William Shakespeare

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Racial Discourse: Black and White

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Virginia Mason Vaughn, Clark University

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

Othello (1.3.285-86)

Black/white oppositions permeate Othello. Throughout the play, Shakespeare exploits a discourse of racial difference that by 1604 had become ingrained in the English psyche. From Iago's initial racial epithets at Brabantio's window ("old black ram," "barbary horse") to Emilia's cries of outrage in the final scene ("ignorant as dirt"), Shakespeare shows that the union of a white Venetian maiden and a black Moorish general is from at least one perspective emphatically unnatural. The union is of course a central fact of the play, and to some commentators, the spectacle of the pale-skinned woman caught in Othello's black arms has indeed seemed monstrous.1 Yet that spectacle is a major source of Othello's emotional power. From Shakespeare's day to the present, the sight has titillated and terrified predominantly white audiences.

The effect of Othello depends, in other words, on the essential fact of the hero's darkness, the visual signifier of his Otherness. To Shakespeare's original audience, this chromatic sign was probably dark black, although there were other signifiers as well. Roderigo describes the Moor as having "thick lips," a term many sixteenth-century explorers employed in their descriptions of Africans.2 But, as historian Winthrop Jordan notes, by the late sixteenth century, "Blackness became so generally associated with Africa that every African seemed a black man[,] … the terms Moor and Negro used almost interchangeably."3 "Moor" became, G. K. Hunter observes, "a word for 'people not like us,' so signalled by colour."4 Richard Burbage's Othello was probably black. But in any production, whether he appears as a tawny Moor (as nineteenth-century actors preferred) or as a black man of African descent, Othello bears the visual signs of his Otherness, a difference that the play's language insists can never be eradicated.

Elizabethans were fascinated by travelers' accounts of foreign peoples, especially by tall tales of monstrous creatures, heathen customs, sexual orgies, and cannibalism. All were associated with blackness in the Elizabethan mind, a color that, in turn, suggested negation, dirt, sin and death.5 From ancient and medieval lore, black meant the demonic. Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Minde also associates the color black (in any dark complexion) with sexuality;

The redde is wise,
The browne trustie,
The pale peevish,
The blacke lustie.6

And as the accounts of exploration spread, blackness joined additional signs of Otherness—nakedness, savagery, and general depravity.7

Renaissance commentators offered two possible explanations for the existence of skin color so different from their own. The quasi-scientific suggestion that blackness was nature's defense against intense tropical sun was quickly but not universally discredited when black men and women in northern climes produced equally black children. The second explanation relied on scriptural tradition and myth. Since George Best provides the most detailed account (and the one most frequently cited by modern commentators), I quote his Discourse from Hakluyt's Voyages at some length:

It manifestly and plainely appeareth by holy Scripture, that after the generali inundation and overflowing of the earth, there remained no moe men alive but Noe and his three sonnes, Sem, Cham, and Japhet, who onely were left to possesse and inhabite the whole face of the earth … When Noe at the commandement of God had made the Arke and entred therein, and the floud-gates of heaven were opened, so that the whole face of the earth, every tree and mountaine was covered with abundance of water, hee straitely commaunded his sonnes and their wives, that they should with reverence and feare beholde the justice and mighty power of God, and that during the time of the floud while they remained in the Arke, they should use continencie, and abstaine from carnali...

(The entire section is 7,281 words.)