contradict the more customary meanings of the words and hence challenge the stability of the system of polarities these encode. In extreme instances, as in that of the albino whale in Moby Dick for example, the physical attribute can become the node or point of intersection between conceptual and emotive complexes which, because they comprehend mutually exclusive properties, are not reconcilable even in principle.3 In such cases, the sign has become radically ambivalent, transforming itself from vehicle of meaning into mere cipher, designating little other than a semantic vacancy within which conflicting meanings collide.

Through the deft manipulation of the divergent meanings—or simply the denotative and connotative dimensions—of terms belonging to the same cluster, Shakespeare frequently generates an atmosphere of paradox analogous to that which occasions Melville's Ishmael such perplexity. This process can assume a relatively uncomplicated form in which figurative meaning is merely substituted for the literal, as when the Duchess of Gloucester, in the second part of Henry VI, responds to public disgrace and the prospect of exile with the lament that henceforth ‘dark shall be my light, and night my day’.4 A somewhat different order of semantic confusion is produced however when multiple connotation is exploited so as to invest words with qualities which are formally opposed to them, thereby making them appear self-contradictory at least on the strictly verbal level. An example of this occurs when Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, speaking of the sumptuous banquets to which he has been witness while in Egypt, reports that ‘we did sleep day out of countenance, and made the night light with drinking’.5 In much the same way, the use of the word ‘fair’ in the sense of beautiful makes possible such elaborate transpositions of meaning as are to be found in Berowne's remark in Love's Labour's Lost that Roseline has been born ‘to make black fair’, which provokes in turn Dumain's sarcastic observation that ‘Dark needs no candles now, for dark is light’.6 These more or less frivolous quibbles on the various meanings of the words ‘fair’ and ‘black’, together with their respective cognates and synonyms, anticipate a number of very similar puns in Othello, where however they assume a rather less innocuous character. While it would certainly be a gross simplification to suggest that Othello is a single pun writ large, there is nonetheless a sense in which the manipulations to which the luminary imagery of the play is subjected enact on the verbal level the movement of the play as a whole, just as there is a sense in which the three witches are forecasting the entire course of events in Macbeth, and not merely indulging in idle wordplay, when they too announce that fair is foul and foul is fair.

In Othello, the symbolic pattern based on the opposition of light and darkness is of course invoked most vividly in the contrast between the Moor's notorious blackness and Desdemona's no less insistently proclaimed fairness. Initially at least, the clear suggestion is conveyed that the physical attributes of these personages might be emblematic of less manifest qualities of a moral or spiritual nature, that there is an essential continuity in other words between the denotative and connotative aspects of the terms involved. It has been argued indeed that Othello's colour would have assimilated him in the mind of the original spectator to what one critic refers to as the ‘exo-cultural stereotype’ of the Moor, and that the Elizabethan audience would have projected onto him certain stock expectations—of lustfulness, credulousness, jealousy, bravery, simplicity, etc.—in relation to which his dramatic identity would necessarily have to define itself.7 Whether we in fact agree that this strictly racial stereotype figures as a significant factor in our response to the play or not, there seems little doubt that the emphatic contrast of black and white is calculated to appeal to a predisposition, conceptually Manichean in tendency, to construe characters and events in terms of radical dichotomies or antithetical principles.

One of the profounder ironies of this drama resides in the fact that Othello himself, whose colour defines one term in the symbolic polarity around which much of the imagery of the play is articulated, is called upon to fathom the significance of precisely that polarity, upon the understanding of which his sense of self ultimately depends. Othello's fundamental problem is how to construe signs, a difficulty compounded in his case by the circumstance that as a foreigner, comparatively unconversant with the complex customs of his adopted country, he is uncertain what readings to place on signs, and even what qualifies as a sign in the first place. It is this perplexity which puts him at the mercy of Iago, to whom he too ingenuously defers as an authority on the category of signs in question, those having to do with the conduct of a ‘super-subtle Venetian’ such as Desdemona (I.iii.357).8 His faith in Iago's capacity to interpret such signs with frankness and accuracy is uncritical to the point of being almost culpably obtuse:

This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,
Of human dealing …


As his own remarks indicate, however, Iago is not so much an exegete of signs as their accomplished manipulator, who recognizes that there is no inevitable correspondence between sign and referent, and who is therefore able to impose on events whatever constructions suit his evil fancy. It is symptomatic of the immense delight he takes in the ambiguity of signs that he should at one point lower his guard to the extent of swearing by Janus (I.ii.33), and symptomatic too of Othello's enormous naiveté that he should fail so egregiously to take the hint.

The essential character of Othello's dilemma announces itself in the opening scene of the play, when the Moor's trusted ‘ancient’ declares to Roderigo that

I must show out a flag, and sign of love,
Which is indeed but sign.


In this remarkably candid statement of intent, Iago is punning among other things on the etymology of his own official title, his military rank being that of ensign—or standard-bearer—a term of which the word ‘ancient’ is a corruption.9 In Shakespeare's time the term ‘ensign’ also meant ‘sign’ or’ token’, which suggests that Iago is not only a bearer of signs by nominal profession, but himself a ‘sign’ by titular designation as well.10 As his own private remarks to Roderigo imply, however, there is no connection whatsoever between the signs he parades before the world and the reality to which they purportedly refer. He commends the shrewdness of those who are only ‘trimm’d in forms, and visages of duty’ (I.i.50), avows that his ostentatious displays of regard for his general are no more than ‘shows of service’ (I.i.52), and protests ‘not I for love and duty, / But seeming so, for my peculiar end’ (I.i.59-60). He habitually defines himself and his conduct in terms of negatives, assuring Roderigo that ‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago’ (I.i.57), and delivering himself of the portentously cryptic announcement that ‘I am not what I am’ (I.i.65). Othello's ensign thus incarnates what G. Wilson Knight aptly described as the ‘spirit of denial’,11 a fact which has induced various critics to compare his role to that of Mephistopheles.12 Another way of characterizing Iago's dramatic function is to say that he insinuates himself into the world of established values as an infinitely mutable sign whose want of fixed referent calls into question the authority of all other signs.13 As he himself sardonically acknowledges at one point, ‘I am nothing, if not critical’ (II.i.119).

To a very large degree this disjunction between outward conduct and underlying intention extends also to the relation between Iago's covert activities and the personal motives ostensibly prompting them, which means that even the audience—privy to his soliloquies and confidential asides though it may be—is denied a satisfactory understanding of the nexus. As Coleridge was remarking when he alluded in a famous phrase to ‘the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity’,14 although Iago perfunctorily cites several reasons for his animosity towards Othello, they are not really plausible and probably not meant even to appear so. It is to be noted that even at the end of the tragedy, after his villainy has been unmasked and he has nothing more either to gain or to lose, Iago obstinately persists in concealing his true motives: ‘what you know, you know, / From this time forth I never will speak word’ (V.ii.304-5). This elusiveness is essential to the function Iago performs within the play, for if Shakespeare had furnished him with a truly credible grievance he would have become less menacing at the same time that he became more human. There would have been a definable relation, though only an inverse one, between appearance and reality or, more specifically, sign and substance. As things stand, however, we are presented with signs in abundance, but nothing definite with which to correlate them. The trajectory of the play is essentially that of the process by which Othello himself, who is dependent to a more than average degree upon the stability of the semiotic order, inexorably falls victim to this indeterminateness.

It has already been remarked that the connotations of the colour images that Shakespeare makes use of in this play do not at first seem to deviate in any marked degree from those traditionally assigned to them. At least in appearance, in other words, the symbolic pattern based on the contrast of light and darkness is both coherent and stable, and consonant in all essential respects with the dictates of convention.15 An instance of this initial orthodoxy may be found in the commonplace equation of blackness with hell invoked by Iago in the opening scene, when by means of a volley of obscene innuendoes he tries to goad Desdemona's father into taking violent action against the Moor:

Even now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe: arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you


Although nobody is expected to take the imputation of diabolism seriously, Brabantio is sufficiently influenced by the infernal associations of blackness as to leap to the conclusion that Othello has resorted to ‘practices of cunning hell’ to work his will on Desdemona (I.iii.102). ‘Damn’d as thou art, thou hast enchanted her’ (I.ii.63), he accuses him, several times linking the Moor's dark complexion with the ‘foulness’ of his alleged tactics (I.ii.62, 73).

At the hastily improvised inquiry subsequently held in the presence of the Duke, however, Othello is exonerated from all suspicion of impropriety in his courtship of Desdemona, the girl having according to her own testimony been won not by ‘foul’ means but by what one senator describes as ‘such fair question, / As soul to soul affordeth’ (I.iii.113-14). From what we learn of his past history and personal disposition, such ‘fairness’ seems to characterize all of Othello's proceedings. If Iago can accurately sum up his own paradoxical identity in the enigmatic statement ‘I am not what I am’, Othello is quite palpably everything he professes to be—‘all in all sufficient’ (IV.i.261), as one member of the Senate later puts it. He is, moreover, vividly conscious of this coherence in his personality, confidently asserting even when his conduct falls under temporary suspicion that ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul, / Shall manifest me rightly’ (I.ii.31-2). In terms of the moral and spiritual connotations with which colours are conventionally invested, however, this apparently seamless continuity between what Othello is and what he appears to be, his proud and triumphant integrity as a human being, might seem somewhat at variance with his physical aspect as a black man among whites. If white Iago is not what he is, black Othello is only too emphatically what he is, yet it is blackness, not whiteness, that is traditionally associated with the principle of negation. The tribute which the Moor's notable accomplishments elicit from the Duke contains an implicit recognition of such a reversal, an acknowledgement that the conventional values attaching to colour have, in Othello's case, no application:

If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.


This is all very well, but the logical inference is that a sign can, through the multiplicity of its potential meanings, effectively contradict itself. It is precisely this possibility, subversive of the conventions which give codes their meanings, which invest experience itself with its shape and significance, that Iago contrives to exploit. If black Othello can, by identifying him exclusively with the ‘delighted beauty’ of his virtue,16 be represented as essentially fair, then fair Desdemona can through an inversion of this process be made to look black. ‘So will I turn her virtue into pitch’ (II.iii.351), Iago proclaims as he prepares to transform fairness itself into its diametrical opposite. This radical transmutation of light into darkness has a precedent in Iago's earlier and less ambitious scheme, represented in this case as well as an attack on colour, to mar the tranquillity of Othello's wedding night, ‘poison his delight’, by inciting Brabantio against him:

 … though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on ’t,
As it may lose some colour.


Iago's project, consisting in the systematic inversion of a code, is implicitly an attack upon the possibility of signification at large, and to the degree that signs actually constitute the reality in which human beings live, may be seen as tending toward the destruction of the ordered universe itself.

Iago's sinister power derives from the circumstance that, consisting himself solely of empty signs, he is uniquely aware that there is no inevitability in signs or in their relation to what they purport to represent. Signs can be cast adrift from their conventional meanings, to the infinite confusion of those who inhabit—as all men do—a universe of signs. Such a process of semiotic dissociation is to be seen operating in the symbolic metamorphosis undergone by the handkerchief which Othello has bestowed upon his wife as a love-token, a ‘flag, and sign of love’ par excellence, but once again patently arbitrary in its character as signifier,17 and ironically susceptible of being transformed into what seems to be an incontrovertible sign of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago's distinctive rhetoric frequently makes use of the discrepancies that can arise between a sign and its referent, or between the various possible meanings of the same sign. He relishes paradoxes that depend on multiple connotation: Cassio, he remarks for instance at the beginning of the play, is a man ‘almost damn’d in a fair wife’ (I.i.21). The sequence of mildly ribald epigrams with which he entertains Desdemona and Emilia as they are awaiting Othello's arrival in Cyprus reveals how adept he is at juggling with the various meanings of this crucial word ‘fair’ and its two possible antonyms ‘black’ and ‘foul’:

If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit;
The one's for use, the other using it.
If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She’ll find a white, that shall her blackness hit.
She never yet was foolish, that was fair,
For even her folly help’d her, to an heir.
There’s none so foul, and foolish therunto,
But does foul pranks, which fair and wise ones do.


Part of the significance of this humorous interlude lies in the fact that while Iago is exercising his talent for verbal prestidigitation Desdemona is dissembling her anxiety for Othello's safety beneath a false display of levity: ‘I am not merry, but I do beguile / The thing I am, by seeming otherwise’ (II.i.122-3). However irreproachable her solicitude for her husband may be in itself, in other words, she reveals herself capable of exploiting precisely that distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’ that Iago's machinations pivot on. For a brief interval she too, like Iago himself, is ‘not what she is’, for she is simulating signs that bear no relation to her actual state of mind, using them to project a persona at variance with her true self. When Othello greets his wife with the words ‘fair warrior’ while Iago's set of variations on the theme of fairness is still vibrating in the air, therefore, the spectator might well register the epithet with a certain diffidence (II.i.182).

Before succumbing to Iago's malevolent influence Othello himself appears to be, as I have remarked, incapable of the least duplicity in his personal conduct. His outward action is always an unambiguous sign for what he ‘really’ is, and Iago is obviously mocking his general's own unexamined assumption when he sanctimoniously declares that ‘men should be that they seem’ (III.iii.130). The world inhabited by the Moor is essentially one of face values and, when he is confronted even by the mere possibility that Desdemona might be capable of being something other than what she seems, he is driven into a state of mental turmoil which threatens at every moment to erupt into outright insanity. The sensation induced in him as his certitudes begin to crumble is that ‘Chaos is come again’ (III.iii.93), and the inevitable consequence of this impression of general dissolution is that the stability even of his own identity is menaced. He resorts to forms of behaviour that would previously have been totally repugnant to him, presenting a false front to the world, concealing himself according to Iago's instructions, spying, eavesdropping, brooding obsessively over trivial or sordid details, echoing the cheap wordplay of the clown who is his own servant.18 He absorbs not only Iago's repulsive conception of mankind, but also his distinctive idiom, his predilection for couching his observations in bestial and infernal imagery. It is clear that there is something more in this than sexual jealousy or the sense of outraged personal honour or the anxiety experienced by an unwitting representative of a threatened patriarchal order.19 More profoundly disorientating than any of these is the intolerable cognitive challenge to which Othello's mental faculties are being subjected, and to which in his simplicity he does not know how to respond. Perceived now solely in the light of Iago's dark insinuations, Desdemona has become for him an incarnate paradox, a fair woman whose whiteness, once the manifest emblem of an immaculate virtue, is now the perverse symbol of its own opposite. ‘O thou black weed, why art so lovely fair’ (IV.ii.69), is the anguished question he addresses to his wife at one point, and his subsequent remarks continue to advert to the same apparent disparity: ‘Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write “whore” on?’ (IV.ii.73-4). Desdemona's conspicuous fairness has thus been transformed into a radically ambiguous sign. She is now ‘the fair devil’ (III.iii.485), a living contradiction for Othello's semiotically unsophisticated mind, an affront to the conventions that make experience intelligible.

Since it is in terms of these very conventions that Othello has defined his own identity, this subversion of meaning has fatal implications for his personal self-conception as well, compromising the integrity of the sign which is his name. Othello's own remarks make the association between his name—or the public self of which that name is the verbal token—and the polarity of light and darkness perfectly explicit:

 … my name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrim’d, and black
As mine own face …


Iago is diabolically aware of the critical role played by cultural codes in the constitution of selfhood, and his attack on meaning—in particular on the meaning of personal names—is an attack on identity as well.20 ‘He that filches from me my good name’, he slyly remarks at one point, ‘ … makes me poor indeed’ (III.iii.163-5). Cassio is the first major character to be deprived of his good name through Iago's scheming, and when he expresses his humiliation in the exclamation ‘Reputation, reputation, I ha’ lost my reputation! I ha’ lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial’ (II.iii.254-6), he is anticipating Othello's still more critical loss of self. Even Desdemona, accused of harlotry by her husband, is finally driven to the extreme of asking ‘Am I that name, Iago?’—to which the ensign replies with only barely concealed irony: ‘What name, fair lady?’ (IV.ii.120).

Almost for relief Othello, confronted with this growing uncertainty as to the real significance of names and signs, allows himself to be swallowed up in the oblivion of mindless passion, seeking certitudes of a different order in the absolute and uncomplicated darkness of revenge: ‘Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell’ (III.iii.454). Interestingly enough, it is precisely at this juncture of the play, when triumphant darkness seems on the point of overwhelming everything, that a new personage is introduced—in time as it happens to be woven into Iago's ever more intricate web. This is Cassio's mistress, hitherto unmentioned, whose name Bianca might seem to collocate her instantly within a universe of self-contradicting signs. While fair Desdemona is represented as the blackest of harlots, the real harlot is dignified with a name that means white. It is perhaps arguable, however—though this is not the place to pursue the point—that Bianca's appearance, rather than complicating matters still further, in fact heralds the beginning of a restorative movement back towards the clarification of signs and their meanings. Despite her manifest defects she is not an unsympathetic character, and her unrequited devotion to Cassio seems unfeigned; she protests that her life is as honest as Emilia's, and perhaps, according to her ‘lights’ at least, she is right (V.i.121-2).

Such positive notes are sounded only later in the play, however, and in the meantime the momentum of the drama continues in the direction of ever greater perplexity. As I have suggested, perhaps the most ironic aspect of Othello's deterioration is that, plunged without warning into an alien world in which signs have become divorced from their meanings, he too has been severed from his own identity. He has been incorporated into a deeply problematic universe in which things do not even represent themselves, in which the Iago-principle prevails and nothing is what it is. ‘My lord is not my lord’ (III.iv.121), says Desdemona in explanation for her husband's aberrant behaviour, and Iago archly excites Lodovico's apprehensions regarding the Moor's psychological state with the characteristically circuitous observation:

He’s that he is; I may not breathe my censure,
What he might be; if, as he might, he is not,
I would to heaven he were!


The terrible resolution to exact vengeance seems to act as a stabilizing factor, however, presumably because it affords a precise, if only momentary, focus around which Othello's disintegrating personality can realign itself. In view of the confounding of colour values that has been taking place throughout the play, it is perhaps entirely to be expected that the invocation of ‘black vengeance’ should be paradoxically associated with light, Othello swearing ‘by yond marble heaven’ (III.iii.467) to punish the supposed malefactors, and Iago calling to witness ‘you ever-burning lights above’ (III.iii.470) when he pledges himself to the same dark purpose.

By the time the Moor actually addresses himself to what he has come to look upon as the ‘sacrifice’ of his wife, he has recovered a measure of self-control and achieved a genuine, though desperate, equilibrium. Among other things, this manifests itself in the restored stateliness of his diction, and in the elevated soliloquy commencing with the phrase ‘It is the cause’ we perceive the more traditional associations of light and darkness beginning to reaffirm themselves despite the symbolic confusion generated by the preceding scenes. Ironically, however, this rehabilitation of colour values is rendered possible only through what amounts to the annihilation of the positive term in that symbolic contraposition which has by now become hopelessly corrupt. If light and darkness can exchange places with one another with such facility that they lose their separate characters, then the readiest and most definitive remedy that an absolutist such as Othello can resort to is simply to eliminate the problematic element in the contrast, by both literally and figuratively ‘putting out the light’:

 … yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth, as monumental alabaster;
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thine,
Thou cunning pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume …


In thus extinguishing light in the person of Desdemona—who has continued to invoke ‘this light of heaven’ (IV.ii.152) and ‘this heavenly light’ (IV.iii.64) in the final hours of her life—Othello does seem, in his own terms at least, to accomplish his purpose. A semiotic order in continual flux, that for the Moor has been a source only of perpetual confusion, has been stabilized through the simple expedient of giving the world over to a complete and absolute darkness that does not admit of potentially dangerous discriminations:

O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon …


The irony latent in Othello's effort to impose perfect coherence upon what seems to be the incessantly mutating world of signs lies of course in the circumstance that the dilemma, or at least the assumption precipitating the dilemma, has been a false one, that there has been in fact no discrepancy between Desdemona's colour and her conduct. The process by which Othello is disabused of his enormous error implicates the final reconstitution of a cognitively familiar, though no less terrible world, a world in which the Moor has ironically justified the infernal associations evoked by his colour at the beginning of the play. Emilia refuses to admit that Desdemona's dying effort to exculpate Othello perjures her soul: on the contrary ‘the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!’ (V.ii.131-2). Words like ‘filth’ and ‘slime’, denoting substances that make white things black, abound in the dialogue between the Moor and Emilia. Until Iago is unmasked by his wife Othello rather desperately persists in believing that Desdemona was ‘foul’ (V.ii.201), but in the end he sees the light, in every sense of the expression. Desdemona is once again unambiguously white (‘Pale as thy smock’), even if her pallor is ironically now only that of death (V.ii.274), Iago is at last identified as the real fiend in the piece (V.ii.287-8), and Othello is restored to a world in which the distinction between light and darkness makes some sort of sense.

There is reason to suspect that, in consequence of the delirium of despair provoked in him by the discovery of his error, Othello briefly undergoes a final phase of dissociation from self, and that it is for this reason that he momentarily refers to himself not in the first but in the third person: ‘Man but a rush against Othello's breast, / And he retires. Where should Othello go?’ (V.ii.271-2). Even if this is so, however, it would appear that the Moor's belated recognition of the truth ultimately makes possible, if not the complete restoration of his lost identity, then at least the capacity to perceive himself in relation to that identity. When Lodovico demands to see ‘this rash and most unfortunate man’ the Moor recognizes himself instantly in the sombre epithet, replying ‘That’s he that was Othello; here I am’ (V.ii.284-5). Instead of being ‘not what he is’ (‘My lord is not my lord’), he now perceives himself to be not what he was, and this opens up the possibility at least of forging some kind of link between what he is now and what he has been previously. I would suggest that it is precisely this that Othello is attempting to accomplish in his final speech, which culminates in a suicide that he explicitly assimilates to one of the many colourful exploits in his past. Readers of the play have not always been entirely convinced by Othello's grandiloquent and enormously self-conscious eulogy for himself, which seems to betray, as T. S. Eliot and others have pointed out in disparagement of the Moor, an ‘aesthetic rather than a moral attitude’ towards himself and what he has done, and thus raises doubts concerning his sincerity.21 But since Othello seems always to have identified his personality with his public performances, to the extent that even his courtship of Desdemona has assumed the form of a detailed recitation of his autobiography, it is perhaps only to be expected that under the present circumstances he will try to recapture a sense of the continuity of that personality through the identical means.22 The Moor is not, in other words, attempting to deliver judgement or render an account of himself in his concluding speech, and still less is he seeking to elicit anyone's compassion. What he is really trying to do is discover, in the final moments of his life, an adequate signification for that complex and fatally compromised sign which is the name Othello. While the question of whether he has fully succeeded in this endeavour doubtless remains an open one, the terse encomium pronounced by Cassio over the body of his dead commander that ‘he was great of heart’ (V.ii.362) perhaps suggests that his final effort at self-definition has not met with total defeat.


  1. Cf. for instance Locke's account of the process by which ‘a word is made arbitrarily the mark of … an idea’, Berkeley's comparison of names with the abstract letters employed in algebra, and Coleridge's reference to ‘words used as the arbitrary marks of thought, our smooth market-coin of intercourse’. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by John W. Yolton (London, reprinted 1990), p. 207; George Berkeley, Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction XIX, in A New Theory of Vision and Other Writings (London, reprinted 1969), p. 107; S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chap. XXII, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Elisabeth Schneider (New York, reprinted 1966), pp. 340-1. Original emphasis deleted.

  2. These oppositions have been examined in rhetorical terms by Doris Adler in her article ‘The Rhetoric of Black and White in Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974), 248-57. Though very different in viewpoint and emphasis, my own argument coincides with Adler's analysis at a number of points.

  3. Melville's Ishmael makes this explicit. He refers to the ‘elusive quality’ which ‘causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds’. And specifically adducing the whiteness of the polar bear, he advances a hypothesis according to which ‘that heightened hideousness … only arises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast’. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London, reprinted 1975), pp. 164-5.

  4. Henry VI, Part 2, II.iv.40. The edition cited here is W. J. Craig, Shakespeare: Complete Works (Oxford, reprinted 1965). All subsequent references to Shakespeare's plays other than Othello will be in this edition.

  5. Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii.184-5.

  6. Love's Labour's Lost, IV.iii.261, 269.

  7. Michael Echeruo, The Conditioned Imagination from Shakespeare to Conrad (London, 1978), p. 57.

  8. This and all subsequent references to Othello are in the New Arden Edition of the play, edited by M. R. Ridley (London, reprinted 1979), and conform to the lineation of that text.

  9. Under the entry ‘Ancient’ the Oxford English Dictionary cites 2 Henry IV (II.iv.120 [II.iv.118 in Craig]) and Henry V ( [ in Craig]) as early instances of this usage.

  10. Cf. Romeo's lines: ‘beauty's ensign yet / Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, / And death's pale flag is not advanced there.’ Romeo and Juliet, V.iii.94-6.

  11. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London, reprinted 1968). p. 116.

  12. See for instance Knight, op. cit., pp. 114-16, and Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford, reprinted 1971), pp. 217-24.

  13. For a more technical semiological analysis of this play, see Alessandro Serpieri, ‘Reading the Signs: Towards a Semiotics of Shakespearean Drama’, translated by Keir Elam, in Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis (London, reprinted 1986), pp. 119-43.

  14. Coleridge, Note on Othello, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Thomas Middleton Raysor (London, reprinted 1961), vol. I, p. 44.

  15. The word ‘light’ recurs in a variety of senses throughout Othello, sustaining the verbal momentum if not always reinforcing the symbolic implications of the play. See for instance Brabantio's ‘Destruction light on me, if my bad blame / Light on the man!’ (I.iii.177-8); Othello's reference to ‘light-wing’d toys' (I.iii.268); his warning to his quarrelling officers that whoever commits any further act of aggression ‘Holds his soul light’ (II.iii.165); Cassio's disparagement of himself as ‘so light, so drunken, and indiscreet an officer’ (II.iii.270-1); Iago's observation that ‘trifles light as air / Are to the jealous, confirmations strong’ (III.iii.327-8); Iago's reference to ‘Poor Cassio's smiles, gestures, and light behaviour’(IV.i.102); and Lodovico's inquiry with regard to Othello: ‘is he not light of brain?’ (IV.1.265).

  16. Although there is no etymological connection between the words ‘delight’ and ‘light’, it appears quite evident that in Othello Shakespeare is associating the two words in an imaginative sense at least. The reader might note for instance the contraposition of colours implicit in Brabantio's question to Othello as to whether it is credible that his daughter would have ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou? to fear, not to delight’ (I.ii.70-71). In a similar vein, Iago later remarks of Desdemona that ‘Her eye must be fed, and what delight shall she have to look on the devil?’ (II.i.224-5).

  17. The seeming inevitability of the symbolic associations with which the handkerchief is invested does not make its status as a sign any less arbitrary. Lynda E. Boose's ingenious analysis of the emblematic significance of this object, for instance, is not an effort to tease out intrinsic meanings but to recuperate the codes (embodied chiefly in European folk practices surrounding nuptials and in the Book of Deuteronomy) that might have enabled meaning in the minds of Shakespeare's audience. See Boose, ‘Othello's Handerkerchief: “The Recognizance and Pledge of Love”’, English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975), 360-74.

  18. ‘We say lie on her, when they belie her’ (IV.i.35-6). Cf. the clown's quip: ‘I know not where he [Cassio] lodges, and for me to devise a lodging, and say he lies here, or he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat’ (III.iv.9-11).

  19. A thorough analysis of this latter aspect of Othello's plight is to be found in Edward A. Snow, ‘Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello’, English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980), 384-412. To the degree that the patriarchal view of the world itself represents a codification of reality in which the individual's identity is vested, of course, the potential challenge posed to that order by the empowering of the woman as an active sexual being in her own right might be seen as correlative to the subversion of the luminary code that I am discussing here.

  20. For a stimulating recent discussion of the more specifically ‘linguistic’ determinants of Othello's dilemma, see Kenneth Gross, ‘Slander and Skepticism in Othello’, ELH 56 (1989), 819-52.

  21. T.S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ in Selected Essays (London, reprinted 1986), p. 131. Emphasis in the original.

  22. For an acute analysis of the interdependency of identity and narrative in Othello see Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980), pp. 232-52.

Phyllis Natalie Braxton (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, November, 1990, pp. 1-17.

[In the essay below, Braxton contends that Othello is not a play about race, and suggests “a dramaturgical purpose for the character's blackness. …”]

Although the circumstance of Othello's blackness is often assumed to embody a racial problem, as in K. W. Evans's assertion in “The Racial Factor in Othello” that “no analysis of the play can be adequate if it ignores the factor of race” (125), Shakespeare's play itself demonstrates that Othello's color outweighs in significance the element of race.1 Physical characteristics, of course, help define race, and Othello's black skin and thick lips identify him as a member of the Negroid race, as distinguished from either the Caucasoid or Mongoloid races. The difficulty of determining Othello's specific ethnic background on the basis of textual evidence suggests that those details that relate to race are included for the purpose of lending verisimilitude to the character's black skin color and not for the purpose of describing an ethnic black of any fixed derivation. In this article, I will try, first, to demonstrate the manner in which race is used in the play primarily to support the fact of Othello's black skin color and, second, to suggest a dramaturgical purpose for the character's blackness in light of the ambiguity of his race.


The attempt of critics to discover Othello's specific ethnic background has generally resulted in identifying the character as a native of the African continent. A. W. Schlegel, for example, who seems to have initiated the subject of Othello's ethnicity in his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, comments that Shakespeare transformed Cinthio's Moor—“a baptized Saracen of the Northern coast of Africa”—into a Negro, whom Schlegel located in the southern regions of Africa (401). A. C. Bradley, in Shakespearean Tragedy, similarly accepted Othello as a native of the African continent, even though he considered it of little consequence “whether Shakespeare imagined Othello as a Negro or as a Moor” (166). In his study of Othello's Countrymen, Eldred Jones considers Othello, together with all stage Moors, as natives of the African continent, without specifying the particular location (87).

In an essay entitled “Did Shakespeare Know Leo Africanus?” Lois Whitney proposes that Shakespeare drew the salient features of Othello's portrayal from the work of this early historian, adding that “Shakespeare was describing neither a Moor nor a negro in our modern conception of the terms but a confusion of the two types” (477). M. R. Ridley, in his edition of Othello, judges that the evidence about Othello's origins is “indecisive” (liii). He accepts the description of the black-skinned, thick-lipped Othello as that of an African, but observes that, while the character may look like a “negro,” two words used in connection with Othello—“‘Barbary’ and ‘Mauritania’”—suggest that he may be an Arab from North Africa (liii).

While such criticism tends to assume that Negroes occupy sub-Saharan Africa, whereas Arabs live in North Africa, the suggestion of ambiguity about Othello's geographical background is not addressed in terms of the significance this feature may have for dramaturgical necessity.

Those sociological and historical discussions of race that include Shakespeare's Othello as a document illustrating Elizabethan racism seem to assume that Othello is an African, but do not concern themselves about the particular region in Africa from which he may derive. In White Over Black, his influential study of racial attitudes in the United States of America, Winthrop Jordan simply accepts the character as an example of the average Elizabethan Englishman's idea of a black African or Moor—Jordan, like Jones, uses the terms interchangeably (37-38). Jordan then ascribes to Shakespeare and his contemporary audiences the pernicious notions about blacks that the playwright had been careful to assign to Iago as an element in Iago's plot to destroy Othello (37). Like Jordan, Joseph Washington, in Anti-Blackness in English Religion, 1500-1800, uses Othello as an example of what he considers the English nation's antipathy towards blacks (71). In his view, Othello is “deliberately caricatured as an African” (71).

Such views to the contrary, criticism has also taken the position that Othello is white. Mary Preston of Maryland, for example, in her 1869 Studies in Shakespeare, declared that “Othello was a white man” (qtd. in Furness 395). Washington judges that Shakespeare created Othello to be “in reality black but in character white” (71). Jonathan Miller, in Subsequent Performances, claims dramaturgical necessity for having presented the white actor Anthony Hopkins as a white Othello in the BBC-TV version of the play so as to minimize the differences between Othello and Desdemona (159).2

Textual evidence, of course, is conclusive that the character is black in color. Othello calls himself “black” (3.3.263) and describes his face as “begrim’d and black” (3.3.387); Iago likens him to “an old black ram” (1.1.88) and refers to him as “black Othello” (2.3.32); Brabantio notes his “sooty bosom” (1.2.70); the Duke, praising Othello's character, tells Brabantio that “your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.290); and Roderigo initially sets Iago to thinking in terms of race when he characterizes Othello to Iago, by a feature common to native Africans and their descendants, as “the thick lips” (1.1.66).

The unequivocal manner in which Othello's blackness is described in the text suggests that the playwright wanted the character understood as literally black in color, as he seems to be in twentieth-century criticism, just as Aaron in Titus Andronicus is literally black in color (Titus Andronicus 3.1.205). He is not a light-skinned or “tawny Moor,” as is the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice (2.1.1.s.d.), although, according to Bradley, nineteenth-century criticism tended to describe Othello in this way (168).

While insisting that the character is black in color, the text does not point to any one ethnic background for Othello. Features in his portrayal seem to have been drawn from all of the blacks who may have been in England during Shakespeare's lifetime. This would have included Spanish Moors, as well as Africans from a variety of locations on the African continent. Indeed, the playwright seems to have avoided assigning to Othello a specific geographical origin or ethnic background.

Eldred Jones, in The Elizabethan Image of Africa, notes that blacks from Africa had been present in England since 1554, chiefly in the capacity of slaves, although he points out that, until the initiation of the triangular slaving voyages in the following decade, Africans also traveled freely between Africa and England (Elizabethan Image 15-16).

Africans in Elizabethan England—either slave or free—might have come from a variety of backgrounds, and their skin colors might have varied in shade (Jones, Elizabethan Image 16). Whatever the Africans may have called themselves, literature on the subject seems to designate as Negroes those Africans of native African ancestry who predominated in the lands south of the Sahara, although they lived in North Africa as well; they were generally dark-skinned. West Africans might be almost any shade from black to cream. Africans of Arabian ancestry seemed to predominate in North Africa, but dwelt south of the Sahara also. The prevailing religion in North Africa was Islam; native African religions predominated in the sub-Saharan regions (Bennett 17-25). Jones, in an evident reference to Africans of any background, comments that “not only is it certain that Shakespeare, living as he did in London and being so much a part of his times, would have had the opportunity to see Negroes, it seems impossible that he could have escaped seeing them” (Elizabethan Image 16-17). Jones probably did not exclude Arabs of African birth from his observation. He comments on the presence of the Moslem nobleman who had been “sent by the king of Morocco on an embassy” to Elizabeth's court in 1600 (Elizabethan Image 35); it does not seem unreasonable to assume that this North African was also seen by Shakespeare. This visit occurred too late to influence the portrayal of Shakespeare's Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice but the ambassador's exotic presence could have affected his creation of Othello, presented in 1604.

In addition to Africans, Spanish Moors seem also to have been present in England in Shakespeare's lifetime. The Spanish Moors were descendants of those Moslems who rode out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century (Abercrombie 87), “carr[ying] Islam across North Africa and into Spain” (Bennett 12). Many African Negroes, converts to Islam, accompanied the Moslem armies into Spain (Bennett 12). As Thomas J. Abercrombie notes, in his article “When the Moors Ruled Spain,” these Moorish conquerors, who were not ousted from power until 1492, “brought no women with them. From this heady mix of race and culture sprang the Moorish civilization” of Spain (88). These Spanish Moors seem to be the subject of the decrees which Queen Elizabeth issued in 1599 and 1601 concerning the numbers of blacks in England. In the 1601 decree, the Queen complains that

whereas the Queen's majesty … is highly discontented to understand the great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm since the troubles between Her Highness and the King of Spain, who are fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of her own liege people that want the relief which those people consume; as also for that most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel, hath given especial commandment that the said kind of people should be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this Her Majesty's dominions.

(qtd. in Jones, Elizabethan Image 20)3

In his history of The Moriscos of Spain, Henry Charles Lea points out that those Islamic Moors in Spain who had refused, despite the threat of reprisals, to convert to Catholicism had sought assistance from Spain's enemies—France and, later, England (Lea 281-82, 287; see also 292-365). Officially, England denied assistance to the Islamic Moors from Spain (287), but Elizabeth's order seems to indicate that they were in the kingdom, albeit unofficially, where Shakespeare may well have had an opportunity to observe them.

Accustomed to seeing these various dark-skinned people in England, and probably having developed no special attitudes towards them, either disparaging or complimentary, a playwright might have exploited their characteristics in a portrayal of a fictional character who was black in color. Nothing in the text of Othello suggests that Shakespeare was concerned with depicting Othello exclusively as an African. The character is not identified in the play as an African. Instead, throughout the play, he is called either by the name “Othello,” or, following Cinthio's practice, is designated “The Moor” (Kermode 1198). One might, of course, ask whether the term “African” is simply missing from Shakespeare's customary vocabulary, but in The Tempest, he demonstrates that he has no hesitation in describing someone as an African. In that play, on the occasion of the supposed drowning of Alonso's son, during the storm that occurs as the royal family are returning from the wedding of Alonso's daughter, the playwright causes Sebastian to declare to Alonso:

Sir, you may thank yourself for this great loss,
That would not bless our Europe with your daughter,
But rather loose her to an African.

(The Tempest 2.1.124-26)

Even though the playwright is not specific about Othello's background, critics generally consider that Shakespeare developed the character as an African, and many details in his portrayal can be traced to African sources. Whitney conjectures that Othello is composed of features drawn from both North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans (see above, p. 2). Jones considers that the character is a “blend of characteristics popularly attributed to North African Moors with the color known to be more common in West Africa, and called no more erroneously then than now, black” (Elizabethan Image 37). The character's black skin, of course, could have derived from any of the blacks observed in England. The insistence upon “sooty” black skin and upon thick lips suggests that the playwright selected these details from among those Africans who would have provided what Jones terms the greatest “dramatic contrast” with Europeans (Elizabethan Image 41). The character's claim of descent from “men of royal siege” indicates a background resembling that of that Moroccan nobleman who visited the court in 1600, and, as Whitney demonstrates in her speculative article, Othello's nobility also seems to parallel the status of the historian Leo Africanus (477),4 who converted to Christianity as an adult, after his Moslem parents had taken him to Africa during his childhood when the Moors were finally defeated at Granada (Washington 64-65). Whether or not Shakespeare knew the English translation of Leo's History of Africa (1600), his probable knowledge of the blacks in England would have no doubt provided him with ample information for his portrayal of Othello.

Cultural details in Shakespeare's portrait of Othello are as ambiguous as are details about the character's background. Othello's language, for example, may have been influenced by his conception of Arabic as much as by the playwright's acquaintance with native African tongues. The copiousness of Othello's speech has been commented upon in criticism at least since the observation by Thomas Rymer in A Short View of Tragedy that “our Noble Venetian['s] … words flow in abundance; no Butter-Quean can be more lavish” (Rymer 139). At least one critic, G. B. Harrison, in Shakespeare: The Complete Works, considers that Othello “has some characteristics of the savage [including] a hyperbolic utterance when aroused” (1057), suggesting with his unfortunate locution that Othello's speech is influenced by native African languages. While it is possible, of course, that Shakespeare was influenced by what he may have known of native African tongues, it is also possible that he found a model for Othello's language among the Moors, either from North Africa or Spain, and their Arabic, with its “wealth of vocabulary [and] its sonorous sounds” (Abercrombie 107). Othello's melodious speech seems to imitate these features of the Arabic.5

While the depiction of Othello's background and his language both could have been influenced by knowledge of Africans from any location on that continent, or of Moors from Africa or Spain, some of the details in his portrayal seem to have a uniquely Spanish source. In religion Othello is a Christian. He exhorts Cassio and the other brawling soldiers “for Christian shame” (2.3.172) to cease fighting, and Iago, speaking in a soliloquy, muses about Othello's wanting Desdemona, even if it means that the Moor has to “renounce his baptism” (2.3.343). This feature in Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello seems to refer specifically to the Spanish Moors. The conversion of many of the Moors in Spain to Christianity is well-documented in history (Lea 82-177). Whether great numbers of native Africans became converts to Christianity is doubtful. There seems to have been no exigency in Africa that urged conversion to any religion other than Islam similar to the impetus in Spain for Moors to become Christians.

Similarly, when Othello describes himself as a slave who has been redeemed (1.3.137-38), the detail seems to allude to a situation prevailing among the Spanish Moors. The Moors in Spain were repeatedly enslaved for reasons of war or religion, and often their chief reason for converting to Christianity was to regain their freedom (Lea 27). Africans, on the other hand, seem usually to have been held as bond slaves (Craton xii-xiii), and bond slaves did not seem to have the option of redemption open to them. It appears, therefore, that Shakespeare had in mind the type of slavery common in Spain when he included this feature in his portrayal of Othello. Brabantio's sneering reference to “bond slaves and pagans” (1.2.99) seems to be an oblique attempt to sully the reputation of the redeemed slave and baptized Christian, Othello.

As with his ancestry and his language, details of Othello's military career and his travels may have been influenced by either African or Spanish sources, or both. The bravery of the Africans is noted by Basil Davidson, who points out in his The African Slave Trade that African armies successfully resisted invasion from outside the continent for centuries (27). Leo Africanus praises the Moors in Africa as “brave and noble soldiers” (Whitney 480). The Moors in Spain were also great warriors, as their conquest and long occupation of that land attests. The threat of a Moorish reconquest of Spain remained so real that, in 1570 (Lea 230-65) and again in 1609, the monarchy ordered the expulsion of all non-Catholic Moors from Spanish soil (Livermore 289). This demonstrated military prowess of the Spanish Moors may, therefore, have influenced Shakespeare in describing Othello's military ability as much as any knowledge of African warriors he may have had.

Those details concerning Othello's travels that could have been drawn from African sources suggest that he may have traveled widely, but they do not give any indication of the particular countries to which he traveled or from which he came. The sights that he reports seeing are strange to him; he tells

of antres vast and deserts idle
Rough quarries, rocks [and] hills whose [heads] touch heaven,
.....And of the Cannibals that each [other] eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
[Do grow] beneath their shoulders.


Othello does not identify these sights as belonging to any particular country. Geographically speaking, the description could refer to Africa (Jones, Elizabethan Image 5) or India (French 808); in the text of the play, these features seem to belong to some vague, unidentified (perhaps, to Othello, unidentifiable) lands. The source for the description is unclear. Ridley suggests that it “seems as idle as the deserts to try to determine whether Shakespeare was primarily indebted to Mandeville or Raleigh [sic] or Holland's Pliny” as a source for such “travellers' tales” (Ridley 29). Othello, of course, states that he had come to know these places as a traveler (1.3.139). Shakespeare had it within his power to name the lands to which his Moor traveled, as easily as he named, in The Merchant of Venice, the Goodwins, where one of Antonio's ships had been wrecked (3.1.2-4). Dramaturgically, he must have found it necessary to be unspecific about Othello's travels, just as he was about the Moor's origins.

The details of Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello seem to indicate that the character was not meant to be limited to either an African, from whatever locale, or a Moor, either Spanish or African. Unlike Leo Africanus, the historian, who came from a particular place, Granada, and went specifically to Africa and, later, to Italy, Othello is represented as traveling constantly, but to vague, unspecified places, while his homeland is not named. Even the designation of Othello as a Moor is ambiguous. Anthony Gerard Barthelemy's etymology of Moor, in Black Face, Maligned Race, while probably exaggerating the Elizabethans' total identification of this term with “black African” (1), at least makes it clear that to the Elizabethans “Moor” described “at the simplest level … the Other, the non-English, the non-Christian” (17). Although a Christian, the non-Venetian Othello is indeed the Other. But the term “Moor” is vague. According to Abercrombie, Moors never called themselves Moors: “they were Arabs from Damascus and Medina, leading armies of North African Berber converts” (Abercrombie 88). To Elliot H. Tokson in The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550-1688, the only definite feature about a Moor was that he was black in color (3). Unlike the terms used to describe characters such as Portia's suitors—“the Neapolitan prince,” “the French lord,” “the County Palentine” (The Merchant of Venice 1.2.39-54), or the Princes of Morocco (1.2.125) and Arragon (2.9.2), all of which indicate the characters' origins—Othello's origin is not named. The details in his characterization confirm that Othello is black in color without making the blackness that of a black of any one particular background.


Why does Othello have to be black? When I heard this question at a scholarly meeting, it was raised by a person who probably just wanted an answer. Long accustomed to having black heroes belittled by the dominant culture, I reacted with a barely restrained hostility, demonstrating my susceptibility to the modern tendency to foreground race. On reflection, I realized that the questioner seemed to be trying to place the problem within the context of the fictional world of the play.

Within the context of the fictional worlds of Venice and Cyprus, “why,” as Washington phrases the question, “did Shakespeare choose to develop Othello in the character and action of a black Moor?” (70). Washington's answer was that Shakespeare wanted “to show the particular problems of a black in white society” (72). Yet the playwright seems to have made no effort to create a black of any specific ethnicity. He simply insists upon the character's black skin color.

Shakespeare could be demonstrating, in the nonspecific nature of Othello's background and the ambiguity of the cultural details in his portrayal, that the Other is always mysterious and without clear definition. Once defined, he is no longer the Other. Immediately contradicting this theory is The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock may be defined as the Other. Shylock's background as a Jew is never in doubt. A Jew supposed to be living in Venice in the Renaissance could be assumed to be a resident of the ghetto (Sachar 251). Although he may be the Other in his relationship to the majority of Venetians, he is located securely within a tradition, a culture, and a history. However, Shylock's role does not seem to be designed for the purpose of exploring the character of a Jew but rather of exploiting the characteristics of a usurer.6 The dramatic structure called for a character who takes no chances. Shakespeare found such a feature in the character of a money lender, and money lenders at that time were Jewish. Consequently, the playwright wove into his plot the Jewish money lender, apologizing in advance for any implied anti-Semitism by placing in Shylock's mouth a moving plea for understanding (3.1.53-73).

In the same way that Shylock fills a specific need in the dramatic structure by virtue of the usurer's characteristic of absolute caution (while he remains the Other in terms of societal relationships), Othello's color seems to derive from a specific dramaturgical requirement. As with Shylock, the playwright does not seem to be exploring the character; he is exploiting one feature—in Othello's case, he is exploiting the black skin color. Other features are included only insofar as they are required to complete a believable portrayal of a black. These other details are drawn from the many blacks who were presumably present in England in Shakespeare's lifetime. From the great variety in the appearance of these strangers, the playwright seems to have selected those physical features which would most clearly distinguish Othello from the native inhabitants of Venice (which was, of course, a way of making the character most alien to an audience of native Englishmen). Othello, therefore, was given black skin and thick lips.

As I have attempted to show, the character is not a black of a particular ethnicity; furthermore, the play does not focus upon his problems as a black in the community. His problems do not seem to be with the community at large: he has the respect of the Duke and the government; he has a sensitive and trusted position as general; he marries a girl who has previously been the object of many suitors of her own race. His problems seem to be confined to Iago's personal animosity toward him. Thus, the thesis that Othello's tragedy derives from his status as the Other is not dramaturgically defensible. Despite his physical identification as the Other, his interaction with the native Venetians (other than Iago) would discourage an interpretation of him as the Other in the sense of an outsider who is totally alienated from the community. In this respect, then, the plot does not require that he be black. He is not white—although, to some critics in the nineteenth century, his personal characteristics may have seemed at variance with certain widely-held notions of the proper traits for a stage black.7 The motive of jealousy in the play does not require that he be black. Yet the playwright seems to have gone to extraordinary pains to develop this character so that his black skin color would be clearly understood.

The reason for the character's black skin color should be inherent in the dramatic elements of character and plot. Thus, the need for the Jewish money lender in The Merchant of Venice grows out of the demands of character and plot, and Aaron's black skin color in Titus Andronicus is dramaturgically necessary and probable because black is usually accepted as the color of the evil that Aaron personifies (3.1.205). The seeming failure of character and plot in Othello to yield a dramaturgical purpose for the character's black skin color is perhaps what has led to the critical assumption that the purpose is extradramatic, residing in the audience's response to the relationship between blacks and whites. When examined, however, even this reason has less validity for Shakespeare's Elizabethan audiences than it has for later audiences viewing the play against the background of bond slavery.

Additionally, the visual and emblematic contrasts provided by Othello's color are insufficient to explain why he is black. Visually, the blackness contrasts with Desdemona's “whiter skin … than snow” (5.2.4). But there seems to be little point in providing a visual contrast that does not appear to illuminate the text. Emblematically, the traditional associations with black and white are reversed, as Doris Adler demonstrates in her article on “The Rhetoric of Black and White in Othello,” so that in the play, as G. K. Hunter observes in “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” Iago is represented as “the white man with the black soul while Othello is the black man with the white soul” (151). Moreover, as Adler points out (255), Bianca, whose name translates as “white,” with its resonances of “good” and “pure,” is so far from being pure that she is characterized as a courtesan, or in Iago's words, Cassio's “whore” (4.1.177). In Romeo and Juliet, verbal contrasts, including black-versus-white imagery, support the tragic conflict between the two feuding families; along similar lines, one might assume that the black-and-white contrasts in Othello are employed for the purpose of supporting the major theme, but the major theme of the play seems to contradict this notion. Iago and Othello are not equal antagonists as are the families in Romeo and Juliet, and as the diametric opposition in a black-versus-white contrast suggests should be the case. Othello is a passive victim who does not recognize Iago as his antagonist until Desdemona is dead and Iago's plot to destroy Othello is irreversible. The seeming divergence between traditional color symbolism and the use of color in Othello suggests that color in the play is not used primarily to underscore a conflict between evenly matched contestants.

Othello is destroyed as the result of the machinations of Iago, who is nevertheless not punished within the confines of the dramatic action. Such an absence of predetermined poetic justice demonstrates an arbitrary working of fate. While this theme of the arbitrariness of fate seems to be reflected in the unexpected reversal of the color symbolism, the skin color, as a detail of the characterization of the protagonist, calls for an explanation arising out of both character and plot. Within the great chain of being that the Elizabethans assumed gave order to the universe (Tillyard 25-36), one could find illustrations of the arbitrariness of fate among the meanest creatures of the earth. E. M. W. Tillyard explains in The Elizabethan World Picture how the Elizabethans drew lessons about their own lives by observing these humble creatures:

[T]he Elizabethans looked on the lower end of the chain of being mainly in the light of themselves. Its great variety and ingenuity were indeed testimonies of the creator's wonderful power, but its main function was to provide symbols or to point morals for the benefit of man. The ant was a wonderful creation, but the chief thing was that he was there for the sluggard to go to.


Ben Jonson's Volpone demonstrates the manner in which Elizabethans gave dramatic form to such lessons drawn from observation of the lower orders. The behavior of the fictional Volpone, who pretends to be dying in order to expose the rapaciousness of his friends, parallels the modus operandi in the legends that Jonson's sources gave him about the fox, who “feigned death in order to catch birds, especially ‘ravens, crows, and other birds,’ which light near the supposed carcass and are seized” (Nethercot 131).

An easily observable natural phenomenon, which demonstrates the arbitrariness of fate and which requires no confirmation except the evidence of one's eyes, occurs in the action of a spider capturing a fly in its web. The events of Othello parallel the actions of the spider in his destruction of the fly. Iago is the spider who, with true “motiveless malignity,” seeks the destruction of Othello for a variety of invented reasons, but chiefly for the unspoken reason that Othello, the fly, is his natural enemy. The metaphor, which can be traced throughout the language as well as the action of the play, has been noted by Caroline Spurgeon. In her seminal study, Shakespeare's Imagery, she includes a description of the preponderance of animal imagery in Othello (336); Spurgeon comments that, in this play,

we see a low type of life, insects and reptiles, swarming and preying on each other, not out of special ferocity, but just in accordance with their natural instincts. … This reflects and repeats the spectacle of the wanton torture of one human being by another, which we witness in the tragedy, the human spider and his fly.


Iago's language reflects this metaphor of the “human spider and his fly,” while, at the same time, it reveals his method of trapping his intended victims. At one moment, when Iago, Cassio, Emilia, and Desdemona are engaged in conversation, Iago observes Cassio touch Desdemona's hand, and the ensign murmurs to himself, “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” (2.1.168-69). Later, in a soliloquy, he declares of Desdemona that “out of her own goodness [will I] make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (2.3.361-62). Iago turns the circumstances of the victim's own life into the material to destroy the victim: Othello's blackness; Cassio's casual action of respect for Desdemona; Desdemona's goodness. Although he is eventually unsuccessful in his plot against Cassio, Iago has included him in his widening plot, as the destruction of everyone seems to have become, for him, an end in itself. As with spiders, his “web” will snare any creature that falls into it.

Iago is portrayed throughout with features peculiar to the spider; details in Othello's portrait conform to the characteristics of the fly. The resemblances between both of these fictional inventions and their counterparts in the insect world are too consistent to be considered coincidental. From his childhood to his death, Othello corresponds in development to a fly. He has been a warrior since the age of seven; in other words, upon his transformation from infancy and early childhood, he has assumed the responsibilities of an adult. In the same way, the fly assumes adult status immediately upon emerging from the larval stage. Othello's residence on islands—areas surrounded by seas—parallels the fly's tendency to inhabit almost exclusively damp places. Othello travels constantly, just as flies are always on the wing; Othello's sonorous and repetitive speech has the droning quality associated with insects such as flies and mosquitoes. Maturity is accompanied, in humans and animals alike, by courtship rituals—Desdemona is attracted by Othello's stories of his wondrous exploits—and the sudden elopement of the sheltered Desdemona with Othello is perhaps not dissimilar to the abrupt mating of the creatures of the wild, which select mates independently of any authority, and depart suddenly from the nurturing habitation without plan or warning. Most significantly, the Moor is helpless to save himself when in the throes of his enemy, Iago, just as the fly is a helpless victim when it is caught in the web of its natural enemy, the spider.8

Through this metaphor, Othello's blackness is revealed as a function of both character and plot. The spider's victim is typically some kind of wandering insect who blunders into the spider's web. The spider does not seek out its victim, but when it sees one in its web, it sets out immediately to destroy that victim. The play, therefore, required first of all a character who would be recognized by the audience as someone out of his native element—a wanderer. Persons with black skin in Elizabethan England could generally be classified as wanderers; Othello is thus depicted with the black skin common to these wanderers, the color of his skin conforming to the color of the spider's most frequent victim, the fly. The spider, who remains in its web awaiting a victim, need only be characterized as a creature on its home grounds, prepared to destroy any unwitting trespasser. In the dramatic structure, therefore, the spider is depicted with the protective coloring of one who is native to the environment; consequently, Iago (a Florentine [3.1.40]), has the white skin of a native of the Italian peninsula. The action of the play dramatizes the manner in which the fly wanders into the spider's web and is destroyed by the spider.

Just as the Holocaust has altered our reaction to Shylock, so that, in recoiling from the horror of recent historical events, we now foreground the humanity of the Jew in the fictive tragedy of The Merchant of Venice rather than the caution of the usurer, so the legacy of chattel slavery has affected modern responses to Othello. Audiences and critics now try to come to terms with what they perceive as a racial emphasis in the play and, in the process, fail to realize that Othello, as a fictional construct, is an element in the controlling metaphor. In his thoughtful essay on “Othello and the ‘plain face’ of Racism,” Martin Orkin asserts that the play stands against racism. While Shakespeare's play is perhaps less consciously didactic than Orkin claims, the playwright does demonstrate the virulence of racism by having Iago introduce it into the plot as a fatal “poison” (1.1.68), just as the spider injects venom into its victim. Iago gloats as he lets his “medicine” work (4.1.45), just as the spider lets its victim writhe under the effect of the poison.

The playwright lets the punishment of the poisoner remain uncertain, reflecting the manner in which the spider in nature is not necessarily punished for killing the fly. Iago's punishment, if any, which is urged by Lodovico, but left to the discretion of Cassio (5.2.367-69), does not take place within the confines of the dramatic action. Those in the audience who demand retribution are therefore free to conjecture that Iago suffers proper punishment for his evil. The playwright, meanwhile, remains true to the natural order that is demonstrated in the mimetic action when he refrains from actively punishing this “human spider,” for nature does not judge as evil a natural force, or treat as evil the natural enmity of one species towards another. If the spider should also be killed as a result of this struggle, it is not in the nature of retribution, punishment, or revenge, but simply another incident in the bitter fight for survival. If the spider is not killed, that also is in the natural order of things. The destruction of Othello as a result of the machinations of Iago reflects this cosmic struggle, with the absence of predetermined poetic justice in the drama suggesting both the amoral aspects of the natural forces at work and the arbitrariness of an indifferent fate.9


  1. Norman Verrle McCullough, in contrast to the actor Paul Robeson and director Margaret Webster, both of whom, he asserts, tried to prove that Othello is a “play about race,” is sure that “Othello is not a play of race, and only by following a raceless approach to the play will the reader or viewer discover the true tragic thrill of Shakespeare's play” (The Negro in English Literature 47).

  2. According to James C. Bulman in an article in the Shakespeare Quarterly, the original producer of the BBC-TV series, Cedric Messina, had “tried to cast James Earl Jones as Othello but was forbidden to do so by British Equity” (580).

  3. Jones cites this order to support his theory that the Queen thought the number of African natives in England so great as to create a problem (Elizabethan Image 20). That the Queen included not only Spanish Moors but also African slaves in her order, seems evident from her special statement that people who were “possessed of any such Blackamoors” should surrender them (10).

  4. According to John Pory, who, in 1600 had translated Leo's History of Africa into English, prefacing it with a biography of the author, Leo's “[p]arentage seemeth not to have bin ignoble” (qtd. in Whitney 477).

  5. Othello's speech before the Senate, in which he relates how his marriage came about, occupies forty-three lines (1.3.127-70). His language frequently includes repetition, in phrases such as the following: “She swore, in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange: / ’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful” (1.3.160-61), and “Put out the light, and then put out the light” (5.2.7), as he utters a thought and returns to utter it again.

  6. Warren D. Smith, who also suggests this idea in an essay entitled “Shakespeare's Shylock,” does not follow the notion up for its dramaturgical possibilities (195).

  7. Barthelemy notes that the “overwhelming majority” of black characters presented on the stage in England “between 1589 and 1695 endorsed, represented, or were evil” (72). Characters such as the Moor Muly Mahamet in George Peele's Battle of Alcazar were strong, self-confident characters, but as blacks, they stood for evil. The strength and confidence of the evil black characters were perhaps mistaken by Preston in the nineteenth century (see above, page 2) for traits more appropriate for white characters. During the nineteenth century, audiences were probably more accustomed to the representation on stage of the type of subservient, menial blacks that appeared in such popular plays as Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859). This new stereotype of the stage black was a result of the crystallization of attitudes developed in an attempt to justify chattel slavery (Jordan 27). This social conditioning is perhaps what caused Preston, “Coleridge, and … the American writers” who professed to believe that Othello was a white or tawny Moor (Bradley 168) to allow their critical judgment to falter.

  8. The allegory of spiders and flies was familiar to Shakespeare's audiences from John Heywood's poem, The Spider and the Flie, which had appeared a generation previously in 1556. In the introduction to this long, allegorical work, A. W. Ward reports that, in one reading of the poem, anthropomorphic spiders and flies, representing respectively Protestants and Catholics, fight a war about idolatry, until the head spider—who represents the Duke of Northumberland, the leader of the Protestant plot against the Catholic Queen Mary—is crushed underfoot by the Maid, signifying the beheading of the Duke (Heywood vii-ix). The poem demonstrates how the Renaissance imagination could seriously entertain an insect metaphor that modern audiences tend to deem trivial.

  9. The lesson of an arbitrary fate was probably not lost upon the audience at court for whom the play seems to have had its first performance on 1 November 1604, during the second year of the reign of James I. The description of James's life by Maurice Ashley in England in the Seventeenth Century suggests that James was at the mercy of a particularly arbitrary fate. Before he was a year old, the man who was presumably his father, Lord Darnley, was murdered, if not with the actual connivance of James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, at least with her approval. James inherited the throne of Scotland as James VI when his mother abdicated and fled to England, where she was eventually executed by Parliament with the consent of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth provided no heirs to the throne and, on her deathbed, is supposed to have named “our cousin of Scotland” to succeed her, a prize that James secured for himself when he “contented himself with restrained protests” to his mother's execution (9).

Works Cited

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Adler, Doris. “The Rhetoric of Black and White in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 25 (1974): 248-57.

Ashley, Maurice. England in the Seventeenth Century. Rev. ed. The Pelican History of England 6. Baltimore: Penguin, 1967.

Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1964. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Penguin, 1966.

Boucicault, Dion. The Octoroon. The Signet Classic Book of 18th- and 19th-Century British Drama. Ed. Katharine Rogers. New York: Signet-NAL, 1979. 404-57.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Gen. ed. Irving Howe. Literature and Ideas Series. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Premier, n.d.

Bulman, James C. “The BBC Shakespeare and ‘House Style.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 571-81.

Craton, Michael. Sinews of Empire: A Short History of British Slavery. Garden City, NY: Doubleday-Anchor, 1974.

Davidson, Basil. The African Slave Trade. Rev. and exp. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

Evans, K. W. “The Racial Factor in Othello.Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 124-40.

French, J. Milton. “Othello Among the Anthropophagi.” PMLA 49 (1934): 807-09.

Furness, Horace Howard, ed. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Othello. 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1886.

Harrison, G. B., ed., “Introduction to Othello,Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1968. 1056-58.

Heywood, John. The Spider and the Flie. 1556. Introd. A. W. Ward. 1894. New York: Franklin, 1967.

Hunter, G. K. “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967). London: Oxford UP, 1968.

Jones, Eldred D. The Elizabethan Image of Africa. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971.

———. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Jonson, Ben. Volpone. Stuart Plays. Ed. Arthur H. Nethercot. Rev. ed. New York: Holt, 1971. 129-93.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1968.

Kermode, Frank. Introduction to Othello. Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare 1198-1202.

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Livermore, Harold. A History of Spain. London: Allen, 1958.

McCullough, Norman Verrle. The Negro in English Literature: A Critical Introduction. Devon: Stockwell, 1962.

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Peele, George. “The Battle of Alcazar.” The Dramatic Works of George Peele. Ed. John Yoklavich. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1961. 293-347.

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Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Marriage and Mutuality in Othello,” in Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 125-49.

[In the essay below, Novy considers patriarchy in the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.]

In an article entitled “Marriage and the Construction of Reality,” the sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner say, “Unlike an earlier situation in which the establishment of the new marriage simply added to the differentiation and complexity of an already existing social world, the marriage partners are now embarked on the often difficult task of constructing for themselves the little world in which they will live.”1 By this definition, Othello and Desdemona seem to begin their marriage in a situation more modern than traditional. Othello is cut off from his ancestry; Desdemona is disowned by her father. They spend most of the play in Cyprus, a setting native to neither of them. Thus they have some of both the opportunities and the difficulties of constructing their own world that Berger and Kellner discuss. “The re-construction of the world in marriage,” they continue, “occurs principally in the course of conversation. … The implicit problem of this conversation is how to match two individual definitions of reality.”2

Marriage for Berger and Kellner, as, I have argued, for Shakespeare's comedies, involves a combination of ideals of mutuality and assumptions of patriarchy, though of course patriarchy takes a different form in twentieth-century America than in seventeenth-century England. Though the balance may tip in one direction or the other, the predominance of playfulness and of festive disguise helps to remove threatening elements. In Shakespeare's tragedies, however, the combination of patriarchy and mutuality breaks down. We never see Othello and Desdemona creating together a private game-like world of conversation onstage. All the early scenes where they both speak are public, and events in the outside world remain important to their relationship. Othello's public role as warrior is part of what Desdemona loves in him. Furthermore, Berger and Kellner assume a situation in which “the husband typically talks with his wife about his friend, but not with his friend about his wife”; in Othello the opposite is true.3 One principal representative of the already existing social world stays with Othello and Desdemona—Iago. And accompanying his presence is the persistence of conventional attitudes from the outside world in Othello's mind. Othello cannot completely free himself from the conventional assumption that Desdemona's marriage to him is unnatural. He cannot keep distrust of women out of his marriage. Brabantio may not be physically present, but his message, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293), rings in Othello's memory. And after Othello has stopped believing anything Desdemona says, Iago's presence makes it impossible for Othello to keep out of his marriage a code of proving manhood by violent revenge. Between patriarchy and racism, the initial mutuality between Desdemona and Othello is destroyed. To restore it is the aim of Othello's suicide.

In Shakespeare's comedies we usually see mutuality being established; in Othello we hear the process described. Othello calls it, “How I did thrive in this fair lady's love / And she in mine” (1.3.125-26). While he told his life story to her father,

This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;
But still the house affairs would draw her thence;
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’d come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. Which I observing,
Took once a plaint hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered.


Here Othello gives a description of a process of initiative and response leading to further response—Othello talks, Desdemona listens, Othello sees her listening and encourages it, hopes she will ask to hear more; she does, he agrees, and she responds with tears of sympathy. Othello is gratified by her initial interest in his performance and draws her out for more active participation.

While this scene fits some conventions of patriarchy—male activity and female response—the imagery by which Othello's words become food that Desdemona devours should signal that roles here are not altogether limited to conventional ones. As Brabantio says, Othello's story portrays Desdemona as “half the wooer” (1.3.176). She goes beyond the audience's responsiveness, as an earlier chapter noted, to initiate courtship by her hint. The content of their conversation in this story is Othello's experience, not Desdemona's, but we should notice how closely he has observed her, how carefully he has elicited her request. While Desdemona has been an audience to Othello's performance, he has also behaved like an audience in closely observing her. In the narrative Othello tells, he has judged Desdemona's feelings from her gestures, guessed at meaning beneath her words, and he has been right about her interest in him—beyond his dreams. Othello describes a powerful experience of emotional sharing—he has gone back to his youth and relived his sufferings and she has felt them along with him: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (1.3.167-68).

Yet in spite of her active participation, Desdemona describes her loyalty to Othello as a matter of duty. Furthermore, Desdemona makes as many concessions as she can to her father in explaining her “divided duty” (1.3.181); she speaks first of her bonds as a daughter, and she compares her choice of Othello with her mother's choice of her father. One of few Shakespearean women who claim to imitate their mothers, she is trying to reassure Brabantio by putting her marriage into an orderly continuity of marriages, trying to remind him that his marriage too was won at the cost of separation from a father.

In these introductory statements by Othello and Desdemona, their marriage appears as a combination of patriarchy and mutuality. Othello makes the marriage proposal and keeps the title of lord, yet there is a genuine emotional sharing and companionship. Desdemona further emphasizes both these elements later on in this scene. “That I did love the Moor to live with him,” she says,

My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,
May trumpet to the world.


She joins him in his imagery as in his career. “My heart's subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord” (1.3.250-51). She identifies with him in a way that subordinates her.4 He does not, for example, ask that she accompany him to Cyprus until after she does, and he makes a point of saying that he asks it only as a magnanimous gesture, “to be free and bounteous to her mind” (1.3.265). Although his description of their courtship revealed the importance to him of her emotional response—the mutual dependence that they have created—he wants to deny his need of her and, most emphatically, to deny any sexual appetite that would clamor for satisfaction—“Not to comply with heat—the young affects / In me defunct” (1.3.263-64). Furthermore, while she values his world, his words here suggest that he scorns the domestic world she comes from; his curse to be imposed on himself if he neglects his duty because of her ends:

Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation!


In their meeting in Cyprus, it is Othello who uses imagery that describes their love as a fusion of Desdemona's essence into his: he calls her “My fair warrior … my soul's joy” (2.1.180-82). In this reunion, as in his scene of self-revelation to her described earlier, social structures and temperamental differences may drop away and two people can create the illusion of unity; such scenes are the end of love as quest and of the typical plot of romantic comedy.5 But what can follow them? Othello's words of joy are filled with apprehension. It is as if the hardships of his life have led him always to expect disaster:

If it were now to die,
’Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.


It is easier for Othello to imagine a Liebestod than a love enduring the test of daily life; yet he sees their love not as the passion usually identified with Liebestod but as calm, content, comfort. This suggests, perhaps, the element in their love that involves regression to a relationship like that of mother and infant.

Desdemona's response, however, is more active and creative:

The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow.


Othello quickly agrees, but the memory of his fear is there to mix with the ominous suggestions of Iago's asides.

Why is Iago so successful in his attempts to destroy the relationship between Othello and Desdemona? Many different approaches can work toward answers to this question; here I am interested in looking at what the play shows about the vulnerability of the combination of patriarchy and mutuality that we see in that relationship, and about how Iago manipulates Othello's persisting need for mutuality.

If mutuality and patriarchy are to be combined, as we have already suggested, the woman must make the gesture of subordinating herself to the man; in addition, in Othello, much more than in the comedies, the man believes he must subdue qualities in himself that he considers would make him woman-like or too dependent on a woman. Othello's need for control to assert his manliness often coalesces with the need for control to assert that he is civilized and not a barbarian slave to passion. It is important to note here the overlap between the stereotypes of the woman and of the Moor: conventional Renaissance European views would see both as excessively passionate.6 Othello's first appearance, contrary to this stereotype, is an amazing show of self-possession under Brabantio's attacks. Even in his description of his life history, he recounts his adventures in a controlled tone. He is, however, moved when Desdemona cries over them; if he beguiles her of her tears, she can express his emotions for him. It further suggests his control, based on his sense of social distinctions, that Desdemona first speaks of love, and Othello can see himself as loving only in response, and therefore rationally. Indeed, he is, as we have seen, curiously emphatic about his lack of sexual passion.

Othello's stress on control of passion may add to the implications of his dismissal of Cassio. Just after the announcement that Othello has proclaimed a general festivity because of the coincidence of the victory over the Turks and the celebration of his nuptial, Othello says to Cassio:

Good Michael, look you to the guard to-night.
Let’s teach ourselves that honorable stop,
Not to outsport discretion.


Here Othello seems to be identifying himself with Cassio, the potential drunkard, in a common need for control. A few lines later, Othello leaves with Desdemona, saying

Come, my dear love.
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;
That profit's yet to come ’tween me and you.


After the first line, this is a rather business-like description for the sexual initiation of a wedding night. Again it suggests a concern for sharing, but it is odd that he should turn pleasure into financial imagery. Iago's words a few lines later suggest one kind of language Othello has avoided using: “He hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove” (2.3.15-17).

Thus, while Cassio drinks too much and gets into a fight with Rodrigo and then with Montano, the characters and the audience are frequently reminded that Othello and Desdemona are meeting in bed for the first time. Iago, in fact, brings this juxtaposition shockingly into focus when he describes the fight to Othello, who has been called back by its clamor:

Friends all, but now, even now,
In quarter, and in terms like bride and groom
Devesting them for bed; and then but now—
As if some planet had unwitted men—
Swords out, and tilting one at other's breast
In opposition bloody.


What Iago has described is perilously close to the reality of the wedding night, when at least briefly rational control must be abandoned and blood must be shed.

I suggest that, partly under Iago's influence, partly because of his own emphasis on self-control, Othello feels guilty about the passion involved in his intercourse with Desdemona; he identifies with the offender who has also let passion run away with him, and in effect he makes Cassio a scapegoat for himself. When he dismisses Cassio, as later when he kills Desdemona, he insists that he is acting justly when he is really moved by his emotions. Here he returns to Desdemona saying “All's well now, sweeting” (2.3.242), because Cassio is dismissed, and so too, Othello thinks, is the disturbing image of sexuality becoming violent with which Iago has associated him. Like Stanley Cavell, I think that Othello's guilt about sexuality is an important subtext of the play;7 but in addition to the guilt about hurting Desdemona, which Cavell stresses, I see him as feeling guilty for loss of control of his passions, such loss of control as many medieval theologians whose views were still reflected in some Elizabethan sermons thought made sex inevitably suspect even within marriage.8

Of course, Othello is a play about passionate love; but part of its impact comes from the tension between that passion and the restraints that Othello is constantly trying to place on it, as suggested by his words. Furthermore, Othello's very idealization of Desdemona has a passionate component. He is passionate in wishing her to be totally fused in identification with him, in a symbiosis possible only for the mother and infant before the infant's discovery of sex. In one of his final confrontations with Desdemona, he describes her, in language that brings to mind the dependence of the infant at the mother's breast, as the place

Where either I must love or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up.


C. L. Barber has suggested that many of Shakespeare's female characters have the resonance for the hero, and for the audience, of the Virgin Mary; Shakespeare's audience still had the fantasy of a total and pure relationship such as one could have only with a mother who was perpetually a virgin, and this fantasy could no longer be dealt with through religious symbolism and ritual because of the Reformation. Thus Othello projects the kind of religious need onto Desdemona that no merely human being could fulfill.9

In his description of the handkerchief and its provenance, there are more suggestions of Othello's fantasy of love as fusion with a woman both maternal and virginal. He describes a gypsy sorceress as telling his mother that the handkerchief,

while she kept it,
[would] make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathèd.


In sharp contrast with Desdemona's description of her parents as bound by duty, here are the precarious bonds of magic. The mere chance loss of the handkerchief can turn one side of the polarized image—Othello's father entirely subdued to her love—to the other—loathing. Furthermore, by concluding the description with a reference to dye made from maiden's hearts. Othello calls up the image of dead women and associates it with the blood lost in the loss of virginity, which Lynda Boose has shown might well be visually suggested by the handkerchief.10 Othello's words imply that if Desdemona could keep the handkerchief, could keep her fidelity safe from any accusation, could define herself as the virgin who shed her blood for him, then she would be like his mother and would keep his love.

Othello's desire for a love that is total fusion is, in part, his attempt to escape from his underlying sense of separateness. His blackness is a visual sign of how his history differs from that of the other characters; his narrative tells of an early life far from ordinary family and domestic connections. His ties in Venice, except with Desdemona, are those made by military service, and as Brabantio's behavior shows, they are precarious. Thus it is particularly easy for Iago to play on Othello's sense of separateness with regard to Desdemona, who is not only Venetian but also a woman. Othello is defenseless against commonplaces of antifeminism when couched as the insider's sociological observation:

I know our country disposition well:
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands.


It is at this key point that Iago's hints depend most on the structure of a patriarchal society; because of fathers' controls over their daughters, women can choose their husbands only through some deception—and that deception can forever after be held against them. “She did deceive her father, marrying you” (3.3.206). There is always a latent male alliance, which Iago brings to the surface here as a compensation for the sense of alienation he is arousing in Othello. By stressing Desdemona's youth, also, Iago makes her sound like a diabolically clever child:

She that, so young, could give out such a seeming
To seel her father's eyes up close as oak—
He thought ’twas witchcraft.


The witchcraft charges originally applied to Othello have been projected to Desdemona. Othello's sense of being an outsider is evident as he resigns himself:

Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that’s not much—
She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.


One of the reasons that Iago can play so easily on Othello's sense of separateness to break up his relationship with Desdemona is that he himself can supply a pretense of the mutuality Othello so longs for. It is ironic that Iago is one of the few characters in Shakespeare to use in his dialogue a form of the word “mutuality”; to him it is a suggestive word that can make Cassio's gestures of courtesy to Desdemona sound like foreplay: “When these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’ incorporate conclusion” (2.1.255-57). To Iago, sincere mutuality of feeling is impossible, and most of the time he assumes that other people are as shallow in their relationships. He reduces love to a precariously matched set of appetites that he can easily manipulate.

It is unsettling to see, with Stephen Greenblatt, how well Iago's attitude toward Othello fits some definitions of empathy.11 As W. H. Auden has noted, “Iago treats Othello as an analyst treats a patient except that, of course, his intention is to kill, not to cure. Everything he says is designed to bring to Othello's consciousness what he has already guessed is there.”12 Iago cleverly postpones making direct charges against Desdemona and Cassio. Rather he drops hints and raises questions, leaving Othello to imagine the charges himself. His technique here is particularly poignant because it plays on the attempt to read gestures and see unspoken thoughts which worked for Othello in his recounted conversation with Desdemona. While earlier we heard about Desdemona and Othello creating a mutual trust together, here we see Iago and Othello creating a union based on suspicion of Desdemona, pretended by Iago and believed by Othello. Furthermore, Iago speaks openly of his own love for Othello—knowing that Othello will respond—and uses this technique especially when Othello sounds as if he is likely to doubt him: “From hence / I’ll love no friend, sith love breeds such offence” (3.3.379-80). Othello's growing fascination with Iago's words is heightened as Iago calls up the image of Cassio and Desdemona in bed, “as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys” (3.3.403), and then the image of Cassio in bed with Iago, mistaking him for Desdemona; the dream-like image of sexual union between two men parallels and charges the emotional union that Iago is creating with Othello. The excitement of the image adds to the tension of the conversation.

The parody marriage ceremony enacted when they kneel and vow murder, and Iago says, “I am your own forever” (3.3.480), offers a return to a relationship in one respect like the one Othello earlier had with Desdemona. In the worldview Iago offers, Othello again has someone's total dedication:

Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart
To wronged Othello's service!


Desdemona, by contrast, has given evidence that she extends her sympathy not only to Othello but also to Cassio.

In loving Desdemona, Othello has ventured outside of the man's world of war and made himself vulnerable to charges of being ruled by his emotions and therefore, in Renaissance terms, less than manly; remember his oath that if he neglects his duty because of Desdemona, “Let housewives make a skillet of my helm” (1.3.272). Iago plays on these fears as well by the way he acts the advocate of cold reason. His image of Cassio and Desdemona in bestial lust is introduced by “It is impossible you should see this” (3.3.402). The struggle between passion and control that initially was internal to Othello is now externalized; all of Iago's qualifications and admonitions to patience serve to enrage Othello further:

And this may help to thicken other proofs
That do demonstrate thinly.
I’ll tear her all to pieces!


After Othello's emotions have surfaced so powerfully that he falls into a fit, Iago begins to harp on the issue of manhood.13 “Would you would bear your fortune like a man. … Be a man … grief—a passion most unsuiting such a man” (4.1.61, 64, 76-77). By trying to emphasize the need for control, he is still promoting Othello's passion, but helping to channel it toward revenge:

Marry, patience!
Or I shall say y’are all in all in spleen,
And nothing of a man.
Dost thou hear, Iago?
I will be found most cunning in my patience
But—dost thou hear?—most bloody.


Under Iago's influence, Othello starts to name Desdemona in ways that fit more into the harshest potential of the patriarchal structure of marriage than into a mutuality of love. The images that he uses for Desdemona put her into categories of objects to be controlled or possessed. His sense of her as different from him becomes more and more an image of her as strange, not quite human. He compares her to a hawk, using one of Petruchio's more patriarchal images:

If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune.


He cannot bear to think that total control of her is impossible—the impossibility seems to threaten reducing him to an animal as well:

O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses.


“The thing I love”—that is now Othello's phrase for Desdemona. Emilia and Iago echo the word, with similar undertones of sexuality and a reductive approach to women, a few lines later, when they gain possession of the handkerchief:

I have a thing for you.
A thing for me? It is a common thing—
To have a foolish wife.


The word suggests the reduction of woman to object and particularly to sexual object that has occurred in Othello's mind under Iago's influence.

When Othello starts to doubt Desdemona, he also uses more images of dirt, often associated with sexuality. Desdemona, instead of a clear fountain, becomes “a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in” (4.2.61-62). This dirt also becomes associated with blackness. Here too we see Othello showing more self-hatred in his imagery as his distrust of Desdemona grows. “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.386-88).

This opposition between cleanness and dirt is another reason why the handkerchief becomes central to Othello's rejection of his love for Desdemona. “Such a handkerchief …,” says Iago, “did I today / See Cassio wipe his beard with” (3.3.437-39), and Othello explodes: “O, that the slave had forty thousand lives! / One is too poor, too weak for my revenge” (3.3.443-44). The handkerchief, something originally clean, is juxtaposed with dirt from Cassio's beard and for Othello it is as if that dirt soiled Desdemona herself.

When Othello becomes more distrusting of Desdemona, he also becomes more conscious of his passionate physical attraction to her, which earlier in the play he did not speak of, or denied.14 While initially he called her “My soul's joy,” now he speaks of “her sweet body” (3.3.346) and declares, “I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again” (4.1.200-202). The more he imagines her guilt, the more he feels his own attraction to her; he feels it more intensely, no doubt, because it appears split off from all her good qualities in which he no longer believes. He plans to kill her as a way to control his own unruly passion for her body as he punishes her passion.

In spite of this general tendency, Othello has moments even as he is planning the murder when he sees Desdemona not as an object to be controlled or punished but as an active, even civilizing woman. “So delicate with her needle! an admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear! of so high and plenteous wit and invention” (4.1.184-87). Struck by his admiration of her, Othello is moved to exclaim, “But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago” (4.1.192-93). But Iago can expel this mood in a moment by returning to the patriarchal imagery of possession: “If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend; for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody” (4.1.194-95).

As Othello is torn by the conflict between his admiration and his disgust, Desdemona's synthesis of attitudes breaks up disastrously. After the marriage Desdemona's combination of initiative—which contributes to mutuality—and pretense—which accommodates to patriarchy—dissolves, and both forms of acting contribute to Othello's anger at her. Her commitment to Cassio is carried out with such vehemence that some critics have accused her of trying to take away Othello's military authority; on the other hand, her resort to the evasive technique of lying about the handkerchief causes his anger even more intensely.

Desdemona knows that in some ways she is transcending patriarchal categories in pleading for Cassio with Othello (although of course she would not have called it that); she uses images suggesting that she sees herself in roles held predominantly by men in Renaissance society: “His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift. / … Thy solicitor shall rather die / Than give thy cause away” (3.2.24, 27-28). Furthermore, she asks that Othello pardon Cassio not as an obedient inferior asks for a favor from a condescending superior but with the suggestion that their marriage is one of mutual generosity: “I wonder in my soul / What you could ask me that I should deny / Or stand so mamm’ring on” (3.3.68-70). At the same time she goes on to suggest a different vision of their relationship: “Why, this is not a boon; / ’Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves, / Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm” (3.3.76-78). This imagery suggests either that she is imagining total identification with him—she is asking for this because it is what he needs—or that she sees herself as taking care of him as a nurturing mother does a child. In the light of psychoanalytic theory it is easy to conflate these two suggestions and to see the lines as hints that she too participates in the fantasy of a union with Othello as close as that of mother and infant. It is at this point that she swears “By’r Lady [By Our Lady], I could do much” (3.3.74), and Othello dismisses her by saying, “Leave me but a little to myself” (3.3.85), words that suggest he feels his identity threatened by engulfment. He has wanted fusion, yes, but it is also threatening, especially for someone who values control as Othello does.

As Othello's jealousy becomes clearer, Desdemona's attitudes are a mixture of mature strength and evasion.15 When openly accused she defends herself forcefully to Othello:

Are not you a strumpet?
No, as I am a Christian!


But after this scene she emphasizes her innocence in language that makes her seem more weak and passive:

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks:
He might have child me so; for, in good faith,
I am a child to chiding.
.....Am I that name, Iago?

(4.2.111-14, 118)

She has been slow to see that Othello is jealous and even slower to see that he is jealous of Cassio: she has intuitions that she is in danger in her last scene with Emilia, but she dismisses them:

Good faith, how foolish are our minds!
If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me
In one of those same sheets.


Early in the play she seems mature and aware of people's limitations (“I would not there reside, / To put my father in impatient thoughts / By being in his eye”—1.3.241-43) and worldly-wise enough to deal with Iago's antifeminist jokes with a cool “O heavy ignorance! Thou praisest the worst best” (2.1.143-44). She can be calm and tolerant about Othello's bad temper, although this tolerance sounds like evasion in the light of later events:

Nay, we must think men are not gods,
Nor of them look for such observancy
As fits the bridal.


Near the end, with Emilia, she retreats into a willful ignorance, as her disillusionment with Othello leads her to cling harder, perhaps, to a belief in women:

O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think—tell me, Emilia—
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
There be some such, no question.
I do not think there is any such woman.

(4.3.58-61, 82)

At this point it is Emilia who takes over the articulate awareness that Desdemona showed earlier. She makes a speech attacking the institution behind Othello's assumption of his right to kill Desdemona—the double standard. Elsewhere than in this speech, the play alludes to adultery by men only in Iago's fantasies—and there, of course, he sees it as an offense against one man by another. Here, suddenly, the whole perspective changes, and we see adultery not as a world-shaking crime committed by women, but as one of a whole group of men's possible behaviors annoying to wives—in the same category as jealousy, violence, and stinginess. How different it is to see adultery as a violation of “there where I have garnered up my heart” and to see it as analogous to cutting an allowance. Emilia rejects the patriarchal valuation of female adultery as worse than male adultery:

Let husbands know,
Their wives have sense like them. They see and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. …
 … And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

(4.3.92-95, 99-100)

Othello's murder of Desdemona is the epitome of his failure to accept the fact that both of them have what Emilia calls frailties and affections. When he sees her sleeping, his words show appreciation of her beauty as a passive object, which he can describe in static, lifeless terms—sensuous conversions of passion to coldness and art—“That whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.3-4). As he becomes more aware of the irrevocability of her death, the imagery changes:

I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.


Yet this awareness falters: “I will kill thee, / And love thee after” (5.2.18-19). When seeing her sleeping, he talks tenderly of her, even kisses her, in spite of his intent to kill, and wants to give her time to confess her sins, but on confronting the awakened woman, who struggles for life and denies his accusations, he becomes enraged.

Again Desdemona defends her innocence stoutly in a mix of assertiveness, generosity, and naiveté:

I never did
Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love.


But her earlier resourcefulness and understanding of Othello have left her. She cannot believe that he will kill her. “Why I should fear I know not, / Since guiltiness I know not; but yet I feel I fear” (5.2.38-39), she says, after he has already begun to talk of killing. The best she can do for her survival, when she learns that Othello will not believe her and Cassio is dead, is to ask for a stay of execution.

In her last words, uttered after she is apparently dead and Emilia has returned, her first impulse is to proclaim her murder and thus to maintain her own innocence. But when Emilia asks her to name her murderer, Desdemona shows that she has forgiven Othello—“Commend me to my kind lord”—and for the last time uses a lie to try to cover up—this time Othello's guilt—“Nobody—I myself” (5.2.125-26).

Othello does not see her forgiveness but rather the lie that fits with his insistence on her dishonesty. But eventually he learns the truth, when Emilia tells the story of her own responsibility in the loss of the handkerchief—at the cost of her life. Yet Othello's words at the end show that he still fails to understand Desdemona. If she were true, he says, after Emilia has challenged his charges,

If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I’d not have sold her for it.


And at the end he compares her to a foolishly discarded “pearl … / Richer than all his tribe” (5.2.347-48). Value is evident in these images, but it is lifeless, inanimate—a possession: “Cold, cold, my girl? / Even like thy chastity” (5.2.276-77). His identification of her chastity with the coldness of death shows his inability to connect it with the warmth of her love; it is in keeping with this that he does not understand the forgiveness that she has already granted him:

When we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.


At the end Othello seems again to regain control of himself and can finally admit his earlier lack of control, his passivity to “being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme” (5.2.345-46). He maintains control of his own destiny by killing himself but also intends a return to mutuality. The final image of three people dead on a bed is on one level an image of the power of sexual passion to take life. Yet unlike the first two deaths, inflicted in passion, this one is calm. These deaths show not the simple destructiveness of passion but the more complicated destructiveness of passion combined with an attempt to control, closely related to social structures of sexual polarization.

Let us consider briefly three of the ways that Shakespeare's characters see sexual relations between man and woman. They can be seen as a sharing of passion and action in mutual responsiveness, as the man asserting his dominance over the woman, or as the man overcome by his passion for the woman. The second and third views come out of a mental structure of sexual polarization, in which either man = action and woman = passivity or man = control and woman = passion. In the comedies, the first view of sexuality (mutuality) balances the second (male dominance), as in The Taming of the Shrew, or the second and third (male submission to passion, represented by a woman), as in As You Like It. Comic game-playing helps keep this balance. Either male or female dominance can seem less threatening and less permanent if portrayed as a game, and the participation of the lovers in a game not understood by other characters adds to the sense of their existence in a shared world that dramatizes the strength of their relationship. This structure of play allows the lovers to try out the extremity of passion (“Then, in mine own person, I die”—As You Like It, 4.1.84) and to draw back from it (“No, faith, die by attorney”—As You Like It, 4.1.85). The fears of betrayal and rejection surface and are dealt with. Desdemona has something of the playful attitude, the ability to try out situations through imagining alternatives. But unlike the comedy heroes, Othello lacks any trace of such flexibility. “Disport” seems a bad word to him. Unlike them, also, he is matched with Iago, one of the most notable game-players in Shakespeare, who uses his abilities to create false mutuality and destroy true mutuality. Under his influence, Othello's wish to assert his dominance over Desdemona and control their passions becomes desperate and contaminated by the masculine code of revenge by murder. When he discovers his guilt, however, Desdemona becomes identified with control (“Cold, cold as thy chastity”) and himself with passion. Then with his final act he turns his activity against himself and tells us that this gesture of control is intended as a union with her.

While in the first part of the speech, his guilt about his excess of passion is apparent—“one that loved not wisely, but too well” (5.2.344)—there is a section of it in which he speaks of a kind of passion in himself that by implication becomes healing:

One whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their med’cinable gum.


He is following Desdemona in weeping and in speaking of himself as subdued. Furthermore, his image momentarily suggests a reconciliation with nature and its fluids. Othello has often used similar images of biological viscosity with disgust—“The slime / That sticks on filthy deeds” (5.2.149-50).16 Now for perhaps the first time he sees something in nature as healing. Furthermore, the gum is from Arabian trees—from an exotic, non-European land, one closer to Othello's heritage. It is a brief moment—only four lines—of relative peace—with the trees and the tears that recall Desdemona's willow song, where “Her salt tears fell from her, and soft’ned the stones” (4.2.45). Othello knows his heart is not the stone he once said it was. For these few moments he transcends the stereotype of masculine control to which he has elsewhere aspired. But he cannot accept as adequate the forgiveness that Desdemona has already granted him; he must return to the code of violence and control, and kill the passionate alien self that he earlier thought he was killing in Desdemona: “No way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (5.2.358-59).

The violent events of Othello dramatize, in hyperbolical form, many aspects of the predominant form of emotional symbiosis between men and women that remains in our society still. The references that I have occasionally made to echoes of the mother-child relationship in the imagery of the play are not intended as a prologue to comments about special pathologies in Othello's childhood, or Shakespeare's; rather, they are meant to underline the psychological influence that the restriction of child-rearing to women has had for centuries over the prevailing feelings of both sexes about women. Some of Othello's resonance comes from the imagery by which Othello's words about Desdemona evoke, at one moment, the way she gives him such joy as the mother gives the infant, and, at another moment, the way that his disillusionment with her re-creates the total desolation of the infant in a temporary state of frustration. I am following here the analysis of Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur.17 Dinnerstein believes that the boy raised by a woman feels “that the original, most primitive source of life will always lie outside himself, that to be sure of reliable access to it he must have exclusive access to a woman” (p. 43). Before the child has a defined self “a woman is the helpless child's main contact with the natural surround. … She is this global, inchoate, all-embracing presence before she is a person, a discrete, finite human individual with a subjectivity of her own” (p. 93). She is, perhaps, more a place than a person:

There where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up.


Initially, in her warmth and sympathy for him Desdemona seems to fulfill Othello's dreams of how a woman ought to behave. Indeed, we in the audience know, though Othello does not, that she never loses that warmth and sympathy and that her only conflict with him arises because she also takes on the role of trying to help Cassio.

But that conflict does arise, and Othello's experience of it, magnified by Iago's hints, has echoes of the discovery, as Dinnerstein puts it, “that the infant does not own or control the mother's body. Because this body has needs and impulses of its own, its responsiveness to the infant's needs is never totally reliable” (p. 60). “We can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites.” We never completely learn to deal with this truth, says Dinnerstein: “That the other to whom we look for nurturance has, like any sentient other, needs and a viewpoint separate from and never wholly subject to our own” (p. 240). But conventional female behavior serves to hide this fact as much as possible; “woman traditionally agrees to listen to man's opinions and keep her own to herself, lets him hog the limelight and offers herself as audience, allows herself activity only as it nourishes his projects” (pp. 239-40). Desdemona does more than this, but like many such women she possesses what Dinnerstein calls “a monstrously overdeveloped talent for unreciprocated empathy, an adult talent that she must exercise in a situation in many ways as vulnerable as a child's” (p. 236).

Desdemona's “talent for empathy”—perhaps “sympathy” is more accurate in view of her misunderstandings of him—and her inability to fight back when her life is at stake are symmetrical to Othello's military prowess and inability to sympathize when he feels wronged. His role as a soldier makes the point about the contrast between his and Desdemona's skills according to typical sex roles in the most emphatic way. Yet Desdemona admires Othello's military abilities and identifies with them so much that Othello calls her “fair warrior,” and she later calls herself “unhandsome warrior” (3.4.151). They are re-creating the traditional woman's “privilege of enjoying man's achievements and triumphs vicariously” (p. 211).

When Desdemona hears of Othello's earlier experiences, her tears serve, as Dinnerstein suggests that women's tears often do, to help a man go on—“for she is doing his weeping for him, and he is doing what she weeps about for her” (p. 226). The flashback to his earlier life in this speech is the only time in the play when we have a glimpse of Othello acting without regard to Desdemona, and even that is put in the context of their relationship by its position in the story of their courtship. Thus we see his identity as a soldier as connected with his confidence in Desdemona's admiration and sympathy from almost the beginning of the play. It is in keeping with this connection that when he loses faith in Desdemona he says farewell not only to the tranquil mind but also to “the big wars / That make ambition virtue” (3.3.349-50). After he has regained belief in Desdemona's faith, at the end, he speaks again of his service to the state and he stages his suicide as a re-creation of an earlier battle against a Turk.

Dinnerstein's analysis illuminates the connections between three attitudes that we have seen linked in Othello: emphasis on control, rejection of physicality, and rejection of women. Her analysis suggests that the kind of mutuality at the beginning of Othello, moving though it may be, contains some of the seeds of the disaster that follows. Erikson defines mutuality, we recall, as a relationship in which partners depend on one another for the development of their respective strengths: after Dinnerstein's analysis, we may be more critical of that word “respective,” if it implies a traditional differentiation of roles. As she puts it, “what each sex knows best has been distorted by … sealing off from what the other knows best” (p. 272). Finally, Othello's and Desdemona's definitions of reality diverge so much that no conversation can match them. Othello's limited development of sympathy combines with Desdemona's limited development of self-defense, and with all the powers that both of them have developed, to destroy both of them. And this destruction is more poignant because neither of them is simply stereotypical, because Desdemona has shown initiative and courage, because Othello has felt more love for her than he can kill. But finally they act out ideals of their own culture, ideals that are still part of our own culture. It is Shakespeare's genius that the play can suggest both the limitations and infantile roots of these ideals and their magnetic power.


  1. Peter L. Berger and Hansfried Kellner, “Marriage and the Construction of Reality,” Diogenes 46 (Summer 1964): 9.

  2. Ibid., p. 13.

  3. Ibid., p. 12.

  4. Cf. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (New York: Basic Books, 1960), p. 159.

  5. See Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 74.

  6. On the Moor, see, for example, Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), especially pp. 8, 22, 71.

  7. Stanley Cavell, The Claims of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 490-91. Since writing this, I have discovered that this interpretation is also argued by Arthur Kirsch, “The Polarization of Erotic Love in Othello,Modern Language Review 73 (1978): 721-40; and Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 232-54.

  8. John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), pp. 252-53, 319; C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 15-17; cf. Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Sexual Relation in Christian Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), pp. 206-7.

  9. C. L. Barber, “The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 95-201.

  10. Lynda Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,’” English Literary Renaissance 5 (Autumn 1975): 363-67. See also David Kaula, “Othello Possessed: Notes on Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Witchcraft,” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 126.

  11. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 225, refers to Daniel Lerner's definition of empathy as “the capacity to see oneself in the other fellow's situation” in The Passing of Traditional Society (1958; rev. ed., New York: Free Press, 1964), p. 49.

  12. W. H. Auden, “The Joker in the Pack,” in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1963), reprinted in Othello: A Casebook, ed. John Wain (London: MacMillan, 1971), p. 217.

  13. Cf. Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974), p. 135.

  14. Cf. Jones, Othello's Countrymen, p. 97; Kaula, “Othello Possessed,” p. 121.

  15. Her continued strength is emphasized by Carol Thomas Neely, “Women and Men in Othello: what should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?,” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1977): 133-58. I am much indebted to this article for its redress of critical disparagement of Desdemona, and my emphasis on her limitations is meant to be juxtaposed with Neely's lengthier discussion of her strengths.

  16. Cf. William Empson, “Honest in Othello,” The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), reprinted in Wain, ed., Othello: A Casebook, pp. 109-10.

  17. Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) (hereafter cited in the text by page number).

Mark Rose (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “Othello's Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 15, No. 3, Autumn, 1985, pp. 293-311.

[In the following essay, Rose discusses the role of chivalry in Othello.]

O now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.(1)

Othello's adieus to tranquility and content at the start of this speech evoke something more like the pastoral than the military ideal. Even when the imagery becomes explicitly military in the evocation of the “plumed troops” and the “big wars” there is a subtle continuity with the opening pastoralism. Here the lines suggest a transformation in which “ambition,” which is a vice in a world defined by pastoral content, becomes a “virtue” in a martial context—that is, both a positive good, and in the archaic sense of virtu, a source of strength. Moreover, the static quality of “plumed troops” and “big wars” is compatible with the feeling the lines convey that something like pastoral otium is being continued in a martial vein. Explicit activity enters the picture when Othello imagines the world he has lost as a parade of neighing horses and playing instruments—trumpet, drum, and fife—an ascending procession of sound that climaxes in the godlike roar of the cannon. “Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.” Six times in eleven lines Othello says farewell. The repetition articulates the speech, contributing to the sense of a procession passing with Othello bidding adieu to each of the squadrons in the parade of his life. It also unifies the speech, turning it into a nostalgic lament for a paradoxically apprehended martial pastoral.

What has Othello lost? The contradictions in this speech, at once static and active, pastoral and martial, convey the emotional urgency with which an image of the perfected world of absolute being is here fashioned. It is a world in which everything, including the neighing of horses and the booming of cannon, takes on the aspect of music; a world without stress, one in which even ambitious striving for glory has been reconceived as a form of tranquility. To participate in the harmonious clamor of this grand march in which mortal engines counterfeit the huge sounds of immortal Jove is to live at the farthest verge of human possibility. It is to be nearly as absolute as a god. Plainly such a state of being, one in which there is no gap between desire and satisfaction, between, as Macbeth puts it, the firstlings of the heart and the firstlings of the hand, is a condition radically incompatible with self-reflection, thought, or uncertainty of any kind. To banish Othello from such an Eden, proof of Desdemona's infidelity is unnecessary; mere suspicion will do as well as certainty.

Why should suspicion of Desdemona's infidelity end Othello's occupation as a soldier? It helps to observe that Othello conceives himself in this speech as a type of the knight validated by the absolute worthiness of the mistress he serves. Call the mistress into question and not only the knight's activity but his very identity collapses. Of course in this case the mistress, the necessarily unattainable lady of romance, has become the wife: sexual availability—as opposed to the intensity of mere fantasizing—has entered the picture. Even without Iago's machinations, then, the romantic image of the absolute worthiness of the lady is at best unstable. Others have developed this aspect of Othello's vulnerability to Iago.2 Here let us note simply that this speech is a clue to Othello's romanticizing imagination. It is of a piece with his address to the Senate in which he retells the story of his adventures among cannibals and monsters, his speech to Desdemona about the magic in the web of the handkerchief in which he invokes witches and charms as a way of explaining its overwhelming significance, or his final speech in which he recalls the exotic turbaned Turk in order to explain why he is about to slay himself. One might interpret Othello as a kind of tragic Don Quixote, a play in which Shakespeare explores the ways in which a romanticizing imagination can lead to devastating error. Yet despite the appeal of such an approach—and certainly it would be illuminating up to a point—we should note that Othello's romanticism is neither so explicit as Don Quixote's nor so firmly demarcated from the general world of the narrative.

There are no giants or dragons in Othello. The play's military world consists of generals, lieutenants, and ancients rather than knights, squires, evil magicians, and faithless Saracens. It is a world in which career advancement can be presented as a plausible motive for action; it is a comparatively workaday place of fleets, intelligence reports, and expeditionary forces. But the proximate realism should not blind us to the play's romantic aspects. There are Christian soldiers and threatening infidels here. Othello, a black warrior of royal lineage who turns out to be capable of astonishing violence, has something of a Savage Knight about him, and Desdemona may well in the constancy of her affection recall a Princess of Love and Chastity. Iago is no magician—indeed, he explicitly denies that he works by witchcraft—and yet his ensnarement of Othello's soul together with his manipulation of his perceptions may recall Spenser's Archimago, who similarly provides Redcross with ocular proof of his lady's infidelity. Moreover, all these elements reminiscent of chivalric romance—Othello's royal blood and adventurous past, the somewhat miraculous quality of Desdemona's innocence, the air of diabolical mystery that clings to Iago, the background of war with the infidel—are Shakespeare's additions to the Othello story as he found it in Cinthio's novella. Not just Othello's imagination but, I would suggest, Shakespeare's own is informed by the patterns of chivalric romance.


A few words about the Elizabethan chivalric revival are in order here. As Roy Strong says, “It is one of the great paradoxes of the Elizabethan world, one of its touchstones, that an age of social, political and religious revolution should cling to and deliberately erect a façade of the trappings of feudalism”3 Elizabethan culture was saturated with feudal idealism. In life and in art chivalric themes were pervasive. By the 1580s the spectacular Accession Day Tilts had reached their fully developed form. In this period, too, Robert Smythson was designing such fantasy castles as Wollaton Hall, Sidney was writing the Arcadia, Spenser was writing The Faerie Queene, and the London stages were populated by damsels in distress, knights in armor, and wicked enchanters in dozens of plays—most now lost—with names like Herpetulus the Blue Knight and Perobia, The History of the Solitary Knight, and Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes.4 Chivalric fantasies of service to the Virgin Queen shaped Elizabethan court style and also affected foreign policy. One product of the chivalric revival was Sidney's Arcadia, another was his death in 1586 in a campaign in which romantic notions continually obscured for Eliza's knights the complex facts of a situation in which Dutch burghers were attempting to throw off Spanish rule.5

Northrop Frye's conception of romance as “the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality”6 might well be a gloss on the Elizabethan effort to turn reality into a romance. The late sixteenth century was a time of dramatic social changes and probably also a period of considerable social anxiety. London was burgeoning, commerce was developing rapidly, old bonds of service and obligation were yielding to new relationships based on the marketplace, and the religious unity of Europe was gone forever. Chivalric games and ceremonies helped to obscure the relative newness of so many of the noble families as well as the fact that, despite the continuing prestige of war, the aristocracy had ceased to be a warrior class and was becoming an administrative elite. By this period, as Lawrence Stone has shown, there was little that was particularly feudal about the English nobility, who from an early time had been deeply engaged in entrepreneurial activity.7 On the other hand, there was little that was clearly bourgeois—in the modern sense—about the sensibility of the Elizabethan middle class. Interestingly, the bourgeois hero tales of the 1590s and early 1600s—Deloney's Jack of Newbury, Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday and other stories and plays celebrating the virtues of the new men of commerce—show middle-class figures in feudal postures, fighting and feasting like knights.8 The usual aspiration of the successful businessman was not to oppose the interests of the landed aristocracy and gentry but to join them as soon as possible, one notable case in point being Shakespeare himself.

The chivalric revival assimilated the complexities of the present to a mythical world of the past, but at its center was the living Queen. In her own person Elizabeth held the contradictions of her culture together, and she did this in part by turning herself into a character, Gloriana, and her life and that of her country into a story. But the moment of magical balance was necessarily brief. By the late 1590s the fervor of the previous decade was gone. Corruption at court was more marked and commented on, and it had become increasingly more difficult for the Queen, who was now a full generation older than her principal courtiers, to play the role of the virginal beauty.9 Nor should the traumatic effect of the Earl of Essex's rebellion and execution be underestimated. Essex, who is one of the very few contemporary figures to whom Shakespeare directly alludes, was the inheritor of Philip Sidney's sword and of his position in the national imagination as the embodiment of chivalry. According to his biographer, his rise and sudden fall in 1601 probably affected the nation more deeply than any event since the defeat of the Spanish Armada.10 In any case, the time came when the Elizabethan romances—both the romance enacted by the Queen and those composed by her poets and dramatists—could no longer carry conviction. Despite a brief revival of some of its themes in 1610-1612 at the court of Prince Henry, nothing like the special quality of Elizabethan chivalry could occur again.


I know of no general study of Shakespeare's relation to the romance dramas of the 1570s and 1580s and to the Elizabethan chivalric revival.11 Nevertheless, it is not hard to see how, for instance, 1 Henry VI with its opposition between the heroic knight Talbot and the wicked enchantress Joan represents a continuation and transformation of chivalric romance materials, or how similar materials influence the romantic comedies with their disguised and wandering heroines. Moreover, the theme of both historical tetralogies is the disintegration of an absolute world of chivalry, and in this theme the histories might be said to look forward to Othello's farewell to arms. Thus the first tetralogy begins with Henry V's funeral, a symbolic procession that suggests the death of chivalry itself, after which the Henry VI plays trace the collapse of the heroic society into faction and civil war. There follows the emergence of Richard the Third, a monstrous antitype of the chivalric hero, and finally the return of chivalry in the person of the Earl of Richmond. The pattern of the second tetralogy is similar. Here the interrupted combat at the start of Richard II establishes the lost world of perfected chivalric kingship, after which the plays trace a decline into strife and rebellion and finally the emergence of a new chivalric figure, Prince Hal as Henry V. But this time, we note, the chivalric return is not simply a return. Hal's chivalry is political and contingent rather than mystical and absolute in the vein of Richmond at the end of Richard III. Like Elizabeth holding the contradictions of her culture together in her person, Hal holds the contradictions of his history-play world together, and, like her, he does it through self-conscious role-playing.

The tone of Shakespeare's treatment of chivalric themes, like so much else, changes in the early seventeenth century. Troilus and Cressida, probably written the year after the Essex rebellion, is biting in its exposure of the putrefied core that seems to hide within the goodly armor of chivalric pretentions, and in King Lear not even the spectacular romancelike triumph of the unknown knight Edgar over his evil brother Edmund can prevent the ugly hanging of Cordelia and the play's tragic end. Particularly relevant to Othello, however, is the tragedy that immediately precedes it chronologically. It would be hard, I think, to overemphasize the importance of chivalry to Hamlet. The play takes its point of departure, and finds its image of the lost chivalric world, in Horatio's evocation of King Hamlet and King Fortinbras locked in a valiant single combat ratified by law and chivalry. It is this evocation of heroic combat in a past time when things were absolutely what they seemed to be that gives meaning to the great falling off that constitutes the play's present world. In creeping into the garden to poison his brother, Claudius has in effect poisoned chivalry. His secret duel with Hamlet, fought with such human weapons as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the actors, represents a travesty of chivalric ideals, and the play moves not toward the heroic restorations of the histories but toward a grotesque and deadly recapitulation of the original combat between the kings in Hamlet and Laertes' duel with the poisoned foils, overseen by Osric as chivalric judge-at-arms.


“I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (2.3.356): the language with which Iago introduces his plan for undoing Othello strikingly recalls Claudius' poison poured into the porches of King Hamlet's ears. We can note, too, that Othello's farewell to arms figures in the play's structure in a manner analogous to the image of the kings in combat, providing in its martial pastoral a point of reference against which the present situation, Othello in the agonies of Iago's poison, is to be measured. But the fact that in Othello the nostalgic reference point comes in the middle rather than at the start of the tragedy is important; whereas in Hamlet chivalry is dead before the play begins, in Othello we observe the process of the poisonous transformation. In fact we do more than observe, we participate. In Hamlet the audience's representative, the figure who draws us into dramatic engagement with his purposes, is the prince, and Claudius, as his antagonist, becomes in consequence a relatively opaque figure. In Othello, as in Richard III and Macbeth, Shakespeare plays the dynamics of theatrical engagement against moral judgment, and this is one reason that Othello does not lapse into melodrama. From the opening in which Iago manipulates Roderigo and Brabantio the play is structured so that we enter the action from Iago's point of view, and his many strategically placed soliloquies and asides confirm our dramatic engagement with him through at least the first half of the play. Othello himself is magnificent, a commanding and dominating figure, but until the temptation scene and the start of his falling off he is also, like Claudius, apprehended at a certain distance, observed as one might observe a public figure and a stranger.

Othello, the exotic black man from Africa, is a stranger in another, more literal, sense as well. In Hamlet and in the history plays the representatives of chivalric perfection—King Hamlet, Henry V in the first tetralogy, Edward the Black Prince as he is evoked at the start of the second tetralogy—are generally ancestral figures. Even the Earl of Richmond and Henry V in the second tetralogy are ancestral figures to the audience if not to the characters in the plays. In Othello, however, the knightly defender of Christian civilization is projected as an alien. Othello's blackness is the index of a different orientation toward the chivalric figure. Moreover, as many critics since Bradley have remarked, Iago is a kind of playwright, an artist carefully maneuvering his characters into position to bring his tragedy to fulfillment.12 Perhaps, then, we can think of Othello as a play in which Shakespeare is recapitulating his own earlier representations of an absolute world of chivalry, alienating them, and through Iago representing something like his own role in plotting the disintegration of the absolute world.


Put money in thy purse … I say put money in thy purse … put money in thy purse … put but money in thy purse … fill thy purse with money … put money in thy purse … Make all the money thou canst … therefore make money … go make money … go, provide thy money … put money enough in your purse.


It is more than a little tempting to think of Iago as an embodiment of the prodigious energies of the new commercialism of the Renaissance, and thus to turn Othello into an allegory in which bourgeois man destroys the representative of the older feudal values. Thus, whereas Othello speaks of the plumed troop and the royal banner in terms that evoke an activity of transcendent worth, Iago can talk casually of “the trade of war” (1.2.1). Iago's speech is shot through with the language of commerce. “I know my price,” he says when he describes being passed over for promotion, “I am worth no worse a place” (1.1.11), and, contrasting himself with Cassio, he dismisses the lieutenant as a mere accountant, a “debitor and creditor,” and a “counter-caster” (1.1.31). Yet even though he has money and purses on his mind, Iago's motive for bringing down Othello is certainly not profit. Moreover, Othello too can speak in commercial terms, as when he invites Desdemona to bed after their arrival in Cyprus: “Come, my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / The profit's yet to come ’tween me and you” (2.3.8-10).

To reduce Othello to historical allegory would plainly be to distort the play. Such a reduction would also be anachronistic. As Lawrence Stone and other social historians have taught us, we must beware of imagining anything like a clear-cut opposition in this period between a declining feudal class and a rising bourgeoisie.13 The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a time of transition and contradiction, a period in which fundamentally incompatible social forms and structures of thought sat uneasily side by side in a manner that may make us think of those sixteenth-century account books kept partly in Arabic, partly in Roman numerals.14 An old world of traditional forms and values was largely gone, but a new one had not yet clearly taken shape.

Particularly apparent were the tensions between the traditional feudal values of honor, loyalty, and service, and the less absolute imperatives of the marketplace. On the one hand honor might be regarded as a kind of religion, something worth dying for, as for instance when Cassio equates his good name with his soul: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (2.3.262-64). On the other, it was often treated as merchandise. “I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought,” Falstaff says mockingly to Hal (1 Henry IV, 1.2.82-83), and a few years later in the Jacobean debasement of honors, good names were openly traded like stocks and bonds. Thus Stone reports that in 1606 Lionel Cranfield bought the making of six knights from his friend Arthur Ingram for £373.1s.8d.15 In this transitional moment, no simple antithesis between the values of the marketplace and those of the field of honor is possible. Despite his skepticism about honor, Sir John Falstaff is not a bourgeois figure. Likewise, Antonio, the paragon of lordly generosity who is contrasted with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, is not, as we might suppose given the values that he embodies, a feudal figure.16 Perhaps, then, we should imagine the tension between feudal and commercial codes at this time as less like a modern class struggle than like a medieval psychomachia—that is, as a still internalized struggle in which members of the same group, or even at times a single individual, can be found operating inconsistently, now according to one set of values, now according to another.

The mediation of contradiction can be understood as one of the functions of drama or even of narrative generally. With this in mind let us briefly note that Shakespeare often plays romantic and absolute attitudes against contingent and commercial ones, building drama out of the tension. The Merchant of Venice is an obvious case in point, as is As You Like It where the absoluteness of Orlando's professions of love is measured against the more mundane view evoked in Rosalind's mockery of dying for love and her advice to Phoebe, “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” (3.5.60). And yet for all her mockery, Rosalind is, we know, a very romantic young lady, many fathoms deep in love. Just so 1 Henry IV, in which the romanticism is expressed in chivalric rather than erotic terms, measures Hotspur against Falstaff. Like Rosalind, Hal is able to play both mocker and romantic, or, to make the point at the level of diction where it may be easiest to observe, he is able to blend the language of commerce with that of chivalry, as when he predicts his triumph over Hotspur:

Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.


In this way the flexibility of language allows contrary systems of value to be expressed. At the same time, the conventions of narrative achieve forward thrust. No practical resolution of the cultural contradiction may be possible but at least there can be the satisfactions of the achievement of narrative closure. In any case, Othello, too, incorporates the tension between romantic absolutism and the antithetical values of the marketplace, but here instead of being held in triumphant balance in the style of the 1590s, the brutal power latent in the contradiction is used to drive a tragedy.


Let us begin by observing a major change that Shakespeare makes in the structure of Cinthio's narrative. In the novella the wicked ensign's revenge is not directed at the Moor so much as at the lady. Cinthio's ensign is a rebuffed suitor whose passion for Desdemona turns to hate. Shakespeare, however, pits Iago directly against Othello. One effect of this change is to obscure the villain's motive. Another is to alter the lady's position in the narrative structure, demoting her from one of the two ultimate figures in the story to an intermediary. Like the handkerchief with which she is associated, Desdemona becomes a kind of object, an instrument of Iago's revenge against Othello. Passed first from Brabantio's hands into the Moor's and then ignorantly thrown away, Shakespeare's Desdemona figures in the narrative as property. Iago's revenge looks forward to the bourgeois style of a later age; he achieves satisfaction by depriving his enemy of his most valued possession.

At the same time that Shakespeare's narrative demotes Desdemona from a person to property, it also elevates her to an angel. Cinthio's lady is a rather matter of fact heroine, but Shakespeare's is a transcendent figure who refracts the long series of divine ladies that reaches back through the sonnet and romance heroines of the sixteenth century to, among others, Petrarch's Laura and Dante's Beatrice. Her conversation with Emilia about women who betray their husbands evokes the realm of the marketplace precisely in order to separate her from it absolutely. “Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?” she asks Emilia, who replies less romantically that while she would not do it for anything trivial such as a ring or a dress, she certainly would do it for the world: “The world's a huge thing; it is a great price / For a small vice” (4.3.67-69). Later, guiltlessly dying, Desdemona refuses to blame Othello for anything: “Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!” (5.2.125). At once property and an angel of selflessness, Desdemona, too, looks forward to the bourgeois age and to its conception of woman.

Behind the contradictions implicit in Shakespeare's Desdemona may be glimpsed the tensions of a moment of cultural transformation. In a penetrating observation, Kenneth Burke suggests that Othello incorporates an analogue in the realm of human affinity to the enclosure acts whereby common lands were made private. Shakespeare's play inscribes an act of spiritual enclosure, love transformed into private property. Whatever is owned may be seized. The fear of loss is integral to the principle of property and thus the threat that Iago represents comes as much from within Othello as from without; Shakespeare externalizes the already implicit fear in the figure of Iago, making the villain, in Burke's phrase, into a voice at Othello's ear. Othello and Iago, possessor and the threat of loss, are dialectically related parts of the one “fascination.” Add Desdemona to the integral, Burke says, “and you have a tragic trinity of ownership in the profoundest sense of ownership, the property in human affections, as fetishistically localized in the object of possession.”17

Property implies theft: therein lies the play's premise. Opening in Venice, the city of fabled commercial wealth, Othello is structured as a series of thefts. The first is a variant of the stock comic action of the stolen daughter that Shakespeare uses also in his other play set in Venice when Jessica escapes from Shylock's house laden with ducats and jewels. Here, in an episode that foreshadows his later and more subtle arousing of Othello, Iago wakes Brabantio: “Awake! what ho, Brabantio! thieves, thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags! / Thieves, thieves!” (1.1.79-81). And a moment after: “Zounds, sir, y’are robb’d! For shame, put on your gown; / Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul” (1.1.86-87).

Let us note the fusion of spiritual and proprietary ideas: Desdemona is both half her father's soul and a possession equivalent to his money. Let us note, too, that so far as the play is concerned Desdemona might have no mother. She is represented as wholly her father's possession, and the principal question concerning her at the opening is whether the transfer from father to husband has been rightfully made, whether she has in fact been stolen from Brabantio or properly won. Again, the play fuses spiritual and proprietary themes when in the Senate scene the Duke decides the case on romantic principles. “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (1.3.171), he comments on Othello's speech, and when Desdemona acknowledges that she freely loves the Moor, Brabantio must yield.

The play's first movement is “The Abduction of Desdemona”; the second is “The Theft of Cassio's Name.” Cassio supposes that he is wholly responsible for the loss of his reputation, but we know that Iago, plying his victim with wine, has robbed him. The presentation of Cassio as a decent man changed into a drunken madman foreshadows the action with Othello to come, specifically, the theme of diabolic possession: “O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil! … To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast! O strange! Every inordinate cup is unbless’d, and the ingredient is a devil” (2.3.281-308). To which Iago replies in language that plays upon the theme: “Come, come; good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well us’d” (2.3.309-10).

In the transitional culture of the early modern period the concept of the soul is also affected by the hegemonic principle of property. Now a soul is something a person has as well as something a person is. We think, of course, of Marlowe's Faustus selling his soul by contract like an aristocrat turning his land into cash; and it may be, too, that the interest in cases of possession and exorcism at the end of the sixteenth century reveals the influence of proprietary modes of thought.18 In Othello, at any rate, the theme of diabolic possession is related to the play's concern with property. Here the ideas of soul, property, and honor join together in a complex dance of equivalences and ironies, as when Iago tells Brabantio that he has been robbed of half his soul or when Cassio speaks of his reputation as his immortal part.

The play's main action, which begins in the temptation scene when Iago at last turns to work directly upon Othello, depends upon this system of unstable equivalences. Speaking to Cassio, Iago has dismissed the loss of reputation as insignificant, but now he echoes Cassio when he proclaims the opposite to Othello:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.


With the idea of theft thus implanted in his thoughts, Othello himself is soon speaking of robbery—“What sense had I in her stol’n hours of lust?” (3.3.338)—accusing Desdemona of filching her honor, which as her husband belongs ultimately to him, and thus of stealing also his own good name.

“I am your own for ever” (3.3.480). When at the end of the temptation scene Iago says that he belongs to Othello forever we understand that he means the opposite of what he speaks: Othello is now his. Othello believes that Desdemona has been stolen from him but the truth is that he has been stolen from himself. The demi-devil Iago has taken possession of his soul. Soon, like a classic case of demonic possession, Othello will be thrashing on the ground, foaming and raving in a fit. Soon, too, diabolic powers will in effect speak through Othello's mouth as the smooth and authoritative cadences of what Wilson Knight calls the “Othello music” yield to the staccato fragments and ugly images associated with Iago. In this way the unitary world of absolute self-possession that is recapitulated in “Farewell the tranquil mind” is split open and Othello becomes estranged not only from Desdemona but from himself. Like Spenser's Redcross knight, who is also launched into a world of doubleness, Othello is propelled into a nightmare of duplicity in which his love and his doubt are at war with each other. This process of self-alienation climaxes in Othello's suicide, the one half of his divided self executing justice upon the other as once he administered justice to the Turk in Aleppo. Thus the narrative—although not of course the contradictions that drive the narrative—is resolved.


Iago's diabolism is of course only metaphorical. Shakespeare is exploring a secular equivalent to demonic possession, showing how a terrible misapprehension can take control of a normally rational mind. Othello, in which there are neither ghosts, soothsayers, witches, nor supernatural prodigies, is one of the most secular of Shakespeare's tragedies. Nevertheless, it is significant that the world “devil” occurs in its various forms more often here than in any other Shakespeare play. The word “faith,” too, is prominent whether it is used casually as in Iago and Cassio's discussion of Bianca where it occurs repeatedly as a mild expletive (4.1) or whether it is used portentously as in Othello's tremendous oath, “My life upon her faith” (1.3.294). What Shakespeare is doing in this play is appropriating spiritual conceptions, turning them into metaphors for secular experiences. But metaphors work two ways. If Othello incorporates a process of demystification, the assimilation of the supernatural to the natural world, it also incorporates the antithetical movement. The story may not literally be the temptation and fall of man from faith, but the play is not purely domestic tragedy either. An interpretation may legitimately stress either the process of naturalization or the way the domestic drama suggests events of cosmic significance. Like all of Shakespeare's work, Othello is implicated in the Renaissance system of analogical thought in which the realms of matter and spirit are not yet wholly divided and distinguished. Thus the play can be at once domestic and cosmic, secular and supernatural.

Othello is fascinating as a historical document because of the way it inscribes a transitional moment in Western culture. In it we can almost see the supernatural realm receding. The feudal world of honor, fidelity, and service is becoming the bourgeois world of property and contractual relations. Heroic tragedy is turning into domestic tragedy. It was Shakespeare's fortune to partake of two worlds without belonging completely to either. Shakespeare's myriad-mindedness—the quality that Norman Rabkin speaks of as complementarity—has much to do with this particular historical situation, as does his endless self-consciousness, the metadramatic aspect of his plays that has been emphasized by Sigurd Burckhardt and James Calderwood.

We can locate Shakespeare's historical situation with some precision by observing that his friend and colleague Ben Jonson, a man less than ten years younger than Shakespeare, belongs much more to the new era. Whereas Shakespeare fuses and blends the spiritual and the secular, the realms of honor and commerce, Jonson uses comic irony to create distinctions. The spectacularly blasphemous opening of Volpone—a play like Othello set in the commercial city of Venice—makes the point.

Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine that I may see my saint.
Hail the world's soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the longed-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy splendor darkening his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoards,
Show'st like a flame by night, or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the center.(19)

Here the Renaissance system of correspondence between matter and spirit, microcosm and macrocosm, is used against itself to expose the gap between traditional values and the realities of the marketplace and to suggest the emptying out of spiritual significance from the world.

Jonson typically pokes fun at magicians, monsters, and fairy queens Concerned with verisimilitude and poetic justice, his plays look forward in a way that Shakespeare's, with their marvels, anachronisms, and freedoms of time and place, do not. His attitude toward chivalric romanticism is also different from Shakespeare's. In Prince Henry's Barriers, the masque that Jonson wrote in connection with the Prince of Wales's first bearing arms in January 1610, Henry is cast as the reviver of chivalry. The masque begins with the Lady of the Lake praising James's court as greater than Arthur's but lamenting the decay of chivalry which is represented by the scene, the ruined House of Chivalry. Arthur appears and prophesies the advent of a knight who will restore chivalry, whereupon Merlin rises from his tomb to reveal Prince Henry, discovered with his companions in arms in a new scene representing St. George's Portico, where knighthood now lives. In a long speech Merlin lectures the Prince on English history, emphasizing industriousness, peaceability, and other values that are distinctly not chivalric.20 Most interesting, Merlin says that Henry will not seek to emulate the deeds of “antique knights” by thinking to rescue ladies from giants or to do battle with a score of men at once.

These were bold stories of our Arthur's age;
But here are other acts; another stage
And scene appears; it is not since as then:
No giants, dwarfs or monsters here, but men.(21)

The arts of the modern hero must be to govern and give laws and to preserve the peace whenever possible.

The matter-of-factness incorporated in the apparently romantic and chivalric pageant of Prince Henry's Barriers may remind us of the similar quality in Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle, probably performed three years earlier in 1607. Here too we are in a world of men, a world drained of the supernatural and marvelous. Like Jonson in the comedies, Beaumont uses comedy to make distinctions between realms that Shakespeare characteristically blends. Shakespeare's Hal fuses the language of the marketplace and that of the field of honor, speaking of Hotspur as his factor to purchase glorious deeds for him wholesale. Beaumont disjoins the two realms, gaining comic mileage by placing Hotspur's “bright honor” speech in Rafe the grocer's man's mouth and then by placing Rafe and his chivalric posturings in a world in which innkeepers expect to be paid and servants to be tipped. In this unromantic place things are simply what they are, and the comedy ridicules Rafe's attempt to transvalue them by renaming forests and heaths “deserts,” horses “palfreys,” and by referring to females as either “fair lady” or “distressed damsel” depending upon whether they have their desires or not.22

At this point Don Quixote, which may have influenced both Beaumont and Jonson, virtually demands to be mentioned. I referred to Cervantes earlier in order to distinguish between his novelistic exploration of the romanticizing imagination and Shakespeare's play in which the protagonist's romanticism is not perfectly demarcated from the general world of the narrative. Published in 1605, a year after Othello was performed, Don Quixote marks a cultural watershed, the emergence of what Michel Foucault calls the classical epistemé. In the Renaissance, Foucault suggests, the principle of resemblance plays a constitutive role in knowledge. The Renaissance conceives a universe of magical correspondences. From this point of view the cosmos is a single vast text and knowledge is a form of interpretation, a matter of reading the mystic signatures written in things. There is finally no difference between language and nature, authority and observation. In Don Quixote, however, the bond between words and things has been severed. The Don seeks to reestablish a world of magical resemblances; his entire journey is a quest for similitudes. But the world he inhabits is one in which things are simply what they are, one in which flocks and serving girls are not subject to the transmutation of language. The Renaissance cosmos has dissolved. In its place the empire of fact is emerging and language is retreating into a special domain, literature, with only an indirect relationship to the world in the neo-classical doctrines of representation and verisimilitude.23

It is indicative of the importance of chivalry as a locus for the contradictions of Renaissance culture that such a crucial text as Don Quixote should take the form of a negation of chivalric romance. While the chivalric revival of the sixteenth century helped to obscure some of the social and intellectual contradictions of the period, it also contributed to them, raising, as it were, the level of tension by a notch. We can note that in its nostalgia the chivalric revival was a way of possessing the past, of turning chivalry into property. To turn honor literally into property, as the sale of honors did, or to portray merchants and tradesmen in heroic postures, as the bourgeois hero tales did, was to approach the breaking point. In Jonson, Beaumont, and above all in Cervantes, the contradictions of the late Renaissance snap into laughter. Don Quixote in particular prefigures the bourgeois civilization of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which the romance becomes the novel and the emblematic theater of the world, Shakespeare's theater, becomes the illusionistic theater of scenes and stage properties, the theater of things.


But what of Shakespeare, whose sensibility is perhaps as close to that of Spenser as to Jonson? Shakespeare, who came to maturity in the 1580s at the height of the Elizabethan revival of chivalry, was not ready to write anti-romances like Don Quixote or The Knight of the Burning Pestle. He was, I think, still too deeply possessed by the absolute world of fidelity. He could write about the death of chivalry or the corruption of chivalry but he could not distance himself sufficiently from its imaginative claims to burlesque it. As a principal shareholder in London's most successful theatrical company and an energetic accumulator of wealth in Stratford and London, Shakespeare evidently participated in the new ethos of the marketplace. But he was also still something of a romantic, even if an unillusioned one.

I suggested earlier that we might think of Othello as a play in which Shakespeare recapitulates his own earlier representations of the absolute world of chivalry and that we might regard Iago, the cunning artist of tragedy, as at least in part a representation of Shakespeare himself. Iago is not bourgeois man—that creature had not, so to speak, been thought in 1604. Nevertheless, he is a figure in which the age could find something like the bourgeois cast of mind, together with the multitude of fears and desires that it aroused, made manifest. But Iago is not simply the pragmatist and materialist that he seems to take himself to be. Why should he want to destroy Othello? Iago and Othello are reciprocal figures, part of the same—to use Burke's word—fascination. Just as Othello is possessed by Iago, so Iago is from the beginning of the play possessed by Othello. But though Iago succeeds in destroying the Moor and Desdemona as well, he does not, we might say, succeed in exorcising the spirit they embody. Desdemona remains a miracle of fidelity to the end, and Othello, released from the demi-devil's snares, dies reasserting his allegiance to his heroic self.

True enough; yet to conclude our discussion on this romantic note of sustained fidelity and reasserted heroism misrepresents the tenor of Shakespeare's play. Othello may be an honorable murderer but he is a murderer nonetheless, and at the story's end both Desdemona and the Moor are dead. The world of Othello is not that of the novel, the characteristic genre of bourgeois civilization, but neither is it that of Elizabethan romance. Othello represents an intermediate moment in cultural development and an intermediate form, tragedy. Romance incorporates certainties, absolute opposites of good and evil. Tragedy subverts, deconstructs, certainties and absolutes, or, as Fredric Jameson puts it, tragedy rebukes romance.24 What Shakespeare has done in Othello is to convert the material of Elizabethan romance into tragedy.

Tragedy involves katharsis: purging, cleansing, exorcising. The scapegoats of this particular tragic sacrifice are Desdemona and Othello, figures of an exquisite and dangerous romantic beauty. The high priest is Iago, who draws us as audience into dynamic engagement with his purposes, mobilizing destructive emotions that we may not wish to acknowledge. We participate with Iago in splitting open the absolutes of Othello's martial pastoral. We assist in his project of driving the romance hero and his lady out of the world, of torturing Othello and Desdemona to death. Like Othello, we too are in a sense possessed. But because this is theater we are simultaneously dispossessed. Iago engages our rapaciousness, jealousy, and fear, but he also allows us to alienate ourselves from those ungentle emotions, projecting them onto him. Thus he too becomes a scapegoat. Protagonist and antagonist cancel each other out.25 We are left at the end with neither a reassertion of an old world nor a prefiguration of a new one, but a mere vacancy, or, rather, a tableau of corpses and a disconcerting promise that Iago too will be tortured.


  1. 3.3.347-57. All citations of Shakespeare refer to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, Mass., 1974).

  2. See in particular Stephen Greenblatt's exciting discussion in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, Ill., 1980), pp. 222-57.

  3. The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London, 1977), pp. 161-62. See also Frances A. Yates, “Elizabethan Chivalry: The Romance of the Accession Day Tilts,” in Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1975), pp. 88-111.

  4. On chivalric themes in architecture see Mark Girouard, Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House (New Haven, Conn., 1983), esp. pp. 205-32. Betty J. Littleton discusses the romance dramas of the 1570s and 1580s and provides a list of titles in her critical edition of Clyomon and Clamydes (The Hague, 1968).

  5. See Jan Albert Dop, Eliza's Knights: Soldiers, Poets, and Puritans in the Netherlands (Leiden, 1981).

  6. The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ., 1957), p. 193.

  7. See The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965), esp. pp. 335-84. Diane Bornstein, Mirrors of Courtesy (Hamden, Conn., 1975), studies English chivalric manuals and makes a number of suggestive comments on the social functions of Renaissance chivalry.

  8. See Laura Stevenson O’Connell's important “The Elizabethan Bourgeois Hero-Tale: Aspects of an Adolescent Social Consciousness,” in After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, ed. Barbara C. Malament (Philadephia, Pa., 1980), pp. 267-90.

  9. See J. E. Neale, “The Elizabethan Political Scene,” in Essays in Elizabethan History (London, 1958), pp. 59-84, on the tenor of late Elizabethan court life. Stephen Orgel, “Making Greatness Familiar,” Genre, 15 (1982), 41-48, has suggestive comments about late Elizabethan chivalry.

  10. G. B. Harrison, The Life and Death of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex (London, 1937), pp. 274-75.

  11. There have been a number of interesting particular studies, among them Paul N. Siegel's “Shakespeare and the Neo-Chivalric Cult of Honor,” The Centennial Review of Arts and Sciences, 8 (1964), 39-70, which focuses on the code of the duello; Sheldon Zitner's “Hamlet, Duellist,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 34 (1969), 1-18, which discusses Hamlet and the duello; and Frances A. Yates' controversial Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1978), which discusses the late plays in the context of the chivalric revival at the court of Prince Henry.

  12. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1904), pp. 230-31.

  13. The literature on this subject is vast, but besides Stone's Crisis of the Aristocracy see J. H. Hexter's seminal essays printed in revised versions in Reappraisals in History (London, 1961), esp. “The Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England,” pp. 71-116, and “Storm Over the Gentry,” pp. 117-62.

  14. I owe this apt image to O’Connell, “The Bourgeois Hero-Tale,” p. 272.

  15. Crisis of the Aristocracy, p. 77.

  16. Giorgio Melchiori makes this point in his suggestive “Shakespeare and the New Economics of His Time,” Review of National Literatures, 3 (1972), 123-37. Melchiori's general argument is that Shakespeare's ambiguity reveals his full awareness of the social changes taking place in his time, but his discussion is grounded in a misleading conception of clear class distinctions in the period.

  17. “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” The Hudson Review, 4 (1951), 165-203. In a few brilliant pages (pp. 165-69) Burke anticipates many of the points made here in a different context.

  18. On possession and dispossession in Elizabethan England see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), pp. 477-92, and D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (London, 1981). On Othello see David Kaula's excellent “Othello Possessed: Notes on Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Witchcraft,” Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 112-32. See also Stephen Greenblatt's extremely suggestive “King Lear and Harsnett's ‘Devil-Fiction,’” Genre, 15 (1982), 239-42.

  19. Volpone, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New Haven, Conn., 1962), p. 38.

  20. See Norman Council, “Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, and the Transformation of Tudor Chivalry,” ELH, 47 (1980), 259-75.

  21. Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven, Conn., 1969), p. 149.

  22. The Knight of the Burning Pestle, 1.1.271-77; ed. John Doebler, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (London, 1967), p. 24. Doebler suggests 1607 as a likely date for the play.

  23. See The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London, 1970), esp. pp. 17-50.

  24. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Art (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), pp. 115-16.

  25. Cf. Franco Moretti: Shakespeare “may announce the dawn of bourgeois civilization, but not by prefiguring it. On the contrary, he demonstrates inexorably how, obeying the old rules, which are the only ones he knows, the world can only fall apart,” Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (London, 1983), p. 68. Moretti's exciting discussion of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy also appears in abridged form as “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” Genre, 15 (1982), 7-40.

James R. Andreas (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Othello's African American Progeny,” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, November, 1992, pp. 39-57.

[In the essay below, Andreas compares Othello, Richard Wright's Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Amiri Baraka's Dutchmanin order to discuss myths and cultural conceptions of race.]

Derrida writes; “There’s no racism without a language.”1 I take this to mean that racism—and all the violence historically associated with it—is generated by language. Racial difference is not genetically “real,” nor is it grounded in real experience but is a product of verbal conditioning.2 Racism cannot long survive without the verbal and symbolic apparatus that generates and sustains it: the names, the jokes, the plays, the speeches, the casual exchanges, the novels. In short, racism is a cultural virus that is verbally transmitted and its antidote must therefore be verbally administered as well. Othello—along with the many African American texts it has inspired—provides a running record of Western civilization's attempt to confront what Paul Robeson called “the problem of my own people.” Othello, he said, “is a tragedy of racial conflict, a tragedy of honor, rather than jealousy.”3

As such, the play has traumatized African American literature, and indeed Western culture at large, for most of its existence. The racist's nightmare of biracial sexual relationships between white women and black males, which Gunnar Myrdal claimed suffered “the full fury of anti-amalgamation sanctions,”4 is the paradigm for three great revisions—“three rewritings”—of the myth: Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka.5 Briefly, Wright restages and reinterprets the problematic relationship of Othello and Desdemona; Ellison represents it comically; and Baraka reverses or inverts it. We might note in passing that many literary works have been written that deal with unwanted sexual attentions of white males sometimes violently imposed on African American females; among these works are many slave narratives, including Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, as well as a number of celebrated novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Puddn’head Wilson, Quicksand, Oxherding Tale, Beloved, and Absalom, Absalom!6 James Kinney claims that interracial sexual relations flourished in colonial and antebellum America and that the violent response to miscegenation began only in the 1830s, “when the economics of slavery led to [the] systematic justification [of slavery] based on innate irreconcilable ‘racial differences’” (xii).7 In any case, the vast number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century works that feature the fate of mulattoes in American culture provides graphic evidence that miscegenation has long been on the minds of African and European American authors alike. What we get in Shakespeare's play and the African American works under investigation here is, of course, the typical patriarchal perspective on the cultural trauma of miscegenation in the West. Another article representing women's perspectives on this trauma needs to be written.

Robeson's statement that Othello “is a tragedy of racial conflict,” would probably have seemed self-evident to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, both in terms of the social background and the performance and interpretation of the play.8 A score of historical studies in the last thirty years has unearthed evidence proving that the response to Africans and Moors in the seventeenth century, before the advent of institutional slavery, was complicated and problematic.9 Sylvan Barnet has shown in a masterful new essay on the performance history of the play that “the Elizabethans thought of Moors as black” (274). Barnet and Errol Hill, in his Shakespeare in Sable, have demonstrated conclusively that Othello's part was played in blackface, corkface actually, well into the nineteenth century, because blacks were thought of as inappropriate for or incapable of playing the role.10 A single quotation from Coleridge indicates what the problem was by the time of the romantics:

Can we suppose [Shakespeare] so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth? …[N]egroes [were] then known but as slaves. … No doubt Desdemona saw Othello's visage in his [Othello's] mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.

(qtd. in Barnet 273-74)

Thus, by the nineteenth century, when the barbarities of “the peculiar institution” of slavery had peaked in the Western world, audiences could no longer tolerate nor would directors depict the “monstrous” sexual relationship of black males and white females on stage.11 To get the picture, audiences no longer needed Iago lashing up racist sentiments in the credulous Roderigo and Brabantio with incendiary remarks such as “Even now, … an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe”; “[Y]ou’ll have your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse”; and “Your daughter and the Moor are now … making the beast with two backs” (1.1.88-89, 110-11, 115-17).12 Such explosive preconceptions were ingrained in the psyches of playgoers well before arriving at the theater. Accordingly, Othello paled and such lines were often cut in production; the Moor was played “in tawny” throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, as evidenced by the films of Olivier and Jonathan Miller. In regard to the relatively recent BBC version of the play, Jonathan Miller defended his choice of Anthony Hopkins in blackface for the Moor because, he said, “I do not see the play as being about color but as being about jealousy. … When a black actor does the part, it offsets the play, puts it out of balance. It makes it a play about blackness, which it is not.”13 Now that we are recovering the black Othello, such sentiments seem a bit awkward, if not downright ludicrous. Anyone who has seen Miller's Othello or a live production in which the hero is played in blackface knows the murder scene may well evoke laughter in the audience.

From the earliest moments in Othello, the language is imbued with traditional racist sentiment and prejudice that erupt into predictable violence by the play's end, when “Chaos is come again” (3.3.92). Collective violence—read riot—is, in fact, the outcome of all the literary vehicles of the myth under investigation here, even the comic Invisible Man. The catalyst for and efficient cause of such violence in the play is Iago, perhaps the most important of all Shakespeare's notorious stage directors, with the possible exception of Hamlet. Both Iago and Hamlet are tricksters, variations, as has often been noted, on the role of the traditional fool. Iago's humor takes a peculiar turn, however. He is the racist trickster; his is the scenario that eventually defines and corners Othello exclusively in his color, a scenario like the “blueprints” for behavior the hero of Invisible Man must live with. Is Iago without motive, as he is traditionally conceived to be? In terms of the racial themes in the play, hardly! He tells us repeatedly that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, and whether this is the case or not is irrelevant; as a racist, he believes what he imagines and brilliantly formulates his preconceptions verbally to himself and to others under his influence.

Iago fuels his nefarious plots to undermine the relationship between Othello and Desdemona by playing the bigot's game; he preys upon the vulnerability of all the players to sneaking suspicions about the behavior of the racial alien, in the long run convincing even Othello himself that he is inferior. “Rude … in speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,” Othello declares himself while suing for Brabantio's daughter in marriage, although he woos and wins Desdemona with his spellbinding stories (1.3.81-82). As an alien, Othello doubts his capacities for speech and for peace. “Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” (3.3.264-65), he says. Brabantio, for one, is simply aghast that Desdemona has chosen “to marry one.” Would his daughter “t’incur a general mock, / Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight” (1.2.69-71)? The disturbed father feels certain that Othello has influenced his daughter's foul choice with powerful drugs (1.2.73-75). Centuries later, the police will assume Bigger Thomas has plied Mary Dalton with liquor before murdering her in Native Son, and Sybil is depicted as drunk when she is “raped by Santa Claus” in Invisible Man (511). Iago can even use blatant racist arguments on Othello, who does not seem to blink an eye:

Ay, there’s the point; as (to be bold with you)
Not to affect many proposéd matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh, one may smell in such, a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural.


Does not Iago suggest throughout—even directly to Othello—that Desdemona is not to be trusted because she has already committed the unpardonable sin against her “kind”: the sexual choice of an alien? Even Othello accepts the argument, as is indicated by his admission that Desdemona's name and virtue have been blackened and fouled by her relationship with him: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim’d and black / As mine own face” (3.3.386-87). This is a play about reputation, real and attributed, and the jealousy and passion that such “reputation” can evoke. Racism is predicated on “repute,” that is, on “evil” imputed to a cultural group so conditioned by the dominant culture that the “evil” often materializes in real behavior. Shakespeare, in fact, cleverly interweaves the themes of the destructive effects exerted by the emotions of sexual jealousy and racial bigotry in the play, both of which inflame the imagination with illusions about the “other,” alienate the parties involved artificially, and lead to violent ends based on often unfounded presuppositions or prejudices about the behavior of the “other.”

A number of motifs in the murder scene of the play will be echoed and revised in the African American scenarios to follow. When sexual consummation between the black male and white female is to occur in this “master trope” of white racism, we get murder instead. The murder is always witnessed in the works investigated, often, significantly, by a white woman who is presumably forewarned of the consequences of her actions—Emilia in the play and Mrs. Dalton in Native Son. Also, the murdered victims are portrayed as human beings of flesh-and-blood, not passive victims. During the scene just prior to the murder, when Desdemona asks Emilia about fidelity and admits an attraction for Lodovico, we question the credibility of the fragile purity that is usually attributed to Desdemona.14 Like the white women who follow in the African American novel, for example, Mary Dalton and the anonymous “sister” in the brotherhood, Desdemona is a woman with real desires and considerable courage. The murderers in these works often remark that they feel like actors in a play or figures in a dream. Othello carries a candle into the bedroom and comments that he feels like a character in a dream. In Dutchman, Lula, as we shall see, repeatedly calls the conversation she is having with Clay, her future victim, a “script.”

No matter how hard critics since Bradley have tried to saddle Othello with the full burden of the guilt for his passionate crime and to view Iago as “motiveless,” the play itself seems to incriminate Western society at large for its predisposition to the periodic, ritual slaughter of marginal and aboriginal groups and all whites—especially women—who consort with them. Trevor Nunn's recent controversial production at the Young Vic in London (fall 1989) unleashed the social and political possibilities of this play that have lain dormant in the text for centuries, with the exception of the powerful portrayals of Othello by Paul Robeson in the thirties and forties. Nunn's production featured American Civil War decor and uniforms to underscore the racial implications of the text, and Willard White, a black operatic baritone debuted as a huge, barrel-chested Othello. Iago, played brilliantly by Ian McKellan, entertained as he conspired with an audience of white males—Roderigo, Cassio, and Brabantio—as willing partners in his plot to murder lovers soiled in the blood feud between races. McKellan as Iago assumed he had many willing collaborators in the audience, because Iago projects and exacerbates the deepest Western fears of the “other,” of the alien free to prowl and pollute the streets of Venice. During his many soliloquies—for Iago is the most perniciously private character in all the canon—McKellan closed the shutters on the set, pulled up a chair, leaned toward the audience and told them what they had been conditioned to know and fear implicitly all their lives: a “liver lips” has been given professional preferment over him and has desired and taken his wife right from under his very nose. What’s more, this “black ram,” this “Barbary horse” is about to “tup” the most eligible maid in Venice and produce the “monstrous offspring” of miscegenation. Ian McKellan's Iago, like the Native American mischief maker Iagoo, was played as the sprite of malice, in this case, of racial hatred. McKellan's purpose was to arrange and realize our basest fears on stage: the ritual slaughter of a couple transgressing racial and sexual codes. The invisible theme of racism and the murder it provokes were rendered visible for all to see in this gruesome production. The scenario of European colonial history with its periodic racial assassination, rape, and riot was here dramatized; this was a history that was beginning to peak during Shakespeare's time.

In Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, Trudier Harris has given us a book on the subject of this gruesome scenario in its most virulent form, which developed after the American Civil War during Reconstruction. The “primal crime” in a racist society, the coupling of black male and white female—either real or, most often, imagined and impugned—justifies and drives the ritual retaliation of the mutilation, castration, and lynching of black male victims in the presence of white women and children, often on Sunday afternoons and accompanied by “carnival.” Harris writes:

I have defined ritual initially as a ceremony, one which by countless repetitions has made it traditional among a given group of people or within a given community. Such repetitions are homage to certain beliefs that are vital to the community. … To violate the inviolable, as any Black would who touched a white woman … is taboo. It upsets the white world view or conception of the universe. Therefore, in order to exorcise the evil and restore the topsyturvy world to its rightful position, the violator must be symbolically punished


The horror of these events is graphically documented in the newspapers and monthlies of the times—Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly—and only then becomes the material fictionalized in the novels. Charles Herbert Stember calls “intimacy between a Negro male and a white female” the “master taboo” of white racism dating back for centuries (10).

The “primal scene” of the white racist, the “black ram … tupping your white ewe,” is recreated and revised by African American writers some 350 years after Othello in Native Son, Invisible Man, and Dutchman. Bigger Thomas is America's black “native son,” raised in the sordid conditions of ghetto life on Chicago's southside. Bigger, his name screaming the rhyme with “nigger,” is the all-but-inevitable product of the racist nightmare he will be made to play out in the novel. Perhaps drawing on the ultimate recognition and understanding of the racist process Othello experiences just before his suicide, Richard Wright takes Bigger through a long educational ordeal under the tutelage of Max, his lawyer. However, the primal scene and crime—the sexual relationship between black male and white female and its reputedly inevitable consequence, the brutal murder of the white female—is reenacted with gruesome precision as the pivotal moment in the novel. Othello is momentarily accepted by Venetian society as an equal and, through the machinations of Iago, is reduced to acting the part of the alien “Turk” or “African” by the play's end. Bigger, however, is destined to act the “young Turk” immediately, replicating the violent image of the “African” he watches on the silver screen in films like Trader Horn every Saturday afternoon. As Wright explains in his introduction to the novel, “How Bigger was Born,” his hero “is a product of a dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man,” and his violence is predictable and inevitable (xx). However, risking “premature closure,” Wright proceeds beyond the murder early in the novel to show that this violence, however misguided on Bigger's part, has spawned in his hero a new understanding of his life and destiny by the novel's end. After his conviction and reconciliation with Jan, the fiancé of the woman he has murdered, Bigger becomes what every Venetian wants to believe Othello is at the beginning of the play: aware, self-reflective, and bold.

Having been thrown by an accidental murder into a position where he had sensed a possible order and meaning in his relations with the people about him; having accepted the moral guilt and responsibility for that murder because it had made him feel free for the first time in his life, [Bigger realizes] … a new pride and a new humility would have to be born in him, a humility springing from a new identification with some part of the world in which he lived.


Bigger is from the modern “Cyprus”—the slums of south Chicago; the Daltons, of course, are “Venetians”—from the suburbs. The ideological rivalry between the Turk and the Christian has been displaced by the confrontation between the Communists and capitalists in the novel. Moreover, Mary's father, Mr. Dalton, as a wealthy slum landlord, is, like Brabantio, a true “Senator,” that is, Iago quips, “a villain” (1.1.18-19). Mary Dalton, like Desdemona, is thrilled by what she imagines to be the primitive power of Bigger's race. To be sure, Mary is more aggressive in her pursuit of Bigger as an exotic than Desdemona is in her relationship with Othello, ostensibly because she, under the influence of Jan, is sympathetic with his political plight: “[T]his rich girl walked over everything, put herself in the way, and, what was strange beyond understanding, talked and acted so simply and directly she confounded him” (56). Mary asks her boyfriend, “Say, Jan, do you know many Negroes? I want to meet some. … They have so much emotion! What a people! If we could ever get them going. … And their songs—the spirituals! Aren’t they marvelous?” (76). The white heroine in each of our “stories” becomes increasingly aggressive in pursuing her black lover, violently so, as we shall see, in Dutchman.

The sexuality of Desdemona has always been a moot question. As I suggested earlier, critics have debated just how aggressive and even promiscuous she is in her obvious interest in and pursuit of Othello.16 There is no doubt that Mary Dalton, stimulated perhaps by all her drinking that evening, has sex on her mind just prior to the death scene in the novel, although Wright makes it clear that very little sexual contact occurs and that there certainly is no rape, no sexual consummation whatsoever, in spite of the lurid “reports” in the Chicago newspapers. Mary sidles up to Bigger in the car drunk, garters showing, her scent arousing him, her breath, like Desdemona's in the death scene, on his face:

She was resting on the small of her back and her dress was pulled up so far that he could see where her stockings ended on her thighs. … He helped her and his hands felt the softness of her body as she stepped to the ground. Her dark eyes looked at him feverishly from deep sockets. Her hair was in his face, filling him with its scent.


Most significantly, in all versions of the primal scene of biracial contact and murder, witnesses to the murder are involved, either directly, as in the case of Othello, or implied, as in the case of Invisible Man. Emilia in the former and Mrs. Dalton in the latter both intrude on the ritual murder, which in each of the works begins as a sexual encounter. In both cases white females who are blind to their own husband's evil witness the murder. My point here, and perhaps this is the point of the biracial myth I am trying to identify, is that sexual encounters between the races are not private moments as they would be in normal relationships. They represent a public shattering of the racist taboo and as such demand an audience whose predisposition toward the event alters its outcome in violent, ritualistic ways. Once that audience appears, the deed can run its gruesome course.

In both Othello and Native Son, the females are passive when they are murdered, in every sense sacrificial victims to what might be interpreted psychologically as the demands of the mythos—the script being enacted through their characters and witnessed by the onstage audience. It is significant that Iago is always played as an eavesdropper, whose access to private moments allows him to reinterpret events in a manner that will inevitably precipitate the racial violence at the play's climax. In the Nunn production, McKellan's Iago returns just before curtain to glare at the lovers finally united in bed—dead. Both Mary in Native Son and, as we shall see, Sybil in Invisible Man, are drugged in a sense and are thus not cognizant of their participation in this ritual event. Desdemona is nearly asleep when Othello strangles her. There are other similarities in the structures of Othello and Native Son that we might mention in passing. The novel has a Cassio figure in Jan and a Bianca in Bessie, and both works conclude with a judgment scene and the final appearance of the heroes, Othello and Bigger, who are given speeches underscoring the dignity and pathos of their respective characters.

Ralph Ellison sums up the problem under investigation here succinctly and comically in Invisible Man:

Why did they have to mix their women into everything? Between us and everything we wanted to change in the world they placed a woman: socially, politically, economically. Why, goodamit, why did they insist upon confusing the class struggle with the ass struggle, debasing both us and them—all human motives?


The hero confronts a series of white women in Invisible Man, beginning with the stripper who is brought in by the elders to teach little black boys a lesson in attraction and repulsion; they are encouraged to desire sexually what they cannot have—a white woman. The stripper is as frightened as the boys, and when she performs, both parties are watched by the elders who represent the omnipresent audience cuing and skewing the interpretation of these illicit, public sexual events. There are other brief encounters between the hero and white women, one on the subway where he is pressed by the crowd up against a blond in a scene that may have sparked the imagination of Baraka, who stages his fatal biracial ritual on the subway in Dutchman. White women represent one of the perpetual challenges the hero faces throughout the novel along with his speeches, the accumulation of the bric-a-brac of his “heritage” in the briefcase he is perpetually trying to discard, and his run-ins with various political parties.

Ellison is perfectly aware that his hero is acting in a performance scripted with racist assumptions, and the result in the novel is usually farcical. Before his affair with the appropriately anonymous white wife of a “brother,” the hero wishes he were Paul Robeson:

If only I were a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, I could simply stand before them with a sign across my chest, stating i know all about them, and they’d be as awed as though I were the original boogey man—somehow reformed and domesticated. I’d no more have to speak than Paul Robeson had to act; they’d simply thrill at the sight of me.


“They,” of course, are the audience intruding on the couple in each of the instances examined here. When the hero first meets this woman, she “glowed as though acting a symbolic role of life and feminine fertility” (399). The white woman here has become more solicitous than Mary Dalton and conspicuously more aggressive than Desdemona. She is almost a willing pawn in the white racist's game. She appears by “the uncoiled fire hose” (400), and the phallic jokes abound in this chapter, just as they do in Othello, where Cassio quips to Iago “That he [Othello] may bless this bay with his tall ship, / Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms” (2.1.79-80) and Othello himself remarks, after he has killed his own wife on the night he is to have consummated his marriage, “Behold, I have a weapon; / A better never did itself sustain / Upon a soldier's thigh” (5.2.259-61).

The woman's conversation is full of erotic overtones of which she, as opposed to her predecessors, seems perfectly aware. She is attracted to the hero by the same attributes Desdemona discovers in Othello: both are drawn to the primitive “vitality,” exoticism, and strength of the African. Of the hero's ideology, she wishes to embrace “[a]ll of it, … to embrace the whole of it” (402). Like Desdemona, she thrills to hear the hero speak: “[S]omehow you convey the great throbbing vitality of the movement” (402). His speech is so “primitive, … forceful, powerful. …[It] has so much naked power that it goes straight through me” (403).

The hero sees the “ivory” arms of the woman in her huge “white bed” (407), just as Othello had characterized Desdemona's skin as “whiter … than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.4-5). But the hero, unlike Othello, watches himself and his sexual actions replicated infinitely in the bedroom's multiple mirrors, “caught in a guilty stance, my face taut, tie dangling; and behind the bed another mirror which now like a surge of the sea tossed our images back and forth, back and forth, furiously multiplying the time and the place and the circumstance” (406). Moreover, the hero thinks he might have seen the husband of the woman at the door momentarily. He also conjectures that he might just be dreaming. Here we have the omnipresent witness to the act again as well as the suggestion that the terrible ritual of sexual contact between the races is a collective dream or nightmare. As ritual scenario, biracial sexual contact can be infinitely duplicated, reflected in the repetition of the infamous act. What has changed in Ellison's novel for the most part is the genre; Ellison replays the mating ritual of blacks and whites comically. The hero is a little man, a clown in a farce that Robeson would not dignify, and like all clowns, he is self-reflective. He sees what the audience demands even before he performs his role.

Farce gives way to high comedy in the hero's escapade with Sybil at the end of the novel. By this time the hero is perfectly aware that he is playing a role, although Sybil, his white victim, is still in the dark. She, like Mary Dalton, is intoxicated throughout the encounter, but she wants to be “raped.” However, the hero has learned to manipulate the illusions of racism to his own advantage from one Rinehart, a hustler-turned-preacher on the streets of Harlem. In short, he has become his own Iago and continues to monitor himself in the mirror of others' expectations for him. Sybil, consistent with the preconceptions she has about her race and sex in the biracial context, claims to be a “nymphomaniac” (508). What other motive could she have in seeking out the sexual favors of a “black buck”? “‘ Threaten to kill me, if I don’t give in. You know, talk rough to me, beautiful,’” she pleads (508). “What would Rinehart do about this,” the hero ponders, “and knowing,” he is “determined not to let her provoke [him] to violence” (506).

Unlike Othello, his literary progenitor, Ellison's hero will not be manipulated sexually and racially. He speculates on the motives behind the ridiculous spectacle that he and Sybil are cornered into performing to corroborate preconceptions about sexual relationships between the races: “Who’s taking revenge on whom? But why be surprised, when that’s what they [white women] hear all their lives. … With all the warnings against it, some are bound to want to try it out for themselves. The conquerors conquered” (509). The hero's reaction is pity for Sybil: “She had me on the ropes; I felt punch drunk, I couldn’t deliver and I couldn’t be angry either. I thought of lecturing her on the respect due one's bedmate in our society” (509). He realizes she thinks he is an “entertainer,” and he accepts the role temporarily. The hero, however, assumes control of the script, the blueprint, as Ellison calls it, for the spectacle. There will be no sex, no rape, no violence, no murder. He gets Sybil drunk, promising her that he “rapes real good” when he’s drunk, and scribbles across her belly with lipstick, “Sybil, you were raped by Santa Claus. Surprise!” (511). The hero has anticipated the outcome of the tragedy he is expected to play out; he recontextualizes the encounter as comedy, and hearts and lives are spared in the process. Like the other roles the hero attempts, manipulates, and sets aside for further refinement, the “part” of Othello is played only momentarily, and its “erasure” allows the hero the opportunity to spare Sybil the mutual humiliation and injury of “raping” her. But of course, the function of comedy is to repeat in a finer tone, to recontextualize tragic situations, and to reverse tragic outcomes through reconciliation and clarification. The variation Ellison achieves in his representation of the racist mythos is a function of generic—read verbal—manipulation.

Dutchman may well represent the ultimate African American revision of Othello. Amiri Baraka alludes to Shakespeare frequently in his works, particularly in The Slave, the companion piece to Dutchman. The myth of the ritual murder of innocent white virgins is, in Dutchman, fully deconstructed or inverted to reflect more accurately the relationship between the races that has existed throughout Western history. Lula—the white woman—has become the aggressor in a war overtly declared and waged between the races, and Clay is her black victim. Baraka is suggesting that the true victim in the biracial sexual struggle is the black male, and he is the partner who is ritually sacrificed in Dutchman. The setting of the play is the subway, which is “heaped in modern myth” (3). Clay, a poet who would be “the black Baudelaire,” watches Lula enter the car and take the seat next to him in an ironic recreation of the very action that launched the civil rights movement just ten years before the first production of the play—integration of the city transit system.

Clay, “without a trace of self-consciousness,” naively “hopes that his memory of this brief encounter will be pleasant” (4). The young black man, putty or “clay” in the hands of the white vamp, will be made to react to a taunting series of white stereotypes about black male behavior, and Lula will cue the “lines” (16) he is “supposed” (10) to say. Clay does realize early on that the “struggle” here is indeed over “abstract asses” (7) and that nothing sexual will come of this relationship. As we have seen in previous versions of the biracial sexual encounter, the act is rarely consummated. Nevertheless, Lula immediately accuses Clay, saying, “You think I want to pick you up, get you to take me somewhere and screw me, huh?” (8).

Unlike any of her predecessors, Lula knows what she is doing throughout the play—lying. “I lie a lot. It helps me control the world” (9). She tells Clay she is an actress, and he nicknames her Tallulah Bankhead. Both “players” agree they know what is “supposed to happen” between them (10). Only Lula really does, however. Lula thinks Clay is a “well-known type” (12) and proceeds to “dictate” the script, the “chronicle” as Clay calls it, of their predictable melodrama (24). Lula cues Clay throughout the play with taunts such as, “It’s your turn, and let those be your lines.” (16). She warns him, “Don’t get smart with me, Buster, I know you like the palm of my hand” (17). Lula suggests a series of stereotypes for Clay to emulate. She notices he is wearing a three-button suit, even though his grandfather had been a slave. Lula claims he does not know who he is, taunting him by saying, “I bet you never once thought you were a black nigger” (19). Clay hopes the two of them can pretend to be “free of [their] own history,” but Lula knows better (21). She has another more predictable and more violent outcome in mind. They are about to “groove,” as she announces at the end of scene 1—and they are indeed in the “groove” of the biracial ritual (21).

At the beginning of scene 2, the players are rehearsing their “codes of lust” (23). Lula will “make a map” of Clay's “manhood” (26). She tries to pretend they are in Romeo and Juliet (26). He will call her room “black,” when they arrive there later, “like Juliet's tomb.” But the play is not Romeo and Juliet, it is Othello revised. Lula will be no victim of jealously and racial misunderstanding, much less a suicide-for-love at the end of the play. She is the murderer this time. The black male is the victim as he so often is in the very real historical lynching of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Clay wants “the whole story,” and he will get it; Lula will keep “turning pages” to arrive at the ritual climax of the story (28). As the scenario unfolds, Lula realizes there is a problem here: Clay, like Othello, Bigger, and Ellison's hero, is “an escaped nigger” (29). As such, he must be exposed; she threatens him in front of an audience of middle-class businessmen that assembles in the car between scenes. These businessmen represent the ever-important witnesses to the biracial murder who will, in Baraka's version, become accomplices, and the jury judging the deed as well. Lula continues her verbal abuse: she calls Clay a “black son of a bitch,” an “Uncle Thomas Woolly-Head,” and an “Uncle Tom Big Lip” because he will not do the belly-rub with her (32-33). “You’re afraid of white people. And your father was,” she taunts (33). What follows is Clay's impassioned plea to let him live, to let him be, to let him make choices about his life, even the choice to be middle class if that is what he wants (33).

Finally angered, Clay explains why blacks should kill, but usually show restraint. Like his predecessors, Clay is ready to strangle the symbolic white female. “Such a tiny ugly throat. I could squeeze it flat, and watch you turn blue, on a humble. For dull kicks. And all these weak-faced ofays squatting around here, staring over their papers at me. Murder them too. Even if they expected it” (33). The moment of truth has arrived; the audience has been primed; but, Clay, just as Ellison's hero, refuses to play the role. Othello and Bigger have wised up in Invisible Man and Dutchman. Ellison and Baraka have revised, actually inverted, the paradigm of the biracial sexual encounter. Clay then proceeds to tell us what he and black artists do instead of killing hateful whites—they create music and poetry: “And the only thing that would cure the neurosis would be your murder. Simple as that. I mean if I murdered you, then other white people would begin to understand me. You understand? … If Bessie Smith had killed some white people she wouldn’t have needed that music. She could have talked very straight and plain about the world. No metaphors” (35). In short, the “[c]razy niggers [are] turning their backs on sanity. When all it needs is that simple act. Murder. Just murder! Would make us all sane” (35). But he “wearies” and counters his own argument. “Ahhh. Shit. But who needs it? I’d rather be a fool. Insane. Safe with my words, and no deaths, and clean, hard thoughts, urging me to new conquests. My people's madness” (35).

At this point, Baraka tells us that Lula's “voice takes on a different, more businesslike quality.” She concludes, “I’ve heard enough” (36) and stabs Clay with an impunity that might well have anticipated that of Bernard Goetz. The businessmen on the car then “come and drag Clay's body down the aisle” (34). In Othello and Native Son, the citizens of Venice and Chicago are violently outraged about the murders of Desdemona and Mary Dalton, but the murder of Clay in Dutchman is virtually ignored. Lula's next young victim then enters the car and the ritual begins again, but not before an old black conductor tips his hat to Lula and shuffles down the aisle exiting the train, a survivor in the struggle, like Ellison's “moon-mad” war veterans in Invisible Man (132).

Baraka knows precisely what he is up to here, and in The Slave, a companion play usually reprinted with Dutchman, he tells us all about it. In this play, Easely, a white professor, argues politics with Walker Vessels, a former black theater student, and Grace, Easley's wife, listens in. Grace announces that “Mr. Vessels is playing the mad scene from Native Son,” when Walker mentions having played a “second-rate Othello” in college: “Grace there was Desdemona … and you [Easely] were Iago … [Laughs] or at least between classes, you were Iago. … If a white man is Iago when you see him … uhh … chances are he’s eviler when you don’t.” Grace, like Lula, tells Vessels to shut up, but, like Clay in Dutchman, Vessels refuses (57-58).

Black writers have revised the biracial sexual myth that represents the primal impediment to the freedom and equal treatment of black people as human beings. Sexual parity is the ultimate expression of racial equality. If language inscribes racial difference and dissension, and then ascribes or even prescribes behavior based on that inscription, perhaps it may also de-scribe such behavior, or at least rewrite the story as it exists in the Western mind. Obviously such a hope informs the rereading and representation of the crucial myth of biracial relationship discussed here.

The philologist Leo Spitzer offers us some help. The problem of “race,” the great problem of our century according to W. E. B. DuBois, might indeed hinge on the misunderstanding of a single word: the word “race” itself. In his inimitable fashion Spitzer, as linguistic sleuth, traces the word “race” through its German, French, Italian, and English uses and abuses to the Latin root ratio. The concept of race, and perhaps the attitudes associated with racism, are all locked up in this term ratio, perhaps most artfully wielded by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa: “God, in willing himself, wills all the things which are in himself; but all things in a certain manner preexist in him by their types (rationes)” (qtd. in Spitzer 147). Spitzer explains, “Thus rationes is a rendering of ideai and can shift to the meaning ‘types’ [which becomes ‘races’] precisely because all the different rationes of things are integrated in the creator of things” (148). Rationes or “races” may be conceived, then, as figments of the collective mind derived from what are presumed to be God's categories of human existence. Spitzer concludes, “What a significant comment this affords on the modern ‘racial’ beliefs!” (152).

If “race” is a platonic concept, existing in genres and not in genes, existing in subjective human judgments rather than in the “nature of things” and if it is historically conditioned instead of “predetermined,” then this notion, this “idea,” can be changed, can be modified, can be adapted to new circumstances and experience. Through language, which gave us the notion of “race” in the first place, we can model a new reality, a reality that reverses outcomes posited as necessities in the racist mentality. Through the clever manipulation of the language of traditional character and circumstance, the writers under investigation here, Shakespeare included, have helped us perceive new solutions to a problem that remains catastrophically troublesome in the modern world, the problem of racial violence.


  1. Derrida continues, “The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words, but rather that they have to have a word. [Racism] institutes, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes” (Derrida 331).

  2. Tzvetan Todorov writes, “[W]hereas racism is a well-attested social phenomenon, ‘race’ itself does not exist! Or, to put it more clearly: there are a great number of physical differences among human groups, but these differences cannot be superimposed; we obtain completely divergent subdivisions of the human species according to whether we base our description of the ‘races’ on an analysis of their epidermis or their blood types, their genetic heritages or their bone structures. For contemporary biology, the concept of ‘race’ is therefore useless” (370-71).

  3. Quoted in Barnet 280. For an honest history of Robeson's reactions to his roles in the two great productions of Othello in which he starred (London, 1930, and New York, 1943) and the pronounced racial implications of and reactions to these productions, see Martin Duberman's biography of Robeson (134, 263). Some items of interest: Peggy Ashcroft, who played Desdemona in the London production, found her entire experience in Othello (1930) “an education in racism,” particularly the public reaction to the kissing scenes between Desdemona and Othello (134-35); significant passages from the play were cut by the director, Nellie Van Volkenburg, who Aschroft decided was a “racist” because of her treatment of Robeson. The murder scene was staged with the bed tucked inconspicuously away in a corner of the room, and the light was so dimmed to the point of “inscrutability” that Ralph Richardson, who played Iago, kept a flashlight up his sleeve to negotiate the stage after his departure (136). The attempt to take the production to the United States was virtually sabotaged, and when it was produced here in 1943, it provoked broad racial protest, especially in the southern states (265).

  4. Gunnar Myrdal writes, “The illicit relations freely allowed or only frowned upon are, however, restricted to those between white men and Negro women. A white woman's relation with a Negro man is met by the full fury of anti-amalgamation sanctions” (56).

  5. Baraka's play is given in the list of works cited under his original name, Leroi Jones, as it is in the original edition of the play used for this article.

  6. I am in debt here to an anonymous reader for SAR who provided this list of novels dealing with our theme and who suggested especially that Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale offers “first a kind of mock acknowledgement of the myth of the supersexual black male, and then [completely dismantles] the tradition … of its original fears, prejudices, and taboos.”

  7. Kinney goes on to discuss some sixty novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the theme of miscegenation, novels by luminaries in the canon including James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, George Washington Cable, and W. E. B. DuBois.

  8. The reevaluation of Othello in its historical context is well underway at this point. I am much indebted to Emily Bartels's “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Bartels's article as well as my own are products of a seminar on “Shakespeare's Aliens” convened at the 1988 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America by Edward Berry. On the matter of race, see Phyllis Braxton's recent article, “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor,” which argues “that Othello's color outweighs in significance the element of race” (1). According to Braxton, Shakespeare leaves the matter of Othello's ethnic identification deliberately ambiguous but ominous, because “the Other is always mysterious and without clear definition. Once defined, he is no longer the Other” (9).

  9. See, for instance, the studies of Barthelemy, Braxton, Brown, Dabydeen, D’Amico, Hulme, Hunter, Eldred D. Jones, Jordan, Loomba, Miller, Pratt, Said, and Tokson.

  10. Black actors, too, have been strongly attracted to the role because, as Hill suggests, the play offers “an opportunity vividly to convey to audiences the message that racism is the green-eyed monster that destroys not just its victim but also its perpetrator and innocent bystanders who fall into its clutches” (41).

  11. For other indignant, clearly racist reviews of nineteenth-century performances of the play, see Ruth Cowhig's essay (14-20).

  12. All quotations from the plays are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  13. Quoted in Barnet 284. Miller's sentiment typifies critical comment about all of Shakespeare's plays dealing with the problem of “complexion”—Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello. For instance, both Frank Kermode and Alvin Kernan ignore racial themes altogether in their respective introductions to Othello in The Riverside Shakespeare and the 1987 Signet edition of the play. Kermode does use interesting language to discuss other issues arising in the text, however: “The whiteness of Desdemona blackened, we see the white and tranquil mind of Othello darkened by atavistic shock and disgust. … He has behaved like a Turk (used throughout the play as an enemy of civility and grace, a type of cunning and disorder). He has become that person of different ‘clime, complexion, and degree’ whom it was wanton of Desdemona to marry” (The Riverside Shakespeare 1201). Braxton claims Miller was trying “to minimize the differences between Othello and Desdemona” by using Anthony Hopkins in the role (2-3 and 14).

  14. See, however, Wayne Holmes's article. Holmes goes so far as to suggest “that Desdemona and Cassio, some time prior to Desdemona and Othello's marriage, had an affair” (1).

  15. Harris speculates, “Almost all of the deaths [by ritual lynchings] have as their causes the improper interactions of black males and white females. But what happened in depictions after 1968? Are black writers now beginning to suggest that black males and white females can interact with each other without some fatal violence occurring?” (xii). In another passage she writes, “Historically, in their ritualistic lynchings of black people, white Americans were carrying out rites of exorcism in which they seemed determined to eradicate the black ‘beast’ from their midst, except when he existed in the most servile, accommodationist, and helpful of positions” (xiii).

  16. Howard Felperin, for one, is so incensed by Holmes's suggestion (cited in note 14 above) that Desdemona might be more “experienced” than we usually suppose her, that he charitably leaves the author of the article “unnamed for reasons by now apparent” (3).

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. See Leroi Jones.

Barnet, Sylvan. “Othello on Stage and Screen.” Othello. Ed. Alvin Kernan. New York: Signet, 1986. 270-86.

Bartels, Emily. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54.

Barthelemy, Anthony. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review 55.3 (1990): 1-17.

Brown, Paul. “‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985. 48-71.

Cowhig, Ruth. “Blacks in English Renaissance Drama.” Dabydeen 1-26.

Dabydeen, David, ed. The Black Presence in English Literature. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1985.

D’Amico, Jack. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. Tampa: UP of South Florida, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “Racism's Last Word.” Gates 329-38.

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1972.

Felperin, Howard. “The Deconstruction of Presence in The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. New York: Methuen, 1985. 3-18.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race,Writing, and Difference. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Harris, Trudier. Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors. Amherst: UP of Massachusetts, 1984.

Holmes, Wayne. “Othello: Is’t Possible?” Upstart Crow 1 (1978): 1-23.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492 -1797. London: Methuen, 1986.

Hunter, G. K. “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries. Ed. G. K. Hunter. New York: Barnes, 1978. 31-59.

Jones, Eldred D. The Elizabethan Image of Africa. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971.

———. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama. London: Oxford UP, 1965.

Jones, Leroi [now Amiri Baraka]. Dutchman and The Slave. New York: Morrow, 1964.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. New York: Norton, 1968.

Kermode, Frank. Introduction. Shakespeare 1198-202.

Kernan, Alvin. Introduction. Othello. By William Shakespeare. New York: Signet, 1987. xxiii-xxxv.

Kinney, James. Amalgamation! Race, Sex, and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1989.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma. New York: Harper, 1944.

Miller, Christopher. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Scratches on the Face of the Country: Or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 119-43.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Routledge, 1978.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Spitzer, Leo. “Ratio Race.” Essays in Historical Semantics. New York: Russell, 1948. 147-70.

Stember, Charles Herbert. Sexual Racism: The Emotional Barrier to an Integrated Society. New York: Elsevier, 1976.

Todorov, Tzvetan “‘Race,’ Writing, and Culture.” Gates 370-80.

Tokson, Elliot H. The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550-1688. Boston: Hall, 1982.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940.

Kim Hall (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Reading What Isn’t There: ‘Black’ Studies in Early Modern England,” in Stanford Humanities Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 23-33.

[In the following essay, Hall examines the figure of the black woman in order to show the “problematics of the historical study of race and gender.”]

It is particularly difficult to “attend” to racial difference in early modern England.1 Given the lessening but still widely held assumption, that “race” is not a viable category of analysis not only in the early modern period, but for literature in general, added to the distressing lack of data on people of color in England before the codification of the slave trade, it is not surprising that women of color constitute a largely “invisible” presence in the English Renaissance. In its very title, Elliot Tokson's The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550-1688, a standard work on the subject, announces the absence of black women.2 Another influential text, Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black, devotes very little space to the problem of gender in racial discourse, even in his discussion of the English obsession with fairness.3

In this article, I will use the figure of the black woman as an example for the problematics of the historical study of race and gender. My concerns spring from my own investment in a politicized historical study of Europe that dialogues with the work being done by women of color which has been at the forefront of critiquing both assumptions about race and gender and the role of “race” in identity formation. Rather than making a specific argument about the linkages of race and gender, my goals for the essay are twofold: (1) to question the underlying assumptions of two contemporary constructions of the black presence in early modern England and to suggest ways in which both the standard tools of analysis and the materials subject to analysis work to elide black women from discussions of race; (2) to question the somewhat arbitrary boundaries between “history” and “literature” by juxtaposing an historical document with a literary representation of a black woman and to thereby suggest some possible relationships between representation and history in studies of race in the early modern period.4

The historical study of black women poses interesting problems for critical practice. As Audre Lorde has argued, “Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have always been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.”5 Certainly discourses of race did not begin in America and the combination of distortion and high visibility that Lorde notes may operate in early modern culture as well. The distortion Lorde notes suggests that black women are in a sense unretrievable in such a past since they are objects “named only in ways that define [their] relationship to those who are subject.”6 Yet we disregard their infrequent appearances with peril, since their very visibility and the purposes it serves in a white supremacist culture means that representations of black women have a significance that the actual number of appearances would belie.

In the recent anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study, African-American critic Kwame Anthony Appiah begins his entry on “race” by recognizing a continuing bias against the inclusion of race in literary studies: “the idea that the concept of race should have any place, let alone an important one—in literary studies has been attacked from a good many directions.”7 Working against such a notion, Appiah then goes on to outline a history of racial “conceptions,” and contends that earlier conceptions of race, particularly in the Renaissance, are rooted in theological distinctions rather than “racial” ones. He begins what is to be a discussion of Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Jew of Malta with the assertion:

In each of these plays a central figure—Othello, Shylock, Barabas—plays out a role we can understand only in terms of a stereotype of a people, Moors or Jews; a stereotype we are likely, if we are hasty, to conceive of as simply racialist. So it is important to go carefully. We should begin by recognizing that in Shakespearean England both Jews and Moors were barely an empirical reality. And even though there were small numbers of Jews and black people in England in Shakespeare's day, attitudes toward ‘the Moor’ and ‘The Jew’ do not seem to have been based on experience of these people. Furthermore, despite the fact that there was an increasing amount of information available about dark-skinned foreigners in this, the first great period of modern Western exploration, actual reports of black or Jewish foreigners did not play an important part in forming these images (Appiah 277 emphasis added).8

His notions of Elizabethan England are a clear articulation of a largely unstated bias against the study of “pre-slavery” Europe by scholars centrally concerned with race: that studies of race and blackness should primarily be concerned with the construction of black subjectivity (the corollary being that the early modern period cannot be the subject of black studies because there were no blacks to study). In Women's Studies, this problem can best be summed up by the now famous words of Audre Lorde, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” Her formulation proposes that a study of the master himself with scholarship defined by the academy can never lead to scholarship with a significant political impact. Too often, it can be used to erase the study of the formation of dominant culture altogether.

Appiah's admonitions for care in discussing “race” in early modern England simultaneously authorizes and de-authorizes race as a “critical” term for study in the Renaissance. His sense that race is an unexplored category in literature empowers the critic who wants to examine the category. However, his insistence on empirical evidence is particularly oppressive from a text that purports to enable new reading strategies9 as is his curious declaration of the irrelevence of “actual reports” in discussion of early modern formations of difference. This sense that the “experience of” actual blacks or Jews did not inform literary representation excludes one of the more enabling strategies of the “new historicism”—“describing culture in action” (Veeser xiii)—as well as ignores the possibility that both the reports and “actual experience were inflected by the assumptions about the character” of certain peoples.

While Appiah is rightly concerned with our making broad generalizations about a category, “race,” that has an historical specificity, at the same time he falls into the trap of accepting the post-Enlightenment science that created “racialism” on its own terms. Specifically, this entry seems backed by a narrative of modern science and a myth of empiricism that relies on a clear break from the historical past. Rather, I would argue that the “inherited characteristics” (Appiah 26) that are an elemental part of modern scientific discourses on race are in large part the result of lingering notions of “difference” that resided at the intersections of English travel and trade, plantation, empire, and science in the early modern period. Science merely takes up already pre-existing terms of difference, such as skin color and features, that have been combined with physical and mental characteristics. It is no accident that Sir Thomas Browne, one of the forerunners of modern science, devotes three chapters of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1672) to dispelling myths on “the blackness of Negroes.”10 Despite these laudable intentions, his investigation is heavily weighted with value judgements concerning color, such as “they of Europe in Candy, Sicily, and some parts of Spaine deserve not properly so low a name as Tawny” (512). The bias that appears in Appiah, even as he deconstructs the terms of nineteenth-century science and biological determinism, can be located specifically in his insistence on “empirical evidence” of a black presence. This delimits the permitted reading strategies of Renaissance critics because we are not allowed to read “backwards,” to draw from the insights of current theorists on race and racism to investigate the birth pangs of these modern attitudes in the early modern period.11

Appiah's vision of an England populated with mere images of non-white, non-Christians contrasts sharply with that of white feminist critic Karen Newman who, in her influential essay, “And wash the Ethiop white’: femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,” argues that “In England itself, by 1596, blacks were numerous enough to generate alarm.”12 With apologies for making too broad generalizations, I would like to suggest that these critics are fairly typical of the assumptions made about race in the Renaissance. Both confront the problem of the evidence of a viable black presence (albeit with differing conclusions) and both base their work on an equation of race with blackness. “White” as a racial category is left unexamined.13 While there is no way of establishing how many blacks there were in England, there were numerous Englishmen and women fashioning their cultural identity with discourses of race. Without ignoring the problem of evidence, I do want to suggest that an uncritical (or overly critical) emphasis on proof may impede historical studies before they have even begun.

What is the evidence for the black presence? Most of the data from Europe on Africans in particular emerge from travel narratives and historical/bureaucratic accounts of Transatlantic trade. The English were late, but eager arrivals in the European slave trade. In 1562, John Hawkins crashed the Portuguese market and organized the first transatlantic slave trading venture, thereby demonstrating the potential value of the market to England and thus encouraging England's future encroachments in the slave trade.14 With Elizabeth I's consent, other traders attempted to make inroads into the Portuguese monopoly, and slaves were bought surreptitiously or kidnapped and sold along with stolen gold and ivory. As merchants made inroads into the African trade, they brought to England slaves who served as personal attendants. In 1618, James I gave the charter of monopoly to 30 London merchants, the Company of Adventurers of London Trading into parts of Africa. It was not until 1663 that the English incorporated a company, The Royal Adventurers into Africa, which had as its primary goal the acquisition of slaves. Even at this point its primary objective was to provide labor for English plantations in America. The demand for sugar made the trade grow at a furious pace; however, until that point, evidence for a black population in England remained fairly small. Until the codification of slavery, we only get elusive hints of the Africans brought to England as the slaves, servants, linguists, and curiosities who constituted England's black population.

Not surprisingly, most documentary evidence concerning blacks in the period before the signing of the Asiento in the 1660's is extremely limited. Consequently the few documents available have assumed monumental importance in discussions of the black presence. I would like to look at one such document in juxtaposition with a representation of a black woman fairly invisible to modern criticism. Despite her support of English piracy in the slave trade, in 1596 Queen Elizabeth sent an open letter to the Lord Mayor of London and to the mayors of other towns, stating, “Her majesties understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kind of people there are allready here too manie”15 and demanding the confiscation of Africans brought to England in a recent voyage by Thomas Baskerville. In 1601 Elizabeth again expressed concern over the presence of blacks in the realm and sent this proclamation to the Lord Mayor of London:

whereas the Queen's Majesty, tendering the good and welfare of her own natural subjects greatly distressed in these hard times of dearth, is highly discontented to understand the great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm since the troubles between Her highness and the King of Spain, who are fostered and relieved here to the annoyance of her own liege people that which co[vet?] the relief which these people consume; as also for that the most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel, hath given a special commandment that the said kind of people should be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this her majesty's realms; and to that end and purpose hath appointed Casper van Denden, merchant of Lucbeck, for their speedy transportation, a man that hath somewhat deserved of this realm in respect that by his own labor and charge he hath relieved and brought from Spain divers of our English nation who otherwise would have perished ther … and … if there be any person or persons which be possessed of any such Blackamoors that refuse to deliver them in sort aforesaid, then we require you to call them before you and to advice and persuade them by all good means to satisfy her Majesty's pleasure therein which if they shall eftsoons willfully and obstinately refuse, we preay you then to certify their names unto us, to the end her majesty may take such futher course therein as it shall seem best in her princely wisdom (emphasis added).16

This document and the image of Elizabeth, that white and red icon of English racial purity and superiority, casting out her polar opposites, “Moors and Negars” gives startling materiality to Winthrop Jordan's assertion that discourses on blackness occured in tandem with ideals of female beauty as represented by Elizabeth (8). While such critical attention as has been paid to this document concentrates on the attempt to discharge Moors out of the realm and uses the attempt to prove the existence of a viable black presence in England (Newman 148), the terms of the proclamation demand special attention. The image of large numbers of Moors having “crept into this island” suggests that they suddenly “appeared” on their own volition (despite having been “fostered and relieved” here by unnamed residents). The rest of the document is concerned to prevent contact between these invaders and “her own liege” people despite its contradictory contention that her own subjects are the ones “possessed” of “Blackamoors” to the detriment of the state.

Equally important is the reference to the religion (or lack of religion) of the Moors which supposes that they are a logical group to cut off from state resources because they have “no understanding of Christ or his Gospel.” In this time of perceived crisis Christianity becomes the prerequisite for access to limited resources. Certainly, Elizabeth's evocation of the religious difference of the Moor would seem to support Appiah's contention that religious difference is the crucial part of the construction of black “difference.” I would argue, however, that even though religion is given as a compelling reason for excluding Moors, merely emphasizing religious difference only clouds the political reality that the Moors' visibility in the culture made them a viable target for exclusion. In other words, it is their physical difference and the moral/spiritual qualities associated with it that provokes their exclusion, not simply their religion.

This is the document Newman uses to support her contention that blacks were “numerous enough to generate alarm.” The tone of the document does imply a state of national emergency, since Elizabeth opens with a reminder of “these hard times of dearth.” If we take the proclamation at face value, the “great numbers of Negars or Blackamoors … of which kind there is allready here too manie” suggests a large number, but the furor caused by the presence of Moroccan ambassadors at Elizabeth's court in 1601 suggests that blacks, particularly royal blacks, were still a novelty. There is no evidence that this had to constitute a large number, particularly if we remember that the threat of the black to the state is continually magnified in a racist culture. Given such contradictory evidence and Basil Davidson's early warning in The African Slave Trade that “A great deal of historical writing is propaganda” (26), a more fruitful and significant question might be not how many black Africans were in early modern England, but “How many Moors does it take to generate alarm in England”?

In his Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, commenting on this passage, Peter Fryer suggests that the first expulsion of these “Negars” was payment for the release of English hostages. The merchant involved asked for the right to confiscate black slaves in exchange for his arrangement for the release of 89 English hostages in Spain and Portugal. Fryer's evidence convincingly demonstrates the real political and economic factors underlying the expulsions and forces us to question the rhetoric of the second expulsion as well. Nevertheless, his explanation only heightens our curiosity about the specificity of the terms of the expulsion. Certainly the political/religious rationale mystifies the wholesale confiscation of “property” from her citizens. However, the reliance on the good of the commonwealth suggests that Queen Elizabeth draws on a series of associations about Moors as a group that seem to persist in contemporary Anglo-American racial discourse: in times of economic stress, visible minorities very often become the scapegoat for a national problem.

Elizabeth's proclamation may open up another text which reveals the economic and racial fears of Elizabethan England, The Merchant of Venice. At the end of Act III of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the audience witnesses a joking interchange between Shylock's servant, Launcelot Gobbo, and Lorenzo and Jessica about their mixed marriage:

Nay you need not fear us, Lorenzo, Launcelot
and I are out. He tells me flatly that there’s no mercy for me in heaven
because I am a Jew's daughter; and he says that you are no good member
of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Christians, you raise the price
of pork.
I shall answer that better to the commonwealth
than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly; the Moor is with child
by you Launcelot.
It is much that the Moor should be more than
reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeed more than I
took her for.


This passage proves to be a very problematic re-presentation (with the double distancing that this implies) for Shakespearean criticism. The female Moor is not a character presented to the audience by an actor, but one only spoken about by other characters; she literally does not exist on stage. So too, she barely exists in the area of textual analysis. The Arden edition of Merchant helpfully notes that “this passage has not been explained” and suggests “Perhaps it was introduced simply for the sake of the elaborate pun on Moor/more” (99, n.35). The annotations in the Variorum Shakespeare suggest that this emphasis on the purely linguistic aspects of the scene is typical, giving several such reading, including, “A change of ‘less’ into ‘more’ makes the jingle fuller.” Even editions that acknowledge the racial charge in this scene still elide the black woman as a part of the play. The notes to the 1926 Cambridge edition attribute this scene to an adapter rather than to Shakespeare and then asks:

Who was the black woman referred to in this passage? Clearly she has nothing to do with the play as it stands. Was she a character in an earlier version, e.g. a member of Morocco's train? Or was she a real figure, a London notoriety familiar to the audience for whom the dialogue was written? Holding the opinion we do on the authorship of this scene, we are inclined to interpret this reference as a topical one (emphasis added).18

Interestingly, even an edition that confronts the startling reference to a black woman and posits the existence of an actual black woman completely detaches her from the Shakespearean text by asserting that the dialogue is not Shakespeare's and that the figure “has nothing to do with the play.” Both readings, the linguistic and the topical, insist on the obscurity of the scene and of the black woman.19 For one, she exists only as a text; for the other, she may exist in history, but not in the text.

This joking conversation no doubt parodically reflects the investment of the commonwealth in marriage practices. Nevertheless, the audience is left to question the difference between Lorenzo's liaison with a Jew and Launcelot's with a Moor. The Renaissance stage abounds with jokes about bastards. Certainly, if Launcelot's fault was merely the getting of another bastard, there would be no reason to emphasize that this invisible woman is a Moor. Anthony Barthelemy, in his Black Face, Maligned Race, notes that this exchange reflects ideas of the licentiousness of the black woman typical of the time. However, the pregnant, unheard (and by critics unseen) black woman becomes in some ways the silent symbol for the economic and racial politics of The Merchant of Venice. Like the pregnant Indian maid in A Midsummer Night's Dream, she works within the desire for the riches that come from cultural interaction; however, she also exemplifies the necessity for controlling such interactions. She is, perhaps, an example of what Peter Stallybrass has called “the female grotesque” which “interrogate[s] class and gender hierarchies alike, subverting the enclosed body in the name of a body that is ‘unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits’.”20

The pressures of race, religion, and economics in Elizabeth's proclamation help contextualize the threat posed by a Launcelot Gobbo and his Moor. A similar sense of a critical scarcity of resources pervades The Merchant of Venice. This sense of privation felt by the citizens of Venice produces an economic imperative in the play which insists on the exclusion of racial, religious, and cultural difference. In Gobbo's jesting evocation of the scarcity of food we see the same unease over limited resources and possibly, famine. Famine, one of the particular rationales for colonial plantation and expansion, becomes here associated with the black woman. With the finite resources of a Venetian (or Elizabethan) society reserved for the wealthy elite, the offspring of Gobbo and the Moor present a triple threat that in this world is perceived as a crime against the state. This miscegenation is perhaps more suspect than the possibility of that between a Portia and a Morocco; it raises the possibility of a half Black, half Christian child from the lower classes threatens to upset the desired balance of consumption.

Ultimately both sources draw on/create the same racial stereotype. Just as the image of the black female as consumer of state resources in twentieth-century United States is statistically inaccurate but politically powerful, so may the black presence have been a threat to white European labor, a threat magnified by its very visibility. I borrow here from Patricia Hill Collins' discussion of the image of the welfare mother in the United States:

Controlling Black women's fertility in such a political economy becomes important. The image of the welfare mother fulfills this function by labeling as unnecessary and even dangerous to the values of the country the fertility of women who are not white and middle class … The image of the welfare mother thus provides ideological justification for the dominant group's interest in limiting the fertility of black mothers who are seen as producing too many unproductive children.21

Similarly, the alignment of class, race, and religious difference in the jesting over the female Moor in Merchant serves to label her fertility as dangerous and ultimately disruptive of the desired homology between Christianity and economic vitality.

The unnoticed black woman in The Merchant of Venice suggests a great deal about the racial and sexual politics of reading and consequently “writing” the Renaissance. Much attention is paid to Portia's gender-bending and the Prince of Morocco's role in the sex/gender system of Venice. However, modern critical attention to the play in some ways replicates a dynamic typical of modern Europe. The current historical work on the black presence in England, not surprisingly, ignores gender difference as well. Then, as now, black women fall into the margins of difference. As Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith propose in their provocatively titled anthology, All of the Men are Black, All the Women are White, But Some of Us are Brave, the elision of the female from the category of race only contributes to the invisibility of black women.22

This tendency in modern works is only exacerbated by early discourses of race. A travel narrative printed in Richard Hakluyt's influential Principal Voyages, “The Prosperous Voyage of Master James Lancaster to the towne of Fernambruck in Brasil,” graphically illustrates this point. The English, in the midst of a battle with the Portuguese and the Native Americans in Brazil, block off a harbor and commandeer all enemy ships:

And this farther good chance or blessing of God we had to helpe us, that assoone as we had taken our cartes, the next morning came in a ship with some 60 Negros, 10 Portugall woman, and 40 Portugals: the women and the Negros we turned out of the towne, but the Portugals our Admirall kept us to draw the carts when they were laden, which to us was a very great ease. For the country is very hote and ill for our nation to take any great travell in.23

At this point in Lancaster's narrative, issues of numbering and cataloguing seem to take precedence over narrative detail. While we are given the illusion of numerical specificity in the numbering of the Portuguese by nationality and gender, the “Negroes” are made genderless (or all male): “the women and the Negroes we turned out of the towne.”

Similarly, we find in Peter Fryer's account of the use of blacks as symbols of status in seventeenth-century England, the revelation of a 100 year tradition of the Sackville family who kept a page who was always to be known as John Morocco. A look at the diary of Lady Anne Clifford shows that, in addition to John Morocco, the Sackvilles acquired a black laundrymaid, named Grace Robinson around 1613.24 Even with this seemingly innocent piece of evidence, we need to question (without valorizing) why it is that the black male's name and identity is subsumed under his racial status. The Sackville family literally name him “Morocco” and make him the focus of necessary racial distinctions that shaped family status. Grace Robinson and her labor (like most women's work) disappears from the narrative of the Sackville family only to appear in a list of family retainers at the end of the text. If nothing else, her appearance suggests that although most slaves were men, black women were not absent. Such narrative fragments hint at the possibilities for the study of race in early modern England; however, they should also represent a cautionary tale about the ways in which the terms of representation dictate the terms of critical analysis. The master's tools cannot dismantle the master's house: the insistence on traditional standards of evidence, on “ocular proof” of a black female presence before any discussion of the gendering of race, merely maintains the traditional silence that surrounded black women from their earliest experiences in England and America.

Newman ends her essay on Othello urging that Shakespeare be read from a position of opposition:

We need to read Shakespeare in ways which produce resistant readings, ways which contest the hegemonic forces the plays at the same time affirm. Our critical task is not merely to describe the formal parameters of a play, not is it to make claims about Shakespeare's politics, conservative or subversive, but to reveal the discursive and dramatic evidence for such representations, and their counterparts in criticism and representations (158).

I want to suggest here that Newman's contention needs expansion: Not only do we need to read Shakespeare in ways that produce resistant readings, we need to read “other” documents with the same care. The documents that would seem to provide empirical evidence are as deeply imbricated by the same cultural assumptions as Shakespeare's plays. Thus, we need to interpret Elizabeth's “creation” as carefully and with as the same critical consciousness as we read Shakespeare's. The reticence Appiah states in speaking of Renaissance notions of race may be rooted in the apprehension that one might take a European representation of difference as an “accurate” sense of difference. This does not mean that representations of blackness are not in the proper purview of critical theories of race. It does, however, mean that we need to read with the constant recognition that the evidence of that presence is still the product of a European—and Eurocentric—mind.


  1. I adopt the term “Black” as a more inclusive term that takes into account the study early descriptions of blackness as well as the presence of Africans in Europe and the Americas.

  2. Although his title might seem to acknowledge the difficulty of analyzing a black female presence, the text itself suggests that the work is based on the assumption that the category “black” means “black male.” His text is full of sentences such as the following which equate African difference with masculinity: “Put briefly, English dramatists were trying to respond imaginatively to a black African who was a stranger to their land and their consciousness at exactly the same time that English commercial interests were beginning to exploit that same Black man as the most suitable material for slave labor.” Elliot Tokson, The Image of the Black Man in English Drama (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982), ix (emphasis added). A more recent work that substantially revises Tokson, Anthony Barthelemy's Black Face/Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), while not feminist in its approach, pays much more attention to representations of black women.

  3. Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro: 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP Press, 1968), 8.

  4. This latter question may in fact seem wellworn to those who have been in immersed in the arguments over the “New Historicism.” I bring up this specific question again, because this issue of “evidence” is of pressing concern to historical studies of race, as one faces from students and from peers the need to “prove” a significant black presence in the Renaissance. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's essay “Literary Criticism and The New Historicism” charges that the reading strategies of the more prominent “new historicists” ignore the unique qualities of history: “In most cases they have implicitly preferred to absorb history into the text or discourse without (re)considering the specific characteristics of history herself. Such a blanket charge may appear churlish, especially since so much of the work in new historicism has attempted to restore women, working people, and other marginal groups (although rarely, so far, black people) to the discussion of literary texts.” in The New Historicism, H.Aram Veeser ed., (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), 217. Interestingly, even as she foregrounds the absence of blacks from analysis, she proposes a reading of history which may perpetuate that absence, “Both in the past and in the interpretation of the past history follows a pattern or structure, according to which some systems of relations and some events possess greater significance than others” (218). Such an emphasis on patterns and degrees of significance, this essay should demonstrate, still works to preclude the restoration of marginalized figures to literature and history.

  5. Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in SisterOutsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1984), 42.

  6. bell hooks, “feminist scholarship: some ethical issues” in Talking Back: Thinking Feminist *Thinking Black (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 43.

  7. Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Race” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin eds., (Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press, 1990), 276.

  8. I use Appiah here because, as the author of an entry presumably designed to enable further discussions on this category, he shows some recalcitrance in his thinking on the Renaissance which is, in effect, not unlike the objections made by more conservative scholars against race as a focus of inquiry in earlier periods.

  9. In the introduction to the volume, editor Thomas McLaughlin outlines the project of the individual entries: “Each theorist considered a different term prevelant in literary discourse, examining its history, the controversies it generates, the questions it raises, the reading strategies it permits” (emphasis added).

  10. Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica; or, Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, ed. Bruce Robbins (New York: Oxford UP, 1981).

  11. I am thinking here specifically of such writers on feminism and identity politics such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Angela Davis and bell hooks and post-colonial critics such as Gayatri Spivak. One tantalizing moment that suggests what such an intersection might look like occurs in a conversation between bell hooks and Barbara Bowen on sixteenth century misogynist literature and Shaharazad Ali's Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman, recounted by bell hooks in Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, eds. bell hooks and Cornel West (Boston: South Bend Press, 1991), 88.

  12. in Jean E. Howard et al., eds., Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (New York: Methuen, 1987), 148.

  13. I make these claims with some qualifications. Newman's study is very much concerned with the way black and white work against each other in miscegenative pairings. However, the effect is to locate “race” in Othello and “gender” in Desdemona.

  14. See Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (Boston: Little Brown Company, 1980), 70-71 (originally entitled, The Black Mother).

  15. Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of the Black People in Britain (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), 10.

  16. James Walvin, The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England: 1550-1860 (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 65.

  17. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. Horace Howard Furness (New York: Dover Publications, 1964); originally published 1888.

  18. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, eds. Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1926), 158.

  19. I do not rule out a topical allusion. One could consider it a reference to the infamous case of the black woman, Maria, impregnated and abandoned by Drake and his crew on his third circumnavigation: “Drake left behind him upon this island two negroes … and likewise the negro wench Maria. She being gotten with child in the ship and now being very great was left here on the island, which Drake named the isle Francisco after one of the negroes” (196). There is no way of knowing how long such an incident would remain in the public memory. William Camden's 1625 Annales records castigations of Drake for this and other actions on that voyage. See John Hampden, ed. Francis Drake: Privateer: Contemporary Narratives and Documents. (Alabama: The U of Alabama P, 1972).

  20. Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexuality in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1986), 142.

  21. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwyn Hyman, 1990), 76-77. See also Angela Davis, “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights” in Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1981).

  22. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, All the Women are White, All the Men are Black, But Some of us are Brave (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1982).

  23. Richard Hakluyt, The Principle Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, 12 Vols (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903-05), 57.

  24. Vita Sackville-West, ed., The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (London: William Heinemann, 1923), n. p.

James R. Aubrey (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in Othello,” in CLIO, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 221-38.

[In the essay below, Aubrey attempts to show that Shakespeare's construction of Othello's character would have “engaged such popular associations of blacks with monsters and thereby would have intensified audience responses to early performances.”]

Whoever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them?


Near the end of The Tempest, Antonio jests that the monster Caliban “is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable.” As an earlier remark in the play makes clear, however, Caliban would be valuable not only in a fishmarket but also as an exotic creature for display at court, “a present for any emperor that ever trod on neat's leather.”1 When Shakespeare was writing Othello, his attraction to Cinthio's narrative about a black Moor in Venice may likewise have been a playwright's recognition that Othello's skin color would give him a “marketable,” spectacular charge on the stage, as a character whose appearance marked him as Other, as having originated somewhere beyond the boundaries of the familiar. Although blacks had appeared on stage in earlier English plays, such roles were still extraordinary in 1604, when Othello was probably first performed.2 The opening scene of the play further exoticizes Othello with its references to him not by name but as “the Moor,” and as an “extravagant and wheeling stranger” (1.1.58 and 1.1.37). Blacks were outsiders in a more profound sense as well, at this time, for they were associated in the popular imagination with monsters, so that the play's numerous references to monstrosity would have resonated with Othello's racial characteristics to establish his extreme difference from typical Europeans. Whether some biographical Shakespeare actually considered such ideas “marketable” is not a question I can answer, but I will show that Othello's character is constructed in a way that would have engaged such popular associations of blacks with monsters and thereby would have intensified audience responses to early performances.

From the thirteenth century, monstrous races were increasingly reported to be living in Africa rather than in Asia, as Rudolf Wittkower notes.3 Other critics have suggested that the English in the early 1600s still thought of blacks much as they thought of monsters, as strange creatures from outside the boundaries of the known world. Michael Neill touches the issue when he discusses linkage between blackness and moral monstrosity.4 Emily C. Bartels locates Othello's power as a character partly in the audience's perception of his racial difference, on the basis of which people “demonize an Other as a means of securing the self.”5 Karen Newman asserts that there is a cultural association of blacks with monsters: by virtue of his color, “Othello is a monster in the Renaissance sense of the word.”6 Although precise attitudes in the early seventeenth century are not recoverable, documents from that time can enable us to understand more about what constituted this “Renaissance sense” of Othello's monstrousness.

The most useful evidence is, of course, contemporaneous with Othello. An example is the pamphlet translated in 1605 by Edward Gresham, who summarizes the contents in an arresting title:

Strange fearful & true news, which happened at Carlstadt, in the kingdom of Croatia. Declaring how the sun did shine like blood nine days together, and how two armies were seen in the Air, the one encountering the other. And how also a Woman was delivered of three prodigious sons, which Prophesied many strange & fearful things, which should shortly come to pass.

Whether or not Gresham's London bookseller believed the report to be true, he evidently believed that there was a paying readership for such “news” and sold it with a cover illustration just as sensational as the contents (Figure 1). The cover visually represents the battle in the air and the three “prodigious sons,” described inside as follows: “The first of these Prodigious Children had four heads, which spoke and uttered strange things. The second Child was black like a Moor, and the third Child like unto Death.” Depicted as fully grown and articulate, these newly-born “children” prophesy eventual defeat of the Turks and a time of dearth “both here and in other places.” Devout buyers no doubt took the pamphlet seriously; others probably bought it for the kind of textual pleasures available today from supermarket tabloids. The predicted conflict in Croatia may seem ironic to historians of the late twentieth century, but of more historical interest is the cover's use of black skin as a sign of monstrosity, indeed, as the child's only monstrous characteristic.

Social anthropologists would say that this idea, that blacks and monsters are related, if not equated, on some level of the popular imagination, constituted part of early modern London's “habitus,” what Pierre Bourdieu defines as “a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions,” or more simply, “a socially constituted system of cognitive and motivating structures.”7 If there was a social disposition in 1604-5 to regard blacks and monsters as similar manifestations of the Other, as Strange News implies that there was, such a disposition would have affected both the generation and the reception of Othello at that historical moment. Indeed, as parts of the same habitus, each text simultaneously reflected and reinforced that very mental linkage.

Strange News and Othello are by no means the only documents of the late-sixteenth or early-seventeenth century to connect blacks and monsters. In 1569 Histoires Prodigeuses was translated as Certain Secret Wonders of Nature, in which Pierre Boiastuau rehearsed various explanations for “monstrous childbearing” including “the influence of the stars,” the “superabundance or default and corruption of the seed and womb,” or “an ardent and obstinate imagination, which the Woman hath, whilst she conceives the child.” Boiastuau illustrates this last cause both verbally and visually, first with two anecdotes:

Damascenus a grave author doth assure this to be true, that being present with Charles, the iiv. Emperor and king of Bohemia, there was brought to him a maid, rough and covered with hair like a bear, the which the mother had brought forth in so hideous and deformed a shape, by having too much regard to the picture of S[aint] John clothed with a beast's skin, the which was tied or made fast continually during her conception at her bed's feet. By the like means Hippocrates saved a princess accused of adultery, for that she was delivered of a child black like an Ethiopian, her husband being of a fair and white complexion, which by the persuasion of Hippocrates, was absolved and pardoned, for that the child was like unto a [picture of a] Moor, accustomably tied at her bed.8

If the first child had been the offspring of hirsute parents, or if the second child had been the offspring of an adulterous, interracial union, they would not have been considered monsters. Boiastuau considers them to be monstrous because of the “unnatural” intervention by the female imagination during the process of conception. Whether or not Shakespeare read Boiastuau, he would have recognized in this folk-theory of teratogenesis a consistency with the Biblical story he cites in The Merchant of Venice, the story of Jacob's intervention to produce parti-colored lambs by placing striped wands in front of ewes while they mate (1.3.75-85).

Boiastuau's contemporary Ambroise Paré, in his treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies, recounts a story that is similar to Boiastuau's but which reverses the colors, as a white child is born to black parents:

We have read in Heliodorus that Persiana, Queen of Ethiopia, by her husband Hidustes, being also an Ethiope, had a daughter of a white complexion, because in the embraces of her husband, by which she proved with child, she earnestly fixed her eye and mind upon the picture of the fair Andromeda standing opposite to her.9

Here, too, it is not the color but the extraordinary process by which the child's skin color is determined that gives this child the status of monster, the fact that its “formation is contrary to the general rule and to what is usual”—as Aristotle once defined monstrosities.10

The illustrations in both Paré and Boiastuau, however, unlike the verbal texts, suggest that black skin alone could constitute a sign of monstrosity (Figures 2 and 3). Regardless of who the illustrators may have been, or whether the second copied the first, both chose to depict as a monster—along with the hairy girl—the black child born to white parents rather than the white one born to black parents. The illustrators must on some level have recognized that for a white audience of readers, the representation of a white child-monster would appear “normal” rather than “monstrous” until one had read the accompanying narratives. The illustrators' artistic decision to show only the black child points to the existence of a deep cultural centrism, linked with what would come to be known as racial identity, centrism of a kind which is likely also to have shaped audience responses to the still extraordinary sight of a black person seen on the street—or represented on the stage of a predominantly white culture such as France or England.

It is hard to imagine that Shakespeare is not deliberately exploiting such Anglo-centrism in the way he prepares an audience for Othello's entrance. In the first scene, Iago awakens Brabantio with the cry that “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.89-90)—an image of Othello and Desdemona intended to horrify her father. Iago next represents their sexual union as “your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse” (1.1.112). Desdemona's imagined mating with an African animal is the kind of act which Paré describes among the causes of monsters, a “copulation with beasts” that leads to “the confusion of seed of diverse kinds” (25.982). Reminding her father that Othello and Desdemona may be generating monsters, Iago further baits Brabantio, “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you,” then reinforces the idea with a final image of Othello and Desdemona during sexual intercourse with the conventional figure of “the beast with two backs” (1.1.112-18). The first scene of the play thus prepares an audience verbally for the entrance of some “thing” that is not-human; that this “Barbary horse” will turn out to be more human than Iago—who initially seems to be the audience's kinsman—is an irony that can prove as unsettling as Gulliver's discovery that Houyhnhnms behave like people and the creatures that look like himself behave like animals.

In scene two, the metaphors applied to Othello take on more social and political overtones. Brabantio addresses Othello as a “foul thief” whose enchantment of his daughter has led her to flee from “the wealthy curled darling of our nation” to “the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou” (1.2.62-72). Although the word “thing” is in accord with Iago's earlier beauty-and-beast metaphors, Brabantio seems to see Othello's offense as more political than personal, a transgression of the boundaries of acceptable behavior in Venetian culture because Othello's “sooty” color marks him as ineligible to compete legitimately for Desdemona with the white males of “our nation.” Anthropologist Robin Fox has observed that “[g]roups speaking the same language and being alike in other ways might well exchange wives among themselves—but the connubium stopped at the boundaries of the language, territory, or colour, or whatever marked ‘us’ off from ‘them.’”11 A marriage between an African black and a Venetian white would have seemed clearly beyond the bounds of acceptable exogamy to Shakespeare's audience—especially to the white, aristocratic males, whose marital options in England Lawrence Stone has described as “very limited” in social and geographical range and reflecting “a very high degree of social and economic endogamy.”12 Even without the language depicting Othello as less than human, then, Desdemona's unauthorized choice of husband would itself have seemed socially and politically “monstrous.”

Persons watching the play would not yet appreciate Othello's virtues when he appears at court in Scene Three, so his self-justification must persuade a theater audience as well as the Duke of Venice. To indicate how he captivated Desdemona, Othello mentions two exotic races he has told her about: “The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.3.146-47). Desdemona evidently has responded to his exotic stories with awe:

She swore in faith ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
’Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man.


Desdemona's response to the “wondrous” and “strange” narratives is confused with her response to the wonderful stranger who narrates them; as she puts it, the tales themselves “woo her” (1.3.168). Shakespeare gives Othello's wooing additional credibility by including exotic but recognizable travel lore such as the anthropophagi, which Montaigne had recently written about in his essay “Of Cannibals.” The headless monsters were formerly described by Pliny as “some people without necks, having their eyes in their shoulders,” in ancient India; but they also had been described in the more recent, 1582 edition of Mandeville's Travels, where they were illustrated (Figure 4), and in Hakluyt's expanded Voyages published between 1598 and 1600, where Sir Walter Raleigh was said to have been assured that headless monsters could be found just two rivers away from the place he was visiting in Guiana.13 If the existence of this monstrous race was commonly thought to have been validated by recent travelers to remote places, then surely theatergoers—the auditors of Othello's auditors—would, like Desdemona, have found the teller as exotic as his tales.

Of course, Othello's most obvious difference is his skin color, a sign of his African origin. Pliny once remarked, “Whoever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them?” (511), and black Africans seem not to have lost their associations with such marvels by 1581, when Stephen Bateman in his Doom Warning All Men to the Judgment turned first to Africa in his catalogue of monsters whose existence testifies to God's continuing punishment of man. Bateman's catalogue includes Negritae, with lips that hang down to their breasts, who are labeled in the margin as “Black Monsters,” and what seems to be something of a catch-all:

Ethiopes a people in the west part of Ethiopia: also there are of those black men, that have four eyes: and it is said that in Eripia be found very comely bodied men, notwithstanding they are long necked, and mouthed as a crane, the other part of the head like a man: also sundry strange and deformed men and women there are, which we omit. …14

However suspect such reports may have become by the late sixteenth century, they still were being published and read. Even if Othello was not considered to be a Bateman-esque “black monster” himself, as an African he might have been assumed to know first hand about monstrous races.

There seems to have been further confusion over, or failure to distinguish between, traditional races of monsters in far-off lands and the occasional birth closer to home of a monstrous, individual child. Readers could find discussion of both kinds of monster in James Rueff's treatise The Expert Midwife, translated into English in 1637, whose chapter “Of Unperfect Children, Also of Monstrous Births” contains both a description of a terribly deformed, yet human child born in Oxford in 1551, and a description of a beast with a man's head, a beast's tail, and dogs' heads at its elbows and knees, followed by a description of a mythical creature with two wings and one foot. Rueff notes that such misshapen offspring must be manifestations of God's will but that “through the insight of our reason, we may perceive also the detestable sin of Sodomy.” Rueff's assumption that particular births of monsters indicate breeding between humans and animals suggests that he considers even animal-like monsters to be individual cases rather the offspring of monstrous races, but he goes on to mention Pliny's “reports of living creatures in Africa that have such various forms and shapes.”15 Even Rueff seems unwilling to let go completely of the older explanations of monsters that associates them, like Blacks, with Africa.

Anthropologists have noticed a relation between attitudes toward such outsiders and stories of monsters. Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to the Gobineau hypothesis as a way of accounting for the proliferation of fantastic beings in a culture as less the result of rich imagination than of “the inability of fellow-citizens to conceive of strangers in the same way as themselves.”16 Othello as “blackamoor” is visibly marked as a member of a culture different from that of everyone else on the stage or in the audience; he may have seemed as fantastic as the monsters associated with him.

There is another kind of historical evidence on which to base an inference that theatergoers would have felt a thrill of disturbed awe at the sight of Othello: the fact that a black person would still have been an unusual sight to most English theatergoers. The exact size of the black population in England at the turn of the seventeenth century is uncertain, and historians are reluctant even to guess, but there is no doubt that their numbers had been growing over the forty years since the first West Africans had been introduced to London in 1563.17 Ruth Cowhig has written that “there were several hundreds of black people living in the households of the aristocracy and landed gentry, or working in London taverns,” so she imagines that “the sight of black people must have been familiar to Londoners.”18 Even if most Londoners had seen blacks, however, the appearance on stage of a black person who spoke and felt must still have seemed remarkable. And even if blacks were visible on the streets, they may not have been accepted as “familiar.” Parish records from Barking for 1 October 1599 show two blacks living in the parish of All Hallows: “‘Clare a Negra at Widdow S[tokes?]” and “M[a]ry a Negra at Richard Wood.’” W. E. Miller used this in 1961 as evidence that there were Blacks in London in 1599, a point no longer in doubt; what is more interesting is that the two blacks are further described not as inhabitants but as “‘Straungers’ in the parish.”19 This word may be merely an expression of parochialism, a reference to the fact that they were not locally born, but the term also suggests that they were thought of in terms of their “otherness.”

The 1601 draft of a royal proclamation further indicates the extent to which blacks in England were thought of as “strangers” at the turn of the seventeenth century. Endorsed by Queen Elizabeth, the document authorizes the transportation to Spain or Portugal of any “Negroes and blackamoors … within the realm of England.” She justifies this action partly in terms of the precedent of prisoner exchanges, the tradition that a captive may be enslaved by the victor in warfare. A second justification is a perception of social unrest. Both these arguments are based on an assumption of cultural centrism and racial difference:

Whereas the Queen's majesty, tendering the good and welfare of her own natural subjects, greatly distressed in these hard times of dearth, is highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm since the troubles between her highness and the King of Spain; who are fostered and powered here, to the great annoyance of her own liege people that which co[vet?] the relief which these people consume, as also for that the most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel: hath given a special commandment that the said kind of people shall be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this her majesty's realms.20

The proclamation goes on to license Casper van Senden, a merchant who had rescued eighty-nine English subjects detained by Spain and Portugal, to take “such Negroes and blackamoors to be transported as aforesaid as he shall find within the realm of England.” Van Senden is not authorized to use force, but if any persons “possessed of any such blackamoors … refuse to deliver them,” the proclamation authorizes him to “advise and persuade them by all good means to satisfy her majesty's pleasure therein” and to report the names of anyone who refuses to cooperate.

The proclamation indicates that a black person can only be a servant, “possessed” by a master who should hand over the possession. Blacks are a “kind of people,” different not only in color but also by virtue of their religion—rather, their lack of Christian religion—which makes them “infidels.” The concern expressed in the proclamation is perhaps over their probable lack of political as well as religious fidelity, for the comment about infidels follows close upon a description of the English people as Elizabeth's “liege,” or loyal subjects. And political concerns seem to be what have led at least some people to feel annoyed that blacks are “powered” as well as “fostered” at the expense of the English. The black population is said to be “great,” but the document includes a parenthetical “as she is informed,” perhaps indicating some doubt in Elizabeth's mind over the claimed growth in size of the black population. Or, the absence of a numerical estimate could be a deliberate omission, if the approximate number was small enough to have reduced the force of the argument that deportation of blacks would significantly ease the shortages of food.

The proclamation perhaps exaggerates the problems in order to further the financial interests of van Senden, who had been petitioning for this kind of support for more than four years.21 Nevertheless, the arguments were evidently thought plausible enough by the court that the power of the monarchy was invoked to formally delineate a social boundary based on skin color and even to bring the power of the state to bear on racially-marked strangers in what amounted to a kind of cultural exorcism. Given the presence of such an attitude among the English toward blacks as unwelcome intruders, the character of Othello as both different from Venetians but powerful within that culture must have contained a particularly powerful social charge for those who originally watched Othello.

A perception of African blacks as “not English” would further have reinforced the idea that Africa is an exotic, mysterious world. In 1600 that world was of sufficient interest that John Leo's A Geographical History of Africa was translated into English and published in London. Leo was a Moor from Morocco who had converted to Christianity, according to John Pory's introduction.22 His book had first been published in Italian around 1526.23 Leo did not offer just one more traveler's rehearsal of sights mixed with legends but an ethnographer's report, sometimes describing particular details from particular kingdoms in a given geographical area, sometimes drawing inferences from the observations, and sometimes making moral judgments. Leo's “General Description” notes that there are five “principal nations” in that part of the world, the Cafri, the Abyssins, the Egyptians, the Arabians, and “the Africans or Moors, properly so called; which last are of two kinds, namely white or tawny Moors, and Negroes or black Moors.”24 Members of these groups can be found in various regions, he goes on to point out, but later, in Book Seven, he states that “the fifteen kingdoms of the land of the Negroes known to us, are all situated upon the river of Niger, and upon other rivers which fall thereunto” (285). In his description of these kingdoms, Leo is not inclined to offer sweeping judgments, but in his General Description he offers some statements about the vices of the people of Africa which would have reinforced English fears and stereotypes of blacks, attitudes implicit in phrases such as Ben Jonson's “quick Negro”25 or Shakespeare's “lascivious moor” (1.1.126):

The Negroes [compared to the “lewd” and “brutish” inhabitants of Libya] likewise lead a beastly kind of life, being utterly destitute of the use of reason, of dexterity of wit, and of all arts. Yea they so behave themselves, as if they had continually lived in a forest among wild beasts. They have great swarms of harlots among them; whereupon a man may easily conjecture their manner of living.


Perhaps John Leo's tone of abhorrence is a sop to European readers, or perhaps the Western-educated Leo was feeling an urge to scrawl in the margin, “Exterminate all the brutes!” as Conrad's Kurtz would do in his report on dark Africa. In any case Leo's History of Africa tended to reinforce the European view of black moors as “beasts,” and it was probably known to Shakespeare, as it certainly was to Jonson.26 The book's London publication at the turn of the seventeenth century is one more event that helped to constitute the London habitus from which Othello emerged and into which it was received.

Much as associations of monsters and Blacks would have affected how a playgoer regarded Othello in the first act of the play, ideas about how monsters were conceived, carried, and delivered inform many other passages in the play and would further have shaped responses to characters on stage.

The language of monstrous childbearing appears frequently in the play, often in the tradition of prodigious births hinting at some ominous event to come. At the end of the first act of Othello, Iago appeals to Roderigo to plot with him against the Moor:

[L]et us be conjunctive in our revenge against him; if thou canst cuckold him, thou does thyself a pleasure, and me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time, which will be deliver’d.


Iago's description of time as a womb from which events will issue gives him a role something like that of Edward Gresham, the doomsday pamphleteer who warned that the monstrous births in Strange News portended future calamities. Iago is a more cheerful prophet, perhaps because he sees himself less as human victim than as divine ordinator of the supernatural events: “I have ’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light” (1.3.404-05). The emphasis is on the “I have ’t.” Iago, not God or the devil, is engendering, or conceiving the offspring. “Hell and night” are cast in the lesser role of midwives, as enabling rather than causative agents.

Iago's metaphor is noteworthy for its implied equivalence between an idea and a birth, a concept and a conception—a metaphor that will recur. The idea that the brain gives birth to thoughts as the body gives birth to children—or monsters—was well-embedded in the culture of early modern England. Other examples of the metaphor include the dedication of Shakespeare's sonnets to “their only begetter” and the complaint of Sidney's Astrophil that he feels “great with child to speake,” as well as Thomas Underdowne's compliment to Edward DeVere: “in your Honour is, I think, expressed the right pattern of a Noble Gentleman, which in my head I have conceived.”27 In Othello the metaphor is used deliberately, almost literally, so that the comparison becomes explicit between mental conception and physical birth. Iago plays with the metaphor in Act Two, when Desdemona asks him to compose some lines of praise; he describes how his invention is taxing his brain, then announces: “But my Muse labours, / And thus she is deliver’d” (2.1.127-28). As the comparison is extended with reference to Iago's plot, however, playgoers are reminded of the metaphor's basis in ideas about biological generation, and they may also recall Iago's reference at the end of Act One to the impending “birth” as “monstrous”; as the metaphor becomes conscious, it helps to convey the morally monstrous nature of Iago's “conception.”

In Act Three, Iago transfers the monstrous conception, which includes the idea of Desdemona's infidelity, from his own mind to Othello's. Othello comments in an aside that Iago seems to echo Othello's own doubts about Cassio, “[a]s if there were some monster in his thought, / Too hideous to be shown” (3.3.111-12). He then says to Iago that there must be some reason Iago has looked concerned as they were discussing Cassio:

[Thou] didst contract and purse thy brow together,
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
Some horrible conceit. …
[Thou] weigh'st thy words, before thou giv'st them breath,
Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more;
For such things in a false disloyal knave
Are tricks of custom, but in a man that’s just
They’re close dilations, working from the heart
That passion cannot rule.


The first lines, about a “horrible conceit,” seem an obvious continuation of the metaphorical language of generation that has previously represented Iago's thoughts as some hideous progeny awaiting birth, confined in the womb of his brain. The contracting and pursing of Iago's brow are symptoms of metaphorical labor to bring forth the offspring, to present the idea to Othello—who is afraid to see it. The description of Iago's pausing before giving breath to his words may also be a continuation of the birth imagery, as well as a literal declaration that Iago thinks before he speaks; although the “stops” Othello refers to are what he senses to be Iago's hesitations, that is, stoppages of the breath that gives voice to his thoughts, they also resemble the breathing of a prospective mother in labor. Indeed, this pattern of references to childbirth provides a justification for the Folio reading of “dilations” instead of the First Quarto's “denotements,” since dilations (of the cervix) could be one more reference to the birth process, whose ineluctability “passion cannot rule.” All these images of childbirth help to constitute an understanding that Iago is carrying a monstrous idea as a mother might carry a deformed child in her womb.

In subsequent lines of the play, however, Iago does not give birth to his monstrous thoughts but, somehow, transfers the metaphorical pregnancy to Othello. Perhaps the metaphor breaks down, here, since pregnancy could not (until the late twentieth century) be moved from one womb to another. Elizabeth Sacks has tried to explain the process of transfer as metaphorical “theft,” first by showing that wombs were sometimes compared to purses in the seventeenth century, then by suggesting that Othello somehow, “psychosexually,” has stolen Iago's “purse” of “trashy thoughts.”28 The pregnancy is not necessarily shifted from Iago to Othello, however, if one thinks of this mental conception, like physical conception, as a process requiring two partners. The idea that Desdemona has been unfaithful is generated by verbal intercourse between partners, analogous to sexual intercourse with Iago as male and Othello as female, impregnated through his ear. The conception process can be understood in terms of Aristotle's theories about the Generation of Animals, current well into the eighteenth century, according to which male seed is not simply deposited in the female, nor does it join with female seed in the womb, but it shapes the female seed. Aristotle describes the process with a comparison to carpentry, where the artisan forms wood into a shape but does not join himself with the material; “the active partner is not situated within the thing which is being formed” (113). As Thomas Laquer has summarized this way of understanding generation, “conception is for the male to have an idea, an artistic or artisanal conception, in the brain-uterus of the female.”29 Aristotle's theory would also allow the play's metaphorical impregnation of one male by another male to seem less strained, for in this traditional view of human generation, neither mind and body nor gender and sex were so clearly distinguished as they have since come to be. In Othello, then, the possibility that Desdemona has been unfaithful is the idea actively imparted by Iago, like a formative male seed, into the brain-uterus of Othello, whose tractable character provides the passive material to be shaped. Then, like a pregnant woman with a seemingly irrational desire for something, Othello insists that Desdemona show him the misplaced handkerchief decorated with strawberries—the fruit commonly associated with maternal cravings, the frustration of which could supposedly result in “strawberry marks” on children.30 Othello's “maternal” imagination thus deforms the gestating conception of possible infidelity into the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy he had been warned to beware (3.3.170-72).

Although the metaphorical language is not perfectly consistent, this underlying idea that a monstrous birth is impending continues to inform the play. Later in Act Three, Othello refers to cuckoldry as a matter of destiny: “Even then this forked plague is fated to us / When we do quicken” (3.3.282-83). The audience hears a statement capable of another construction than Othello's intended fatalism, however, for he will be plagued when he suspects that he is a cuckold, when the green-eyed monster will “quicken” in the womb of his own brain. A few lines later Othello says, “I have a pain upon my forehead here” (3.3.290)—as the monstrous thought kicks in its mental womb, perhaps, or as Othello feels a mental contraction that anticipates the birth of the idea. In the next scene, Emilia repeats the comparison of jealousy to “a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself,” to which Desdemona replies “Heaven keep that monster from Othello's mind!” (3.4.161-63). Anyone attending to the play has heard enough auditory images to know that Othello already is bearing that very monster of a conception, as he announces to Desdemona in Act Five:

 … confess thee freely of thy sin;
For to deny each article with oath
Cannot remove, nor choke the strong conception,
That I do groan withal. Thou art to die.


For Othello to contemplate the murder is for his mental womb to labor painfully to give birth to its deformed “child”; his monstrous conception will issue forth as horrifying action.

Othello has always been one of Shakespeare's most moving dramas, but it moves its audiences in different ways as their mentalities differ. A part of its effect when first performed in the early seventeenth-century England would have resided in the confused mixture of powerful ideas about monsters and about blacks circulating in the culture that was producing Shakespeare and Othello, as that culture was in turn being reproduced by them.


  1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 3d edition (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980), 5.1.269 (act 5, scene 1, line 269), and 2.2.70-71. Subsequent citations to Shakespeare's work are from this edition.

  2. See Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford UP, 1965), 40-50, and M. R. Ridley, Introduction, Othello, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1958), xv.

  3. Rudolf Wittkower, “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 5 (1942): 197.

  4. Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 409.

  5. Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990):454.

  6. Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), 153.

  7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16 (1972; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 76, 82-83.

  8. Pierre Boiastuau, Certain Secret Wonders of Nature, trans. Edward Fenton (London, 1589), 13-14.

  9. Ambroise Paré, in Works, trans. Thomas Johnson (London, 1634), 25.

  10. Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979), 439.

  11. Robin Fox, Kinship and Marriage: An Anthropological Perspective (1967; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983), 178.

  12. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 60.

  13. Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP), 2:521; John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, trans. C. W. R. D. Moseley (1582; New York: Penguin, 1983), 137; Richard Hakluyt, Voyages and Discoveries: The Principal Navigations Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, ed. Jack Beeching (1598-1600; New York: Penguin, 1972), 402.

  14. Stephen Bateman, The Doom Warning All Men to the Judgment (London, 1581), 6-7.

  15. James Rueff, The Expert Midwife, or an Excellent and most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man, trans. E. Griffin (London, 1637), 157-58.

  16. Claude Lévi Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon, 1969), 46.

  17. James Walvin, The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555-1860 (London: Orbach and Chambers, 1971), 8, 12.

  18. Ruth Cowhig, “Blacks in English Drama and the Role of Shakespeare's Othello,” in The Black Presence in English Literature, ed. David Dabydeen (Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1985), 5, 7.

  19. W. E. Miller, “Negroes in Elizabethan London,” Notes and Queries 206 (1961):138.

  20. “Licensing Casper van Senden to Deport Negroes [draft],” Proclamation 804.5 (1601), in Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin (New Haven: Yale UP, 1969), 3:221.

  21. See Cowhig, “Blacks in English Drama and the Role of Shakespeare's Othello,” 1-25.

  22. A Geographical History of Africa, Written in Arabic and Italian by John Leo a Moor, Born in Granada and Brought Up in Barbary, trans. John Pory (London, 1600), not paginated.

  23. See Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford UP, 1974), 18.

  24. A Geographical History of Africa, 6.

  25. Ben Jonson, Volpone, ed. Alvin Kernan (New Haven: Yale UP), 3.7.232.

  26. Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama, 21.

  27. For a discussion of Shakespeare as the begetter of the sonnets, see Donald W. Foster, “Master W. H., R. I. P.,” PMLA 102 (1987): 42-54; Philip Sidney, The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 165; Thomas Underdowne, “Epistle Dedicatory, to the Right Honorable Edward Devere,” An Ethiopian Historie (London, no date [1569]), no pagination.

  28. Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare's Images of Pregnancy (London: MacMillan, 1980), 71.

  29. Thomas Laquer, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990), 42.

  30. Othello 3.3.439; see Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, ed. Homer Goldberg (New York: Norton, 1987), 176.

Criticism: Social Background

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SOURCE: “Venetian Culture and the Politics of Othello,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 48, 1995, pp. 123-33.

[In the following essay, Matheson explores Shakespeare's concept of life in Venice as portrayed in Othello.]

In Othello Shakespeare represents a society in many ways fundamentally different from his own, and rather than minimizing or obscuring these differences he explores them in a politically creative way. The play is a powerful illustration of his ability to perceive and represent different forms of political organization, and to situate personal relationships and issues of individual subjectivity in a specific institutional context. Here and in much of his other work Shakespeare displays what might be described as a sociological imagination. He portrays in Othello not a feudal monarchy or Renaissance court but an enduring Italian city-state, a republic which continued to survive despite growing Habsburg domination in the rest of the peninsula. Taken in the context of his career as a whole the play is a fascinating example of Shakespeare's interest in republicanism, which is evident from ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ to The Tempest. It provides clear evidence that he was neither an uncritical advocate of conservative Tudor ideology, as an older critical tradition maintained, nor a writer materially unable to think and imagine beyond the monarchical paradigm, as a more recent historicist criticism has sometimes suggested. In the English context the act of representing a republican culture was itself a progressive gesture, since Venice offered an existing and stable alternative to the ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’ order of monarchy. In addition to this, and to a degree not usually recognized, Shakespeare represents the city's institutions exercising a shaping influence on personal relationships and individual experience. These institutions inform and complicate the ongoing process of cultural exchange at the heart of the play, which is Othello's attempt to thrive in the foreign cultural world of an aggressive European power, and they also influence the representation of women's experience, which the play suggests would be different in a patriarchal but non-monarchical culture. The play is itself the product of cultural exchange, and Shakespeare's imaginative sensitivity to the ways of a different society generates political energies in the text which carry it beyond the ideological boundaries of official English culture.

The extent of Shakespeare's interest in the institutional life of Venice can be suggested by a comparison with contemporary playwrights. John Marston's Antonio's Revenge (c. 1600) is set in the city but offers little sense of its specific social and political practices. Jonson's Volpone (1605) reveals a much greater interest in particular Venetian institutions, and Daniel C. Boughner has argued that Jonson's research for the play was stimulated in part by Shakespeare's recent portrayal of Venice in Othello.1 Shakespeare had probably read Lewes Lewkenor's The Common-Wealth and Government of Venice (1599), a translation of Contarini's laudatory exposition of the Venetian state.2 Those who wrote dedicatory poems for this volume include Edmund Spenser, who praises not only the beauty of Venice but its ‘policie of right’, and John Harington, who compares it ‘For Freedome’ with the Roman republic.3 Jonson read Contarini for Volpone, in which Sir Politic Would-Be reveals that he has hastily studied ‘Contarene’ in order to pass himself off as a Venetian citizen (4.1.40). Boughner has argued that in this play Jonson deliberately undercuts the idealized portrait of Venice in Contarini's work and Lewkenor's introduction. This is a plausible view, since the Venice of Volpone is a greed-driven city where predatory relations are the norm, where the citizens take a Machiavellian attitude toward religion (4.1.22-7), and where the supposedly democratic law courts are venues in which ‘multitude’ and ‘clamour’ overcome justice (4.6.19).

Shakespeare's more favourable representation of Venice may suggest an imaginative willingness to explore the strengths of a republican culture, and may also reflect a sympathy with the political interests of the Sidney and Essex circles, with which of course he had some connection. Members of these aristocratic circles were interested in the mixed government of the Venetian republic, and as Protestants they approved of its steadfast opposition to the authoritarianism of the Counter-Reformation. Some took a specific interest in the work of Lewkenor, who in his address to the reader describes the Venetian state as comprising monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. The prince has ‘all exterior ornamentes of royall dignitie’ but is nevertheless ‘wholy subiected to the lawes’; the ‘Councell of Pregati or Senators’ is invested with great authority but has no ‘power, mean, or possibility at all to tyranize’; and a ‘Democrasie or popular estate’ is evident in the existence of a ‘great councell, consisting at least of 3000. Gentlemen, whereupon the highest strength and mightinesse of the estate absolutely relyeth.’4 Lewkenor's adverb in this final clause demonstrates how terms usually associated with monarchy could slip from their ordinary usage in descriptions of a state with a mixed constitution, and his account is an example of how cultural exchange could destabilize and enrich conventional English political discourse. There is unquestionably a degree of idealization in Lewkenor's discussion of Venice, just as there is in the text of Contarini, but the enthusiasm he reveals is itself suggestive of the political interest the city was generating in England at the end of the sixteenth century.

The governmental structure of Venice may seem to be of only incidental importance to Othello, but in fact it is indispensable for generating the basic dramatic situation, and it influences every personal relationship in the play. In the first act Shakespeare offers a compelling representation of the city's political and cultural life, and his interest in its institutional structure is evident in a variety of ways. There is a notable shift, for instance, to a more explicitly republican discourse than he had used in The Merchant of Venice. In part this might be due to his intervening work with Roman republicanism in Julius Caesar, which seems to have influenced the later play. The councilmen who were simply ‘magnificoes’ (4.1.1 stage directions) in The Merchant have become ‘Senators’ in Othello (1.3.1 stage directions). Other traces of a discourse associated with republican Rome include Iago's early reference to ‘togaed consuls’ (1.1.24), with whom he compares Cassio for their common lack of military experience. Iago may be making a vague reference to classical culture, but he is probably referring instead to the current members of the Venetian council, as becomes clear in the next scene when Cassio uses the republican term ‘consuls’ for the senators who are meeting with the Duke (1.2.43). Iago's words may glance at Rome but can also be read as referring to a specifically Venetian practice. It was widely known that the members of the Venetian council had no military pretensions, and Lewkenor finds it extraordinary that these ‘vnweaponed men in gownes’ should give direction to ‘many mightie and warlike armies’.5 The practice of employing foreign mercenary officers and generals—by law no Venetian citizen could have more than twenty-five men in his command—was also based on republican principle. Contarini writes that Venetian leaders and armies involved in long wars on land would inevitably fall into ‘a Kinde of faction’ against the other ‘peaceable citizens’. This could easily lead to civil war, and he notes in an analysis identical to Machiavelli's that this problem helped to undermine the Roman republic, since Caesar drew the loyalty of his men away from the state and to himself, and this permitted him ‘to tyrannize ouer that commonwealth to which hee did owe all duty and obedience’.6 The Venetian policy designed to prevent any conquering Caesar from turning against the republican state opened the way for men like Othello, and owing to its setting in this particular city the play has genuine plausibility.

Perhaps the character most clearly shaped by the institutional life of Venice is Desdemona. In part this influence is traditional, since Brabanzio's household functions on a typical patriarchal model. His rule seems to have been mostly benign, but a specifically political idiom emerges in his spontaneous laments over Desdemona's behaviour: ‘O heaven, how got she out? O, treason of the blood!’ (1.1.171) After he learns that she has willingly married Othello he employs the same political language:

I am glad at soul I have no other child,
For thy escape would teach me tyranny,
To hang clogs on ’em.


Throughout Act 1 Brabanzio speaks the language of fatherly ownership with a frightening intensity, and he has inculcated in Desdemona obedience to the father's word. But Brabanzio's absolutist regime at home exists in tension with the government of the state, which as the council scene attests is based on debate and consultation. His household is built on the older political model of a corpus, of which he is unquestionably the head, but it exists within a larger political order based on the more progressive model of a res publica, whose participants are citizens rather than subjects, and whose leaders conduct affairs of state on a generally equal footing.7

In the council scene Brabanzio uses a kind of absolutist discourse in his address to Desdemona, asking if she knows where most she owes ‘obedience’, and she replies by saying that what she owes her father is ‘respect’ (1.3.179, 183). Desdemona's response represents a cultural shift away from her father's conception of the family, with her carefully chosen term ‘respect’ indicating in part the degree to which she has been shaped by the relatively liberal institutions of Venice. It seems to be a word in some ways specific to the republican context, where it characterizes the tenor of relations among members of the council, and this government has certainly made Desdemona aware of alternatives to the royalist doctrine of unquestioning obedience. Desdemona herself introduces the concept of a broader cultural order in her reply to Brabanzio before the senators, in which she makes repeated mention of her ‘education’ (1.3.181)—the only time this word appears in Shakespearian tragedy. This education is partly responsible for her independence, and for the verbal agility with which she disengages herself from the identities constructed for her by her father. The most striking line by which she accomplishes this is ‘I am hitherto your daughter’ (1.3.184), in which she brings out an instability in the word ‘daughter’ itself, using it to designate not the natural bond she refers to earlier when she says she is ‘bound’ to Brabanzio for ‘life’, but rather a relationship of power in which the daughter is the father's possession as guaranteed by a specific set of cultural arrangements. By using the word in this second sense she implicitly asserts the role of culture in establishing such identities, and thus disturbs Brabanzio's simple distinction between a nature which cannot ‘err’ and the supernatural order of ‘witchcraft’ (1.3.62, 64).

The problem for Brabanzio is that the progressive political and economic life of Venice is at work beneath his conservative ideology of gender and paternal relations, and Shakespeare's broad representation of Venetian political life makes Desdemona's capacity for independent judgment and action more convincing. A comparison with the sexual politics of The Merchant of Venice can be instructive here. As Walter Cohen has pointed out Belmont functions in that play as a ‘green’ world inhabited by a traditional landed aristocracy, who in the course of events are brought into contact with the commercial and urban world of contemporary Venice.8 The central figure of this green world is Portia, ‘a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father’ (1.2.23-4), and one who completely accepts that her father's word has taken away her choice in marriage. As witty and resourceful as she is Portia never contemplates the transgression of the patriarchal decree, and even allowing for the difference in genre her behaviour makes a notable contrast with that of the city-dwelling Desdemona, who does something incomparably more daring. It also happens that Portia is visited by the Moorish Prince of Morocco, who comes in suit to her for marriage, and of whom she says ‘If he have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me’ (1.2.126-8). The first thing Morocco says to her is ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’ (2.1.1), and when he has departed after failing to choose the correct casket Portia says ‘Let all of his complexion choose me so’ (2.7.79). Next to Desdemona's cosmopolitan open-mindedness Portia's response looks very provincial, a predictable reaction to cultural otherness from the daughter of a traditionalist aristocracy. Portia lives idly in her great house on inherited wealth, with perhaps the nearest neighbour a ‘monastery two miles off’ (3.4.31); by contrast Desdemona lives in the city which Contarini describes as ‘a common and generall market to the whole world’, its streets thronging with a ‘wonderful concourse of strange and forraine people’.9 In this setting the traditionalist gender and racial ideologies of Belmont are on rather more shaky ground, subjected as they are to the pressures of a society moved by the concerns of commercial exchange and with a practical-minded government ready to reward merit rather than birth.

Shakespeare thus represents Desdemona's self-confidence as partly a product of the progressive Venetian culture he portrays in the play. Othello comes to this culture as an outsider, and his association with the city is based on both the government's republican principles and its readiness to seek out those with merit and to pay for their services. Much of Othello's relationship with Venetian culture is determined by the racial prejudice (like Portia's) he encounters there, which Shakespeare makes a deliberate point of portraying in the opening scenes of the play. This prejudice surfaces repeatedly, as in Brabanzio's insistence that the case be heard that very night:

For if such actions may have passage free,
Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.


This is one of the earliest recorded uses of ‘statesmen’, a noun which evokes the republican setting of the Italian city-state. (Jonson had used it a few years earlier to name a category of men typified by Machiavelli.)10 The limits to popular participation in contemporary republican government are abundantly clear in Brabanzio's speech, in which he apparently alludes to the period when Othello was ‘sold to slavery’ (1.3.137). He also leaves little doubt about his view of Othello's conversion to Christianity, which he evidently regards as a flimsy overlay for an essentially pagan nature. It seems to be Shakespeare's imaginative sympathy for the experience of the cultural outsider, particularly in the hostile environment often created by natives like Brabanzio, which enables him to move beyond the stereotypical images of Moorish people retailed in plays and pageants in England throughout his lifetime.11 He created this highly original character by imagining Othello in a concrete social situation, and by permitting him to bring to Venice an ideological orientation formed under a different set of cultural institutions.

If one judges this orientation in the context of the Venice Shakespeare represents, Othello emerges as arguably the most conservative character in the play. The rich portrayal of his conservative sensibility seems to be generated in part by Shakespeare's interest in liberal Venetian institutions, and in the contrasts which accordingly emerge as Othello's relationship with Venice unfolds. He finds a model for his personal and political relationships in the tradition of monarchy, and in his first appearance he offers an indication of the degree to which his sense of self has been shaped by this tradition: ‘I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege’ (1.2.21-2). Among the things to which Othello will later bid farewell is ‘the royal banner’ (3.3.358), a detail suggesting once again his experience of a political order remote from the republican institutions of contemporary Venice. Othello's language before the council in Act 1 tends to obscure the economic basis of his relationship with the state, which is accurately described by Iago's reference to their employment in ‘the trade of war’ (1.2.1).12 Othello has a more nearly feudal conception of this relationship, which he speaks of in terms of duty and religious devotion. He conveys this in his first address to the senators—‘Most potent, grave, and reverend signors, / My very noble and approved good masters’ (1.3.76-7)—where his devotional attitude contrasts with the practical tone of the council's deliberations. Othello positions himself here in the role of devoted servant, and interestingly to the men themselves rather than to the state as an institution. His sense of his relationship with Venice as a personal tie rather than a contractual agreement is also evident when he prefaces a request to the council with ‘Most humbly therefore bending to your state’ (1.3.234), where ‘state’ slips from its usual sense of designating the Venetian republic and refers instead to the personal status of the senators. At one point he likens their council to the judgement seat of the Christian God:

as truly as to heaven
I do confess the vices of my blood,
So justly to your grave ears I’ll present
How I did thrive in this fair lady's love,
And she in mine.


Some have read this as an ominous passage, as perhaps revealing an unconscious identification in Othello's mind between sexual vice and his love for Desdemona,13 but more plainly it indicates the hierarchical understanding he has of both political and religious institutions. The deep identification Othello makes in these lines would seem to be between Roman Catholicism and political absolutism, a conceptual integration roughly on the Habsburg model.

The council acts in a way which contrasts sharply with the political world as understood by Othello. Shakespeare represents them as a functioning participatory government, with a large measure of equality among aristocratic peers. Brabanzio makes reference to ‘my brothers of the state’ (1.2.97), an unusual locution which recalls the republican rhetoric of Julius Caesar, in which the anti-imperial faction employs the metaphor of fraternity in regarding themselves as the true sons of Rome. The members of the council make no sweeping ideological claims about what is at stake, but engage instead in a business-like attempt to calculate the number of ships in the Turkish fleet. In denying the accuracy of a certain report the First Senator says ‘’tis a pageant / To keep us in false gaze’ (1.3.19-20), which suggests the deliberative nature of their government, and their ability to see through theatrical displays of power associated in contemporary culture (and in present-day criticism of Renaissance texts) with imperial and absolutist governments. The practical-mindedness of the council was objected to in the late seventeenth century by Thomas Rymer, who found that Shakespeare's presentation lacked sufficient nobility:

By their Conduct and manner of talk, a body must strain hard to fancy the Scene at Venice; And not rather in some of our Cinq-ports, where the Baily and his Fisher-men are knocking their heads together on account of some Whale, or some terrible broil up the Coast.14

What Rymer sees as a fault (and exaggerates to make his point) can also be read in terms of Shakespeare's awareness of different political cultures. He may have thought it fitting that the senators of this commercial republic should be less concerned with shows of worldly greatness than with shrewd calculation and getting their figures right.

Certainly the religious character of Othello's devotion to the Venetian cause cannot be found among members of the council, who make no plea of any kind for Christendom. In fact in the context of Venetian culture Othello's religious sensibility seems rather antiquated. More than any other character he invests the Turkish-Christian conflict with spiritual significance, as his attribution of the Turkish defeat to God's will and his plea for ‘Christian shame’ among the victors makes clear (2.3.163-5). His piety seems to belong more to the era of the Crusades than to the increasingly secular world of sixteenth-century politics, when the powers of Europe were sometimes willing to ally themselves with the Ottoman empire to gain an advantage over other Christian states. Desdemona's sensitivity to this aspect of her husband's character may emerge when she tells Emilia that instead of losing the ‘handkerchief’ she would rather have lost her purse ‘Full of crusadoes’ (3.4.26). This is Shakespeare's only reference to this coin, which was stamped with a cross and current in contemporary England, and its name evokes the larger context of religious war in which Othello is involved, and perhaps also his tendency to regard the Christian-Turkish conflict in heroic and romantic terms. Desdemona's reference to ‘crusadoes’ might thus be read as an involuntary testimony to her sympathetic understanding of Othello's motives.

The character most aware of how Othello's traditionalist perspective makes him vulnerable to exploitation in Venice is Iago. Shakespeare makes a point of emphasizing Iago's role in the Venetian army, whose rigidly hierarchical relations contrast markedly with those within the state government, where the rule is consultation among equals rather than a structure of command and obedience. Like Brabanzio's household, the army and the martial law government in Cyprus have absolutist associations. Marguerite Waller has pointed out how Iago derives a sense of his own value from the military hierarchy—‘I know my price, I am worth no worse a place’ (1.1.11)—and that what he regards as the intrusion of Othello and the Florentine Cassio helps to create the ‘obsessive energy’ with which he plots their ruin.15 Othello and Cassio are also incorporated into the structure of the army in a way which shapes their subjective experience, but their concept of this institution lacks the commercial connotations of Iago's view. Both tend to regard the army as an instance of the organic community envisioned by the ideology of contemporary monarchy, and the politicized language of love which typifies political discourse in absolutism comes easily to them both. Cassio reveals this in his fall from Othello's favour, particularly in his request to Desdemona to intercede on his behalf:

I do beseech you
That by your virtuous means I may again
Exist and be a member of his love
Whom I, with all the office of my heart,
Entirely honour.


Cassio's identity is dependent on his place within the institution, though he figures this not in practical political or economic terms but in the language of love, with the term ‘member’ recalling the traditional monarchical rhetoric of the ‘body’ politic and the organic community. Shakespeare may represent Cassio in this way partly because he is a product of the absolutist government of Florence, which had reverted from its earlier republicanism to the autocracy of the later Medici. In any case the crucial role played by the army in supporting Cassio's sense of self is evident in his use of the surprisingly strong verb ‘Exist’, and in its prominent placement. The play offers an analysis of male identity within the army as profoundly dependent on place and hierarchical relations, and as being distinct in this way from the system of relative equality among members of the Venetian governing class. In the speech quoted above Cassio's discourse of love and duty is suggestive of the personalized politics of absolute monarchy, and at odds with the legalism and practical business relationships of Venetian society as a whole. As a product of this society Desdemona is influenced by these more progressive conditions, and the legal or contractual basis for relationships in the city is evident in her language. She tells Cassio ‘If I do vow a friendship I’ll perform it / To the last article’ (3.3.21-2).

Othello prefers to conduct his political relationships in the older language of loyalty and loving service, and Iago plays on this idealistic and somewhat dated vocabulary to exploit him. In the central scene of the play (3.3) he is attuned to Othello's habit of viewing power relations in terms of devotion and love. When Othello threatens to kill him he projects indignation at his general's ingratitude: ‘I’ll love no friend, sith love breeds such offence’ (3.3.385). At this Othello retreats, and presently Iago swears himself to ‘wronged Othello's service’:

Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.
I greet thy love,
Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance


In the speech partly quoted Iago never mentions love, and that Othello interprets his promise of devoted obedience in this way reveals the politicized nature of ‘love’ in his discourse. The extent to which Othello's mind is imbued with the monarchical is evident in the despairing language he uses after falling to Iago's treachery. It emerges in his vow of revenge, ‘Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate!’ (3.3.452-3), in which Othello represents his own subjective world as an absolutist political order. The following image in which he compares his ‘bloody thoughts’ to the rushing Pontic Sea is a remarkable intensification of a conventional Renaissance metaphor for tyranny, in which the boundless ocean is used to figure engulfing despotism.

There is also a religious element in the political discourse Othello uses at this point in the play, as in his accusation that Desdemona's hand is ‘moist’:

This argues fruitfulness, and liberal heart.
Hot, hot and moist—this hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty; fasting, and prayer,
Much castigation, exercise devout,
For here's a young and sweating devil here
That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand,
A frank one.
You may indeed say so,
For ’twas that hand that gave away my heart.
A liberal hand. The hearts of old gave hands,
But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.

It is typical of Othello's deeply conservative notions of service and heroism that he praises the ‘old’ ways and speaks of infidelity in love in terms of the debasement of heraldic signs. His speeches here are an interesting mix of political and sexual discourse, in which he conflates the Venetian tradition of political liberty with sexual licence—another tradition for which the city was widely known.16 Othello uses the term ‘liberty’ to imply sexual indulgence, and the remedy he prescribes is the very un-Venetian practice of authoritarian religious discipline, indicating once again the distance of his sensibility from the religion and politics of Venice.

One further aspect of Othello's ideological orientation needs to be mentioned: he has no conception of a world divided into public and private spheres. This is manifest when Iago impugns the fidelity of Desdemona, and Othello responds by bidding farewell to his career in war, uttering in a painful lament that his ‘occupation's gone’ (3.3.362). Michael Neill has noted Othello's tendency to make no distinction in his life between public and private roles, and that his reference to ‘occupation’ can be read at a variety of levels both political and sexual.17 The play seems to suggest in fact that the domestic or private sphere is in the process of evolving as a practical and conceptual category within the broader institutional life of the Venetian state. Francis Barker has argued that a conception of the public and private as autonomous spheres developed mostly after Shakespeare's work in the theatre, and he cites the second scene of Hamlet to support his point.18 He suggests that in that scene the looming war with Norway, Laertes' intention to return to France, and Hamlet's melancholy are all represented as continuous issues within a single conceptual and political order. The scene which invites comparison in Othello is the gathering of the council, in which the Duke responds tellingly to the question of whether Desdemona should be permitted to accompany Othello to Cyprus: ‘Be it as you shall privately determine’ (1.3.275). In Hamlet Claudius involves himself much more conspicuously in the familial debate over whether Laertes should return to France.19 What Shakespeare seems to suggest in Othello is that the distinction between public and private is more developed in the context of a commercial and republican society. If it is less evident in Hamlet this is probably because in that play he represents a monarchy in which the traditions of feudalism continue to exert an influence. In royalist countries the corporate ideology which Barker finds in Hamlet may have inhibited any sharp distinction between the domestic and public spheres, but Shakespeare's treatment of the issue in his play about Venice suggests his ability to think beyond the social practices of monarchy, and perhaps also his awareness of how the conceptual order would be different in a commercial state based on citizenship rather than on the older notion of membership in a body politic.

As the play develops Shakespeare shows an increasing interest in the association of Venetian women with the private sphere, and in the different roles they play there. In part this seems to be because the domestic sphere is charged over the course of the play with the displaced energies of state politics, and this politicizes the language of this sphere and the actions and speech of women to an unusual degree. The relative equality of Desdemona and Othello in their marriage is evident in the encounter when she first pleads Cassio's ‘cause’, in which she adopts the part of a ‘solicitor’ and establishes the setting for debate and persuasion (3.3.27). Both the legalism of Venice and its consultative government are influences here, and Desdemona brings a consciousness shaped by republican traditions to both her marriage and the more conservative institutional setting of Cyprus. After speaking her mind freely throughout this scene she exits telling Othello ‘Whate’er you be, I am obedient’ (3.3.90), and thus uses a traditional discourse of submission to male authority only when she has already succeeded in creating a space for negotiation. Much more oppressive is the marriage between Iago and Emilia, in which the husband exerts a despotic control over his wife's actions and speech. In this relationship Shakespeare portrays the private sphere as a place of privation, with Emilia deprived of any broader agency or public role. Her plight reflects Iago's virulent misogyny and his obsession with hierarchical relations, and perhaps also a contemporary republican tendency to masculinize the state and to confine women exclusively to the private order. That Iago believes Emilia has no role in the public world is evident in his rebuke to her for suggesting that some ‘villainous knave’ is poisoning Othello's mind: ‘Speak within door’ (4.2.148). But Shakespeare also shows an interest in the private order as the place of women's collective experience, and this is most clearly evident in the ‘willow’ scene (4.3). Desdemona and Emilia experience solidarity and freedom of speech in this setting, and in the absence of male controls they touch issues of power and desire beyond the range of ordinary discourse.20 Shakespeare represents them developing a collective consciousness by quietly exploiting the limited freedom of the private sphere, and this scene clearly generates some of the political energy Emilia displays in the final act.

In the last scene Othello is moved not only by his desire for revenge but by what he regards as the requirements of ‘Justice’ (5.2.17). As it opens he is still the military governor of Cyprus, and he evidently believes the murder of Desdemona to be within the purview of his powers under martial law. Dedemona may refer to his status as the ruler of the island when she says ‘O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not’ (5.2.85). Othello is thus guilty not only of murder but of the arbitrary exercise of power, and Shakespeare represents his actions as both morally wrong and tyrannical. Othello has himself been tyrannized by Iago, and the character responsible for overthrowing both these tyrannies is Emilia. That Shakespeare chose her as the agent responsible for breaking her husband's domination can be regarded as the fulfilment of a certain logic in the play in which a relationship develops between the women of Venice and the city's tradition of political liberty. The aspect of this tradition focused on in the text is the idea of free speech, which is defined not in terms of modern liberalism but in the contemporary context of monarchical and patriarchal restrictions on utterance, an absolutist context in which political speech is made ‘tongue-tied by authority’ (Sonnet 66). Desdemona's candid political and sexual discourse before the council is the first evidence of this relationship between women and the city's traditions, and she is associated with such discursive freedom repeatedly in the play, as when Othello says (approvingly) that his wife is ‘free of speech’ (3.3.189), and when she later tells Cassio that she stands in the blank of her husband's displeasure for ‘my free speech’ (3.4.127).

In the final scene Emilia uses much the same discourse to bring down the tyranny of her husband. Shakespeare's interest in Emilia in the context of the relationship between Venetian women and political speech emerges much earlier in the play. When Iago implies in Act 2 that his wife is a scold Desdemona defends her by saying ‘Alas, she has no speech!’ (2.1.106). This is a rather unusual phrase for making the point, and its oddity signals the gradually developing connection between the women of Venice and political expression. When Emilia's speech threatens him at the end of the play Iago tries to return her to the private sphere: ‘I charge you get you home’ (5.2.201). Having already spoken without male permission in interrupting Montano's address to Othello, Emilia asks the representatives of the Venetian state for ‘leave to speak’:

’Tis proper I obey him, but not now.
Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.


What Emilia announces in these lines is a political revolt: in this context ‘going home’ has both its literal meaning and the political sense of returning to a state of complete subordination. Emilia's disobedience of her husband's authority will likely have radical consequences, as she is well aware. When Iago again tells her to be silent she again rejects him:

’Twill out, ’twill out. I peace?
No, I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven, and men, and devils, let ’em all,
All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.


In Emilia's use ‘liberal’ is completely without the sexual connotations it had in Othello's discourse, and suggests a freedom exercised with great effort in the face of traditional male authority. Her image of the north wind for the force of a woman's speech in the public sphere summons up other Renaissance usages in which storm and tempest are metaphors for political upheaval and revolution. And the emerging emphasis late in the play on the solidarity of women makes it possible to take her reference to ‘men’ as designating not humankind but the ruling gender. Like the Venetian woman she serves Emilia seems to be an agent for realizing the city's political ideals of justice and liberty. Her last words are ‘So, speaking as I think, alas, I die’ (5.2.258), a line which foreshadows Edgar's closing speech in King Lear, in which he says that the witnesses to the catastrophe must ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ (5.3.300). Emilia's words endow what Edgar says with a significance more clearly political, and they may suggest that Shakespeare regarded such speech as a recourse against both loss and tyranny.

Critical awareness of Shakespeare's interest in fundamentally different forms of social organization allows this kind of political content in his work to emerge more clearly. Certainly this interest informs Othello, and the tension between monarchy and republicanism charges its language with nuance and political significance. Shakespeare's representation of a non-European's life in Venice and of women's experience in the city is creatively influenced by his awareness of these different systems, and his encounter with the foreign political culture of Venice produces a play that explores and at times subtly endorses ideological perspectives outside the framework established by the monarchical and patriarchal traditions of contemporary English politics.


  1. Daniel C. Boughner, ‘Lewkenor and Volpone’, Notes and Queries, n.s. 9 (1962): 124.

  2. For discussions of Lewkenor as a source for Othello see Kenneth Muir, ‘Shakespeare and Lewkenor’, Review of English Studies, n.s. 7 (1956): 182-3; William R. Drennan, ‘“Corrupt Means to Aspire”: Contarini's De Republica and the Motives of Iago’, Notes and Queries, n.s. 35 (1988): 474-5; and David McPherson, ‘Lewkenor's Venice and Its Sources’, Renaissance Quarterly, 41 (1988): 459-66.

  3. Gasparo Contarini, The Common-wealth and Gouernment of Venice, trans. Lewes Lewkenor (London, 1599), 3V, A4.

  4. Contarini, The Common-wealth and Gouernment of Venice, A2V.

  5. Contareno, A3.

  6. Contareno, pp. 130-1.

  7. For a discussion of these contemporary political models see J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton and London: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 339 ff.

  8. Walter Cohen, ‘The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism’, ELH 49 (1982): 777. Cultural historians have pointed out that in contemporary Italy the countryside became a prime area for the investment of urban capital, and this was especially true of the region around Venice. Powerful families who made their fortunes in banking or trade bought estates in the country, and city interests dominated the rural economy. Partly as a result there was a revival of the pastoral genre and older aristocratic ideals, a ‘re-feudalization’ similar in some respects to what was happening elsewhere in Europe. Cohen is right to stress the conservatism of aristocratic culture in the ‘green’ world of the play, though in actual historical terms it was often an instance of the ‘new’ traditionalism. See Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 221-9.

  9. Contareno, The Common-wealth and Gouernment of Venice, p. 1.

  10. See Every Man Out of His Humour, 2.6.168.

  11. For discussions of the representation of Moors and other non-Europeans in contemporary English culture see Samuel C. Chew, The Crescent and the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937); Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen: The African In English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford University Press, 1965); and Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 207ff.

  12. Barbara Everett has noted the conflict between Othello's romanticized view of war and the fact that he is paid to fight by a city known for commerce and secularism. See her ‘“Spanish” Othello: The Making of Shakespeare's Moor’, Shakespeare Survey 35 (1982), p. 112.

  13. See Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 245.

  14. From his Short View of Tragedy (1693); quoted in G. R. Hibbard, ‘Othello and the Pattern of Shakespearian Tragedy’, Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968), p. 41.

  15. Marguerite Waller, ‘Academic Tootsie: The Denial of Difference and the Difference It Makes’, Diacritics, 17.2 (1987): 17.

  16. For a discussion of how contemporary observers of Venice found it difficult to distinguish between the political freedom fostered by the city's institutions and its reputation for sexual indulgence see William Bouwsma, ‘Venice and the Political Education of Europe’, in Renaissance Venice, ed. J. R. Hale (London: Faber, 1973), p. 461.

  17. Michael Neill, ‘Changing Places in Othello’, Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), p. 127.

  18. Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), pp. 30ff.

  19. The practice of Shakespeare's own culture was closer to that represented in Hamlet. On 29 June 1601 William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, asked the queen through Robert Cecil for permission ‘to go abroad to follow mine own business’. He was still asking for this permission two months later. At Elizabeth's court such royal control over the travels of the nobility was the general rule, and Shakespeare was thus departing from the custom of his own society in imagining a different political practice for contemporary Venice. See ‘William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke’, Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 9, p. 678.

  20. Carol McKewin has noted that the women's friendship in this scene is an ‘implied rebuke’ to relationships between men in the play. See her ‘Counsels of Gall and Grace: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare's Plays’, in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 128.

Margo Hendricks (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “‘The Moor of Venice,’ or The Italian on the Renaissance English Stage,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 193-209.

[In the following essay, Hendricks explores the importance of Venice as the play's setting, and proposes that Venice is “a crucial yet often critically neglected racial persona in Othello.]

A number of critics have read Othello principally with an eye toward illuminating the moral sense of the problematic racial and sexual politics engendered not only by the play's depiction of what is viewed as an interracial marriage but also by Othello's sensationalized murder of his wife, Desdemona.1 The obstacle facing all such critical readings, as Michael Neill astutely points out, is that the play itself conspicuously denies us (even as it denies Othello) an opportunity to enact “the funeral dignities that usually serve to put a form of [moral] order upon such spectacles of ruins,” creating an “ending [that is] perhaps the most shocking in Shakespearean tragedy” (383-412). Neill concludes that it is the final tragic scene, where “white” Desdemona is murdered and her husband/murderer, “black” Othello, violently avenges her murder—“I took by th’throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus” (5.2.351-52)2—which most “articulate[s] the [racial] anxiety evident almost everywhere in the play's history—a sense of scandal that informs the textual strategies of editors and theatrical productions as much as it does the disturbed reactions of audiences and critics” (384).

Feminist scholars have made clear that this “scandal” actually begins long before this most “unnatural” ending to the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. For example, Patricia Parker sees the “simultaneously eroticized and epistemological impulse to open up to show” the “‘fantasies’ of race and gender” in Othello as an anxiety-ridden linkage of female sexuality and the exotic narratives of “African or New World discovery” (92), while Janet Adelman argues that the “whole of his exchange with Desdemona demonstrates Othello's terrible conflict between his intense desire for fusion with the woman he idealizes as the nurturant source of his being and his equally intense conviction that her participation in sexuality has contaminated her and thus contaminated the perfection that he has vested in her” (66-67). What has become obvious in these recent studies of Othello, as Valerie Traub contends, is that “Othello's anxiety is culturally and psychosexually overdetermined by erotic, gender, and racial anxieties, including … the fear of chaos [usually] associate[d] with sexual activity.”3 In what follows, I wish to reconsider the possibilities of reading the racial and sexual anxieties latent in Shakespeare's Othello. The focus of my discussion is not so much the personal relationships represented in the play as it is the cultural assumptions which may be coincident with the notion of race in Othello; in particular, I want to argue the possibility that the social site of Shakespeare's tragedy, Venice, is a much more significant player in the construction of early modern English racialist ideology than critics have hitherto illuminated. Simply stated, my purpose is to show that Venice is a crucial yet often critically neglected racial persona in Othello.4

My reading builds upon and diverges from studies that examine Shakespeare's use of Italian city-states, in particular Venice, in his dramatic works—a usage which, according to these critics, highlights an Elizabethan “fascination” with Italian culture.5 In the case of Venice, this fascination is rooted in, as David C. McPherson terms it, the “myth of Venice,” wherein the city is perceived as a state whose wealth, political stability, justice, and civility set it above all others (27). This image, of course, has its origins in early modern Italian political theories whose principal goal was to conceptualize a model civil society that “was to be paradigmatic for [Italian] civic humanism” (Pocock 271). In these theories Venice is represented as an uncorrupted, tranquil, and stable state; in fact, “Venice appears, both physically and politically, ‘rather framed by the hands of the immortal Gods, than any way by the arte, industry or inuention of men.’”6 Ultimately, as J. G. A. Pocock has shown, this “myth of Venice (at its most mythical) was to lie in the assertion that the Venetian commonwealth was an immortally serene, because perfectly balanced, combination of the three elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy” (102).

It is my contention that this myth inheres in Shakespeare's Othello and exercises a “compulsive force on the imagination,” of both the characters within the play and the audience watching events unfold. But, because it is a mythology, “framed by the hands, … arte, industry, [and] invention of men,” the ideal of Venice is also a paradox which ultimately subverts its illusion of perfection by drawing attention not only to the dichotomies (pure/impure, black/white) it constructs but also to the interiority that the myth and its dichotomies seek to conceal (Pocock 102). In other words, while the myth extols an image of Venice as the idealized feminine body, beautiful, desirable, and virginal, it also vicariously projects an image of Venice as the imperfect body—corruptive, desiring, and easily violated. If, as Patricia Parker argues, “the gaze is a vicarious gaze, a substitution of narrative” (89), then our attempt to discern how this paradox works racially must make use of this vicarious perspective.


Lewes Lewkenor's 1599 translation of Gasparo Contarini's De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum (along with Thomas Coryat's Crudities) did much to circulate this particular variant of the “myth of Venice” in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In his dedication to the reader, Lewkenor writes that visitors to Venice, at least those “of a grauer humor,”

would dilate of the greatnes of their Empire, the grauitie of their prince, the maiesty of their Senate, the vnuiolablenes of their lawes, their zeale in religion, and lastly their moderation, and equitie, wherewith they gouerne such subiected prouinces as are vnder their dominion, binding them therby in a faster bond of obedience then all the cytadels, garrisons, or whatsoeuer other tyrannicall inuentions could euer haue brought them vnto. (A2)

Lewkenor uses the dedication to set the context for his dilation of the greatness of Venice and to encourage his readers to gaze upon the book as if it were the city itself. Characterized as a “pure and vntouched virgine, free from the taste or violence of any forraine enforcement,” Venice is laid open for the “admiration” and entertainment of the book's English readers. Though not often viewed as a narrative of discovery, Lewkenor's text might well be included in that genre, as it has in common with other narratives of discovery what Patricia Parker calls “the language of opening, uncovering or bringing to light … what had been secret, closed or hid” from the majority of the English reading public whose travels were limited to environs of London (87).

Of course, Venice is neither Africa nor the “New World,” and Lewkenor's dedication to the reader of The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice is intended merely to set the stage for his translation of a work of political philosophy. Even so, the edition circulates conflicting images of the republic known as La Serenissima. In contrast to Lewkenor's praise of Venice's “unblemished” status, the commendatory poems written in praise of Lewkenor's endeavor convey a somewhat different vision of Venice. For example, one poem compares Venice to the “antique” cities of Babel, “fallen” “with the weight of their own furquedry.” In another poem, though her “virgins state ambition nere could blot,” the “swarmes” from “forrein nation[s]” prompt the writer to proclaim Venice's “ruinous case” which, of course, is reflected in the city's “painted face.” Ironically, what is intended to honor the celebrated myth of Venetian stability and invulnerability, Lewkenor's dedication and the commendatory poems, actually draws attention to what stands behind the myth—Venice's notoriety as a site of illicit sexuality, dangerous passions, violence, and extraordinary cunning.

Thomas Coryat's Crudities exhibits a similar ambivalence toward Venice. In the account of his travel to Italy in 1608, Coryat begins with a description of Venice as “the fairest Lady,” a “noble citie” (311). After a rather detailed description of the magnificence of Venice's architecture, Coryat interrupts his narrative to warn his readers to be wary of the city's gondoliers, who are “the most vicious and licentious varlets about all the City” (311). Coryat's warning is typical of his tendency to juxtapose an image of Venice as “this thrice worthie city … yea the richest Paragon” with an image of Venice as a city whose blatant acceptance of sexuality (the seeming valorization of the courtesans and the touted infidelity of Venetian wives) and violence denotes the “Virgin's” corruptibility. Coryat's maneuver serves strategically, as Ann Rosalind Jones suggests, as both a lure and an admonition: “Coryat writes with a double agenda: to thrill his readers and to protect their morals, to sell his book with the promise of titillation and to dignify it by setting his ethical seriousness as an Englishman against the variety of ‘Ethnicke’ types he encounters” (104). Jones rightly observes that the Venice “of English [writers such as Coryat] from the 1580s on was not a geographer's record but a fantasy setting for dramas of passion, Machiavellian politics, and revenge—a landscape of the mind” (110). For Coryat and others, within this “landscape of the mind” it is the “interplay of pleasure and danger” (Jones 102) posed by Venice's gendered and Janus-like status within European culture that must be castigated and the city reclaimed as the paradigm of cultural perfection.7 And it is this gendered “interplay” that Shakespeare distills in Othello, coupling the metaphoric blackness of Venice's reputation as a site of feminine sexual corruption and the literalness of Moorish Othello's black skin with the unstained honor of the Venetian military commander Othello and the symbolic whiteness of an uncorrupted Venice. Shakespeare's Othello joins these other early modern English texts in presenting a perspective of Venice that satisfies the desire to see encompassed in one racialized body, even if vicariously, both the virgin and the whore. And that body belongs, of course, to a woman.


From the play's inception, when Brabantio reprimands Iago for his indecent language and both Roderigo and Iago for their disruption of Brabantio's peace—“What, tell'st thou me of robbing? this is Venice, my house is not a grange” (1.1.105-106)—the paradoxical “myth of Venice” is instantiated as a paradigm for reading the play's presumed sexual and racial deviances. Brabantio's words obviously are intended to correct what he perceives to be a misperception on the part of Iago, namely that there are no farm animals in his house. Significantly, Brabantio's rebuke conjures images of the Venice, La Serenissima, extolled in Lewkenor's translation, as the tone of Brabantio's declaration suggests that such a crime could never take place in Venice, and, more important, that Roderigo's and Iago's accusations of a barnyard theft would not have been brought surreptitiously to the victim's door in the middle of the night. Brabantio's reprimand indicates that he is a man possessed of the judicious gravity praised in Lewkenor's preface: a man whose “moderation and equitie” will lead him to behave rationally when confronted by what appears to be the irrational pranks of a spurned suitor.

Once he understands the implication of Iago's salacious words, however, Brabantio begins to exhibit the stereotypical irrationality which came to be a metaphoric staple of Jacobean dramatic depictions of Italians. Governed by his fury, Brabantio accuses Othello of sorcery or witchcraft even before the marriage is confirmed by the couple: “is there not charms, / By which the property of youth and maidhood, / May be abused? Have you not read, Roderigo, / Of such a thing?” (1.1.171-74) When we consider Brabantio's grave “This is Venice,” the sight of the rational “senator's” descent into illogic is somewhat surprising as he attempts to explain what he perceives to be unexplainable:

My daughter, O my daughter, …
She is abus’d, stol’n from me and corrupted,
By spells and medicines, bought of mountebanks,
For nature so preposterously to err,
(Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,)
Sans witchcraft could not.


Brabantio's “My daughter, O my daughter” poignantly recalls Solanio's account of Shylock's pained cry at Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo—“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!—” and Shylock's own descent into irrationality (MV 2.8.15). Given Desdemona's position as only child and heir to Brabantio's estate, a situation analogous to Jessica's in The Merchant of Venice, it is not without significance that Shakespeare alludes to this earlier work in depicting a father's reaction to the news that his daughter has married without his approval and apparently to someone outside his ethnic community.

Shakespeare draws one other parallel between Brabantio and Shylock, in that both men seek to exploit the strict terms of Venetian law to extract justice from their perceived enemies. When he finally confronts Othello, Brabantio tells the general, “I therefore apprehend and do attach thee” (1.2.77).8 In this moment, the rational Venetian has displaced the irrational father who has roused his “kindred” to pursue the couple. Once he has Othello in custody, Brabantio is confident that he will be able to prove Othello guilty of witchcraft and that the Venetian legal institution will prove “pure and uncorrupted” as it evaluates the truth of his accusation. And, not unexpectedly, when Venetian law appears, in the persona of the Duke, it reaffirms Brabantio's faith in its exactitude:

Whoe’er he be, that in this foul proceeding
Hath thus beguil’d your daughter of herself,
And you of her, the bloody book of law
You shall yourself read, in the bitter letter,
After its own sense, though our proper son
Stood in your action


No matter the cost, Brabantio is being guaranteed that the “penal Lawes [will be] most unpardonably executed” (Pocock 325).

Whatever Brabantio's cause, when Othello is named the guilty party, the senators who have accompanied the Duke respond to Brabantio's accusation in a rather cryptic fashion: “We are very sorry for’t” (1.3.73). This comment can, of course, be interpreted in one of two ways. First, it can be seen as an expression of regret that Othello's service will be lost to Venice, given the political tensions that exist between Venetians and Turks. Or it can be read as an expression of compassion for Brabantio and the loss of his daughter in the manner he has described. I would propose that the former reading (regret at the loss of Othello's service to Venice) is the more likely intent behind the senators' words. When Othello and Brabantio first come into the presence of the Duke and senators, one senator refers to Othello as “the valiant Moor.” More telling of the esteem Othello has in Venice is the Duke's reaction after hearing Othello's narrative, when the Duke exhorts Brabantio to “Take up this mangled matter at the best; / Men do their broken weapons rather use, / Than their bare hands” (1.3.172-74). Brabantio's refusal to comply with the Duke's admonition is, as Lynda Boose argues, a refusal to “act out,” to ritualize the symbolic transfer of his daughter to her husband not because Othello is necessarily unworthy but because the selection of Desdemona's husband was not Brabantio's: that right had been usurped by his daughter (“Father and Daughter” 327).

Desdemona's choice of a husband has been the object of critical gaze ever since Thomas Rymer first questioned Shakespeare's use of a “Blackamoor” as the tragic protagonist in Othello: whether in M. R. Ridley's introduction to the Arden edition of Othello, where Ridley writes, “It is the very essence of the play that Desdemona in marrying Othello—a man to whom her ‘natural’ reaction should (her father holds) have been fear, not delight—has done something peculiarly startling” (liii), or in Stanley Cavell's careful explanation that, in choosing Othello, Desdemona has “overlooked his blackness in favor of his inner brilliance”: in effect, “that she saw his visage as he sees it, that she understands his blackness as he understands it, as the expression (or in his word, his manifestation) of his mind” (129).

Complicating these, and other, critical attempts to explain Desdemona's choice is the fact that Shakespeare's play presents a world whose very social codes are frequently contradictory and conflicting, thus enabling Desdemona to act as she does. On one level, Venice is a place where the contagious rhetoric of racialism can easily destroy lives and careers, as Iago's manipulation so aptly illustrates. Yet it seems that early modern Venice is also a society where a man such as Othello can achieve success and fame to such a degree that a duke is moved to declare, “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (1.3.171). Othello's status and position, that is, his “honours and valiant parts” (1.3.253), prove as desirable to Desdemona as the narratives for which “She gave … a world of sighs” (1.3.159) and …” lov’d [Othello] for the dangers [he] had pass’d” (1.3.167).

Though a Moor, Othello is perceived as a valuable member of Venetian society and his action as nothing more than “a mischief that is past and gone” [emphasis mine] (1.3.204). Emily Bartels rightfully argues that Othello's acceptance includes Iago, who “even as he attempts to prove Othello the outsider, … represents him as an authorizing insider.”9 As Lewkenor's translation of Contarini work documents and J. G. A. Pocock's study substantiates, Venice was often cited by early modern political theorists as a state to be commended for its successful handling of its imperial aims through the hiring of foreign nationals to provide its military force and to police the city. This long-standing practice, plus the city's mercantile zeal, created a cosmopolitan environment where “one sees in this city an infinite number of men from different parts of the world” (McPherson 30). Furthermore, according to Lewkenor, it was apparently not unusual for “forreyn mercenarie souldiers” to be “enabled, with the title of citizens & gentlemen of Venice” (S2).

Brabantio's cultivation and acceptance of Othello, therefore, may very well reflect this custom, so that when Othello explains that Desdemona's “father lov’d me, oft invited me” (1.3.128), we are reminded that it was Brabantio himself, as a senator, who first acknowledged Othello an “insider.”10 It is the senator Brabantio, and thus by extension Venice, who sets up contradictory notions about racial identity and social place within Venetian society. Desdemona's marital choice, therefore, may very well enact not only adherence to assumptions about appropriate spouses (Othello is, by birth, a prince, by merit a general, and through patronage wealthy) but, in addition, the transference of the daughter's love for her father to another Venetian father figure and not an “outsider.” Thus we may want to ask not why Othello drew her love but what is it in the man that her father loved that moves a woman “So opposite to marriage, that she shunn’d / The wealthy curled darlings of our nation …” (1.2.67-68) to set aside her reluctance to marriage and elope? And, whether Brabantio's reaction to the marriage, and Othello, is linked not to Othello's physical appearance but to that “thing … to fear, not to delight” in (1.2.71)—an incestuous desire for his daughter? If we view Desdemona's choice as being consistent with Shakespeare's characterization of her, of Othello, of Desdemona's willingness to perform her symbolic role in the ritual expression of marriage, and the myth of Venice, then perhaps it is Brabantio who continually refuses to participate in the ritual by subverting the activities which would require that he allow himself to be dispossessed of his daughter, that he permit another Venetian to sexually claim the one female body that he himself cannot sexually possess.11

Thus Brabantio's earlier rebuke of Iago becomes an ironic echo when Brabantio employs not only the language of theft to accuse Othello, “O thou foul thief,” but also the language often associated with witchcraft, “chains of magic” and “foul charms,” in an effort to destabilize the ritualized exchange of the female body that marks the institution of marriage. And Brabantio's charges, like his censure of Iago, allude to the complex and often contradictory social attitudes in Venice which allow for an Othello and a Desdemona but which also demand that they adhere to the customs and laws which govern that society.

Jacques Lacan has argued that “In our relation to things, in so far as this relation is constituted by the way of vision, and ordered in the figures of representation, something slips, passes, is transmitted from stage, to stage, and is always to some degree eluded in it—that is what we call the gaze” (73). I have been arguing that throughout Othello, this “something” is Venice, and I wish to conclude by looking briefly at the paradox that Shakespeare's play reveals Venice to be.


One of the disturbing things about Othello, despite centuries of ideological intervention, is the play's ability to disrupt any attempt to make uneven the level playing field Shakespeare has created in his tragedy. This dilemma is further exacerbated by the crudely psychosexual dimensions engendered by Iago's rhetoric in the very first scene of the play:

Zounds, sir, you are robb’d, for shame put on your gown,
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. …


Iago's words neatly transform what is an act of elopement into an imagined cuckoldry; that is, in the double reference to Brabantio's nakedness (he lacks both property and his “gown”), Iago sets the stage for a further shaming of Brabantio by subtly naming what is lost as if it were a wife (“half your soul”) and luridly localizing this pseudo-wife in a pornographic fantasy. And though this fantasy is momentarily displaced by the intrusion (in the person of Othello) of Lewkenor's Venice, its affective power to create and sustain its image of perversion is not altered one whit.

Ironically, Iago's thematization of an imagined (and bestial) cuckoldry insinuates itself not only in Brabantio's imagination but in his later replacement of that anxiety onto Othello: “Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: / She has deceiv’d her father, may do thee” (1.3.292-93). Predictably, Othello reenacts the violent passions that drove Brabantio to repudiate Desdemona, once again bringing to the surface the male anxiety about female sexuality (despite Desdemona's married state), considered the hallmark of “corrupt” Venice, that initiates the “tragedy of Othello.” However, Othello's complete displacement of Brabantio can occur only when, I would argue, he takes to its ultimate, punitive conclusion (by killing Desdemona) Brabantio's disowning of his daughter.12 In effect, it is the Venetian Othello who must see to it that Venice's “penal Lawes [are] most unpardonably executed” when the virgin is shown to be a whore.13

Representations of early modern Venice were always gendered feminine: it was a city “so beautiful, so renowned, so glorious a Virgin” and, at the same time, a “‘Circe's court,’ teeming with ‘wanton and dallying’ Calypsos and Sirens.”14 This allusion to the seductive women who delayed Ulysses' return to Ithaca finds its parallel in Desdemona's “supersubtle” seduction of the warrior Othello: “she thank’d me, / And bade me, if I had a friend that lov’d her, / I should but teach him how to tell my story, / And that would woo her” (1.3.163-66). Like Venice, Desdemona has the appearance of purity (and discretion) even as she boldly lays herself open to Othello's suit. Even so, when Iago calls into question Desdemona's virtue, Othello iterates his faith in his wife—“For she had eyes, and chose me” (3.3.193)—even as he leaves open the possibility of her infidelity: “No Iago, / I’ll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove, / And on the proof, there is no more but this: / Away at once with love or jealousy” (3.3.194-96).

Othello's insistence on “proof,” of course, becomes the opening that Iago needs to “abuse Othello's ear” (1.3.393). It is not insignificant that both Othello and Desdemona initially are swayed by what is heard rather than what is seen. From its inception, the play luridly juxtaposes rumor and storytelling, on the one hand, and an emphasis on seeing, on the other. Brabantio must see for himself the truth of Roderigo's and Iago's report of Desdemona's elopement. Othello will not question Desdemona's virtue until he sees proof; but once rumor “abuses” his ear, Othello, as did Brabantio, begins the process of “bringing to light” the blackness of his Venetian wife.15 If the first act of the play serves to displace Othello's blackness into his Venetian identity, then the remaining acts serve to dilate Desdemona's.

Iago is the first to constitute Desdemona black when, in response to her question “what wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst / praise me” (2.1.118), he reiterates a familiar trope of femininity:

If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit;
The one's for use, the other using it. …
If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She’ll find a white, that shall her blackness hit.


Lines 132-33, not surprisingly, find their close interpretive echo in the adage “wash the Ethiop white.” If Desdemona is “black” and possesses a “wit,” Iago's advice to her is to seek that which will transform her, her opposite. Iago ends his “praise” of Desdemona by railing against even fair women, terming them “wight[s]” who “suckle fools, and chronicle small beer” (2.1.160).

This exchange, for all its seeming irreverence, finds its dramatic replay in act 4, scene 2. After a mournful lament for his “affliction,” Othello turns his fury to Desdemona: “Turn thy complexion there; / Patience, thy young and rose-lipp’d cherubin, / I here look grim as hell” (4.2.63-65). Othello then goes on to say,

O thou black weed, why art so lovely fair?
Thou smel'st so sweet, that the sense aches at thee,
Would thou hads’t ne’er been born!


Othello's language enacts the familiar Petrarchan opposition of fair/dark, yet it also perverts that rhetoric with its reluctance to further denigrate the object which it initially constitutes as undesirable (see Hall, esp. 178-79). More important, this semantic instantiation of Desdemona's desirability registers the allure traditionally associated with Venice, and which prompts Othello later to name Desdemona that which no Englishman who has read Coryat would have failed to understand, “that cunning whore of Venice.”

Once again, despite the domesticity of this bedroom scene, it is Venice which becomes the object of our gaze as both the symbolic virgin that the warrior Othello defends and the corrupted bride he has wed.16 In an emotionally charged accusation to Desdemona, Othello declares, “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello” (4.2.91). Othello's words become a distorted projection of Brabantio's caution that the mask of virginity hid a corruption. It is Venice itself which suffers the “dilation” of its exterior to reveal the blackness inside. Othello's search for “proof” must begin “in” Venice, and thus with himself. What is revealed is the sameness of the interior and exterior: the Moor without is the Venetian within, and the Venetian within is the Moor without. And, in a remarkable mimicry of Brabantio's incredulity over Desdemona's willing participation in the marriage, Othello stages himself as the innocent seduced by the wiles of the Venetian whore—aided and abetted by the plot's initial and careful delineation of Othello as a Venetian. We see mirrored in Othello's rage that of Brabantio. Though born a Moor, in his irrationality Othello is very much a Venetian. And in an ironic though not surprising twist of fact, both the father and the husband, whose violations of the rites of marriage set into motion the tragic events of Shakespeare's tragedy, die as a result of their attempts to defend the illusion of perfection that is the myth of Venice.


At the conclusion of Othello, Shakespeare leaves us with a disturbing dramatic tableau: the corpses of Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia upon the bed which has occupied (most likely) center stage for much of the final act; a (for once) silent Iago; and the Venetian lords as witnesses to this final tragic event. Just before he commits suicide, Othello says,

And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian, and traduc’d the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus.


This speech has often been read as, symbolically, a racialized confirmation of Othello's awareness of himself as an outsider—a Moor. But if my argument is valid, then such a reading is highly questionable and may point to the deployment of the “racial anxiety” that Michael Neill suggests is “everywhere” in the play's critical and cultural history rather than in Shakespeare's representation of Othello's self-consciousness.

I would argue that what Othello does is to draw upon the myth of Venice to re-create not just a racial image but also a political one where Venetian law is exact, swift, and inviolate—whether one is a Turk or, in the case of Othello, a Venetian. More important, as the symbol of Venetian law on Cyprus, it is Othello who must stand in for the Duke and affirm the “bloody book of law” against those who have violated that very law. It is Venetian Othello who judges and executes the Turk who assaulted a Venetian, and it’s this same Othello who must judge and execute the murderer of another Venetian, Desdemona. The race of this judge cannot, therefore, be viewed in terms of his color but as identical to that of the Duke in whose stead Othello carries out Venetian law.

It seems imperative, therefore, not to overlook the complex history that the concept and the word race may project in early modern English discourses and its implications for interpretations of Othello. In a world where women were often described as a “race,” where the word race signified aristocratic or noble lineage, where race was often used as synonymous with nation, to argue that issues of race in Othello are easily reducible to one matrix—color—is a problematic misreading of an emerging taxonomic shift in the process of classifying human beings. In early modern Venice and England, where racial and social identities are formulated as much in genealogy as in ethnicity or geography, in gender as in color, the “illusion of perfection” cannot sustain itself as its own discourse points to the almost yet not quite invisible fractures that inevitably occur in the process of mythologizing “race.” And it is this paradox which must be recognized in Othello rather than, as Jack D’Amico suggests, the idea that “Shakespeare revealed how a man could be destroyed when he accepts a perspective that deprives him of his humanity, … Othello is debased by a role that he adopts and acts out on the Venetian-Elizabethan stage” (177). Ignoring, for the moment, the problematic collapsing of Venice and England, I want to call into question the implicit assumption that there is English identification with the Venetians as a homogeneous racial group. As I have suggested elsewhere, “the contours of race may not be as fixed, as transcendental, as universal as critical practices and postmodern social discourses seem to infer” (“Managing the Barbarian” 183). English writers, Shakespeare included, pointedly distinguished within the European community just as they did without (perhaps even more so given their more extensive knowledge of nations within Europe). One has only to recall Portia's mockery of her French, German, Scottish, and English suitors, or Shakespeare's depiction of the Welsh and French in Merry Wives of Windsor to know that D’Amico's “Venetian-Elizabethan” elides the powerful sense of national consciousness that encodes itself in the dramatic representation of other cultures (see Howard).

It seems to me that we might derive a better understanding of Shakespeare's tragedy if we recognize that the “lustful” Moor is the “whorish” Venetian. Behind Desdemona stands the duplicitous Venice, behind Iago the cunning “Machiavel,” and behind Othello the irrationality of Italian masculinity. What sets into motion the tragic events in Shakespeare's tragedy, and what makes Othello an ideological quagmire, is the Venetian ambivalence that accepts Othello as a well-born, honorable, successful military commander and courtier even as it insists that he remain an outsider, an alien who must resort to sorcery or witchcraft to become a part of the world he inhabits already. In the end, our interpretive and critical imperative, in addition to tracing the overdetermined markings formalized by the racialist rhetoric figured by the references to the color of Othello, should be one of exploring the multifaceted and often subtly nuanced discourse of race that aligns color, gender, geography as it sees fit. In this vein, we might also want to pose another query that Shakespeare's tragedy seems to invoke and which has bearing for our understanding of racial discourse in early modern English contexts. Who, symbolically, comes to be racialized as the “cunning whore” of Venice capable of causing nature to err from itself? The answer, not surprisingly, is all in how one defines the concept of race.


  1. See Newman; Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief”; and Little. For a useful summary of critical responses to the play, see Neill, “Unproper Beds,” particularly 391-95.

  2. All Othello quotations are from the Arden edition, ed. M. R. Ridley.

  3. Traub 36. See also Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief”; and Neill, “Changing Places.”

  4. Most references to Venice note either the city's significance in the Mediterranean political economy, its idealization as a model republic, or its exoticization as an international cultural site. See, for example, McPherson, esp. 27-50; Parker 95-96; Bartels; D’Amico 177; Cantor 296-319; and Braxton. In most other discussions of Shakespeare's tragedy, as I will argue, Venice appears to implicitly “stand in” for England.

  5. See, for example, Levith, Partridge, McWilliam, Lievsay, Hale, and McPherson.

  6. This panegyric appears in Lewes Lewkenor's 1599 translation of the Italian version of Gasparo Contarini's De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum. Qtd. in Pocock 320.

  7. Here I am referring to Stephanie Jed's brilliant argument in Chaste Thinking.

  8. See Ruggerio, who argues that “in the Renaissance, ideally, the honor dynamic, with its threat of vendetta, was supposed to limit the level of violence in society. One did not cross the honor of another, one did not do violence to another, because that would require vendetta, that is violence and dishonor in return. Thus ideally, violence was avoided without formal institutions or additional violence within a community or group simply by maintaining a balance of honor.” However, as Ruggerio further adds, if an individual “did not have the power to pursue vendetta, the support of threatened violence fell away, one's honor became problematic, and violent passions became easier to indulge, especially for the powerful.”

  9. Bartels 450. While Bartels's argument makes less of Othello's color than other critical essays, her reading succeeds in “making more” of the Moor-Venetian dichotomy than it makes of the racial ideology the play fashions. For similar discussions see Berry; D’Amico 177-96; Cantor; and Braxton.

  10. Bartels cogently makes this argument in “Making More of the Moor” 435.

  11. Garner argues that Shakespeare “keeps Desdemona off a pedestal and shows her to have a full range of human feelings and capacities. Yet he is careful not to allow her to fail in feeling or propriety” (238).

  12. Snow notes that when Iago manipulates Othello's husbandly anxiety about Desdemona's chastity, Othello “comes to see Cassio in his place” as Brabantio came to see Othello in his (Brabantio's). What also needs to be explored is the continual replay of the incestuous undertones created by Iago's words to Brabantio. See esp. 395.

  13. It is not my intent to prove or disprove Desdemona's guilt or innocence, but to “dilate” her significance to Shakespeare's handling of the myth of Venice.

  14. Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster, quoted in Jones 102.

  15. I am indebted to Parker's “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’: Africa, Othello and Bringing to Light” for this analysis. What I would add to Parker's cogent discussion on the “visual” necessity of “bringing to light” that which is secret is the way aurality serves as a prefigurement to such dilation.

  16. I am indebted to Adelman's excellent discussion in Suffocating Mothers for this idea.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest.” New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54.

Berry, Edward. “Othello's Alienation.” Studies in English Literature 30 (1990): 315-33.

Boose, Lynda E. “The Father and Daughter in Shakespeare.” PMLA 97 (1982): 327.

———. “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love.’” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 360-74.

Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review 55 (1990): 1-17.

Cantor, Paul A. “Othello: The Erring Barbarian among the Supersubtle Venetians.” Southwest Review 75 (1990): 296-345.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Coryat, Thomas. Crudities. Glasgow: J. Maclehose and Sons, 1905.

D’Amico, Jack. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1993.

Garner, Shirley Nelson. “Shakespeare's Desdemona.” Shakespeare Studies (1976): 235-39.

Hale, John R. England and the Italian Renaissance. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.

Hall, Kim F. “‘I rather would wish to be a Black-Moor’: Beauty, Race, and Rank in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania.Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 178-94.

Hendricks, Margo. “Managing the Barbarian: The Tragedy of Dido Queen of Carthage.Renaissance Drama n.s. (1992): 165-88.

Howard, Jean E. “An English Lass amid the Moors: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and National Identity in Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West.Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. London: Routledge, 1994. 101-17.

Jed, Stephanie. Chaste Thinking. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Italians and Others: Venice and the Irish in Coryat's Crudities and The White Devil.Renaissance Drama n.s. (1987): 101-19.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978.

Levith, Murray J. Shakespeare's Italian Settings and Plays. New York: St. Martin Press, 1989.

Lewkenor, Lewes. The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice. Written by the Cardinall Gasper Contareno, and translated out of Italian into English. 1599. Facsimile copy, Amsterdam and New York: Da Capo Press, 1966.

Lievsay, John. The Elizabethan Image of Italy. Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.

Little, Arthur, L. Jr. “‘An essence that’s not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1993): 304-24.

McPherson, David C. Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990.

McWilliam, George W. Shakespeare's Italy Revisited. Leicester: Leicester UP, 1974.

Neill, Michael. “Changing Places in Othello.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 115-31.

———. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383-412.

Newman, Karen. “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor. New York and London: Methuen, 1987. 141-62.

Parker, Patricia. “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’: Africa, Othello and Bringing to Light.” Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 84-100.

Partridge, A. C. “Shakespeare and Italy.” English Studies in Africa 4 (1961): 117-27.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Ruggerio, Guido. Binding Passions. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Viking, 1969.

———. Othello. Ed. M. R. Ridley. London and New York: Routledge, 1958.

Snow, Edward A. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello.English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Further Reading

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Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 433-54.

Compares Shakespeare's treatment of Moors in Titus Andronicus and Othello, arguing that dominant Renaissance racial views were contested in Othello.

Cantor, Paul A. “Othello: The Erring Barbarian among the Supersubtle Venetians.” Southwest Review 75, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 296–319.

Traces Othello’s struggle between the domestic world of Venice and his past as a warrior and outsider.

Cohen, Derek. “Othello's Suicide.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, No. 3 (Spring 1993): 323-33.

Links Othello's suicide to his ultimate capitulation to the dominant Venetian society.

Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Arabization of Othello.” Comparative Literature 50, No. 1 (Winter 1998): 1–31.

Discusses Arab reactions to and interpretations of Othello.

Grennan, Eamon. “The Women's Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, No. 3 (Autumn 1997): 275-92.

Argues the importance of the female voices in Othello and posits that their speeches play a pivotal role in creating the play's moral landscape.

Jones, Eldred. “Othello—An Interpretation.” In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's “Othello”, pp. 39-54. Edited by Anthony Gerard Barthelemy. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

Considers Shakespeare's depiction of Othello in relation to the traditional depiction of Moors in England. Jones argues that Shakespeare exploits the stereotype, but that Othello emerges as an individual whose weaknesses are attributable to human nature.

Little, Arthur L., Jr. “‘An essence that’s not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 304-24.

Explores the transformation of the meaning of Othello's race throughout the play.

Loomba, Ania. “Sexuality and Racial Difference.” In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's “Othello”, pp. 162-86. Edited by Anthony Gerard Barthelemy. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1994.

Discusses race and feminist ideology in Othello.

Newman, Karen. “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.” In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, pp. 71-94. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Examines race and femininity in Othello, arguing that the play is centered around miscegenation.

Singh, Jyotsna. “Othello's Identity, Postcolonial Theory, and Contemporary African Rewritings of Othello.” In Women, ‘Race,’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period, pp. 287-99. Edited by Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Reexamines the racial nature of Othello from the perspective of post-colonial African writers.

Slights, Camille Wells. “Slaves and Subjects in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, No. 4 (1997): 377-90.

Considers emerging ideas about self and their relationship to concepts of slavery and race in Othello.

Widmayer, Martha. “Brabantio and Othello.” English Studies 77, No. 2 (March 1996): 113-26.

Argues that both Desdemona's father and Othello are obsessed with the concept of absolute goodness, which they ascribe to the character of Desdemona.

Janet Adelman (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Iago's Alter Ego: Race as Projection in Othello,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 125-44.

[In the following essay, Adelman discusses Iago's role in corrupting Othello's views on race and sexuality.]

Othello famously begins not with Othello but with Iago. Other tragedies begin with ancillary figures commenting on the character who will turn out to be at the center of the tragedy—one thinks of Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra—but no other play subjects its ostensibly tragic hero to so long and intensive a debunking before he even sets foot onstage. And the audience is inevitably complicit in this debunking: before we meet Othello, we are utterly dependent on Iago's and Roderigo's descriptions of him. For the first long minutes of the play, we know only that the Moor, “the thicklips” (1.1.66),1 has done something that Roderigo (like the audience) feels he should have been told about beforehand; we find out what it is for the first time only through Iago's violently eroticizing and racializing report to Brabantio: “Even now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (ll. 88-89).2

At this point in my teaching of the play, I normally point to all the ways in which Othello belies Iago's description as soon as he appears; in the classroom my reading of race in Othello turns on this contrast as Shakespeare's way of denaturalizing the tropes of race, so that we are made to understand Othello not as the “natural” embodiment of Iago's “old black ram” gone insanely jealous but as the victim of the racist ideology everywhere visible in Venice, an ideology to which he is relentlessly subjected and which increasingly comes to define him as he internalizes it—internalizes it so fully that, searching for a metaphor to convey his sense of the soil attaching both to his name and to Desdemona's body, Othello can come up with no term of comparison other than his own face (“My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim’d, and black / As mine own face” [3.3.392-94]).3 Othello's “discovering” that his blackness is a stain—a stain specifically associated with his sexuality—and “discovering” that stain on Desdemona are virtually simultaneous for him; hence the metaphoric transformation of Dian's visage into his own begrimed face. If Desdemona becomes a “black weed” (4.2.69)4 for Othello, her “blackening” is a kind of shorthand for his sense that his blackness has in fact contaminated her; as many have argued, his quickness to believe her always-already contaminated is in part a function of his horrified recoil from his suspicion that he is the contaminating agent.5

In other words, in the classroom I usually read race in Othello through what I take to be the play's representation of Othello's experience of race as it comes to dominate his sense of himself as polluted and polluting, undeserving of Desdemona and hence quick to believe her unfaithful. But although the play locates Othello in a deeply racist society, the sense of pollution attaching to blackness comes first of all (for the audience if not for Othello) from Iago; though Iago needed Brabantio to convince Othello of Desdemona's tendency to deception and the “disproportion” of Othello as her marriage choice, Iago legitimizes and intensifies Brabantio's racism through his initial sexualizing and racializing invocation of Othello. And if the play offers us a rich representation of the effects of racism on Othello, it offers us an equally rich—and in some ways more disturbing—representation of the function of Othello's race for Iago. I offer the following reading of that representation as a thought-experiment with two aims: first, to test out the applicability of psychoanalytic theory—especially Kleinian theory—to problems of race, an arena in which its applicability is often questioned; and, second, to identify some of the ways in which racism is the psychic property (and rightly the concern) of the racist, not simply of his victim.

Iago erupts out of the night (this play, like Hamlet, begins in palpable darkness), as though he were a condensation of its properties. Marking himself as opposite to light through his demonic “I am not what I am,” Iago calls forth a world, I will argue, in which he can see his own darkness localized and reflected in Othello's blackness, or rather in what he makes—and teaches Othello to make—of Othello's blackness.

Iago's voice inducts us into the play: long before Othello has a name, much less a voice, of his own, Iago has a distinctive “I.” The matter of Othello, and satisfaction of the audience's urgent curiosity about what exactly Roderigo has just learned, are deferred until after we have heard Iago's catalogue of injuries to that “I” (“I know my price, I am worth no worse a place” [1.1.11]; “And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof, … must be lee’d, and calm’d” [ll. 28-30]; “And I, God bless the mark, his worship's ancient” [l. 33]). Iago's “I” beats through the dialogue with obsessive insistence, claiming both self-sufficiency (“I follow but myself” [l. 58]) and self-division, defining itself by what it is not (“Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago” [l. 57]), in fact simultaneously proclaiming its existence and nonexistence: “I am not what I am” (l. 65). I, I, I: Iago's name unfolds from the Italian io, Latin ego; and the injured “I” is his signature, the ground of his being and the ground, I will argue, of the play. For Iago calls up the action of the play as though in response to this sense of injury: “Call up her father, … poison his delight” (ll. 67-68), he says, like a stage manager, or like a magician calling forth spirits to perform his will; and with his words, the action begins.

The structure of the first scene models Iago's relation to the world that he calls up, for the play proper seems to arise out of Iago's injured “I”: it is not only set in motion by Iago's “I” but becomes in effect a projection of it, as Iago successfully attempts to rid himself of interior pain by replicating it in Othello. Othello—and particularly in relation to Desdemona—becomes Iago's primary target in part because Othello has the presence, the fullness of being, that Iago lacks.6 Othello is everywhere associated with the kind of interior solidity and wholeness that stands as a reproach to Iago's interior emptiness and fragmentation: if Iago takes Janus as his patron saint (1.2.33) and repeatedly announces his affiliation with nothingness (“I am not what I am”; “I am nothing, if not critical” [2.1.119]), Othello is initially “all in all sufficient” (4.1.261), a “full soldier” (2.1.36), whose “solid virtue” (4.1.262) and “perfect soul” (1.2.31) allow him to achieve the “full fortune” (1.1.66) of possessing Desdemona. “Tell me what you need to spoil and I will tell you what you want,” says Adam Phillips:7 the extent to which Othello's fullness and solidity are the object of Iago's envy can be gauged by the extent to which he works to replicate his own self-division in Othello. Split himself, Iago is a master at splitting others: his seduction of Othello works by inscribing in Othello the sense of dangerous interior spaces—thoughts that cannot be known, monsters in the mind—which Othello seems to lack, introducing him to the world of self-alienation that Iago inhabits;8 by the end, Othello is so self-divided that he can take arms against himself, Christian against Turk, literalizing self-division by splitting himself graphically down the middle.9 Though Iago is not there to see his victory, we might imagine him as invisible commentator, saying in effect, “Look, he is not all-in-all sufficient, self-sustaining and full; he is as self-divided as I am.”10

To shatter the illusion of Othello's fullness and presence is also to shatter the illusion of his erotic power; his division from himself is first of all his division from Desdemona and from the fair portion of himself invested in her. If Cassio is any indication, that erotic power is heavily idealized by the Italians:

Great Jove, Othello guard,
And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath,
That he may bless this bay with his tall ship,
Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms
Give renew’d fire to our extincted spirits. …


But for Iago it is intolerable: what begins as a means to an end (Iago creates Othello's suspicions about Desdemona to discredit Cassio in order to replace him as lieutenant) increasingly becomes an end in itself, as Iago drives Othello toward a murderous reenactment of sexual union on the marriage bed, even though that reenactment will make Othello incapable of bestowing the position Iago initially seeks. The thrust of his plot toward the marriage bed, even at the cost of his own ambition, suggests that what Iago needs to spoil is on that bed: the fullness and presence signified by Othello's possession of Desdemona, the sexual union that reminds him of his own extincted spirits. For Iago's own erotic life takes place only in his head; though he seems to imagine a series of erotic objects—Desdemona (ll. 286-89), Cassio (3.3.419-32), and Othello himself (in the coded language—“the lustful Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat” [2.1.290-91]—that makes cuckoldry an anal invasion of Iago's own body)—he imagines them less as realizable erotic objects than as mental counters in his revenge plot, and he imagines them only in sexual unions (Othello with Desdemona, Othello with Emilia, Cassio with Desdemona, Cassio with Emilia) that everywhere exclude and diminish him. And in response, he effectively neutralizes the erotic potency that mocks his own lack.

His primary tool in this neutralization is the creation of Othello as “black”: and in fact it is Othello as progenitor that first excites Iago's racializing rage. His first use of the language of black and white is in his call to Brabantio: “An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” If Cassio needs to make Othello into an exotic super-phallus, capable of restoring Italian potency, Iago needs to make him into a black monster, invading the citadel of whiteness. (The idealization and the debasement are of course two sides of the same coin, and they are equally damaging to Othello: both use him only as the container for white fantasies, whether of desire or fear.) Your white ewe/you: Iago's half-pun invokes the whiteness of his auditors via the image of Othello's contaminating miscegenation;12 true to form in racist discourse, “whiteness” emerges as a category only when it is imagined as threatened by its opposite. Iago's language here works through separation, works by placing “blackness” outside of “whiteness” even as it provokes terror at the thought of their mixture. But the play has already affiliated Iago himself with darkness and the demonic; the threat of a contaminating blackness is already there, already present inside the “whiteness” he would invoke. Iago creates Othello as “black”—and therefore himself as “white”—when he constructs him as monstrous progenitor; and he uses that racialized blackness to destroy what he cannot tolerate. But the trope through which Iago imagines that destruction makes Iago himself into the monstrous progenitor, filled with a dark conception that only darkness can bring forth: “I ha’t, it is engender’d,” he tells us; “Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light” (1.3.401-2). This trope makes the blackness Iago would attribute to Othello—like his monstrous generativity—something already inside Iago himself, something that he must project out into the world: as though Iago were pregnant with the monster he makes of Othello.13

If the structure of the first scene predicts the process through which Iago becomes the progenitor of Othello's racialized blackness, the trope of the monstrous birth in the first act's final lines perfectly anticipates the mechanism of projection through which Iago will come to use Othello's black skin as the container for his own interior blackness. Cassio uses Othello as the locus for fantasies of inseminating sexual renewal; Iago uses him as the repository for his own bodily insufficiency and his self-disgust. For Iago needs the blackness of others: even the “white ewe” Desdemona is blackened in his imagination as he turns “her virtue into pitch” (2.3.351). How are we to understand Iago's impulse to blacken, the impulse for which Othello becomes the perfect vehicle? What does it mean to take another person's body as the receptacle for one's own contents? The text gives us, I think, a very exact account of what I’ve come to call the psycho-physiology of Iago's projection: that is, not simply an account of the psychological processes themselves but also an account of the fantasized bodily processes that underlie them. “Projection” is in its own way comfortingly abstract; by invoking the body behind the abstraction, Othello in effect rubs our noses in it.14

Let me begin, then, by thinking about the way Iago thinks about bodies, especially about the insides of bodies. For Iago is the play's spokesman for the idea of the inside, the hidden away. At the beginning of his seduction of Othello, he defends the privacy of his thought by asking “where's that palace, whereinto foul things / Sometimes intrude not?” (3.3.141-42); no palace is impregnable, no inside uncontaminated. Characteristically, Othello takes this image and makes it his own, reinscribing it in his later anatomy of Desdemona as “a cistern, for foul toads / To knot and gender in” (4.2.62-63). But merely by insisting on the hidden inwardness of thought, Iago has already succeeded in causing Othello to conflate the hidden with the hideous, as though that which is inside, invisible, must inevitably be monstrous (“he echoes me, / As if there were some monster in his thought, / Too hideous to be shown” [3.3.110-12]).15 According to this logic, the case against Desdemona is complete as soon as Iago can insinuate that she, too, has—psychically and anatomically—an inside, unknowable and monstrous because it is inside, unseen.

If Iago succeeds in transferring his own sense of hidden contamination to Desdemona, localizing it in her body, the sense of the hideous thing within—monstrous birth or foul intruder—begins with him. Seen from this vantage point, his initial alarum to Brabantio (“Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags. … Are all doors lock’d?” [1.1.80, 85]) looks less like a description of danger to Brabantio or Desdemona than like a description of danger to Iago himself. For Iago finds—or creates—in Brabantio's house the perfect analogue for his own sense of vulnerability to intrusion, and he can make of Othello the perfect analogue for the intrusive “foul thing,” the old black ram who is tupping your white ewe/you—or, as we later find out, tupping Iago himself in Iago's fantasy, and leaving behind a poisonous residue (“I do suspect the lustful Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards” [2.1.290-92]).

But even the image of the body as a breached and contaminated “palace” suggests rather more interior structure than most of Iago's other images for the body. Again and again Iago imagines the body filled with liquid putrefaction, with contents that can and should be vomited out or excreted. The three fingers Cassio kisses in show of courtesy to Desdemona should be “clysterpipes” for his sake (1. 176), Iago says; through the bizarre reworking of Iago's fantasy, Cassio's fingers are transformed into enema tubes, an imagistic transformation that violently brings together not only lips and faeces, mouth, vagina, and anus, but also digital, phallic, and emetic penetration of a body—Desdemona's? Cassio's?—imagined only as a container for faeces. Early in the play, poor Roderigo is a “sick fool … Whom love has turn’d almost the wrong side outward” (2.3.47-48); by the end, he is a “quat” rubbed almost to the sense (5.1.11), that is, a pus-filled pimple about to break. The congruence of these images suggests that Roderigo becomes a “quat” for Iago because he can’t keep his insides from running out: the love that has almost turned him inside out is here refigured as pus that threatens to break through the surface of his body. In Iago's fantasy of the body, what is inside does not need to be contaminated by a foul intruder because it is already pus or faeces; in fact, anything brought into this interior will be contaminated by it. Iago cannot imagine ordinary eating, in which matter is taken in for the body's nourishment; any good object taken in will be violently transformed and violently expelled. When he is done with her, Iago tells us, Othello will excrete Desdemona (“The food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as acerb as the coloquintida,” an emetic or purgative [1.3.349-50]); when Desdemona is “sated” with Othello's body (1.351), she will “heave the gorge” (2.1.231-32). (Poor Emilia has obviously learned from her husband: in her view men “are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us” [3.4.101-3].)

Given this image of the body's interior as a mass of undifferentiated and contaminated matter, it’s no wonder that Iago propounds the ideal of self-control to Roderigo in the garden metaphor that insists both on the rigid demarcation and differentiation of the body's interior and on its malleability to the exercise of will:

… ’tis in ourselves, that we are thus, or thus: our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners, so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop, and weed up thyme; supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many; either to have it sterile with idleness, or manur’d with industry, why, the power, and corrigible authority of this, lies in our wills.


This is not, presumably, his experience of his own body's interior or of his management of it; it seems rather a defensive fantasy of an orderly pseudo-Eden, in which man is wholly in control both of the inner processes of his body/garden and of the troublesome business of gender, and woman is wholly absent.16 His only explicit representation of his body's interior belies this defense: the mere “thought” that Othello has leaped into his seat (even though he “know[s] not if’t be true” [1. 386]) “Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw [his] inwards.” No reassuring gardener with his tidy—or even his untidy—rows here: Iago's “inwards” are hideously vulnerable, subject to a poisonous penetration. Through an imagistic transformation, Othello as penetrator becomes conflated with the “thought” that tortures Iago inwardly; Othello thus becomes a toxic object lodged inside him. (The garden passage simultaneously expresses and defends against the homoerotic desire that here makes Othello a poisonous inner object, insofar as it voices a fantasy of “supply[ing]” the body with one gender rather than “distract[ing]” it with many.17)

What I have earlier called Iago's injured “I”—his sense that he is chronically slighted and betrayed, his sense of self-division—produces (or perhaps is produced by) fantasies of his body as penetrated and contaminated, especially by Othello. In fact, any traffic between inner and outer is dangerous for Iago, who needs to keep an absolute barrier between them by making his outside opaque, a false “sign” (1.1.156 and 157) of his inside; to do less would be to risk being (Roderigo-like) turned almost the wrong side outward, to “wear [his] heart upon [his] sleeve, / For dawes to peack at” (ll. 64-65).18 To allow himself to be seen or known is tantamount to being stabbed, eaten alive: pecked at from the outside unless he manages to keep the barrier between inner and outer perfectly intact, gnawed from the inside if he lets anyone in. Iago's need for sadistic control of others (“Pleasure, and action, make the hours seem short” [2.3.369], he says, after managing Cassio's cashiering) goes in tandem with his extraordinarily vivid sense of vulnerability: unable to be gardener to himself, he will sadistically manage everyone else, simultaneously demonstrating his superiority to those quats whose insides are so sloppily prone to bursting out, and hiding the contamination and chaos of his own insides.

Roderigo plays a pivotal role in this process. As the embodiment of what Iago would avoid, Roderigo exists largely to give Iago repeated occasions on which to display his mastery over both self and other: in effect, Iago can load his contaminated insides into Roderigo and then rub him to the sense in order to demonstrate the difference between them and, hence, the impermeability of Iago's own insides. Moreover, in managing Roderigo, Iago can continually replenish himself with the fantasy of new objects to be taken into the self: objects over which—unlike the thought of Othello, which gnaws at his inwards—he can exert full control. Obsessively—six times in fourteen lines—Iago tells Roderigo to “Put money in thy purse … fill thy purse with money” (1.3.340, 348). We know that Iago has received enough jewels and gold from Roderigo to have half-corrupted a votarist (4.2.189), but we never see Iago taking the miser's or even the spendthrift's ordinary delight in this treasure; detached from any ordinary human motivation, the money accrues almost purely psychic meaning, becoming the sign not of any palpable economic advantage but of Iago's pleasure in being able to empty Roderigo out, to fill himself at will. “Put money in thy purse,” he repeats insistently, and then adds, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse” (1.3.381), as though the emptied-out Roderigo becomes the container that holds the illusion of Iago's fullness. For his repetition signals a compulsive need to fill himself with objects in order to compensate for the contamination and chaos inside: hard shiny objects that might be kept safe and might keep the self safe, objects that could magically repair the sense of what the self is made of and filled with.

Iago's hoarding, his sadism, his references to purgatives and clyster-pipes can be read through the language of classical psychoanalysis as evidence of an anal fixation; in that language the equation of money with faeces is familiar enough, as is the association of sadistic control with the anal phase.19 Iago's obsessive suspicion that Othello has leaped into his seat, along with his heavily eroticized account of Cassio's dream, similarly lend themselves to a classically psychoanalytic reading of Iago as repressed homosexual.20 While these readings are not “wrong” within their own terms, they nonetheless seem to me limited, and not only insofar as they can be said to assume a historically inaccurate concept of the subject or of “the homosexual”:21 limited even within the terms of psychoanalysis insofar as they do not get at either the quality of Iago's emotional relationships (his inability to form any kind of libidinal bond, his tendency to treat others as poisonous inner objects) or the terrifying theatrical seductiveness of the processes of projection that we witness through him. I want consequently to move from the consideration of libidinal zones and conflicted object choices characteristic of classical psychoanalysis to the areas opened up by the work of Melanie Klein; a Kleinian reading of Iago will, I think, help us to understand the ways in which Iago's imagination of his own interior shapes his object relations as he projects this interior onto the landscape of the play.

In Klein's account the primitive self is composed in part of remnants of internalized objects (people, or bits and pieces of people, taken into the self as part of the self's continual negotiation with what an outside observer would call the world) and the world is composed in part of projected bits and pieces of the self. Ideally, “the good breast is taken in and becomes part of the ego, and the infant who was first inside the mother now has the mother inside himself.”22 Internalization of the good object “is the basis for trust in one's own goodness”;23 “full identification with a good object goes with a feeling of the self possessing goodness of its own” and hence enables the return of goodness to the world: “Through processes of projection and introjection, through inner wealth given out and re-introjected, an enrichment and deepening of the ego comes about. … Inner wealth derives from having assimilated the good object so that the individual becomes able to share its gifts with others.”24 And the corollary is clear: if the infant cannot take in the experience of the good breast (either because of his/her own constitutional conditions or because the experience is not there to be had in a consistent way), the bad breast may be introjected, with accompanying feelings of one's own internal badness, poverty, poisonousness, one's own inability to give back anything good to the world.

But, in the words of Harold Boris, a contemporary post-Kleinian analyst of envy, “the infant who cannot, sooner or later, feed the hand from which it feeds … is the child who will then attempt to bite it.”25 The infant stuck with a depleted or contaminated inner world will, Klein suggests, exist in a peculiar relation to the good breast: even if it is there and apparently available, the infant may not be able to use it. For if the infant cannot tolerate either the discrepancy between its own badness and the goodness outside itself or the sense of dependency on this external source of goodness, the good breast will not be available for the infant's use: its goodness will in effect be spoiled by the infant's own envious rage. The prototype for Kleinian envy is the hungry baby, experiencing itself as helplessly dependent, empty, or filled only with badness, confronted with the imagined fullness of a source of goodness outside itself: “the first object to be envied is the feeding breast, for the infant feels that it possesses everything he desires and that it has an unlimited flow of milk, and love which the breast keeps for its own gratification.”26 Klein's insistence on the priority of the breast as the first object of envy effectively reverses Freud's concept of penis envy; in Klein's account even penis envy becomes secondary, derivative from this earlier prototype.27 But Klein's concept of envy turns on an even more startling innovation: for most analysts of infantile destructiveness and rage, the source and target is the frustrating “bad” object—a maternal object that doesn’t provide enough, is not at the infant's beck and call, provides milk that in some way is felt to be spoiled; but in Klein's reading of envy, the source and target of rage is not the frustrating or poisonous bad breast but the good breast, and it is exactly its goodness that provokes the rage. Hence the peculiar sensitivity of the envious to the good—and the consequent need not to possess but to destroy it, or, in Klein's terms, “to put badness, primarily bad excrement and bad parts of the self, into the mother, and first of all into her breast, in order to spoil and destroy her.”28 But the breast so destroyed is of course no longer available to the child as a source of good: “The breast attacked in this way has lost its value, it has become bad by being bitten up and poisoned by urine and faeces.”29 Insofar as the infant has succeeded in destroying the good object, he has confirmed its destruction as a source of goodness within himself; hence the peculiarly vicious circle of envy, which destroys all good both in the world and in the self, and hence also its peculiar despair.

We do not, of course, need the help of a Kleinian perspective to identify Iago as envious. His willingness to kill Cassio simply because “He has a daily beauty in his life, / That makes me ugly” (5.1.19-20) marks the extent to which he is driven by envy; in an older theatrical tradition he might well have been named Envy. Here, for example, is Envy from Impatient Poverty:

A syr is not thys a ioly game …
Enuy in fayth I am the same …
I hate conscience, peace loue and reste
Debate and stryfe that loue I beste
Accordynge to my properte
When a man louethe well hys wyfe
I brynge theym at debate and stryfe.(30)

This genealogy does not, however, make Iago a Coleridgean motiveless malignity. For in Iago, Shakespeare gives motiveless malignity a body: incorporating this element of the morality tradition, he releases through Iago the range of bodily fantasies associated with a specifically Kleinian envy.

Klein describes an envy so primal—and so despairing—that it cannot tolerate the existence of goodness in the world: its whole delight lies not in possessing what is good but in spoiling it. And that spoiling takes place in fantasy through a special form of object-relating: through the violent projection of bits of the self and its contaminated objects—often localized as contaminated bodily products—into the good object. By means of this projection, the self succeeds in replicating its own inner world “out there” and thus in destroying the goodness it cannot tolerate; at the end of the process, in the words of one Kleinian analyst, “There is nothing left to envy.”31 Through the lens of a Kleinian perspective, we can see traces of this process as Iago fills Othello with the poison that fills him.

In Iago's fantasy, as I have suggested, there is no uncontaminated interior space: he can allow no one access to his interior and has to keep it hidden away because it is more a cesspool than a palace or a garden. And there are no uncontaminated inner objects: every intruder is foul; everything taken in turns to pus or faeces or poison; everything swallowed must be vomited out. This sense of inner contamination leaves him—as Klein would predict—particularly subject to the sense of goodness in others and particularly ambivalent toward that goodness. His goal is to make those around him as ugly as he is; but that goal depends on his unusual sensitivity to their beauty. Even after he has managed to bring out the quarrelsome drunkard and class-conscious snob in Cassio, transforming him into a man who clearly enjoys sneaking around to see his general's wife, Iago remains struck by the daily beauty in Cassio's life—at a point when that beauty has become largely invisible to the audience. To Roderigo, Iago always contemptuously denies the goodness of Othello and Desdemona (he is an erring barbarian and she a supersubtle Venetian); but in soliloquy he specifically affirms their goodness—and affirms it in order to imagine spoiling it. Othello's “free and open nature” he will remake as the stupidity of an ass who can be led by the nose (1.3.397-400). He will not only use Desdemona's virtue; he will turn it into pitch, in a near-perfect replication of the projection of faeces into the good breast that Klein posits.

For Iago the desire to spoil always takes precedence over the desire to possess; one need only contrast him with Othello to see the difference in their relation to good objects.32 Othello's anguish over the loss of the good object gives the play much of its emotional resonance. He imagines himself as safely enclosed in its garnery, nourished and protected by it, and then cast out: “But there, where I have garner’d up my heart, / Where either I must live, or bear no life, / The fountain, from the which my current runs, / Or else dries up, to be discarded thence” (4.2.58-61). When he is made to imagine that object as spoiled—“a cistern, for foul toads / To knot and gender in”—its loss is wholly intolerable to him; even at the end, as he kills Desdemona, he is working very hard to restore some remnant of the good object in her. Although he approaches Desdemona's bed planning to bloody it (“Thy bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust's blood be spotted” [5.1.36]), his deepest desire is not to stain but to restore the purity of the good object, rescuing it from contamination, even the contamination he himself has visited upon it. By the time he reaches her bed, he has decided not to shed her blood (5.2.3). Instead he attempts to recreate her unviolated wholeness (“that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth, as monumental alabaster” [ll. 4-5]) in a death that he imagines as a revirgination;33 in fantasy he cleanses “the slime / That sticks on filthy deeds,” remaking her unmarred and unpenetrated, “one entire and perfect chrysolite” (ll. 149-50, 146).

But Iago's only joy comes in spoiling good objects: Othello mourns being cast out from the garnery/fountain that has nourished him; Iago mocks the meat he feeds on (3.3.170-71). His description of the green-eyed monster he cautions Othello against marks the workings of a very Kleinian envy in him:34 like the empty infant who cannot tolerate the fullness of the breast, he will mock the objects that might nourish and sustain him, spoiling them by means of his corrosive wit.35 (Or perhaps—in good Kleinian fashion—by tearing at them with his teeth: especially in conjunction with the image of feeding on meat, “mock” may carry traces of mammock,36 to tear into pieces, suggesting the oral aggression behind Iago's biting mockery and hence the talion logic in his fantasy of being pecked at.) Mockery—especially of the meat he might feed on—is Iago's signature: different as they are, Othello, Cassio, and Roderigo share an almost religious awe toward Desdemona; Iago insists that “the wine she drinks is made of grapes” (2.1.249-50), that even the best woman is only good enough “To suckle fools, and chronicle small beer” (l. 160). If “the first object to be envied is the feeding breast,” Iago's devaluation of maternal nurturance here is just what we might expect.

But envy does not stop there. As Klein suggests, “Excessive envy of the breast is likely to extend to all feminine attributes, in particular to the woman's capacity to bear children. … The capacity to give and to preserve life is felt as the greatest gift and therefore creativeness becomes the deepest cause for envy.”37 If Othello's potency and fullness make him the immediate target of Iago's envious rage, the destruction of Desdemona's generativity has been Iago's ultimate goal from the beginning: “poison his delight,” he says; “And though he in a fertile climate dwell, / Plague him with flies” (1.1.70-71). The image half-echoes Hamlet's linking of conception and breeding with the stirring of maggots in dead flesh,38 for the “fertile climate” that Iago will transform into a breeding ground for plague is Desdemona's generative body. Hence, I think, the urgency with which Iago propels the plot toward the marriage bed (“Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” [4.1.203-4]): the ultimate game is to make father destroy mother on that bed in a parody of the life-giving insemination that might have taken place there.39

And hence the subterranean logic of Iago's favorite metaphor for that destruction, his monstrous birth. For if Iago enviously devalues Desdemona's generativity (she can only suckle, and only suckle fools; her body will breed only flies), he also appropriates it, and appropriates it specifically through imitation. Here both senses of mock—as devaluation and derisive imitation—come together, as Boris's work on envy predicts: “The urge to take charge of the envied object has several components to it. First, of course, is the denuding (an idea) and disparagement (an emotion) of the inherent value of the original. This makes possible what follows, namely the idea that the ‘knockoff’ (the ‘as-if’) is in every way the equal of the real thing.”40 In conceiving of his monstrous birth, that is, Iago not only mocks but also displaces Desdemona's generativity by taking on its powers for himself, denying the difference—between her fruitfulness and his barrenness, between her fullness and his emptiness—that he cannot tolerate. Iago's substitution in fact proceeds by stages. When he first invokes the metaphor of pregnancy, he is merely the midwife/observer: “There are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered” (1.3.369-70). But his triumphant “I ha’t” only thirty lines later—“I ha’t, it is engender’d; Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light”—replaces time's womb with his own: as I have already argued, his is the body in which the monstrous birth is engendered, and hell and night have become the midwives.

Through this metaphor, Iago's mental production becomes his substitute birth, in which he replaces the world outside himself41—the world of time's womb, or of Desdemona's—with the projection of his own interior monstrosity; thus conceived, his plot manages simultaneously to destroy the generativity that he cannot tolerate and to proclaim the superior efficacy of his own product. Emilia's description of the jealousy Iago creates in Othello—it is “a monster, / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.159-60)—is not accurate about Othello, but it suggestively tracks Iago's own envy to its psychic sources. If Iago imagines himself enacting a substitute birth, making the world conform to the shape of his envy by undoing the contours of the already-existing generative world, Emilia expresses the wish behind his metaphor: the wish to be begot upon oneself, born on oneself, no longer subject to—dependent on, vulnerable to—the generative fullness outside the self and the unendurable envy it provokes.42 Unable to achieve that end, he will empty himself out on the wedding bed, substituting his own monstrous conception for the generative fullness that torments him, and destroying in the process the envied good object in Desdemona.

And it is just here, in this fantasy, that Othello's blackness becomes such a powerful vehicle for Iago. I have already suggested that Iago's capacity to spoil good objects rests on his capacity to blacken them, and to blacken them through a bodily process of projection. His monstrous birth is from the first associated with the darkness of hell and night; and when, in his conversation with Desdemona, he imagines his invention as his baby, that baby is associated specifically with the extrusion of a dark and sticky substance:

my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze,
It plucks out brain and all: but my Muse labours,
And thus she is deliver’d. …


Presumably Iago means that his invention is as slow—as laborious—as the process of removing birdlime from rough cloth (frieze), in which the nap of the cloth is removed along with the soiling agent (hence “plucks out brain and all”). But the route to this relatively rational meaning is treacherous: the syntax first presents us with birdlime oozing from his head (“invention / Comes from my pate as birdlime does”), takes us on an apparent detour through the soiling of cloth (the birdlime stuck to the frieze), and ends with the image of his head emptied out altogether (“plucks out brain and all”), as though in a dangerous evacuation. Then, through a buried pun on conception, the concealed intermediary term, the evacuation becomes a pregnancy and delivery, displaced from his own body to that of the Muse, who labors and is delivered.

Invention, in other words, becomes the male equivalent of pregnancy, the production of a sticky dark baby. What we have here, I suggest, is the vindicative fantasy of a faecal pregnancy and delivery that can project Iago's inner monstrosity and darkness into the world:44 initially displaced upward to the evacuated pate, this faecal baby is then returned to its source as his monstrous birth, the baby he has conceived in response to Desdemona's request for praise (2.1.124) and the easy generativity (his own is a difficult labor) that he envies in her. This baby's emergence here marks, I think, both the source of his envy and the exchange that envy will demand: he will attempt in effect to replicate his dark sticky baby in her, soiling her generative body by turning her virtue into pitch,45 spoiling the object whose fullness and goodness he cannot tolerate by making it the receptacle for his own bodily contents. And he counts on the contagion of this contaminated object: he will turn Desdemona into pitch not only because pitch is black and sticky—hence entrapping—but because it is notoriously defiling;46 his scheme depends on using Desdemona as a kind of tar baby, counting on her defilement—her blackening—to make Othello “black.” In fantasy, that is, Iago uses Desdemona and Othello to contaminate each other; they become for him one defiled object as he imagines them on that wedding bed. But at the same time, Othello plays a special role for Iago: in Othello's black skin Iago can find a fortuitous external sign for the entire process, or, more accurately, a container for the internal blackness that he would project outward, the dark baby that hell and night must bring to the world's light; emptying himself out, Iago can project his faecal baby into Othello, blackening him with his own inner waste.

Iago plainly needs an Othello who can carry the burden of his own contamination; and to some extent the play makes us complicit in the process, as it makes Othello in effect into Iago's monstrous creation, carrying out Iago's “conception” as he murders Desdemona on her wedding bed, enacting a perverse version of the childbirth that might have taken place there. Othello himself seems to recognize that a birth of sorts is taking place, though he does not recognize it as Iago's: preparing to kill Desdemona on that bed, he says that her denials “Cannot remove, nor choke the strong conception, / That I do groan withal” (5.2.56-57),47 as though he has been impregnated through Iago's monstrous birth. And in fact he has: part of the peculiar horror of this play is that Othello becomes so effective a receptacle for—and enactor of—Iago's fantasies. If Iago imagines himself filled with a gnawing poisonous mineral through what amounts to Othello's anal insemination of him (2.1.290-92), he turns that poison back on Othello: “I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear” (2.3.347). This retaliatory aural/anal insemination fills Othello with Iago's own contents, allowing Iago to serve his turn on Othello by doing to Othello what he imagines Othello has done to him. (“I follow him to serve my turn upon him” is sexualized in ways not likely to be audible to a modern audience [1.1.42]. For turn, see Othello's later “she can turn, and turn, and yet go on, / And turn again” [4.1.249-50];48 characteristically, Othello replicates in Desdemona the “turn” Iago has replicated in him.) And “The Moor already changes with my poison,” Iago says, adding for our benefit—in case we have not noticed the links between his poisonous conceit and Othello's—“Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons, / Which … Burn like the mines of sulphur” (3.3.330-34).

“The Moor already changes with my poison”: the line marks what is distinctive about projection in this play—and distinctively Kleinian. Before Klein, projection was usually understood as a relatively uncomplicated process in which disowned ideas and emotions were displaced onto an external figure. Klein insisted both on the fantasies of bodily function accompanying this process and on the extent to which it is specifically pieces of the self and its inner objects that are thus relocated, with the consequence that pieces of the self are now felt to be “out there,” both controlling the object into which they have been projected and subject to dangers from it; Klein renamed this process “projective identification.” And her followers have expanded on the concept, stressing the effects of these projected contents on the recipient of the projection, the ways in which the projector can in fact control the recipient. In this version of projective identification, the recipient will not only experience the bits of self projected into him but also enact the projector's fantasy scenarios, hence relieving the projector of all responsibility for them.49 When Iago imagines Roderigo turned inside out, his body filled with pus, he seems to me to be engaging in something close to garden-variety projection: he is attributing to Roderigo portions of himself, or ideas about himself, that he would like to disown; and, as far as we know, Roderigo does not come to experience himself as pus-filled or inside out. But when Iago imagines filling Othello with his poison, when he imagines (in Klein's formulation) “the forceful entry into the object and control of the object by parts of the self,”50 he is much closer to a specifically Kleinian projective identification; and, as Klein's followers would predict, Othello really does change with Iago's poison, as he begins to experience himself as contaminated and hence to act out Iago's scenarios.

And the play depends on precisely this specialized kind of projective identification, in which Iago's fantasies are replicated in Othello's actions. When we first meet Othello, he is confident enough about his status and his color that he wishes to be found; he can confidently wish “the goodness of the night” (1.2.35) on Cassio and the duke's servants because blackness has not yet been poisoned for him. But as Iago projects his faecal baby into him, Othello comes more and more to imagine himself as the foul thing—the old black ram—intruding into the palace of Venetian civilization or the palace of Desdemona's body; as Iago succeeds in making Othello the container for his own interior waste, Othello himself increasingly affiliates his blackness with soiling (he becomes “collied” or blackened by passion [2.3.197];51 his name is “begrim’d, and black” as his face) and with bad interior objects. (In “Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell” [3.3.454], he calls on “black vengeance” to arise as though from within the hollow of himself.)52 His experience of himself, that is, comes increasingly to resemble what Iago has projected into him; and he begins to act in accordance with that projection, replicating in Desdemona the contagion of projection itself. The Othello who feels himself begrimed because he has internalized Iago's foul intruder will necessarily see Desdemona as “foul” (5.2.201), as a “begrim’d” Diana or a “black weed,” and will evacuate his good object as Iago had predicted (1.3.350); by the end of the play, Emilia can call Othello “the blacker devil,” Desdemona's “most filthy bargain,” “As ignorant as dirt” (5.2.132, 158, 165) because he has so perfectly introjected Iago's sense of inner filth.

Insofar as Iago can make Othello experience his own blackness as a contamination that contaminates Desdemona, he succeeds in emptying himself out into Othello; and insofar as Othello becomes in effect Iago's faecal baby, Othello—rather than Iago—becomes the bearer of the fantasy of inner filth. Through projective identification, that is, Iago invents blackness as a contaminated category before our eyes, enacting his monstrous birth through Othello, and then allowing the Venetians (and most members of the audience) to congratulate themselves—as he does—on their distance from the now-racialized Othello. Through this process, Othello becomes assimilated to, and motivated by, his racial “type”—becomes the monstrous Moor easily made jealous—and Iago escapes our human categories altogether, becoming unknowable, a motiveless malignity.

But this emptying out of Iago is no more than Iago has already performed on himself: if the projection of his own inner contamination into Othello is Iago's relief, it is also his undoing, and in a way that corroborates both the bodiliness of the fantasy of projection and its dangers to the projector as well as the recipient. Klein notes that excessive use of projective identification results in the “weakening and impoverishment of the ego”; in the words of Betty Joseph, “at times the mind can be … so evacuated by projective identification that the individual appears empty.”53 If at the end of the play there is nothing left to envy, there is also no one left to experience envy: Iago's projection of himself into the racial other he constructs as the container for his contamination ends not only by destroying his (and our) good objects but also by leaving him entirely evacuated. Having poured the pestilence of himself into Othello, Iago has nothing left inside him: his antigenerative birth hollows him out, leaving him empty. The closer he is to his goal, the flatter his language becomes; by the end, there is no inside left, no place to speak from. The play that begins with his insistent “I” ends with his silence: from this time forth he never will speak word.


  1. Quotations follow the Arden edition of Othello, edited by M. R. Ridley (London: Methuen, 1958). Ridley follows the 1622 quarto, which often differs from the Folio Othello; I have noted the differences where they seem significant to my argument. Citations of plays other than Othello follow William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  2. Race is of course a vexed term; many have pointed out that the word race gained its current meaning only as it was biologized in support of the economic institution of slavery and that the link between race and skin color is a peculiarly contemporary obsession, that (for example) Irish and Jews might in 1604 have been thought of as racially separate from the English. For a particularly lucid account of the questions surrounding the invocation of race as a category in early modern England, see Lynda E. Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial discourse in early modern England and the unrepresentable black woman” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 35-54, esp. 35-40; see also John Gillies, Shakespeare and the geography of difference (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), for the claim that early modern otherness was based on geography rather than on the anachronistic category of race (25). Nonetheless, in Iago's capacity to make Othello's blackness the primary signifier of his otherness—as Boose observes, “once his Ensign has raised the flag inscribing Othello within the difference of skin color, all the presumably meaningful differences Othello has constructed between himself and the infidel collapse” (38)—the text insists on the visible difference of skin color that will increasingly come to define race, perhaps because, unlike religion, it (proverbially) cannot be changed. For a discussion of the significance of visible difference in early modern England, see Kim Hall, “Reading What Isn’t There: ‘Black’ Studies in Early Modern England,” Stanford Humanities Review 3 (1993): 23-33, esp. 25-27; in her account “science merely takes up already pre-existing terms of difference, such as skin color and features, that have [previously] been combined with physical and mental characteristics” (25).

  3. Ridley follows the Folio reading of line 392, since this line occurs in a passage not found in Q1; Q2 (1630) famously reads “Her name” in place of F's “My name,” perhaps to rationalize Othello's peculiar association of his name with the fairness of a figure for female virginity. I prefer “My name,” partly because it suggests the identificatory dynamics that underlie Othello's love for Desdemona; but either reading points toward Othello's association of the stain on Desdemona's virgin body with the blackness of his own face.

  4. Desdemona becomes a “black weed” only in the quartos; F omits the adjective.

  5. This position was powerfully—and variously—articulated in three classic essays published in 1979-80: Edward A. Snow's “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello,English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412; Stanley Cavell's “Othello and the Stake of the Other” in Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987), 125-42 (originally published in 1979 in The Claim of Reason [Oxford: Oxford UP]); and Stephen Greenblatt's “The Improvisation of Power” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1980), 222-54, esp. 232-52. For the association of Othello's blackness specifically with sexual contamination, and Othello's internalization of this association, see especially Snow, 400-402; and Cavell, 136-37. For a fuller reading of the association between blackness and monstrous sexuality in early modern English culture and in Othello, see especially Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: femininity and the monstrous in Othello” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in history and ideology, Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, eds. (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 143-62, esp. 148-53; for a fuller reading of the ways in which Othello internalizes the Venetian construction of his blackness, see Edward Berry, “Othello's Alienation,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30 (1990): 315-33. The “blackening” of Desdemona has become a critical commonplace: see, for example, Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383-412, esp. 410; Berry, 328; Ania Loomba, Gender, race, Renaissance drama (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1989), 59; Parker, “Fantasies of ‘Race’ and ‘Gender’: Africa, Othello and bringing to light” in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 84-100, esp. 95; and especially Newman, 151-52, for whom the blackening of Desdemona indicates the convergence of woman and black in the category of monstrous sexuality.

  6. See W. H. Auden's related account of Iago as practical joker: “The practical joker despises his victims, but at the same time he envies them because their desires, however childish and mistaken, are real to them, whereas he has no desire which he can call his own. … If the word motive is given its normal meaning of a positive purpose of the self like sex, money, glory, etc., then the practical joker is without motive. Yet the professional practical joker is certainly driven, … but the drive is negative, a fear of lacking a concrete self, of being nobody. In any practical joker to whom playing such jokes is a passion, there is always an element of malice, a projection of his self-hatred onto others, and in the ultimate case of the absolute practical joker, this is projected onto all created things” (The Dyer's Hand and other essays [New York: Random House, 1962], 256-57). The emptiness of Auden's practical joker is sometimes associated by later critics with Iago's facility in role-playing; see, e.g., Shelley Orgel, whose Iago gains a temporary sense of self by playing the roles that others project onto him (“Iago,” American Imago 25 [1968]: 258-73, esp. 272). Greenblatt's Iago “has the role-player's ability to imagine his nonexistence so that he can exist for a moment in another and as another”; but for Greenblatt, Iago's imagined emptiness is less an ontological state than a cover for his emptying out of his victim (235 and 236). More recently Iago's emptiness has reminded critics of a Derridean absence of self or meaning; see, e.g., Bonnie Melchior, “Iago as Deconstructionist,” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 16 (1990): 63-81, esp. 79; or Karl F. Zender, “The Humiliation of Iago,” SEL 34 (1994): 323-39, esp. 327-28. In Alessandro Serpieri's brilliant semiotic reading, Iago suffers from an “envy of being” that is the deconstructionist's equivalent of the state Auden describes: “Iago cannot identify with any situation or sign or énoncé, and is thus condemned to deconstruct through his own énonciations the énoncés of others, transforming them into simulacra. Othello is precisely the lord of the énoncé” (Serpieri, “Reading the signs: towards a semiotics of Shakespearean drama,” trans. Keir Elam, in Alternative Shakespeares, John Drakakis, ed. [London and New York: Methuen, 1985], 119-43, esp. 139). In its emphasis on envy and projection, Auden's and Serpieri's work is closest to my own; but see also David Pollard's powerful Baudelairian reading of Iago's emptiness and the sadistic projections through which he attempts to fill it (“Iago's Wound” in Othello: New Perspectives, Virginia Mason Vaughan and Kent Cartwright, eds. [Rutherford, Madison, and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991], 89-96).

  7. Adam Phillips, “Foreword” in Harold N. Boris, Envy (Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), vii-xi, esp. ix.

  8. For some, Othello is split long before Iago begins his work. In Berry's account, for example, Othello is divided from the beginning by the two contradictory self-images he absorbs from Venice; his failure to escape this limiting framework and hence to “achieve a true sense of personal identity” is a powerful source of tragic feeling in the play (323 and 330). But for critics who read Othello as an early instance of a colonized subject, this “failure” is not personal but systemic: both Loomba (32, 48, and 54) and Jyotsna Singh (“Othello's Identity, Postcolonial Theory, and Contemporary African Rewritings of Othello” in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 287-99, esp. 288) position Othello specifically in opposition to what Singh calls “the dominant, Western fantasy of a singular, unified identity” (288). But Iago at least insists that he is the divided one, and Othello initially claims that his soul is “perfect” or undivided; whatever the state to which Othello is reduced, Othello—like The Tempest—seems to me to encode the fantasy that the exotic other possesses a primitive unitary identity before his induction into a Western-style split self.

  9. I first read this paper to a very helpful and responsive audience at Notre Dame in November 1994, on which occasion Richard Dutton called my attention to the way in which Othello's self-division is literally played out on the stage.

  10. As Iago's self-alienation passes to Othello, so does his habit of soliloquizing. Soliloquies are usually in Shakespearean tragedy the discourse of self-division: only those whose selves are in pieces need to explain themselves to themselves and have distinct-enough interior voices to carry out the job for our benefit. Initially Iago's soliloquies formally mark him as fractured in comparison with Othello's wholeness; by the end, Othello is the soliloquizer.

  11. I here depart from Ridley in following F's version of line 80; Ridley and Q1 (1622) give “And swiftly come to Desdemona's arms.” Ridley himself finds Q1's version of line 80 “pallid” and thinks Shakespeare probably revised it for F; that he nonetheless rejects the Folio version on the grounds that it is inconsistent with Cassio's character suggests his resistance to seeing just how eroticized Cassio's idealizing of Othello is (xxix-xxx and 52n). In the context of lovemaking, spirits is not a neutral term; for its specifically sexual senses, see Stephen Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1977), 441-43.

  12. See Neill's powerful account of the ways in which the audience is implicated in Iago's invocation of the horrors of miscegenation, the improper sexual mixture that medieval theologians called adultery (395-99 and 407-9). For Arthur L. Little Jr. the whole of the play constitutes “the primal scene of racism,” a forbidden sexual sight/site from which the audience “constructs the significance of race” (“‘An essence that’s not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello,SQ 44 [1993]: 304-24, esp. 305-6).

  13. The familiar associations of blackness with monstrosity (see, e.g., Newman, 148; and James R. Aubrey, “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in Othello,Clio 22 [1993]: 221-38) and specifically with monstrous births (see Neill, 409-10; and Aubrey, 222-27) would probably have made the subterranean connection between Othello and Iago's monstrous birth more available to Shakespeare's audiences than it is to a modern audience.

  14. Projection has classically been invoked as a mechanism in Othello, but usually in the other direction, from Othello to Iago; see, e.g., J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined ([London, New York, and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company, 1949], 102-5), though Stewart ultimately abandons a naturalistic reading of the play through projection for a symbolic reading of Iago and Othello as parts of a single whole. For somewhat later versions of Iago as Othello's projection, see, e.g., Henry L. Warnken, “Iago as a Projection of Othello” in Shakespeare Encomium 1564-1964, Anne Paolucci, ed. (New York: The City College, 1964), 1-15; and Orgel, 258-73. In these accounts projection is loosely used to indicate that Iago expresses unacknowledged doubts or desires in Othello's mind (or, in Orgel's reading, Othello's unacknowledged need for a punitive superego); they generally do not explore the mechanism of projection or consider the degree to which the structure of the play posits Iago—not Othello—as its psychic starting point. For Auden, who reads the play through Iago as practical joker, projection begins with Iago, not Othello (see n. 6, above); see also Leslie Y. Rabkin and Jeffrey Brown, who read Iago as a Horneyan sadist, assuaging his pain by projecting his self-contempt and hopelessness onto others (“Some Monster in His Thought: Sadism and Tragedy in Othello,Literature and Psychology 23 [1973]: 59-67, esp. 59-60); and Pollard, who reads Iago as Baudelairian sadist, filling the world with sadistic projections with which he then identifies to fill his inner emptiness (92-95). Serpieri sees Iago as the “artificer of a destructive projection”; in his semiotic analysis, litotes—Iago's characteristic nay-saying figure—becomes the linguistic equivalent of projection, “a figure of persuasion which, by denying, affirms in the ‘other’ all that—the diabolical, the lustful, the alien—which it refutes or censures in the ‘self’” (134 and 142). Attention to the status of “others” has made contemporary criticism particularly sensitive to Othello as the site of Iago's projections rather than as the originator of projection; see, e.g., Parker on “the violence of projection” (100). My account differs from those cited here largely in giving projection a body and in specifying the mechanisms of projective identification at work in the play.

  15. Although Neill emphasizes the hidden/hideousness of the bed rather than of bodily interiors (394-95), my formulation here is very much indebted to his. In the course of her enormously suggestive account of the cultural resonances of the hidden/private in Othello and Hamlet, Parker comments extensively on the association of the hidden with the woman's private parts, partly via gynecological discourse; see Parker, “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation, Spying, and the ‘Secret Place’ of Woman,” Representations 44 (1993): 60-95, esp. 64-69.

  16. Gender can of course mean “kind”; but, as Ridley notes, “Shakespeare normally uses it of difference of sex” (40n).

  17. Ridley notes that “supply = satisfy” (40n); for a specifically sexualized use, see Measure for Measure, 5.1.210.

  18. “Doves” is the reading in Ridley and Q1; I here depart from it in giving F's and Q2's “dawes.”

  19. On the relationship between money and faeces, see Sigmund Freud, “Character and Anal Eroticism” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-74), 9:167-76, esp. 171 and 173-74; Ernest Jones, “Anal-Erotic Character Traits,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 13 (1918): 261-84, esp. 272-74 and 276-77; Karl Abraham, “Contributions to the Theory of the Anal Character” in Selected Papers of Karl Abraham (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1927), 370-92, esp. 383; and Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945), 281. On sadism and anality, see Abraham, “The Narcissistic Evaluation of Excretory Processes in Dreams and Neurosis” in Selected Papers, 318-22, esp. 319 and 321; Jones, 268; and Fenichel, 283.

  20. The loci classici for this reading are Martin Wangh, “Othello: The Tragedy of Iago,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 19 (1950): 202-12; and Gordon Ross Smith, “Iago the Paranoiac,” American Imago 16 (1959): 155-67. Both essays are based on Freud's account of delusional jealousy as a defense against homosexual desire in the Schreber case. For an extension and elaboration of this view, with particular focus on Iago's hatred of women, see also Stanley Edgar Hyman, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 101-21. Contemporary critics who comment on the homoerotic dynamic between Iago and Othello tend to locate their readings not in this model but in the complex of metaphors that makes Iago's seduction of Othello into an aural penetration and insemination, with a resulting monstrous (and miscegenistic) conception; see, e.g., Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 1981), 144-45; and Parker in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 99-100. Parker notes that the imagined penetration is anal as well as aural (99); see also, e.g., Graham Hammill's brief discussion of Iago's anal eroticism, “The Epistemology of Expurgation: Bacon and The Masculine Birth of Time” in Queering the Renaissance, Jonathan Goldberg, ed. (Durham, NC, and London: Duke UP, 1994), 236-52, esp. 251n.

  21. For historically based arguments against Iago-as-repressed-homosexual, see Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 157-62; and Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991), 61-63 and 75. Both Dollimore and Smith stress the social functions of the male homosocial bond rather than the dynamics of homoerotic feeling partly on the grounds that the homosexual subject is an anachronism in the early modern period. But Shakespeare does not need to have the category of the “homosexual subject” available to him in order to represent Iago as acting out of desires inadmissible to him, including sodomitical desires; and critics who insist that we do away with “the homosexual” as a category sometimes throw out the baby with the bathwater. In “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England” (in Goldberg, ed., 40-61) Alan Bray demonstrates the cultural (nonsexual) uses to which the “bedfellow” could be put; but in order for Smith, for example, to invoke Iago's report of Cassio's “bedfellow” dream to make the argument that Iago is a self-conscious male-bonder rather than a repressed homosexual, he has to ignore the explicit sexiness of the dream (the hard kisses plucked up by the roots, the leg over the thigh). The dream clearly crosses the line—between male friendship and sodomy—that Bray delineates, more strikingly because Iago need not have included all that sexiness to convey his “information” to Othello; and whether or not the reported dream proclaims Iago a “repressed homosexual,” its effect on Othello clearly depends as much on its crossing of that line as on the information that Cassio dreams about Desdemona. As for subjectivity: whether or not the Renaissance shared our sense of the bourgeois subject—in any case, emphatically not the subject as it is construed by psychoanalysis—Othello is obsessively about what is hidden away within the person, the inner, private, and unknowable self that might harbor inaccessible desires. For a good summary of these controversies—and a sensible middle position—see Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994), 12-14.

  22. Melanie Klein, “Envy and Gratitude” (1957) in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963 (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1975), 176-235, esp. 179.

  23. Klein, 188.

  24. Klein, 192 and 189.

  25. Boris, xvi.

  26. Klein, 183.

  27. For an early statement of this position, see Klein, “Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict” (1928) in Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945 (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1975), 186-98, esp. 190-91 and 193-96.

  28. Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 181.

  29. Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 186.

  30. Quoted here from Bernard Spivack's discussion of Iago and the morality tradition in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains (New York: Columbia UP, 1958), 184.

  31. Betty Joseph, “Envy in everyday life” in Psychic Equilibrium and Psychic Change: Selected Papers of Betty Joseph, ed. Michael Feldman and Elizabeth Bott Spillius (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1989), 181-91, esp. 185.

  32. In Kleinian terms, Othello has reached the depressive position, characterized by the capacity to mourn for the damaged object and to make reparations to it (see especially Klein, “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States” [1935] and “Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States” [1940], both in Love, Guilt and Reparation, 262-89 and 344-69); Iago functions from within the more primitive paranoid-schizoid position, with its characteristic mechanisms of splitting and projection/introjection (see especially Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” in Envy and Gratitude, 1-24).

  33. As many have argued: see especially Cavell, 134; and Snow, 392. See also my Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 69-70.

  34. Iago's words here, like Emilia's at 3.4.157-60, refer explicitly to jealousy but nonetheless define the self-referential qualities of envy. Although the two terms are sometimes popularly confused, they are distinct in psychoanalytic thought: jealousy occurs in a three-body relationship, derived from the oedipus complex, in which the loss of a good object to a rival is at stake; envy occurs in a pre-oedipal two-body relationship, in which the “good” qualities of the object are felt to be intolerable. Jealousy seeks to preserve the good object, if necessary by killing it; envy seeks to spoil the good object. (For these distinctions, see Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 196-99; and Joseph in Feldman and Spillius, eds., 182.) Jealousy is a derivative of envy but is more easily recognized and more socially acceptable (Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 198; Joseph in Feldman and Spillius, eds., 182); partly as a consequence, it can sometimes serve as “an important defence against envy” (Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 198). This defensive structure seems to me at work both in Iago and in the play at large: in Iago, who repeatedly comes up with narratives of jealousy as though to justify his intolerable envy to himself (tellingly, he uses the traditional language of envy—Spenser's Envy “inwardly … chawed his owne maw” in The Faerie Queene [I.iv.30]—to register the gnawing effects of jealousy on him); and in Othello itself, insofar as its own narratives of jealousy are far more legible and recognizably “human” than the envy represented through Iago and dismissed in him as unrecognizable, inhuman, or demonic.

  35. “Mock” has puzzled commentators for years, occasioning five pages of commentary in the New Variorum edition of Othello (ed. Horace Howard Furness [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1886]). William Warburton (1747) glosses “mocke” (in terms strikingly close to my own) as “loaths that which nourishes and sustains it” (176). With very little plausibility but some interest for my argument, Andrew Becket (1815) transforms “mocke” to “muck,” glossing it as to “bedaub or make foul”; two other commentators—Zachariah Jackson and Lord John Chedworth—approved of this emendation enough to come up with candidates for the monstrous animal that befouls its food, mouse and dragon-fly, respectively (179).

  36. Zachary Grey suggested in 1754 that “mock” is a contraction for “mammock” (Furness, ed., 176); as far as I can tell, his suggestion has been entirely ignored.

  37. Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 201-2.

  38. See Hamlet, 2.2.181-82.

  39. This destruction also has the effect of separating the two figures whose conjunction has haunted Iago's imagination. Klein hypothesizes the combined parent figure as a special target of envy (“the suspicion that the parents are always getting sexual gratification from one another reinforces the phantasy … that they are always combined” [Envy and Gratitude, 198]); Iago in fact evokes such a fantasy-figure in his initial description of Othello and Desdemona as fused, a “beast with two backs” (1.1.116), always in the process of achieving the “incorporate conclusion” (2.1.258-59) that is always denied him.

  40. Boris, 36.

  41. My formulation here is partly indebted to Janine Chausseguet-Smirgel's work on perversion, expecially anal perversion, which she sees as an attempt to dissolve generational and gender differences in order to defend against acknowledgment of the pervert's own puniness and vulnerability; though she does not draw specifically on Klein's concept of envy, her work sometimes intersects usefully with Klein's. In Chausseguet-Smirgel's reading, Sade's intention, for example, is “to reduce the universe to faeces, or rather to annihilate the universe of differences” (“Perversion and the Universal Law” in Chausseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion [New York: W. W. Norton, 1984], 4). Insofar as perversion attempts to replace God's differentiated universe with its own undifferentiation, it is “the equivalent of Devil religion (9); the undifferentiated and universe “constitutes an imitation or parody of the genital universe of the father” (11). While this formulation is suggestive for Iago, I think that Chausseguet-Smirgel is hampered by her Lacanian milieu, with its overvaluation of the phallus and the father's law; Iago is at least as intent on imitating and ultimately replacing the mother's generative function as the father's law.

  42. With the kind of psychological intuition that everywhere animates his portrayal of Satan, Milton reworks Emilia's comment: unable to stand the “debt immense of endless gratitude” to the God who has created him (Paradise Lost, Bk. 4, l. 52), Satan proclaims himself “self-begot, self-rais’d / By our own quick’ning power” (Bk. 5, ll. 860-61). Klein cites Milton's Satan as an instance of “the spoiling of creativity implied in envy” (Envy and Gratitude, 202).

  43. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, birdlime is a sticky substance made out of the bark of the holly tree and smeared on branches to entrap birds; “With the barkes of Holme they make Bird-lyme,” cited from Henry Lyte's 1578 Niewe herball or historie of plantes (Oxford English Dictionary, prep. J. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, 2d ed., 20 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989], 2:216). Holme is confusing; it is cited as “blacke Holme” in Spenser's Virgils Gnat (l. 215), but there apparently refers to the oak, not the holly. In any case, despite the echo of lime, birdlime seems to have been dark, not white.

  44. The equation of faeces with baby is familiar to psychoanalysis; see, e.g., Freud, “On the Sexual Theories of Children,” on the cloacal theory of birth (“If babies are born through the anus, then a man can give birth just as well as a woman” [9:205-26, esp. 219-20]); Jones, 274-75; and Susan Isaacs, “Penis-Feces-Child,” International Journal of Psycho-analysis 8 (1927): 74-76. For fantasies that overvalue the power of faecal creation “to create or destroy every object,” see Abraham, “The Narcissistic Evaluation of Excretory Processes,” 322; about one of his patients he reports, “That night he dreamed that he had to expel the universe out of his anus” (320).

  45. Oddly, Ridley associates the pitch into which Iago will turn Desdemona's virtue with birdlime without noting its source in Iago's earlier metaphor (88n).

  46. For Shakespeare's reworkings of the proverbially defiling properties of pitch, see, e.g., Love's Labor's Lost, 4.3.3; 1 Henry IV, 2.4.394-96; and Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.53.

  47. I here depart from Ridley in following F and Q2; Q1, Ridley's copytext, gives “conceit.” The half-buried metaphor of childbirth is, I think, present in either case, both through the association of “groan”—especially in proximity to a bed—with childbirth (see, e.g., All's Well That Ends Well, 1.3.140 and 4.5.10; and Measure for Measure, 2.2.15) and through the family relation between conceit and Latin conceptus, cited in the OED; the OED also gives “Conception of offspring” as an obsolete meaning for conceit with a 1589 instance, though it notes that this usage is “Perhaps only a pun” (3:647-48, esp. 648).

  48. See also “the best turn i’ th’ bed” (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.5.59). For serve, see Lear's Oswald, “A serviceable villain, / As duteous to the vices of thy mistress / As badness would desire” (4.6.248-50); for serve my turn, see Costard's exchange with the king (Love's Labor's Lost, 1.1.281-82). For follow/fallow, see Parker in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 99, citing Herbert A. Ellis, Shakespeare's Lusty Punning in Love's Labour's Lost (1973).

  49. This is an oversimplified summary of a very complex development in psychoanalytic theory; for a fuller summary, see “Projective Identification” in R. D. Hinshelwood's A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (London: Free Association Books, 1991), 179-208; or Elizabeth Bott Spillius's “Clinical experiences of projective identification” in Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion, Robin Anderson, ed. (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1992), 59-73, esp. 59-64. For Klein's initial development of the concept of projective identification, see Envy and Gratitude, 8-11. The development of the concept by her followers has had broad ramifications for clinical work; for a particularly lucid account of some of these, see, in addition to Spillius, Joseph, “Projective identification—some clinical aspects” in Melanie Klein Today: Developments in Theory and Practice, Elizabeth Bott Spillius, ed., 2 vols. (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 1:138-50.

  50. Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 11.

  51. Collied is conjecturally related to coaly by the OED, 3:390-91.

  52. Folio gives “hell” for Q1's “cell.” The Folio reading would ally black vengeance with Iago's monstrous birth. In either reading, the apparently superfluous hollowness suggests an inner space; as Ridley notes, it occurs, again redundantly, in the reference to a “hollow mine” (4.2.81). Shortly after he calls up black vengeance, and again in 5.2, Othello imagines his revenge swallowing up his victims (3.3.467 and 5.2.76), as though returning them to the interior source of his vengeance.

  53. Klein, Envy and Gratitude, 11; Joseph in Spillius, ed., Melanie Klein Today, 140.

Michael Neill (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Mulattos,’ ‘Blacks,’ and ‘Indian Moors’: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 361-74.

[In the following essay, Neill discusses the contradictory significance of race in Othello.]

“I think this play is racist, and I think it is not”:1 Virginia Vaughan's perplexed response to Othello is symptomatic of the problems faced by late-twentieth-century critics in approaching the racial dimensions of Shakespeare's play. For if the work of recent scholars has taught us anything about early modern constructions of human difference, it is that any attempt to read back into the early modern period an idea of “race” based on post-Enlightenment taxonomy is doomed to failure.2 To talk about race in Othello is to fall into anachronism; yet not to talk about it is to ignore something fundamental about a play that has rightly come to be identified as a foundational text in the emergence of modern European racial consciousness—a play that trades in constructions of human difference at once misleadingly like and confusingly unlike those twentieth-century notions to which they are nevertheless recognizably ancestral. In the latter part of this paper, I hope to cast some light on Shakespeare's treatment of what came to be called “race” by exploring an experience of alterity in the East Indian archipelago, a theater of colonial encounter which may at first seem far away from the Mediterranean world of Othello. But I should like to frame that discussion by briefly considering some of the ways in which this tragedy perplexes the notions of ethnic and national identity that its subtitle so casually invokes.

In an essay that provides a useful corrective to anachronistically postcolonial understandings of race in Othello, Emily Bartels has stressed the ideological openness of the play's treatment of human difference, arguing that (except in the eyes of Iago and those he manipulates) “Othello is, as the subtitle announces, ‘the Moor of Venice’. … neither an alienated nor an assimilated subject, but a figure defined by two worlds, a figure (like Marlowe's Jew of Malta) whose ethnicity occupies one slot, professional interests another, compatibly”—the fortunate possessor, then, of “a dual, rather than divided, identity.”3 But the invocation of Barabas as a parallel type of comfortably hyphenated hybridity seems something of a give-away here. One has only to think of the extreme anxieties surrounding the question of what it meant to belong to, say, the “Old English” of Ireland to recall how easily dual identity could be interpreted as sinister doubleness or self-contradiction: from the viewpoint of “New English” settlers like Spenser, the adoption of Irish customs and speech by the Old English descendants of Norman conquerors could signal only a treacherous repudiation of their birthright.4 The unease of hybridity (whether elective or enforced), in a world where the hybrid was always liable to be construed as prodigious or monstrous, is apparent in the ambivalent ethnographic discourse of one of Shakespeare's principal sources for Othello—the Geographical Historie of Africa, written by the Granada-born Moor John Leo Africanus. In a somewhat poignant moment, this native informant and Christian converso, for whom African peoples are both “them” and “us,” describes himself as an “amphibian,”5 thereby acknowledging his contradictory position as a denizen of both Muslim and Christian worlds, as both African and European, humanist scholar and “barbarian.” It is a position that can seem inscribed in an adopted Latin name equally suggestive of dedicated papal allegiance and an unreconstructed bestial ferocity.6 In much the same way, Othello's Africa is at once the place that authenticates his birth “from men of royal siege” (1.2.22) and a wilderness of Plinian monstrosities, of “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.3.145-46).7 One way of describing the action of his tragedy is in terms of the process by which Iago progressively prises open the contradictions in an oxymoronic subtitle that marks the uneasy translation of “erring Barbarian” into “civil monster” (1.3.356; 4.1.64)—the process (to put it another way) by which he successfully essentializes or “racializes” Othello's difference.

When Roderigo, under Iago's tutelage, dismisses Othello as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” (1.1.134-35), he issues a fundamental challenge to the syntax of identity inscribed in the play's subtitle, “The Moor of Venice.”8 To be a Moor, he insists, is to be a fundamentally dislocated creature, a wandering denizen of that un-place known as wilderness, heath, or moor—“an erring Barbarian” in the punning phrase with which Iago assimilates Barbary to the notoriously vagrant condition of barbarism. From Roderigo's perspective, then, to be a “Moor of Venice” is to represent a principle of wild disorder lodged in the very heart of metropolitan civilization—to be, in another of Iago's violent oxymorons, a kind of “civil monster.” The innocent-seeming preposition that yokes Moorish origin to Venetian identity is thus a site of violent contradiction.9 Yet the of in “Moor of Venice” is easily passed over as a mere instrument of descriptive amplification, as unproblematic in its implications as the similarly deployed locatives in, say, Timon of Athens, The Two Gentleman of Verona—or, indeed, The Merchant of Venice, the play that is in some respects Othello's counterpart in Shakespeare's comic canon. To remember The Merchant of Venice in this context, however, is to recall the tellingly ambiguous description of the play in the Stationers' Register, “a booke of the Marchaunte of Venyce, or otherwise called the Jew of Venyce,” and hence to be confronted with the troubling implications of Portia's question, “Which is the Merchant here, and which the Jew?” (4.1.171)—a question that directs us toward a reading of that play in which issues of place and identity, of the “native” and the “stranger,” become so vexed as to seriously destabilize the innocent-seeming of that ties both Shylock and Antonio to their native city. The effect is to send us further back to Marlowe's satiric deconstruction of geographic identity in The Jew of Malta. As the alienated representative of “a scatter’d Nation” (1.1.121), Barabas is not so much of Malta as in it—just as his vaunted colleagues in international Jewry are located “in” Bairseth, Portugal, Italy, and France.10 Scorning allegiance not only to “those of Malta” (1. 143) but even to his own professed “Countreymen” (1. 159), the fellow Jews who share his persecution, Barabas takes sardonic pleasure in representing himself as an archetypal cosmopolitan, whose politic schooling in Machiavelli's Florence has helped him to manipulate “the warres ’twixt France and Germanie” (2.3.187) as it now enables him to exploit the conflict between Turk and Christian. Yet the pseudo-cathartic action of his “tragedy,” with its ludicrously repeated efforts to purge him from the costive body politic, suggests a more organic relationship between this outsider and “those of Malta” than either Barabas or his Christian persecutors would acknowledge.

Of course the particular fear that attaches to the demon-Jew in early modern European culture has to do with his insidious role as the hidden stranger, the alien whose otherness is the more threatening for its guise of semblance. This was a culture whose own expansionism, ironically enough, generated fears of a hungrily absorptive otherness which were expressed in complementary fantasies of dangerous miscegenation, degeneration, and cannibalistic desire; in its fictions the Jew represents the deepest threat of all—that of a secret difference masquerading as likeness, whose presence threatens the surreptitious erosion of identity from within.11 One reason why Shylock remains such a deeply troubling figure at the end of Merchant is the unspoken possibility that his forcible conversion (like that of Jews in sixteenth-century Spain) will only institutionalize the very uncertainty it is designed to efface. Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo—albeit that marriage in some sense confers the husband's identity on the wife—contains the same latent threat; hence, perhaps, the uneasy silence that surrounds her in the concluding moments of the play.

The great advantage of Moors over Jews—or so it might seem to early modern Europeans—was that they could not so easily disguise their difference:12 blackness (as Aaron boasts in Titus Andronicus) “scorns to bear another hue” (4.2.99); and the ultimately reassuring thing about George Best's famous story of the English mother who gave birth to a black baby is that the taint of alterity seems compelled by nature to discover itself—“the blacke More,” as Scripture and proverb insisted, “[cannot] change his skin [any more than] the leopard his spottes,” for it was impossible “to wash the Ethiop white.”13 Yet, of course, Aaron's boast is undercut by his own scheme to substitute the impeccably white offspring of his “countryman” Muliteus for Tamora's black infant, and—as the parallel campaigns of persecution against converted Jews (marranos) and converted Moors (moriscos) were calculated to demonstrate14—it turns out that Moorishness was almost as capable as Jewishness of concealing its aggressive Otherness within the body of the Same. This was the case partly because of the notorious indeterminacy of the term Moor itself: insofar as it was a term of racial description, it could refer quite specifically to the Berber-Arab people of the part of North Africa then rather vaguely denominated as “Morocco,” “Mauritania,” or “Barbary”; or it could be used to embrace the inhabitants of the whole North African littoral; or it might be extended to refer to Africans generally (whether “white,” “black,” or “tawny” Moors); or, by an even more promiscuous extension, it might be applied (like “Indian”) to almost any darker-skinned peoples—even, on occasion, those of the New World.15 Consequently when Marlowe's Valdes refers to the supine obedience of “Indian Moores” to “their Spanish Lords” (Faustus, 1.1.148),16 it is usually assumed that the two terms are simply mutually intensifying synonyms, and that the magician means something like “dusky New World natives.” But Moor could often be deployed (in a fashion perhaps inflected, even for the English, by memories of the Spanish Reconquista) as a religious category. Thus Muslims on the Indian subcontinent were habitually called “Moors,” and the same term is used in East India Company literature to describe the Muslim inhabitants of Southeast Asia, whether they be Arab or Indian traders, or indigenous Malays. So Valdes's “Indian Moores” could equally well be Muslims from the Spanish-controlled Portuguese East Indies. In such contexts it is simply impossible to be sure whether Moor is a description of color or religion or some vague amalgam of the two, and in the intoxicated exoticism of Marlovian geography, such discriminations hardly matter.

But in less fantastical contexts they could matter a great deal—as, for example, when renegade Europeans in the East Indies were said to “turn Moor,” just as in the Mediterranean they were more usually said to “turn Turk.”17 In travel literature of the period these two expressions are sometimes interchangeable, “Turk” being used even in descriptions of the East Indies as a loosely generic description of the people otherwise called “Islams” or “Mahomettans.” The Dutch voyager William Cornelison Schouten, for example, describes an encounter with the men of Tidore, “some [of whom] … had Wreathes about their heads, which they say were Turkes or Moores in Religion.”18 Turkishness or Moorishness here is a matter of religious allegiance, rendered visible (like the malignancy of Othello's “turbanned Turk” [5.2.351]) in details of costume. Thus when Othello, the Moor turned Christian, accuses his brawling Venetian followers of “turn[ing] Turk …” (2.3.166), his hyperbole has a disturbing irony that (as critics now routinely observe) resonates with a suicide in Act 5 that takes the form of a re-enacted slaughter of the Turk. Moreover, because the religious and racial parameters of Moorishness were seldom entirely distinct, the exact implications of the metamorphoses whereby Christians “turned Moor” and Moors “turned Christian” were disturbingly blurred. If a Christian turned Moor, did he in some sense “blacken” himself? If a Moor “turned Christian,” did he thereby cease in some important sense to be a Moor? If he did not, would residual Moorishness turn out to be a matter of blood, color, or faith?19 It is true that the purely religious connotations of “Christian” produce a significant asymmetry between “turning Christian” and “turning Turk (or Moor),” making it seem as though the “racial” component of identity can be transformed in only one direction; yet these questions were difficult to answer with any assurance, so long as the language of difference remained as shifting and uncertain as it was before the emergence of the modern discourses of race and color. The history of the simultaneous (and largely inseparable) campaigns for purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) and purity of religion in Spain are only extreme symptoms of a larger European difficulty that threatened to turn a phrase such as “Moor of Venice” into a hopeless oxymoron.20 That, indeed, is what Richard Brome clearly felt it to be when he dubbed his comedy of senile jealousy The English Moore (1637). Brome's plot turns on the performance of a “Masque of Blackamoors” (a self-conscious travesty of his old master Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness), in the course of which it is prophesied that the princess of Ethiopia will be blanched by marriage to an Englishman. But in the play proper, metamorphosis never amounts to anything more than the shedding of the heroine's blackface disguise. And just as (in the words of the inset masque) “’tis no better then a Prodigee / To haue white children in a black Contree” (4.4.22-23),21 so it appears that there can be no such thing in nature as an “English Moor.”

Of course the English (like other Europeans) brought some important cultural baggage to their encounters with foreign peoples: ideas about genealogy, about the biblical separation of humankind, and about the moral symbolism of color, all of which pushed them toward an essentialist reading of phenotypic difference. Yet, as Karen Ordahl Kupperman has recently argued, because they were predisposed to think “in terms of socially or culturally created categories,” treating most “differences between people … [as] ‘accidental’ …[consequences of] environment or experience,” they had not yet learned to “divide humankind into broad fixed classifications demarcated by visible distinctions.”22 As with the disdainful attitudes of the English toward the Irish—a people whose physical similarities to the English were conveniently obscured by their cultural differences—categories such as “civil” and “barbarous,” “naked” and “clothed” were often of far more significance in establishing the boundaries of otherness than the markers of mere biological diversity.23 In the later sixteenth century, however, the rapid expansion of national horizons through exploration and trade increasingly faced the English with foreign cultures whose sophisticated ways of life resisted assimilation into the cultural categories by which the threat of alterity had traditionally been contained.

In the early part of the period, the English often approached these peoples with a certain ethnographic objectivity. Much of the travel literature collected by Hakluyt is quite assiduous in cataloguing the various “distinction[s] of color, Nation, language[,] … condition” that divide the peoples of the earth;24 and variations of dress, weapons, manners, custom, social organization, and (above all) religion figure at least as prominently as differences of skin and feature. But as we move into the seventeenth century, the pressure of encounter with so many unfamiliar peoples begins to shift definitions of alterity away from the dominant paradigm of culture. In another telling asymmetry, it is possible to see color emerging as the most important criterion for defining otherness, even as nation becomes the key term of self-definition.25 The gradations of color appear to cause significant difficulties for the Dutch traveler Van Linschoten, for example, in his influential Voyages (translated and published with Hakluyt's endorsement in 1598), as he struggles (in sometimes-contradictory language) to define the nature of the differences between the various Asian peoples he encountered. The people of Ormuz are “white like the Persians,” those of Bengal “somewhat whiter then the Chingalas”;“The people of Aracan, Pegu, and Sian are … much like those of China, onely one difference they haue, which is, that they are somewhat whiter then the Bengalon, and somewhat browner then the men of China”; in China itself, “Those that dwell on the Sea side … are a people of a brownish colour, like the white Moores in Africa and Barbaria, and part of the Spaniards, but those that dwell within the land, are for color like Netherlanders & high Dutches.” Yet “[t]here are many among them that are cleane blacke,” while “[i]n the lande lying westward from China, they say there are white people, and the land called Cathaia, where (as it is thought) are many Christians.”26

The East Indian archipelago posed particular problems of definition since the islands were themselves undergoing a rapid cultural transformation, as a militant, expansionist Islam progressively displaced well-established Hindu and surviving Buddhist and animist practices. The proliferation of religious, cultural, and ethnic differences must have been baffling to the English newcomers, subjecting their available definitions to peculiar strains. The various indigenous peoples and the rival groups of traders who clustered in their towns could of course be classified according to the geographical or political entities to which they belonged as “Javans, Chineses, Men of Pegu, Bandaneses,” and so forth; or they might be categorized according to religion as “ethnicks,” “pagans,” or “Moors”; or they might be grouped, together with the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, as “Indians” or “East Indians” (in a regional designation that the uncertainties of post-Columbian geography had permanently confused with differences of complexion). What precisely this meant in terms of color was a little confused: George Best's A Trve Discovrse of the late voyages of discouerie (1578), for example, had described East Indians, along with American “Indians,” as being “not blacke, but white,” though this was altered in Hakluyt's version of the True Discovrse to “tauney and white,”27 a distinction that other observers typically aligned with gender, remarking (in the words of Thomas Cavendish) that “although the men bee tawnie of colour … yet their women be faire of complexion”—something they attributed to the effects of clothing and exposure to the sun.28 In the familiar (and deeply ambiguous) trope routinely employed in both West and East Indian contexts, the hue of the natives is figured as “the sun's livery.” So we are told of Princess Quisara in Fletcher's The Island Princess (1621) that “The very Sun I thinke, affects her sweetnesse, / And dares not as he does to all else, dye it / Into his tauny Livery” (1.1.60-62).29 The princess's whiteness is the sign of inward “sweetnesse” that will be expressed in the conversion to Christianity that accompanies her betrothal to the Portuguese hero Armusia at the end of the play. The issue of color cannot be entirely erased, however; and the cynical Pyniero is allowed to suggest that there is something unnatural about the princess's “wear[ing] her complexion in a case,” because if exposed to the sun's kisses, it would so readily convert to a dusky hue: “let him but like it / A week or two, or three, she would look like a Lion” (ll. 63-64). East Indian tawniness (whether actual or, like Quisara's, merely potential) may constitute an accident of culture and geography, but it is also a kind of servile “Livery,” the badge of allegiance to the false religion to which the princess and her countrymen are in thrall.30 And it resonates dangerously with those contemporary discourses that interpreted dark skin (in both African and West Indian contexts) as a sign of natural servitude.31

One way of dealing with the taxonomic complications exemplified in Van Linschoten and reflected in The Island Princess was to develop a notion of difference that would effectually obscure the confusing variations of hue that Van Linschoten acknowledges in both European and non-European populations by establishing a more absolute division between “them” and “us”. During the first three decades of the seventeenth century, uncertainties about the nature of human difference are gradually flattened out in the literature of East Indian voyaging, as the peoples of the region begin to be categorized, according to the crudest distinction of color, as “black”—a designation that serves solely to distinguish them from “white” Europeans.32

This idea of Europeanness as a form of group identity delimited by color seems itself to have been something new. In a probing analysis, “‘The Getting of a Lawful race,’” Lynda Boose has posed the question whether English notions of Moorishness, for example, were shaped by anything resembling “the modern sense of some definitively racial shared ‘Europeanness’? Or was the difference between a ‘Moor’ and someone we would call a ‘European’ conceptually organized around the religio-political geography of Christian vs. Muslim more than around a geography of skin color?”33 In this regard, it might seem significant that the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest cited use of European to distinguish the inhabitants of Europe from “Indians” is in Massinger's The City Madam (1632)—“You are learn’d Europeans, and we worse / Than ignorant Americans” (3.3.127-28);34 for in this case the grounds of distinction are clearly cultural and religious rather than racial. Moreover, the dictionary offers no example of the word as a generic term for “white” people before 1696. But in fact Samuel Purchas had used European to define a community of color as early as 1613, when, in describing the divided condition of postlapsarian humankind, he contrasted “the tawney Moore, black Negro, duskie Libyan, ash-colored Indian, oliue-colored American. … with the whiter European.”35 In Purchas's taxonomy Europeans are united by a common whiteness, while other peoples are divided by differing degrees of color, even as those colors taken together associate them in a common non-Europeanness.

It is important to recognize, I think, that this way of discriminating otherness—whatever its ultimate effects may have been—was not in itself motivated by an aggressive colonialism. On the contrary, as the section of Purchas's Hakluytus Posthumus devoted to East Indian voyaging suggests, it seems to have arisen from the profound sense of insecurity experienced by the increasingly embattled English trading community in the region, an insecurity felt as a disorienting challenge to their own identity. Included among Purchas's documents is Edmund Scott's An Exact Discourse of the Subtilties, Fashions, Religion and Ceremonies of the East Indians, a narrative that offers a particularly revealing glimpse of the processes by which an acute anxiety about the sustainability of their enterprise and community helped to shape an ideology of color.36 In An Exact Discourse, a text almost exactly contemporary with Othello, the negotiation and demonstration of various kinds of difference—in rank, nation, and color—become crucial to the preservation of the identity of the vulnerable enclave that Scott calls “the English nation at Bantan.”37

At the heart of Scott's narrative, as I have argued elsewhere, is an acute anxiety about the threat to English identity experienced by the mercantile representatives of “the English nation” in the newly established trading factory of the East India Company at Bantam in Java. This threat was triggered initially by the perplexing discovery (referred to elsewhere in Purchas's documents) that their Dutch rivals had been passing themselves off as English: “the common people knew us not from the Hollanders, for both they and wee were called by the name of Englishmen, by reason of their usurping our name at their first coming to trade.”38 The potential for violence in such a confusion of identities is registered in the quibbling chapter title that Purchas added to Scott's narrative: “Differences [i.e., quarrels] betwixt the Hollanders (stiling themselves English), the Javans, and other things remarkable.” The problem was an especially vexing one because the English self-image was partially dependent on their sense of affinity with the Dutch, of whom Scott writes: “though wee were mortall enemies in our trade, in all other matters wee were friends, and would haue liued and dyed one for the other.”39 But the merchants were able to overcome this difficulty through a display of self-fashioning pageantry when they resolved to stage their difference from the Dutch through an improvised Accession Day triumph: marching in elaborately sinuous patterns up and down their compound, clad in their best finery, with scarves and hatbands of red-and-white taffeta, the tiny company (“being but fourteene in number”) waved their banners of St. George, beat their drums, and discharged volumes of shot into the air. This swaggering (if undermanned) performance of Englishness so impressed the natives, according to Scott, that he and his companions felt empowered to deliver a brief disquisition on the linguistic and political distinctions between Dutch and English, thereby ensuring that this unhappy confusion would never be repeated.40

But even as Scott's band succeeded in shoring up their sense of national distinctiveness on one front, they found it threatened with dissolution on another: for this crisis of identity with the Dutch was quickly followed by a second in which the terms of difference were much less easy to define and whose menace the English could only disarm by appealing to a rhetoric of color. This “Tragedie” (as Scott calls it) concerned “a Mullato of Pegu” (i.e., a man of mixed race from Burma) who, as a result of his ambiguous role as a servant in the English trading factory, was taken for an Englishman. The story begins with what we might now read as an explosion of racial resentment on the part of its protagonist. Having been drinking with a second mulatto, “one of his countreymen” who belonged to a visiting Flemish vessel, the “English” mulatto became enraged when the Flemish provost attacked his fellow Peguan and beat him back onto the Flemish ship.41 “Seeing his countryman misused, and being somewhat tickled in the heade with wine,” the mulatto planned to “reuenge his countryman's quarrell.”42 A small orgy of killing ensued: the mulatto sought out and stabbed both the Fleming and the other mulatto (whom he allegedly feared as a potentially hostile witness); he then tried unsuccessfully to kill a Philippino slave who accompanied his victims; and finally, “being nuzled in blood,” as Scott puts it, and “meeting with a poore Iauan … [he] stabde him likewise.”43 Unfortunately for the killer, however, the Fleming lived long enough to give some clues as to the identity of his assailant; and the mulatto, incriminated by inconsistencies in his own story as well as by the testimony of the slave, was at last brought to confess all three murders.

Scott, who was now the senior East India Company man in Bantam, found himself torn between a righteous desire to appease “the bloud of those Christians that were murthered”44 and a proprietorial insistence on his exclusive claim to administer justice to members of his own community. He resisted both what he saw as extravagant Javan demands for compensation and an arrogant Dutch insistence that he hand over the killer for a lingering death: they “saying hee should haue the bones of his legs and armes broken, and so he should lye and dye, or else haue his feete and hands cut off, and so lye and starue to death.”45 Treating the issue as one of both personal pride (“I answered, that it lay not in them to put him to death, if I list to saue him”) and national prestige (“for an Englishman scornes to giue place to Hollanders in any forraine countrie”), he roundly declared that the murderer “should dye the ordinary death of the country, & no other.”46 Hiring a local executioner, Scott made him promise to dispatch the mulatto as swiftly and humanely as possible, even lending the “hangman” his own well-sharpened kris (short sword), “which was very seruiceable for such a purpose.”47 The choice of this quintessentially Malay (though English-owned) weapon to be the proxy instrument of judicial Englishness seems fraught with ironies at least as complicated as those that attend Othello's flourishing of Spanish steel to reassert his hybrid identity as “Moor of Venice.” But the choice had a certain appropriateness to a situation in which the contradictions of mixed identity became a source of significant unease—an unease strikingly illustrated, I think, in Purchas's brutal abridgment of this section of Scott's narrative. In Purchas all but the bare details of the killing and of the murderer's execution have been excised—reducing Scott's complex “Tragedie” to a simple monitory account of physical “Dangers by a Molato.48 There are numerous other cuts in Purchas's version of the pamphlet, but this is the only one for which he feels constrained to apologize, in a marginal note that disingenuously pleads the danger of prolixity.

No doubt Purchas's anxiety, like Scott's own, had everything to do with the ambiguous status given to the killer by the contradictory identity that the text ascribes to him—that of a man “of Pegu” who is, at the same time, “our mulatto.” Scott's possessive pronoun mediates as uneasily between ownership, community, and kinship as the deeply equivocal “mine” that announces Prospero's final acknowledgment of Caliban. It is the same unstable pronoun that both defines and masks the relationship of Shakespeare's mercenary “stranger” to the Venetian state when “the Moor” is transformed into “our noble and valiant general” (2.2.1-2). In Scott the dangerous ambiguity of the connection that his “our” at once declares and mystifies becomes apparent at the point where the dying provost is said to have claimed that “an Englishman had slaine him.” A deputation of Dutch went at once to the English house to inform Scott that “one of our men had slaine one of theirs … [and] they thought it was our Mulatto.49 The Dutch rhetoric here is pointed: they contrive to taint the English by association with the mulatto killer, who is denounced as “one of our men,” while holding themselves aloof from their own murdered mulatto, who is carefully excluded from the opposite category, “one of theirs.” Subsequent events intensify this unhappy confusion but also provide Scott with an opportunity to purge it and to realign his own people with their fellow Europeans, the offended Hollanders.

When the mulatto denies the Dutch accusation, he is dispatched, along with Scott's deputy, Gabriel Towerson, to question the mortally wounded Fleming: “when they came, they asked him who had hurt him, hee said an English man. Maister Towerson asked him whether it was a white man, or a blacke, … because he named still an English man, wee were in some doubt: the Fleming being also in drinke said, a white man, then presently hee said againe, it was darke, hee knew not well, and so gaue up his life.”50 Resonating with the symbolism of Othello's “Put out the light” soliloquy, darkness temporarily effaces the markers of difference here; but what is really extraordinary about the passage is the almost casual way in which the English seem to acceded to the mulatto's inclusion in the category “English man”—almost as if there could be such a creature as a “Mulatto of England.” This temporary recognition of kinship was perhaps partly enabled by the murderer's status as Christian—“though he was a Pegu borne, yet he was a Christian, & brought vp among the Portingalls”—so that Scott was at charitable pains to have the murderer brought to repentance before his death. The chosen agent of religious instruction, fittingly enough, was another hybrid figure—a renegade Muslim, “an Arabian borne [who] belonged to the Dutch ships, and spake the Spanish tongue maruellous well”; this go-between convinced the murderer of the power of God's son “to redeeme vs, and to wash away our sinnes were they neuer so bloody.”51 The inclusive “us” here brings the reader momentarily close to the pieties of Purchas's climactic vision in the Pilgrimage, when he imagines a future redemption in which the divided branches of humanity will be reunited, “their long robes made white in the bloud of the Lambe … without any more distinction of color, Nation, language, sexe, condition.”52 But the efficacy of this emulsifying mystery belongs only to the extratemporal moment of penitence: it cannot affect the day-to-day management of difference in a situation where any loss of distinction threatens the elimination of “the English nation at Bantan.” Hence the narrative now goes on to detach the condemned man from the English camp and to link him, through the indelible mark of color, with the proper denizens of Bantam, the East Indian and Chinese, whose vicious and guileful “subtilties” Scott finds so threatening to English interests.

By a convenient rhetorical sleight, the mulatto is first kinned with his own executioner. Scott records with some satisfaction the hangman's promise to serve this prisoner better than he had earlier served a counterfeiter whose punishment he grievously botched: “when he killed the coyner,” the man protests, “he did not execute his own father.” Scott explains this as a reference to the custom whereby “when a Iauan of any account is put to death[,] … their nearest of kin doth execute [the common executioner's] office, and it is held the greatest fauour they can do them.”53 The executioner, we can surmise, intends a compliment to Scott by identifying the humblest of the “Englishmen” as his own senior kinsman. But Scott's failure to spell out the meaning of the hyperbole has the effect of stressing the tie between the headsman and his victim, rhetorically severing the mulatto from the English camp and consigning him to the community of Others. But then, as the condemned man is led into the fields outside the town of Bantam to meet his death, a large crowd of townspeople, “both Iauans and Chyneses,” comes “flocking amaine,” excited by the rumor “that there was an Englishman to be executed.” They are disconcerted by their sight of the victim, however: “many were blanke, and wee might heare them tell one another it was a black man.” Scott and his men immediately seize the opportunity to deliver a second lesson on difference which completes the alienation of “our Mulatto”: “wee told them, he was iust of their own color and condition and that an Englishman or white man would not doe such a bloody deed.”54 At this moment a common blackness is announced as the defining condition of all who are not English or white, regardless of whether they are Chinese, Javan, men of mixed race, or men of Pegu (groups whose various gradations of color are elsewhere quite carefully catalogued). By the same token, the mulatto's crime becomes a proof of his racial difference, just as his color is the badge of his reprobate condition.

Something very similar, it seems to me, happens in Othello through the systematic blackening of the Moor and the symbolic detachment from Venice that it involves. To begin with, Othello's blackness seems to be an almost casual effect of Iago's improvisatory malice and of Roderigo's and Brabantio's gullibility. It is at best an accident whose superficial significance could even be underpinned (in ways to which Dympna Callaghan has alerted us55) by the audience's pleasurable consciousness that it is only a cosmetic illusion: “Othello” is, after all, a white man; so his appearance of blackness is something easily annulled by the duke's invocation of that essential whiteness that unites all Christians under the skin (“your son-in-law is far more fair than black” [1.3.291]). Yet by the end of the play, the Venetian world—and the audience, too, if they are not careful—will have come to see it as the sign not only of his reprobate condition but of the irreducible alterity that the language of racial abuse insists is inseparable from it: “blacker devil,” “filthy bargain,” “gull … / As ignorant as dirt,” “dull Moor” (5.2.129, 153, 159-60, 223).56 In the reading of the Moor's body so successfully propagated by Iago, none of Othello's efforts to reinstitute the sustaining paradoxes of his mixed condition, as an “honorable murderer” whose suicide triumphantly enacts and cancels out the contradictions that have been exposed in the designation “Moor of Venice,” is sufficient to overcome the suggestion that such a creature can only constitute a kind of “civil monster.” Othello's re-enacted killing of the “circumcised dog” is also a re-enactment of his original apostasy by one whose contradictory position forces him to “turn, and turn … / And turn again” (4.1.253-54). But such desperate iteration is as hopeless as it is compulsive. For, as the outcast condition of Scott's mulatto implies, while a Moor may turn Christian, he can never “turn” Venetian. Like the mulatto's thinly motivated stabbing of his own countryman, Othello's overdetermined killing of the “turbanned Turk” is on one level a demonstration of his own essential unkindness; on another, like the executioner's hyperbolic killing of “his own father,” it enacts a violent re-absorption into the domain of the Other—confirming the rhetorical estrangement by which the Venetians return “he that was Othello” to the condition of anonymous “Moor” in which he was first brought into the play. It is in this sense that we can speak of the play's progressive racialization of the protagonist.

Yet Emily Bartels's insistence on Othello's openness is not entirely misplaced, and Virginia Vaughan's perplexity (“I think this play is racist, and I think it is not”) remains understandable. Even Edmund Scott, after all, is only partially successful in his attempt to purge “the English nation at Bantan” of the confusions created by the hybridizing presence of “our Mulatto.” As the murderer's body lies “gasping on the ground,” Scott cannot forbear offering it to the Dutch as a reproof to their own vices—“I openly told the Hollanders that, that was the fruite of drunkennesse, & byd them euer after beware of it”—thus carelessly blurring the boundary between colors and conditions which his lesson to the townspeople had established. And as he pauses to reflect on the fatal sickness of yet another of his fellow-merchants, the chief factor's anxiety at the fragile state of the English trading community seems to readmit the ghostly presence of his scapegoat to membership of a “we” that is once again exposed as dangerously unstable: “we had lost in all, since the departure of our ships eight men besides the Mulatto that was executed, and we were now ten liuing and one boy.”57 The “Mulatto of Pegu” is once again one of “our” men, a “Mulatto of England,” as it were. In Othello it is precisely the desperate haste with which the Venetians seek to efface the admonitory spectacle of slaughter (“The object poisons sight, / Let it be hid” [5.2.362-63]) that calls into question the sustainability of the racial scapegoating that Iago has brought about, forcing us to pay attention to a very different narrative—the one that ends not in the self-alienating and murderous expulsion of a Moor turned Turk again but in a kiss that self-consciously proclaims an act of union. The play, however—and this is why it continues to torment us—refuses to align itself with either narrative, retreating instead into the obliquity of the taunting pleonasm with which Iago at once challenges and disables judgment: “What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (ll. 300-301).


  1. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Othello: a contextual history (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 70.

  2. See, for example, Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell UP, 1995); Margo Hendricks, “Civility, Barbarism, and Aphra Behn's The Widow Ranter,” and Lynda Boose, “‘The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial discourse in early modern England and the unrepresentable black woman,” both in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 225-39 and 35-54. The literature on the treatment of race in Othello has become so extensive as to make full citation impossible, but a convenient summary will be found in Vaughan, 51-70.

  3. Emily C. Bartels, “Othello and Africa: Postcolonialism Reconsidered,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (1997): 45-64, esp. 61-62, emphasis added.

  4. See, e.g., Patricia Coughlan, ed., Spenser and Ireland: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Cork: Cork UP, 1989); Willy Maley, Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997); Christopher Highley, Shakespeare, Spenser, and the crisis in Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997); and Michael Neill, “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 1-32.

  5. John Leo, A Geographical Historie of Africa, trans. John Pory (London, 1600), 41-42, 41, and 43.

  6. In his First Book, for example, Leo breaks off his description of the vices to which “they” are subject in order to acknowledge his own relationship to these Others as one whose life resembles that of the strange fish-bird he calls “Amphibia”: “Neither am I ignorant, how much mine owne credit is impeached, when I my selfe write so homely of Africa, vnto which countrie I stand indebted both for my birth, and also for the best part of my education. … For mine owne part, when I heare the Africans euill spoken of, I will affirme my selfe to be one of Granada: and when I perceiue the nation of Granada to be discommended, then will I profess my selfe to be an African” (42-44). For a more extended treatment of Leo's ambivalence about his identity, see Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” SQ 41 (1990): 433-54, esp. 436-38.

  7. Citations follow the Arden Shakespeare Othello, ed. E.A.J. Honigmann (London: Thomas Nelson, 1997); citations of all other Shakespeare plays follow William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

  8. The significance of the subtitle is indicated by the remarkable consistency with which (in contrast to the generally fluid treatment of nomenclature in the period) it is repeated from the Stationers' Register entry to the Quarto and Folio and the other early texts deriving from them.

  9. The same point is made by Peter Swaab in his program notes for the recent Royal National Theatre production of Othello: “Shakespeare's title has the force of a paradox. How far can ‘the Moor’ really be ‘of’ Venice? Like Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Othello is a resident who remains in important ways alien; like Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, his downfall involves too much trusting that a culture can give him an identity; and as with a historical figure such as Lawrence of Arabia, the word ‘of’ conceals a vulnerable fantasy of power in distant lands. ‘The Moor of Venice’ is a mixed marriage of a phrase” (quoted from the program for the run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 8-11 April 1998; this production was first staged at the Salzburg Festival on 22 August 1997 and subsequently at the Lyttelton Theatre in London).

  10. “There’s … Obed in Bairseth, Nones in Portugall, / My selfe in Malta, some in Italy, / Many in France, and wealthy every one” (1.1.125-27); citations of Marlowe follow The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), 1:253-335, esp. 1:267-68.

  11. For an outstanding account of the cultural fantasies surrounding Jews in early modern culture, see James S. Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), esp. 167-94. See also Avraham Oz, The Yoke of Love: Prophetic Riddles in The Merchant of Venice (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1995), 93-133, esp. 100-103.

  12. For the resemblances between Moor and Jew as figures of alterity, see Leslie A. Fielder, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), 103-6 and 195-96. Cf. Shapiro, 171-72, on Jewish “blackness.”

  13. Jeremiah 13:23. This version, from the 1560 Geneva Bible, gives particular prominence to the figure by printing “The blacke More” as a title at the head of the column. On the history of this motif in literature and in the visual arts, see Jean Michel Massing, “From Greek Proverb to Soap Advert: Washing the Ethiopian,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 58 (1995): 180-201; and Karen Newman, “And wash the Ethiop white’: femininity and the monstrous in Othello” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in history and ideology, Jean Howard and Marion O’Connor, eds. (London: Methuen, 1987), 143-62. For Best's story, see Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), 12 vols. (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903-05), 7:263-64.

  14. On the forcible conversion of the Spanish Moors and the suspicion to which it paradoxically rendered them vulnerable, thereby exposing them to the malice of the Inquisition, see Henry Charles Lea, The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1968). The near paranoia that inspired the official campaign for limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) in Spain issued directly from this fear of the hidden stranger masquerading as one of the familiar.

  15. See also Bartels, “Making More of the Moor,” 434.

  16. The phrase is common to both A and B texts; see Bowers, ed., 2:165.

  17. For a useful account of the significance of “turning Turk” in this period, see Daniel J. Vitkus, “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor,” SQ 48 (1997): 145-76.

  18. William Cornelison Schouten of Horne, “Voyage of 1615-17” in Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), 20 vols. (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1905-07), 2:232-84, esp. 280.

  19. Cf. Shapiro on the ambiguities surrounding “what happened to racial otherness when [Jews] converted” (170).

  20. For a useful account of the complex entanglement of color and religion in early Iberian racism, see James H. Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (1997): 143-66; in the same issue, see also Robin Blackburn, “The Old World Background to European Colonial Slavery,” 65-102, esp. 77-78. On the uncertain denotation of Moor in the play, see Vitkus: “Othello, the noble Moor of Venice, is … not to be identified with a specific, historically accurate racial category; rather he is a hybrid who might be associated, in the minds of Shakespeare's audience, with a whole set of related terms—Moor, Turk, Ottomite, Saracen, Mahometan, Egyptian, Judean, Indian—all constructed and positioned in opposition to Christian faith and virtue” (160). The opposition, however, is never simply religious or even cultural.

  21. Quotations of Richard Brome's The English Moore are from The English Moore; or The Mock-Marriage, ed. Sara Jayne Steen (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1983).

  22. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Presentment of Civility: English Reading of American Self-Presentation in the Early Years of Colonization,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (1997): 193-228, esp. 193.

  23. See Neill, “Broken English and Broken Irish,” 6n.

  24. Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages (London, 1613), 546.

  25. In his richly informative “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods” (William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 [1997]: 103-42) Benjamin Braude discerns an analogous shift in the treatment of African peoples between 1589 and 1625, as the biblical Curse of Ham was increasingly interpreted as an explanation of both color and moral character: “slavery,” he argues, “had started to make it credible” (138).

  26. John Huighen Van Linschoten, Iohn Hvighen Van Linschoten his Discours of Voyages into ye Easte & West Indies (London, 1598), 14, 28, 29, 40, and 37.

  27. George Best, A Trve Discovrse of the late voyages of discouerie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northwest (London, 1578), 28; cited in Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, “Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (1997): 19-44, esp. 27; cf. Kupperman, 207-8 and 226-27.

  28. Thomas Cavendish in Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 2:181.

  29. John Fletcher, The Island Princess in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, ed. Fredson Bowers, 10 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966-96), 5:539-642. For American examples of descriptions featuring this trope, see Kupperman, 207.

  30. In a deliberate confusion of reality, the Islamic allegiance of the actual Moluccans is assimilated in the play with idolatry through the disguise adopted by the villainous Governor of Ternata, who is at once a (presumably Mahometan) “Moore Priest” (4.1. s.d.) and the false prophet of “the Sun and Moon” (4.5.70). For more detailed discussion of this play as an instrument of mercantile colonialism, see Shanker Raman, “Imaginary Islands: Staging the East,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 26 (1995): 131-61; and my essay “‘Materiall flames’: The Space of Mercantile Fantasy in John Fletcher's The Island Princess,” forthcoming in Renaissance Drama.

  31. See Sweet, 146-47, 149, 155-56, and 166.

  32. See, e.g., “The Journall of Master Nathaniel Courthop” in Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 5:86-125, esp. 109. Cf. the continuation of Courthop's journal by Robert Hayes in Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 5:126-37, esp. 126 and 135; and “An Answere to the Hollanders Declaration …” in Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 5:155-74, esp. 170.

  33. Boose in Hendricks and Parker, eds., 306n.

  34. Philip Massinger, The City Madam, ed. Cyrus Hoy (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964), 61. In this episode Luke Frugal salutes the supposed “Indians” of the play (in fact a group of disguised Londoners led by his own brother) for their worship of Plutus, God of Riches.

  35. Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrimage, 546. On Purchas's shift toward an increasingly moralized construction of blackness in his later writing, see Braude, 135-37.

  36. Published in London, the Exact Discourse survives in two significantly different texts—the original pamphlet of 1606 and the abbreviated and annotated version (apparently based on a separate manuscript) published in Purchas His Pilgrimage. The different manuscript origins of the two versions are suggested by numerous minor variants. Unless otherwise indicated, citations of Scott follow the 1606 edition.

  37. Scott, A1r. See also Michael Neill, “Putting History to the Question: An Episode of Torture at Bantam in Java, 1604,” English Literary Renaissance 25 (1995): 45-75.

  38. Scott, C2v.

  39. Scott, H3r.

  40. Scott, C2v.

  41. For Scott the word mulatto seems to describe any person of part-European ethnicity; although the term is nowadays considered offensive, I have felt bound to replicate Scott's usage, since the protagonist of his story is identified in no other way.

  42. Scott, D1v-D2r.

  43. Scott, D2r.

  44. Scott, D3v.

  45. Scott, D4r.

  46. Scott, D3v, D3r, and D4r.

  47. Scott, D4v.

  48. Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, 2:461, marginal note.

  49. Scott, D2r, emphasis added.

  50. Scott, D2v.

  51. Scott, D4r.

  52. Purchas, Purchase His Pilgrimage, 546.

  53. Scott, D4v.

  54. Scott, D4v

  55. See Dympna Callaghan, “‘Othello was a white man’: properties of race on Shakespeare's stage” in Alternative Shakespeares 2, Terence Hawkes, ed. (London: Routledge, 1996), 192-215.

  56. “[D]ull Moor”—involving as it does a complicated quibble that depends on the resemblances and etymological links (supposed or otherwise) between Medieval Latin Morus = Moor; Latin morus (from Greek µωρís) = dull, stupid; and morum = blackberry or mulberry (hence morulus = black, dark-colored)—can be construed as a contemptuous inversion of the oxymoronic “Moor of Venice.”

  57. Scott, E1r, emphasis added.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 1997 South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta, at the Folger Shakespeare Library's Midday Colloquium, at Muhlenberg College, and to members of the Graduate Seminar at Trinity College, Cambridge. I am grateful to all four audiences for their constructive comments and suggestions.

Patrick C. Hogan (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Othello, Racism, and Despair,” in CLA Journal, Vol. XLI, No. 4, June, 1998, pp. 431-51.

[In the essay below, Hogan argues that race is a central issue in Othello, stating that Shakespeare opposed racism because it was not Christian.]

In the middle of this century, in the context of the anticolonial struggles being waged throughout Africa and the Caribbean, writers such as Frantz Fanon explored the effects of racism on the minds and hearts of those black men and women who came to internalize the inhuman attitudes of their oppressors, conceiving of themselves in the same brutish terms.1 More recently, Derek Walcott has spoken of having black skin but looking at the world through blue eyes—seeing oneself and others through the distorting lenses of white racism. One result of this, Walcott tells us, is “racial despair,”2 despondency over the possibilities for accomplishment, for change, fulfillment, a good life—what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Racial despair is a secular descendent of spiritual despair. The latter results from a sense that one's sin is too great even for all-merciful God to forgive, that this sin blots out one's soul. The former results from a sense that one's skin is too black for anyone to accept—to forget or to “forgive”—that one's skin blots out one's soul.

This, I wish to argue, is the tragedy of Othello, the reason that he murders both Desdemona and himself. Like many tragic heroes, Othello is greater than those around him. He is, in Aristotle's term, spoudaios:3 excellent in character, intense in thought, elevated in feeling. But the forces arrayed against him are immense—not superhuman forces, Greek gods or Satan in a usurped human form, but all of intimate society. Everywhere he turns, Othello confronts racism. Its different faces or masks—not only enmity, disdain, abuse, but friendship, admiration, love—serve to make it more insistent, compelling, inexorable. In the end, he succumbs to the racist vision of those around him. The consequent despair leads to murder and to suicide.

A number of critics have argued that Othello is, in effect, an antiracist play.4 Others have seen the play as racist or at least as partially acquiescing in racist views about miscegenation.5 Still others have argued that it is anachronistic to see the play in terms of racism at all. Thus Michael Neill maintains against Martin Orkin that it was not “possible for Shakespeare to ‘oppose racism’ in 1604 … the argument simply could not be constituted in those terms.”6

As to the third (“historicist”) position, it is a critical commonplace today that there is profound discontinuity and incommensurability between different historical periods, and between cultures. We cannot discuss this view at length here, but its status as dogma seems, at best, questionable. Orkin, Anthony Barthelemy,7 and others offer considerable evidence that many Europeans of Shakespeare's time categorized people according to skin color, analogized nonwhites to animals, judged nonwhites inferior to whites and, more specifically, lascivious, “hypersexualized,”8 etc., in keeping with standard stereotypes. Indeed, citing work done by Fanon only a few decades ago, Fintan O’Toole argues that in the seventeenth century blacks were demeaned in the very same terms as they are today.9 It seems odd to deny that this is racism. Moreover, Orkin argues convincingly that there were many people of the time (most famously, Montaigne10) who deplored, and thus opposed, this tendency to denigrate non-Europeans. It seems odd to insist that this is not antiracism.

But our use of the word “racism” is, in any case, not the point. We can, after all, substitute another term if “racism” seems too burdened by modern biological pseudoscience. What is important is just that Shakespeare recognized when people were not conceived of nor treated as human beings. He sensed the emotional violence of this; he could see its sources—including its sources in beliefs relating to skin color and national origin—and its devastating effects. In Othello, Shakespeare has illustrated this human recognition. And sharing that recognition is crucial to our experience of the play's tragedy.

Indeed, my purpose in writing this essay is perhaps not so much to defend a particular interpretive thesis, as to facilitate a particular tragic experience. In doing this, I follow the great Arabic theorists—al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd—in seeking the ethical and political value of a literary work not in its “message,” but in its takhyil, the imaginative experience which inspires and focusses our moral feelings.11 In other words, following the views of these writers, my aim is not merely to analyze the play in a particular manner, but to foster a takhyil that is at once more fully tragic and more pointedly ethical.

The idea is worth elaborating briefly. The major medieval Arabic theorists saw the prime function of literature as ethical. However, they did not conceive of this ethical function as a matter of a work expressing or inculcating some moral precept. Rather, they saw it as the fostering of an imaginative experience which serves to excite moral feelings, particularly the Islamic feelings of rahmah and taqwa12—the former signifying mercy or “tenderness requiring the exercise of beneficence”;13 the latter meaning piety or “observance of duty.14 For these writers, the moral aim of literature is not the teaching of ideas, but rather what, many centuries later, European Romantic theorists came to call “the training of sensibility.”

Keeping in mind recent work on reception and response, we may further develop this view in a way that links it productively with practical literary criticism. Many modern European theorists have emphasized the incompleteness of the literary work, stressing the role of the readers in completing the story, “filling in” the character as they read. Roman Ingarden speaks of “concretizing” the literary work;15 Wolfgang Iser talks of filling gaps.16 If we combine this insight with the Arabic view, we see directly that a single literary work may produce a number of very different imaginative experiences depending upon how it is completed by a reader. These different imaginative experiences may, in turn, have quite different ethical functions. Some may stifle rahmah and taqwa; others may foster them. A critical practice concerned primarily with the takhyil of a work, would, then, aim to develop, from these possible readings, an interpretation conducive toward a literary experience that would foster such moral feelings, not stifle them.

In the following pages, I wish to make the interpretive argument that Othello is a play focussed on the devastating effects of racism. But at the same time, and more importantly, I wish to encourage a particular “concretization” of the play, and thus a particular imaginative experience of it. In other words, while the focus of my analysis is on meaning, my underlying concern is with takhyil. In this way, my project is continuous with that set out by Kiernan Ryan, “to activate the revolutionary imaginative vision which invites discovery in [Shakespeare's] plays today,” “to make his drama more disturbing in its impact on the institutions through which Shakespeare is reproduced, and more constructively alert to our most pressing problems and needs.”17 In short, the overarching goal, which I share with Ryan, is to integrate our imagination of Shakespeare with current concerns about political and social dilemmas—in this case, the persistent dilemmas of racism and racial despair. It is precisely this sort of integration that the Arabic theorists conceptualized many centuries ago as takhyil.


In Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi, from which Shakespeare drew the story of Othello, Desdemona tells her husband outright, “You Moors are of so hot a nature that every little trifle moves you to anger and revenge.”18 A common stereotype was the hot-blooded Turk, the vengeful Arab, the passionate and impulsive African.19 Shakespeare was, of course, free to create a character who fit this stereotype. And if he did, if Othello is indeed a furious Moor whose (more than human) passion overpowers his (less than human) reason, then there is nothing to be explained in the final murder and suicide. He kills Desdemona and himself because the divine faculty of reason is racially weak, and the animal impulses of passion are racially potent.

But it is easy to see that this is not the case. Shakespeare is at pains to portray Othello as more reasonable (more contemplative, calm, reflective, discerning) and less passionate (less impulsive, desirous, pugnacious) than any of the Venetians around him. Roderigo is a fool, his reason pathetically overwhelmed by lust for Desdemona. Cassio, deceived into inebriation, loses self-control and brawls on the slightest provocation. Brabantio storms into Othello's company crying havoc and flailing his sword hysterically. Most of all, Iago is crazed with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. It takes labor, and stage-craft, and practiced deceit to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful. It also takes moira, a tragic conspiracy of fate: Cassio bragging of his conquest, the compromising appearance of a handkerchief. But Iago requires no such evidence to accuse his wife of multiple adulteries. He speaks darkly of rumors: “[I]t is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / H’as done my office” (I.iii.378-79).20 Later, he delivers a mad speech on female “Lechery … lust and foul thoughts” (II.i.257-59), culminating with a fantastical accusation:

[T]he lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.


He concludes by elaborating the delusion further still: “I fear Cassio with my nightcap too” (II.i.307). In sum, the Venetians of the play fit Desdemona's description well: almost to a man, they are “of so hot a nature that every little trifle moves [them] to anger and revenge.”21

But Othello does not fit at all. When we first see Othello, Iago is trying to anger him. He gossips that a nobleman “spoke … scurvy and provoking terms” against Othello (I.ii.8). In the preceding scene, Iago's ploys had successfully inflamed Brabantio and duped Roderigo. But with Othello, he has no success: “Let him do his spite,” Othello responds, unmoved (I.ii.16). When Brabantio, Roderigo, and the officers enter, and both sides draw their swords, in preparation for bloody combat, Othello merely says: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (I.ii.58). Then, after Brabantio abuses him with gross racial invective, he continues, “Hold your hands, / Both you of my inclining and the rest” (I.ii.80-81). The scene and the phrase “Keep up your bright swords” are reminiscent of the garden at Gethsemane. When the armed men sent by the chief priests have come to arrest and imprison him, Jesus commands his followers not to fight, ordering Simon Peter (in the Geneva translation of 1560), “Put up thy sword”22—a famous phrase alluded to in Othello's first command.23 Later, in a similar manner, Othello is calm, though forceful, in ending the brawl between Cassio and Montano. Here he makes the religious significance of the act explicit, calling out, “For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” (II.iii.171).

Othello is not committed to peace, however, due to some flaw; he is not pusillanimous or lacking in military skill. Despite the great racism of Venetian society (to which we shall turn presently), he has risen to command the Venetian troops. All acknowledge him valiant (see, for example, I.iii.48), and his status indicates his strategic abilities. In opposing battle, he is reasonable, not timorous. Moreover, his rational skills go beyond those of strategy. For example, he is a physican also, capable in the art of healing (see II.iii.253), where he comforts Montano, saying, “Sir, for your hurts, myself will be your surgeon”). Even Iago, despite his vicious hatred, must acknowledge that Othello is “constant, loving, noble” (II.i.289). In short, he, almost alone among the major characters in the play, is guided by reason, not passion. He is as far from the stereotype of the passionate Moor as he could possibly be, and as far superior to his white associates.

Why, then, does he kill?


In almost every way, the attitude of the Venetians toward Othello is racialist, even when it is not derogatory. Othello is a great general in the Venetian army, a friend and colleague of many Venetians. And yet, they refer to him far less frequently as “Othello,” as this particular man, than as “the Moor”—when counted up, the proportion is almost two to one in favor of the generic category over the name. In other words, they routinely discuss, and even address him, not as an individual person, but as an instance of his race.24

Of course, much of the address and discussion is indeed derogatory as well—and in all the standard ways. Iago is particularly adept at racial slander. After Roderigo has referred to Othello as “the thick-lips” (I.i.63), Iago goes on to characterize Othello as a brute beast. He shouts that Othello is “an old black ram” (I.i.85). He taunts Brabantio with the dreadful possibility that Brabantio's grandchildren will be of mixed race, saying, “[Y]our daughter [is] covered with a Barbary horse, [hence] you’ll have nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans” (I.i.108-11). Worse still, at times he sees Othello as demonic: “[T]he devil will make a grandsire of you” (I.i.88). Though, later, Shakespeare has Iago admit that it is he himself, not Othello, who is of Satan's party. Speaking of his plot against Othello, Iago says: “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (II.iii.351-53). And at the end of the play, Othello repeats the characterization, asking Cassio to inquire of “the demi-devil” Iago “Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?” (V.ii.297-98).

Despite his own degradation, however, Iago finds Desdemona degraded in loving Othello. It is a violation of nature—akin almost to the bestiality of Pasiphaë—for this woman who is so “fair” (both so beautiful and so white) to choose “the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (I.i.119,123). It is beyond reason: “[W]hat delight shall she have to look on the devil?” he asks Roderigo (II.i.224-25).

Brabantio takes up this theme most vehemently, accusing Othello of witchcraft. Only magic, “foul charms” and “drugs” could drive Desdemona “from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight” (I.ii.72, 73, 69-70). Because he is black, he is hideous (another common stereotype of the period; see, for example, Barthelmy 27). His natural color is soot, filth—a physical degradation paralleling a spiritual degradation. No fair woman could love “such a thing.” Later, he questions again how she could “fall in love with what she feared to look on” (I.iii.99). In the brief period of the play, Brabantio pines away and dies. He too is struck down by despair. What point is there to living, once his daughter has espoused the kin of Lucifer?

When I teach this play, I ask my students to imagine themselves in Othello's position, to make a self-conscious effort at developing a particular takhyil. It is, I think, a worthwhile exercise. To the society around Othello, it makes no sense that Desdemona would love him. His father-in-law vilifies him and demands that he be tried, for it is unimaginable that a white woman could genuinely love a black demonic thing. And this father-in-law's racial hatred is so immense and implacable that it drives him to his grave. It is important to try to imagine this: you are in a society which is almost entirely racially different. Everyone of your race is repulsive to the eye, socially and spiritually subhuman. The father of the person you love drags you to the law courts screeching these obscenities.

Now imagine that even this man or woman you love has not entirely escaped the racist view. Sometimes he/she refers to you by name, but sometimes simply invokes your racial category—your wife or husband calling you not “John” or “Jane,” but “the caucasian,” or “the oriental,” or “the hispanic.” And he/she implicitly agrees that you, and everyone like you, is repugnant to the eye. This is how Othello lives. Of the men in the play, the Duke is certainly the most enlightened. He can see the value in Othello's work, his skill, the character of his mind. Yet he too acknowledges the outer man blackly repulsive: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.ii.284-85). In complimenting Othello's virtue, he simultaneously characterizes all beauty—primarily physical beauty, but also spiritual beauty—as white, as “fair.” Even for the Duke, Othello's appearance is grotesque. Indeed, in this, the most enlightened view of the play, Othello has achieved his inner virtue only insofar as he has become “fair” inside, insofar as he is not black within.

Desdemona is worse. In her first speech, discussing her recent marriage, she does not refer to her new husband as “Othello,” but as “the Moor” (I.iii.187). In her next reference to him, she expresses deep affection, but still does not give him a name, and thus a personal identity. “I love the Moor,” she says (I.iii.243). She then goes on to account for this love—for she too implicitly acknowledges that it is queer to love “such a thing” as Othello, that it requires an explanation. Indeed, she too implicitly acknowledges that he is unsightly. “My heart's subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord” (I.iii.245-46), she says. The phrase is ambiguous. It may mean, as it is sometimes glossed, that she has accepted his warlike profession. But this does not fit the general context. As Othello has already explained (I.iii.166), she fell in love with him because of his martial and other exploits. Thus it makes no sense to say that she accepts even these. It seems likely, then, that “quality” here refers to the nature or origin of Othello, or to a salient attribute of his person, thus to his being African and black. Desdemona's heart has, it seems, been subdued even to the dark foreignness—the frightful sooty bosom—of what Roderigo called “an extravagant and wheeling stranger” (I.i.133). This meaning is made fully clear in the following line, where Desdemona explains her intent to the curious auditors, who still baffle at this strange marriage of fair and foul. What does she mean when she says that her heart's subdued to the very quality of Othello? She means, “I saw Othello's visage in his mind” (I.iii.247). In the presence of her husband, on her first day of marriage, she announces publicly that, because of his valor, she could love him despite his color. Her comment is akin to that of the Duke: I see him as fair, because I see his virtue, not the dreadful blackness of his face. And, again like the Duke, in affirming Othello's transcendence of his race, she simultaneously affirms that, in Venice, or among Venetians, he will never be considered anything other than an instance of that race.


The apparent ease with which Othello is convinced by Iago's deceptions already becomes more comprehensible in this context: the almost universal judgment of Venetians is that Othello is a racial eyesore. Few of us would feel secure if our spouses casually acknowledged that they had to become reconciled to our disagreeable appearance. Moreover, Desdemona might seem to have manifest an impetuous character by eloping with Othello. And, then, she speaks gaily with other men, the fair men, pink-skinned and comely. She even pleads the case of Michael Cassio, a “curled darling of our nation,” as Brabantio might put it (see I.ii.67). Certainly, these are no faults, yet to a husband whom she has publicly portrayed as unalluring, they might appear significant.

But Othello does not succumb this easily. Again, it takes ill-fortune and the evil genius of Iago. Despite her belief that black is ugly, despite her references to him as “the Moor,” Desdemona is the one Venetian, the one white person by whom Othello feels—at least at times—acknowledged as a subject. She, almost alone, gives him love and respect. She alone will defy convention and self-interest for him. (Even the Duke's respect may be strategic, motivated by Othello's usefulness—for he has done the state some service.) That her heart and mind too should be warped by racism is, almost necessarily, Othello's deepest fear. If this were so, the one link connecting him with the Venetian community would be severed. He would in effect no longer have a place in human society.

And yet, she has already called him “the Moor,” already affirmed that black is ugly. Her words have already sown uncertainty in Othello's mind. He tries to suppress the doubts and questions. But Iago will not let him. At first, Othello is unconvinced, affirming Desdemona's honesty (III.iii.225). He recognizes that even good natures can err (III.iii.227), but this is brief, Christian doubt, expressed in Christian terms. Iago intentionally twists Othello's point, perverting it into a statement about race—that Desdemona has erred from “nature” in not marrying a European: “Not to affect many proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends” (III.iii.229-31). Iago's point is that the mating of white and black is unnatural—all nature moves to unite like with like, thus not Desdemona and Othello, but (perhaps) Desdemona and Cassio. He continues, “I may fear / Her will, recoiling to her better judgment, / May fall to match you with her country forms, / And happily repent” (III.iii.235-38). He cautions Othello: Beware. If she is reasonable, and follows nature, she will at last compare you with the fair-complexioned men of Venice and repent her wedding vows—just as she might repent a sin, a temporary alliance with the devil.

This persuasion works deeply on Othello, and in his next long speech, he pathetically concludes that Iago is correct: “She’s gone” (II.iii.266). He gives two possible reasons for her betrayal. One is age, that he is “declined / Into the vale of years,” but this he dismisses, “yet that’s not much” (III.iii.264-65). The remaining reason, then, is the reason he accepts, the compelling reason. It is very simple: “I am black” (III.iii.263).

From this point on, the language in which Othello speaks of Desdemona's infidelity is saturated with images of blackness and whiteness, and the beginnings of racial despair. In considering his reputation, he says, “My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (III.iii.383-85). It does not take a psychoanalyst to see the incipient self-hate below the shallow surface of anger. The contrast between Diana's whiteness and Othello's blackness displaces only slightly his sense that Desdemona has betrayed him because of his black face. When he contemplates revenge, it is “black vengeance, from the hollow hell!” (III.iii.444), vengeance by a black man betrayed due to his blackness, but also vengeance by a man who is perhaps beginning to sink into despondency, believing that he is indeed not human, that he is instead some ill-formed demon, a wretched and diminished image of black Lucifer. (Later, accusing Desdemona of infidelity, he similarly contrasts the “complexion” of Desdemona with his own appearance, “grim as hell” [IV.ii.61-63].)

The misplaced handkerchief is, of course, the final datum edging Othello over the brink to complete despair, and murder. In part, it is an ordinary love token, similar to the love tokens in so many comedies of forbidden love. But it has further resonance as well, resonance amplified by Othello's sense that he has been betrayed due to his race. It was his mother's handkerchief, from Egypt (III.iv.56). She gave it to Othello for his wife. When he gave it to Desdemona, it was a token not only of his love, but of his family, his heritage, his home—Africa, from which he was “taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery” (I.iii.136-37). For Desdemona to give away this handkerchief to the curled darling Cassio, that he might pass it casually to a prostitute—this not only denigrates Othello's love, but dishonors his family, his past, his origins, his race. Again, the deepest hurt is not that he has lost sexual possession of his wife, but that he has lost the one point of contact with human community, that even Desdemona's love conceals mockery and disdain.

The murder too follows this pattern. But here the self-hatred, the racial despair, has progressed even further. The imagery of her death is all imagery of white and black: putting out the light (V.ii.7), or, more suggestively, “a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon” (V.ii.98-99). There are more literal connections as well. Indeed, putting out the light is an image of suffocation, and Othello chooses to suffocate Desdemona for a racial reason, for a reason which indicates that he has, at least in part, internalized the racism of Venetian society: “I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (V.ii.3-4). Her whiteness has become sacred, just as his blackness has become demonic. Emilia makes this explicit when she summarizes the murder: “the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!” (V.ii.129-30). Of course, Othello does at moments reverse this, asserting that Desdemona is a “fair devil” (III.iv.475), that her soul has “gone to burning hell” (V.ii.128). But, then, racial despair does not exclude ambivalence. Indeed, one despairs precisely because one has moments when one feels and sees oneself as human, and recognizes with horror the inhumanity of the oppressor.


Shakespeare, it seems, was not only aware but deeply critical of racial hatred and related forms of exclusion and oppression. He was pained by the brutality of majority toward minority groups. But his empathy was not our multicultural empathy. It was, rather, thoroughly Christian. His plays indicate that he believed in the unity and equality of humankind, but that he believed in this unity and equality as meaningful only in and through Christian belief and practice. Indeed, that unity and equality would appear to have been, for Shakespeare, a doctrine of Christianity. The racism of the Venetians against Othello is thoroughly unchristian, as is their racism against Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In both plays, Shakespeare sets out to represent a putatively Christian society violating the precepts of Christianity and, in consequence, driving men to acts of barbarism. In short, he shows “Christian” society turning people away from God, when it is their Christian duty to lead people towards God.

A unfortunate aspect of Shakespeare's Christian antiracism is his apparent willingness to condemn all religions other than Christianity. On the other hand, these condemnations were not directed against people but against beliefs and practices. Moreover, they were aimed not at extending colonial oppression but at achieving conversion, and they were paired with equally strong condemnations of hypocritical Christianity.

Put differently, there are two ways in which one may conceive of the opposition between Turk and Venetian. One is religious, the other racial. One identifies Othello with the Venetians as a Christian. The other identifies Othello with the Turks as a Moor. Shakespeare stacks the deck strongly in favor of the former opposition. Othello is the general in charge of defeating the Turks. A violent tempest destroys the Turkish fleet, giving victory to the Venetians before military engagement, thus without loss or suffering. The storm is not, however, a mere natural occurrence. It is too discerning to be random: destroying the Turkish fleet alone, sparing the Venetians, it is a classic literary act of divine providence. For a few moments, it is unclear whether God has chosen to spare Othello or to drown him with the Ottomites, whether God has identified Othello with the Venetians as a Christian or has identified him with the Turks as a Moor. Of course, Othello is spared. God has judged on religious, not racial grounds.

Later, Othello makes this opposition clear, referring to the providential nature of the storm. When restraining the inebriated Cassio, he asks, “Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that / Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites? / For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” (II.iii.169-71). In saying that heaven has forbidden the Ottomites to kill the Venetian soldiers, Othello is referring to the storm and explicitly characterizing it as a manifestation of divine will. In addition, he implicitly explains this providential intervention of God in religious terms. For Othello, “turning Turk” is opposed not to being Venetian, being white, but to being “Christian.” Indeed, Othello refers to the entire group as “we,” rightly including himself in the body opposed to the Turks—more rightly than those around him, for he alone remembers “Christian shame.”

But not everyone sees the division in these terms. Early in the play, Brabantio draws an analogy between Othello's marriage to Desdemona and the Turks' conquest of Cyprus, at that point not yet prevented by the tempest (I.iii.207-08). For him, it is clear that the difference between Turks and Venetians is racial, not religious. The final and perhaps most devastating tragedy of Othello is that, in the end, Othello himself comes to believe Brabantio. He comes to accept that he is not an individual with a name and all the attributes of humanity, that he is not, even more importantly, a soul whose worth is defined by devotion to God rather than outward color. He comes to see himself as nothing but an instance of blackness. Through this distorting lens, he sees the horror of his crime, but he fails to see its nature. He has killed Desdemona because he fell prey to “Christian” inhumanity and became himself as “unchristian” as those around him. But this is not what he sees. When he looks at his crime, and when he looks into the heart of darkness deep in European society, he does not recognize the brutal racism of that society. Instead, he accepts it. Falling headlong into racial despair, he sees his crime as confirmation that he is a dog, a demon, a Turk, that he is all and only blackness, in body and in spirit. Indeed, this racial despair is not only similar to spiritual despair; it is, for Shakespeare, an instance of spiritual despair. Othello cannot dream of forgiveness, for his sin is his very being. It cannot be washed away from his soul by divine grace any more than the “soot” of his bosom or the “grime” of his face can be washed away. The only way to end the sin is to destroy the life which sustains it—and so he murders himself, perversely driven to spiritual despair by the “Christian” community which should have functioned precisely to prevent such feelings, to inspire faith in divine mercy.

There are hints of this self-hatred earlier, as we have already seen. But it is only in his final speech, leading to self-murder, that they are fully developed and fully articulated. Spoudaios even in disgrace, he asks his captors to “extenuate” nothing. His full acceptance of his crime, and the racial despair which follows from this, is, again, an aspect of his “constant, loving, noble” character. He will not blame others, only himself. But he blames himself racially, seeing himself through the blue eyes of a racist society. (O’Toole: “Racism isn’t just the context in which Othello lives. It has entered his mind and his soul.”25) In the final lines leading to the suicide, he stops speaking of himself in the first person, as a subject, and begins to speak of himself in the third person, as “one,” as an object. He draws three comparisons. First, he is like a “Judean” (V.ii.343); second, he is like an “Arabian tree”; and, finally, he is a “Turk.” All are variations on his racial difference from those around him. His final conception of himself is of a Moor only, a dark stranger, no longer this singular man, Othello.

In the first comparison, he is a Jew who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (V.ii.343-44). The pearl was, of course, Desdemona. She was a pearl because she was white, and in being white worth more than an entire Semitic “tribe,” her fairness giving her greater value than all the dark men and women in combination. In the second analogy, he is like a tree from Arabia, his sorrow producing a curative balm. The balm is his tears of repentance—the cure, one must assume, is death.

The final comparison is the most painful. Othello has already announced that he will not speak of service he has done the state. But he ends with a story of this service:

[I]n Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus.


In speaking the final words, he stabs himself, as if he were that very Turk.26 Othello is no longer capable of seeing either Desdemona or himself as individual people, even as husband and wife. She and he have become merely Venetian and Turk, white and black. Othello is now a “malignant” Turk who beat a Venetian, and who must, in consequence, be killed. Looking at himself, he sees an inhuman beast, a “circumcised dog.” He has come around to the view of Iago and of Brabantio. He must be punished not because he, Othello, took the life of his beloved Desdemona, but because this black, subhuman Turk took the life of a fair Venetian. When Othello plunges the dagger into his chest, he is not killing himself, for he no longer recognizes himself as a self, a subject, a human body with a divine soul. He is, rather, slaying a dark beast.

This is what makes the ending of the play so devastating, especially for a Christian such as Shakespeare. Othello was a greater Christian than all the Christians of Venice, but he was driven to these final acts of desperation because of the evil of the “Christians” around him, and because of his own “constant, loving, noble nature” (II.i.289). Thus, by Christian doctrine, he is condemned to eternal torment, the death of the soul which he, in Christian conscience, did not wish to inflict on anyone, even Desdemona, even at the extremity of loathing and despair: “If you bethink yourself of any crime / Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace, / Solicit for it straight. … I would not kill thy unprepared spirit. / No, heavens forfend! I would not kill thy soul” (V.ii.26-27, 31-32). It is worth contrasting this attitude with that of Hamlet, who once refrains from killing Claudius for fear that Claudius is at prayer and thus would rise to heaven. To kill someone at prayer, he reflects, “is hire and salary, not revenge!” (III.iii.82). For Shakespeare, the difference between this and the attitude of Othello is not trivial. And both remind a Christian reader of the eternal tragedy that follows inexorably from Othello's unsanctified death. Unlike Hamlet, who piled up corpses on the stage and would even have killed a man's soul—all based on evidence as flimsy as an apparition—unlike Hamlet, Othello will never have “flights of angels sing [him] to [his] rest” (Hamlet V.ii.386).

Indeed, even for those of us who do not accept the Christian attitudes behind the work, the dual culmination of events is devastating. In any moral system—religious or secular—it is all too brutally unnecessary and unjust. Othello is one of the most impassioned and moving studies of racism in English literature, one of the most powerful in takhyil. For Shakespeare makes painfully clear the quiet, pervasive cruelty of racism, and its terrible human consequences.


  1. See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967).

  2. Derek Walcott, “What the Twilight Says: An Overture,” Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (New York: Noonday, 1970) 21.

  3. Aristotle, Peri Poietikes, in Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, ed. and trans S. H. Butcher (New York: Dover, 1951) 10.

  4. See especially Martin Orkin, Shakespeare Against Apartheid (Craighall: Ad. Donker, 1987) and citations; see also Emily C. Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (Winter 1990): 433-54.

  5. See, for example, John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (New York: Cambridge UP, 1994) 25-27.

  6. Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideouts in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 40.4 (Winter 1989): 393.

  7. Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, Black Face Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987).

  8. See Jonathan Crewe, “Outside the Matrix: Shakespeare and Race-Writing,” Yale Journal of Criticism 8.2 (Fall 1995): 28n25.

  9. Fintan O’Toole, No More Heroes: A Radical Guide to Shakespeare (Dublin: Raven Arts, 1990) 63-64.

  10. Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Cannibals,” Shakespeare's World: Background Readings in the English Renaissance, ed. Gerald M. Pinciss and Roger Lockyer (New York: Continuum, 1989).

  11. Al-Farabi, “Canons of the Art of Poetry,” Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age: Selection of Texts Accompanied by a Preliminary Study, ed. and trans. Vicente Cantarino (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975); Ibn Sina, Avicenna's Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle, ed. and trans. Ismail Dahiyat (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974); Ibn Rushd, Averroes' Middle Commentary on Aristotle's Poetics, ed. and trans., Charles Butterworth (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986).

  12. Dahiyat 89n4.

  13. Maulana Muhammad Ali, ed. and trans., The Holy Qur’an: Arabic Text, English Translation and Commentary (Columbus, Ohio: Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore, 1995) 3n2.

  14. Ali 1180n2745.

  15. Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973).

  16. Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980).

  17. Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (London: Harvester, Wheatsheaf, 1995) 1, 5.

  18. Giraldi Cinthio, “Selection from Giraldi Cinthio Hecatommithi,The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, ed. Alvan Kernan (New York: Signet, 1986) 175.

  19. Cf. Peter Davison, Othello (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1988) 63. The contrast between Shakespeare's treatment of blacks and that of the source has been noted by several critics; see, for example, Edward Berry, “Othello's Alienation,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30.3 (Spring 1990) 316. For an historical overview of racist stereotyping in the Renaissance, see Barthelmy, note 7 above.

  20. This and subsequent citations refer to William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, ed. Alvin Kernan, rev. ed. (New York: New American Library, 1986).

  21. Cinthio 175.

  22. Matthew 26.52 and John 18.11, in Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison: U. of Wisconsin P, 1969).

  23. This parallel seems to have gone unnoticed; indeed, despite the obviously Judas-like character of Iago and the occasional links between Othello and Jesus, critics have tended to associate Othello with Judas—bizarrely, in my view; for an overview, see Roy Battenhouse, ed., Shakespeare's Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994).

  24. This point has been noted by several critics; see, for example, Derek Cohen, “Othello's Suicide,” University of Toronto Quarterly 62.3 (Spring 1993): 324.

  25. O’Toole 64.

  26. Cf. Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972) 195.

Virginia Mason Vaughan (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Race Mattered: Othello in Late Eighteenth-Century England,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 51, 1998, pp. 57-66.

[In the following essay, Vaughan provides insight into the seemingly irreconcilable popularity of Othello among eighteenth-century audiences during a time of tense racial debates.]

‘When Paul Robeson stepped onto the stage for the very first time’, Margaret Webster recalled, ‘when he spoke his very first line, he immediately, by his very presence, brought an incalculable sense of reality to the entire play.’1 That reality emanated from Robeson's status as the first actor of African descent to impersonate Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway. Because of his biological heritage, Robeson was perceived as being more ‘real’ as the Moor than a white actor in blackface. Robeson's performance in the longest-running Shakespeare production ever staged on Broadway thus revolutionized the way many people felt about its hero.

As public reaction to Webster's Othello demonstrated, a play in performance is both a maker and a transmitter of cultural codes; it is necessarily imbricated in the broader discourses that surround it. Shakespearians concerned with the history of performance must determine the nature of those discourses and how they shaped the text's reception and transmission. For the history of Othello, especially, the discourses inevitably include the messy matter of racial ideology.2

The received view of Othello in the late eighteenth century seems to deny this premise, however, and to isolate the play in performance from the broad context of English culture. At a time when the justice of British enslavement of black Africans in England and the West Indies was hotly debated,3 Othello's race and his relation to a white woman seem, in the eyes of most theatre historians, not to have mattered. Thus two contradictory discourses circulated simultaneously and, at first glance, seem to have had little or no impact on each other: (1) the pro- and anti-slavery polemics in pamphlets and magazines, and (2) criticism of Othello on stage in memoirs, acting treatises, and reviews.

Perhaps because Othello boasts a continuous acting history from the Restoration to the present, or perhaps because of its privileged place in the canon as one of the Big Four, there is abundant perceptive commentary about its early performance history. Marvin Rosenberg began his long and fruitful career with The Masks of Othello in 1961. His chapter on the eighteenth century argues that ‘a proper, neoclassic hero was aimed at’ and demonstrates how cuts in the acting text were designed to display Othello at his best and to protect the audience from overt sexual references.4 Rosenberg never mentions race per se. Carol Carlisle's thoughtful study of actor-critic responses to the Big Four, Shakespeare from the Greenroom, recognizes that colour had indeed created problems in the performance history of Othello but concludes that ‘there is no interpretation of Othello advanced by an actor-critic of that period [the eighteenth century] that might not bear the stamp of nobility upon it’.5 Julie Hankey's performance edition also offers a detailed survey of Othello's acting history; she characterizes the eighteenth-century Moor as ‘the hero-and-the-lover’ and suggests that theatre critics such as James Boaden saw little significance in Othello as an African; rather, in Hankey's words, ‘Othello was in their minds a hot and fiery southern gentleman in whom the qualities of an Englishman were not so much abandoned as exaggerated.’6 Gino Matteo is more emphatic, insisting that the issue of race ‘simply never materialised in the eighteenth-century theatre’.7 Even so astute a critic as James Siemon is reticent on the topic of race, asserting ‘the age's nearly universal insistence on Othello's nobility’.8

This reticence about the racial dynamics of eighteenth-century Othello performances, which is admittedly exhibited in my recent book,9 reflects the traditional sources. They are either silent about Othello's race or insist that it was not an issue. William Cooke, for example, anointed Spranger Barry as the best eighteenth-century Othello in his Memoirs of Charles Macklin because he was the perfect hero and lover. Cooke concludes: ‘those who before doubted of the poet's consistency in forming a mutual passion between such characters as the black Othello, and the fair Desdemona, were now convinced of his propriety. They saw, from Barry's predominant and fascinating manner, that mere colour could not be a barrier to affection’.10

In somewhat the same vein, Francis Gentleman's 1777 edition of Othello emphasizes that the Moor should ‘be amiably elegant and above the middle stature; his expression full and sententious, for the declamatory part; flowing and harmonious, for the love-scenes; rapid and powerful for each violent climax of jealous rage’.11 In The Dramatic Censor, Gentleman describes Othello as ‘open, generous, free, subject to violent feelings, not, as himself expresses it, easily jealous, yet rouzed by that pernicious passion above all violent restraint; weak in his confidence, partial in discernment, fatal in resolution’.12 Despite his expansive concern with character, Gentleman never mentions colour or race. Nor is there any reference to Othello's make-up or colour in Kemble's promptbook.13

There are, to be sure, some hints in the standard sources that Othello's blackness was sometimes of passing interest. In a frequently cited anecdote, David Garrick is said to have answered the question, ‘why Shakespeare made his hero black?’ with this rejoinder:

Shakespeare had shown us white men jealous in other pieces, but … their jealousy had limits, and was not so terrible; … in … Othello, he had wished to paint that passion in all its violence, and that is why he chose an African in whose veins circulated fire instead of blood, and whose true or imaginary character could excuse all boldnesses of expression and all exaggerations of passion.14

Garrick drew here upon the common assumption that people living in Africa, Ethiopia, and Egypt were violent by nature, whereas people from more northern climes were steadier in temperament.15 But what had been a cultural bias during the late sixteenth century became a fixed ideology two hundred years later when London had acquired a substantial black population.

James Boaden's memoir of John Philip Kemble echoes this received wisdom when he describes the actor-manager's Moor as ‘grand and awful and pathetic. But he was a European: there seemed to be philosophy in his bearing; there was reason in his rage’.16 Because Kemble was too northern, or English, in his self-control, Boaden implies, the actor never fully realized the role's emotional dynamics. The 29 October 1787 Public Advertiser echoes Boaden's assessment in its evaluation of the first act: ‘in his first scenes [Kemble] was judicious, but too studiously so; and though most critically correct in his address to the Senate, evidenced he was more anxious to do justice to the text of his author than the feelings of Othello’. The reviewer praises the actor's performance in the later scenes, but, in a curious aside, comments: ‘We much approve his dressing Othello in the Moorish habit … [but] is it necessary the Moor should be as black as a native of Guiney?’17

That Kemble's Moor was too like an African from Guinea (most likely a slave to be exported to the West Indian sugar plantations) suggests that, to some viewers at least, the distinction between the white actor playing a black man and the real thing had to be maintained. This may be one explanation for David Garrick's failure in the role of Othello—not that he was too black, but that in his turban and feather, he looked too much like the black servants fashionable Londoners encountered every day. The historian Peter Fryer estimates that by the late eighteenth century approximately 10,000 black people resided in a nation whose total population was approaching nine million.18 Despite the popular impression that there was no slavery in England during the eighteenth century, slaves were regularly bought and sold in London and the port cities of Bristol and Liverpool.19 The majority of blacks in England had been imported by West Indian planters returning to the mother country. Slaves, many of them children, often decked in special livery, accompanied wealthy white women, their blackness highlighting by contrast the mistress's fair beauty. ‘Given classical names like Pompey and Caesar’, contends historian Gretchen Gerzina, ‘they were dressed in brightly coloured silks and satins, silver padlocked collars, and feathered turbans’.20 William Hogarth's ‘The Harlot's Progress’, Plate 2, satirized this social practice with a be-turbaned black child bearing the tea kettle to his mistress's table.21 David Dabydeen observes in his study of Hogarth's blacks that the boy's

sartorial elegance, his silver collar and his polite domestic duties (English ladies employed black boys to wait at the tea-table, to carry their fans and smelling-salts, to comb their lap dogs, and so on) belies the sordid reality of the servitude of naked and manacled blacks in the colonies.22

Hogarth's engraving thus illustrates the context for actor James Quin's famous quip about Garrick's representation of Shakespeare's Moor: ‘There was a little black boy, like Pompey attending with a tea-kettle, fretting and fumbling about the stage; but I saw no Othello.’23 As the hero of a major tragedy crafted by the National Poet, Othello could not look like a little black slave. Garrick's diminutive stature and exotic turban thus doomed his Othello. Eighteenth-century audiences sought a Moor, as I concluded in 1994, who appeared ‘as a high ranking, noble, courageous general, an English gentleman, represented by a white actor in blackface’.24

But does this performance preference mean that, as I once thought, race was not an issue in the late eighteenth-century interpretation of Othello? How could it not be an issue when cultural anxiety about Britain's black population and the future of the slave trade was at its peak, when litigation such as the highly contested Somerset case of 1772 sparked a public debate about the merits of the slave system? In the 1770s, after the Somerset ruling set a precedent that escaped slaves could not be deported to the West Indies, allowing them to claim freedom on English soil, the pro-slavery lobby countered with loud assertions of Negro inferiority and bestiality, claims that blacks had a better life on the plantations than they would in London competing for scarce employment, and predictions of an English future polluted by miscegenation. By 1783, when a new influx of blacks who had served the Loyalist cause in America arrived to claim their promised freedom, public discussion of their status accelerated. A scheme to remove the black poor from London streets and resettle them in Sierra Leone won backing even from those in favour of abolition and was actually implemented in 1786, though to little success.

London's theatres may seem far removed from this political battlefield, but the same volumes that we comb for theatre reviews—journals like The Public Advertiser and The Gentleman's Magazine—published letters, reports, and reviews from both sides. The literate gentlemen who read such magazines probably knew Othello well, but perhaps it was to avoid making any connections between Shakespeare's moving tragedy and the reality of most black people's lives that they insisted on the Moor's nobility and exalted status.

Outside the magazines and other standard theatrical sources, there is admittedly slender but nonetheless suggestive evidence as to how Othello was constructed within the larger culture. His blackness, of course, was a given, so it is not surprising to find Othello as the name of a slave25 or a member of an all-black military musical regiment.26 That Othello married a white woman was also a given. Thus the white chambermaids who flirted with the Duchess of Queensberry's black servant, Julius Soubise (notorious for womanizing and other vices), called him ‘the young Othello’.27 Othello was jealous. So, when Hester Piozzi reported the jealous quarrel between Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson's black servant, and his white wife, she called the wife ‘his Desdemona’.28

More surprising is that literate Africans also used Othello as a self-construction when writing to a white audience. For example, when the West Indian pro-slavery lobby attacked the writings of the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano (who had gained a large and sympathetic white audience), claiming he was not African at all, he added this to the 1792 edition of his popular Interesting Narrative: ‘An invidious falsehood having appeared … with a view to hurt my character, and to discredit and prevent the sale of my Narrative … it is necessary [to]

Speak of me as I am,
Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught
In malice.’(29)

If Equiano, a passionate advocate for abolition, did not otherwise identify himself with Shakespeare's Moor, he probably assumed his white readers would make the connection and respond sympathetically, as they did in the theatre, to words from Othello's suicide speech.

Ignatius Sancho is another well-known exslave from the period. Hogarth's engraving ‘Taste in High Life’ (1746) depicts him as a child. Like Pompey with the tea kettle, Sancho is dressed in fancy livery with a feathered turban, serving—as does the monkey in the engraving's foreground—as a plaything to his fashionable white mistress.30 But Sancho was lucky. Despite his first mistress's reservations, he learned to read and, in the service of the Duke of Montagu, he found greater opportunities to exercise his musical and literary talents.

In the 1770s, after Sancho became goutridden and incapable of further service, the Montagus helped to set him up in London as a grocer. From his shop, Sancho associated with many of London's artists and literati, including David Garrick. His letters, published after his death in 1782, quoted frequently from eighteenth-century writers such as Pope, Sterne, and Fielding, and less frequently from Shakespeare. In one letter, he adopts Othello's words and describes himself as ‘unused to the melting mood’.31 In another, more telling, letter, he jokingly speculates as to why gentlemen should ‘make elections of wide different beings than Blackamoors for their friends’. The reason is obvious, he concludes, ‘—from Othello to Sancho the big—we are either foolish—or mulish—all—all without a single exception’.32 Mocking the stereotyping of black people, Sancho chooses the black best known in the dominant white culture, Shakespeare's Othello.

Equiano and Sancho were powerful spokesmen for the abolitionist cause. After gaining their freedom, both constructed identities for themselves in the white world of eighteenth-century London, yet in their writings both display the double consciousness described by W. E. B. DuBois, ‘the simultaneous and sometimes conflicting awareness of being both a part of the political and social organism as a citizen, and of being a descendant of Africa’.33 When they presented themselves to the mainstream culture, whether seriously or playfully, they chose Othello, a black hero constructed by whites, to speak for them.

Eighteenth-century publishing was, of course, controlled by white men, and it was through the efforts of white abolitionists that Equiano and Sancho's writings circulated. Would the ex-slaves have been as successful at being heard in other venues? Sancho's earliest biographer, Joseph Jekyll, reports that the grocer had a passion for the theatre and that as a young man, ‘He had been even induced to consider the stage as a resource … and his complexion suggested an offer to the manager [David Garrick] of attempting Othello and Oroonoko; but a defective and incorrigible articulation rendered it abortive.’34 Perhaps Garrick would have arranged for Sancho's debut as the noble Moor had the plump grocer been endowed with Paul Robeson's voice and heroic figure, but it seems more likely that the performance would never have materialized.

I draw here on the distinction Dympna Callaghan makes in her recent essay, ‘“Othello was a white man”’, between ‘the display of black people themselves’ (an exhibition) and ‘the simulation of negritude’ (an imitation or mimesis).35 As she convincingly concludes, the actor who imitates can control the image and its signification; the person on display, in contrast, is passive, leaving the spectators in charge of determining her or his signification. White actors impersonating Othello could—and if we believe contemporary accounts, did—reinforce the stereotype of African passion. If Sancho had been able to portray Othello in the London theatres, his occupation of a speaking, subject position would have been too threatening. This may be a reason, among others, why London theatres would not accept Ira Aldridge as Othello fifty years later. Joyce Green MacDonald contends in a recent essay that by being black instead of acting black, in a ‘self-authorization of blackness’, Aldridge ‘disrupted and complicated the economy of race in unforeseen ways’.36 In any case, the distinction between exhibit—the thing itself—and imitation may explain why, as one historian puts it, Londoners in the eighteenth century could read about slave auctions at home and ‘sensational stories of revolts on West Indian plantations quite coolly in the morning newspaper, and then shed tears that evening over similar situations presented on stage’.37

Although Francis Gentleman never mentions race in his comments on Othello, he repeatedly frets about indecorous sexual suggestions, something Rosenberg pointed out long ago. Decorum was certainly an eighteenth-century preoccupation, and most plays were emended or cut to satisfy current tastes. For example, Gentleman describe Mercutio's reference to the ‘demesnes’ that lie adjacent to Rosaline's (in Garrick's version, Juliet's) thigh as ‘a very indecent line of ludicrous conjuration’.38 Though Juliet's contemplation of the loss of her maidenhead is removed from her ‘Gallop apace’ soliloquy in Gentleman's edition, the cuts in Romeo and Juliet are nevertheless minor compared to those in Gentleman's Othello. Moreover, Gentleman's commentary on Othello has a touch of hysteria about it that clearly contrasts with his sentimental acceptance of Romeo and Juliet's passion. There are, to be sure, many differences between these two tragedies, but I suggest that the impulse to clean up and cut loomed larger when it came to Othello because black sexuality and the prospect of miscegenation caused far more anxiety than sexual relations between two white lovers.

As Michael Neill shows in his analysis of the early illustrations of the murder scene, the figures of the white Desdemona, prone and helpless in her bed, and the black Othello who hovers over her ‘foreground not merely the perverse eroticism of the scene but its aspect of forbidden disclosure’.39 Neill shows how fear and fascination at the idea of miscegenation lurked behind audience responses to the play's final scene. William Leney's engraving of J. Graham's painting of the same scene, commissioned for the Boydell Gallery, shows a diminutive, be-turbaned figure who recalls descriptions of Garrick's performance. The engraving also suggests quasi-pornographic eroticism encoded in black and white. Like the black page whose dark skin highlights by contrast his mistress's whiteness, the black Othello hovers in the shadows of the bed curtains while Desdemona's exposed neck and breast form the picture's erotic centre. As Othello holds the light in one hand and the dagger in the other, the viewer is implicitly invited to contemplate what will happen when the black man ‘tops’ the helpless white female figure and kills her in an erotic embrace. Leney's engraving encodes the spectre of racial intermarriage and ‘contamination’ incessantly invoked by the West Indian slavery lobby, a spectre that according to Fryer, haunted England from the 1770s well into the next century.40 Though this fear was not articulated in contemporary theatrical discourse, Cooke's denial of its existence in his description of Spranger Barry suggests its power. Moreover, the spectre's widespread circulation in larger social discourses may well explain the repeated insistence that Othello had to bear himself like an English gentleman and wear makeup that everyone recognized as artificial. Reality would be too terrifying.

However contradictory this may seem on the surface, it is less a contradiction than it is a paradox of the times and of the history of Othello in performance. Returning to Francis Gentleman's description of Othello—

he is open, generous, free, subject to violent feelings, not, as himself expresses it, easily jealous, yet rouzed by that pernicious passion above all violent restraint; weak in his confidence, partial in discernment, fatal in resolution. [my italics]41

we find striking similarities with Hector McNeill's Observations on the Treatment of the Negroes in the Island of Jamaica, a pro-slavery treatise published in 1788:

The Negro is possessed of passions not only strong but ungovernable; a mind dauntless, warlike, and unmerciful; a temper extremely irascible; a disposition indolent, selfish, and deceitful … He has certain portions of kindness for his friends, generosity and friendship for his favourites, and affection for his connections … Furious in his love as in his hate.42

Perhaps Gentleman's seeming silence about race is not silence at all; perhaps it is simply the product of shared cultural assumptions—that Othello's blackness and his jealous passion are integrally connected. This linking of race with character, temperament, and values is an incipient form of the racialism that flowered in England and America during the next century.

When theatre historians look outside the standard theatrical resources for the late eighteenth century and examine the personal and political discourses that circulated simultaneously, the evidence is impressive that Shakespeare's Othello was deeply imbricated in England's growing racialism. Race mattered to performances of Othello but in ways that were discussed only when an inviolable line was crossed; when stage representations moved uncomfortably close to verisimilitude—when Kemble was too black, like a native of Guinea, or Garrick too like Hogarth's depiction of the slave boy Pompey with his tea kettle—only then did Othello's biological heritage merit serious comment.

As theatre historians, we should be especially careful when dealing with texts that foreground volatile issues of race, class, gender, religion, or sexual identity. Eighteenth-century reviews and memoirs were written by educated white men whose prosperous standard of living often rested on traffic in human flesh; what they did not discuss may be as important as what they did. We need to ponder their silences and, as best we can, burrow in alternative discourses to understand fully Shakespeare's role within the cultural tradition.


  1. Margaret Webster, Shakespeare Without Tears (New York: Capricorn Books, 1975; orig. pub. 1995), p. 179.

  2. James C. Bulman proposes in his introduction to Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance that in contrast to the essentialistic approach to performance pioneered in the 1970s by John Styan, contemporary theatre historians and performance critics should examine how ‘acts of representation are implicated in the dynamics of contemporary culture and in themselves acquire meaning’ (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 1.

  3. For historical accounts of blacks in England during this period, see Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995); James Walvin, Black and White: The Negro and English Society (London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1973), esp. chaps. 4-8; and Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984), esp. chaps. 3-8.

  4. Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 29-53; quote from p. 34.

  5. Carol Jones Carlisle, Shakespeare from the Greenroom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), pp. 172-263; quote from p. 200.

  6. Julie Hankey, ed. Othello (Plays in Performance) (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987), pp. 36-61; quotes from pp. 36 and 49.

  7. Gino M. Matteo, Shakespeare's Othello: The Study and the Stage, 1604-1904 (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974), pp. 85-200; quote from p. 123.

  8. James R. Siemon, ‘“Nay, that’s not next”: Othello, v.ii. in Performance, 1700-1900’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 38-51; quote from p. 41.

  9. Virginia Mason Vaughan, Othello: A Contextual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 113-34.

  10. William Cooke, Memoirs of Charles Macklin (London: James Asperne, 1804), p. 155.

  11. Francis Gentleman, ed. Othello (London: John Bell, 1777), p. 10.

  12. Francis Gentleman, The Dramatic Censor, vol. 1 (London: John Bell, 1770), p. 150.

  13. See the reproduction of Kemble's promptbook in John Philip Kemble Promptbooks, vol. 7, ed. Charles H. Shattuck (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1974).

  14. From Frank A. Hedgcock, David Garrick and his French Friends (London: Stanley Paul, 1912), p. 341n.

  15. J. B. Bamborough discusses this English Renaissance conception in The Little World of Man (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1952), pp. 72-3.

  16. James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, vol. 1 (London: Longman et al., 1825), p. 256. Earlier in his career, Kemble produced an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, called OH! ’tis Impossible; Boaden attributes the staging of the twin Dromios as black slaves (so that the faces of Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus could not be distinguished by the audience) as the reason for the production's failure (p. 33).

  17. Quoted from The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part 5, vol. 2, ed. Charles Beecher Hogan (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 1016.

  18. Fryer, Staying Power, p. 68.

  19. Ibid., pp. 58-61.

  20. Gerzina, Black London, p. 16.

  21. See also Hogarth: The Complete Engravings, ed. Joseph Burke and Colin Caldwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1960), plate 135.

  22. David Dabydeen, Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 114.

  23. Cooke, Memoirs, p. 113.

  24. Vaughan, Othello: A Contextual History, p. 121.

  25. Gerzina, Black London, p. 31.

  26. Fryer, Staying Power, p. 87.

  27. Gerzina, Black London, p. 55.

  28. Hesther Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, ed. S. C. Roberts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), pp. 136-7.

  29. The preface is reprinted as Appendix A in The Life of Olaudah Equiano, vol. I, ed. Paul Edwards (London: Dawsons, 1969).

  30. The description of plate 200 in Hogarth: The Complete Engravings identifies the black boy as Ignatius Sancho. Dabydeen suggests that the lady's seductive gesture implies the sexual role sometimes played by the black male slave with aristocratic white ladies; see Hogarth's Blacks, p. 79.

  31. Ignatius Sancho, The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, ed. Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994), p. 40.

  32. Sancho, Letters, p. 191.

  33. Gerzina, Black London, p. 63.

  34. Sancho, Letters, p. 23.

  35. Dympna Callaghan, ‘“Othello was a white man”’, in Alternative Shakespeares 2 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 192-215; quotes from pp. 194-5.

  36. Joyce Green MacDonald, ‘Acting Black: Othello, Othello Burlesques, and the Performance of Blackness’, Theatre Journal, 46 (1994), 231-49; quotes from p. 234.

  37. Gerzina, Black London, p. 7.

  38. Romeo and Juliet (London: John Bell, 1774), p. 100. Gentleman used Garrick's acting edition which, among other changes, cut Rosaline from the play's beginning and added an extended dialogue between Romeo and Juliet before they expire at the end.

  39. Michael Neill, ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 383-412; quote from p. 385. Paul H. D. Kaplan concludes in his overview of early illustrations that the ‘repeated selection of the murder scene at the end of the play reveals a taste for the melodramatic, and implies a reading of the tragedy in which Othello's violence assumes the most important position’. See ‘The Earliest Images of Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 171-85; quote from p. 185.

  40. Fryer, Staying Power, p. 161.

  41. Gentleman, Dramatic Censor, vol. 1, p. 150.

  42. Gentleman's Magazine, 1788, part 2, pp. 1093-4.

My title is an allusion to Cornel West's recent analysis of race relations in the United States, Race Matters (New York: Vintage, 1994). Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the Shakespeare Association of America, the Higgins School of Humanities Lecture Series at Clark University, and the Shakespearian Studies Seminar at the Harvard Center for Literary and Cultural Studies; the essay has benefitted greatly from the ensuing discussions and I thank all who generously shared their ideas with me. I am also grateful to Alden T. Vaughan and R. A. Foakes for suggestions about sources and revisions.

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