Race and Ontological Alienation in Othello by Romaissaa Benzizoune

Race and ontological alienation in othello.

Whenever an author lays claim to what it means to be Black, a site of disruption is created, wherein a Black audience member is expected to identify with or see as “truth” a representation of himself that cannot be.

Othello , like the few other Shakespearean plays that address the specter of race, remains controversial in scholarly analysis. The play and its protagonist (or, if Iago is interpreted as protagonist, its namesake) have both been hailed as progressive and attacked as problematic. Shakespeare’s efforts in the play have been celebrated by some critics and repudiated by others; Mika Nyoni goes so far as to describe Shakespeare as a writer who may have “influenced or helped to perpetuate racism and religious bigotry which was evident in The Slave Trade, Colonialism, and the persecution of Jews in Germany.” 1 Although many critics of the play have identified the site of contestation as either the racism of Iago or the violence of Othello, few have focused on the character Othello himself. Ultimately, the way that Shakespeare falsely inhabits the Black psyche in his representation of Othello is foreign and debilitating. By othering Othello from his very self, Shakespeare presents to us an (anti-Black) Black character that is more of a caricature that a tragic hero.

Regardless of Shakespeare’s inadequate portrayal of the Black character at the center of the play, Othello is useful as a window onto perceptions of race in England in the early modern period. The play features a cast with a variety of racial outlooks, ranging from outright racists (like Iago) to those who are more sympathetic (like the Duke of Venice) to those who are the most accepting of Blackness (Desdemona, and presumably, Othello). This range is perhaps a reflection of some of the attitudes prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, and while the views of these fictional characters cannot be taken as reflective of Shakespeare’s own views, it is clear that they are rooted in reality. Othello is an Other in every way, and one who is defined in the eyes of almost every character, including himself, by his Otherness. The prefix of “Moor” or “black” is often attached to his name, which in and of itself is never explained (was Othello really the name that he was born with in North Africa?). Othello does not have a name or a nation when he is “the Moor” (more than fifty times), “the dull Moor,” “the cruel Moor,” or even “the noble Moor.” 2 Of course, Iago showcases the potential of early-modern racists in a way that far surpasses Othering; all of the inventive slurs aside, he most shockingly compares Othello to a horse, suggesting that Desdemona’s relationship with a black man would be bestiality. 3 However, Iago’s antiblackness is not problematic, especially seeing that he is the villain of the play. It is the anti-Blackness that the supposed hero exhibits toward himself (vis-a-vis Shakespeare’s imagining of a Black man) that is far more concerning.

There is something disturbing in the way that Othello talks about himself—or more accurately, the way that Shakespeare imagines Othello would talk about himself. It is clear, especially by the end of the play, that his Blackness is only ever a site for insecurity and emasculation. In act 3, scene 3, Othello reflects on his skin color sadly: “Haply, for I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have.” 4 The way Othello objectively announces his blackness feels stiff and unnatural ( Haply, for I am black! ). Despite his status as a military general and his clear capacity for anger and resistance, Othello suspiciously never seems to question or resist racism: The effect renders him sympathetic to the white viewer at the cost of his very Blackness. (Othello reminds me of pandering, sympathetic “Mammy” figures in American cinema.) In the same conversation with Iago, he even bizarrely refers to himself as a slave: “O, that the slave had forty thousand lives.” 5 Most offensively, when lamenting Desdemona to Iago, Othello says: “Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face.” 6 That a Black person would compare their own blackness to physical dirt is only as comical as it is offensive. When someone lives their whole life as a Black person, they psychologically understand the color of their own skin, and would never even think to think of themselves as “begrimed.” Just as a white character would not ever describe themselves as raw or undercooked, a black character would not describe themselves as dirty or covered in soot. However, historically, white or lighter-skinned people have seen black skin as dirty, sometimes due to a direct misunderstanding of what Black skin is. In the 1986 Iranian film Bashu, The Little Stranger, light skinned Iranians try to “wash” the black off the film’s protagonist, an Afro-Iranian from the country’s more secluded south.

Othello’s self-hatred and anti-Blackness not only feels ontologically inaccurate, but historically inaccurate as well. While it is obvious that a white man would make a big deal out of a North African Moor’s Blackness, it does not make sense that a North African Moor would primarily identify with the construct of “race” as opposed to that of homeland, tribe, religion, or other ethnic configuration. (Even today, North Africans will much sooner identify with nationality or religion rather than race; part of this is because many see themselves as Arab rather than Black.) To me, Othello reads exactly like a white man’s envisioning of a Black man; he is oddly obsessed with the aspects of himself that a white man would be obsessed with, and devoid entirely of other aspects that would situate him in a more believable identity. The way Othello would’ve been performed at the time—a white production for a white audience, featuring a white Othello in blackface—only reinforces for me the idea of Othello as white spectacle, featuring a creative rendition of a Moor that has little to do with reality. 7 When Shakespeare tries to make the Other knowable without really knowing him in the first place (and without grounding him in a clear historical background, preferring to shroud him in ambiguity and mystery) he is perhaps doing the Other an ultimate disservice.

Although this paper is not personal, race is often a personal experience felt and lived rather than neatly intellectualized. When Shakespeare writes an Othello who essentially hates himself for being Black, his intentions may have been pure. In painting Othello as a tragic figure worthy of sympathy, a victim of his own Blackness and societal perceptions of it, Shakespeare could have been attempting something radical. However, to me, Shakespeare’s imagining of Othello is vaguely insulting. It evokes for me a passage from Black Skin, White Masks in which Fanon criticizes Sartre’s work Orphée Noir : “Help had been sought from a friend of the colored peoples, and that friend had found no better response than to point out the relativity of what they were doing.” 8 In this ever-memorable passage, Fanon expresses eloquently what it feels like to be misrepresented as Black for all of posterity. Although Sartre was a well-intentioned “ally,” his interpretation of the experience of being Black (which is entangled in a transcendent argument for humanism, and that is where the “relativity” comes in) was twice damaging. 9 It was first of all inaccurate, because a white French man could never know anything of the black lived experience, but more than that, it took up a vital space for Black self-definition. As Fanon puts it, “And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me.” 10 Fanon’s critique is most powerful in the context of existential philosophy, of course, but Othello , just like Orphée Noir , serves as a white “intellectualization of the experience of being black.” 11 In both texts, a white male author—canonical, foundational, intellectual authority—makes grand assumptions about the Black psyche; in both works, that same white male author seems to position himself as a positive, savior force. Whenever a white person lays claim to what it means to be Black, a site of disruption is created, wherein a Black audience member is expected to identify with or see as “truth” a representation of himself that cannot be , and certainly does not feel, accurate. The real violence of the play occurs upon this very site. In the wake of Othello, just as in the wake of Orphée Noir , the black audience member finds themselves unmoored, robbed of self-representation, told about themselves.

Throughout my four years at NYU, and unsurprisingly, Othello is the only North African protagonist that I have been presented with. Within the play, he is the character that ends up being the most anti-Black, and his self-destruction enriches the plot in a way that is useful for climatic flair but not for authentic representation. While Othello is an insightful text in a variety of ways, a rereading of the play, with a postcolonial, Black studies lens, can only be so generous. The stunted depiction of Othello as a simple, sympathetic “Moor” is ultimately problematic in its illegibility, and any discourse about the play should leave room for this interpretation. In regards to this text and other canonical works I have encountered during my time at NYU, another line from Black Skin , White Masks comes to mind: “The dialectic that brings necessity into the foundation of my freedom drives me out of myself.” 12

  • Mika Nyoni, “The Culture of Othering: An Interrogation of Shakespeare’s Handling of Race and Ethnicity in The Merchant of Venice and Othello ,” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 2, no. 4 (January 2012): 680.
  • William Shakespeare, Othello , (The Pelican Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 2001), 5.2.266; 5.2.299; 2.3.144.
  • Shakespeare, Othello , 1.1.125.
  • Shakespeare, Othello , 3.3.304-306.
  • Shakespeare, Othello , 3.3.502.
  • Shakespeare, Othello , 3.3.441-443.
  • Peter Holland, Shakespeare and Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 300).
  • Frantz Fanon , Black Skin, White Masks (Penguin Classics, 2020), 102.
  • Sartre though that Negritude was only useful as a transitory phase on the way to a post-racial reality.
  • Fanon , Black Skin, White Masks , 102.
  • Fanon , Black Skin, White Masks , 134.
  • Frantz Fanon , Black Skin, White Masks (Penguin Classics, 2020), 103.

Romaissaa Benzizoune (‘BA 20, @romaissaa_b ) originally wrote “Race and Ontological Alienation in Othello ” in Professor Bella Mirabella’s Interdisciplinary Seminar “ Shakespeare and the London Theatre ,” in Spring 2020.

Thumbnail image: Othello and Desdemona (19th century) by Daniel Maclise, via Wikimedia Commons.

A white woman lies in bed as a Black man stands near her.

What Shakespeare can teach us about racism

othello essay racism

Associate Professor of English, Trinity College

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David S. Brown receives funding from Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies.

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William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “ Othello ” is often the first play that comes to mind when people think of Shakespeare and race . And if not “Othello,” then folks usually name “ The Merchant of Venice ,” “ Antony and Cleopatra ,” “ The Tempest ,” or his first – and bloodiest – tragedy, “ Titus Andronicus ,” my favorite Shakespeare play.

Among Shakespeare scholars, those five works are known as his traditionally understood “race plays” and include characters who are Black like Othello, Jewish like Shylock, Indigenous like Caliban, or Black African like Cleopatra.

But what did Shakespeare have to say about race in plays such as “ Hamlet ” and “ Macbeth ,” where Black characters do not have a dominant role, for example?

As Shakespeare scholars who study race know, all of his plays address race in some way. How could they not?

After all, every human being has a racial identity, much like every living human being breathes. Said another way, every character Shakespeare breathed life into has a racial identity, from Hamlet to Hippolyta .

The playwright wrote about many key subjects during the late 15th and early 16th centuries that are relevant today, including gender, addiction, sexuality, mental health, social psychology, sexual violence , antisemitism, sexism and, of course, race .

In my book “ Shakespeare’s White Others ,” I explore the intraracial divisions that Shakespeare illustrates in all his plays.

Here are four things to know about Shakespeare and race.

1. No one should fear Shakespeare

For a long time, I was afraid of Shakespeare. I am not the only one.

In his 1964 essay “ Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare ,” James Baldwin detailed his initial resistance. Like many people today, Baldwin wrote that he, too, was “a victim of that loveless education which causes so many schoolboys to detest Shakespeare.”

A major part of Baldwin’s loathing of Shakespeare had nothing to do with the English writer specifically, but rather the white elitism that surrounded his work and literature.

But as Baldwin eventually realized, Shakespeare was not the “ author of his oppression .”

Just as Shakespeare didn’t create misogyny and sexism, he didn’t create race and racism. Rather, he observed the complex realities of the world around him, and through his plays he articulated an underlying hope for a more just world.

2. Shakespeare’s work reveals social injustice

“ Titus Andronicus ” featured the playwright’s first Black character, Aaron. In that play, written near the end of the 16th century, the white Roman empress, Tamora, cheats on her white emperor husband, Saturninus, with Aaron. When Tamora eventually gives birth to a baby, it’s clear Tamora’s baby daddy isn’t Saturninus.

Consequently, the white characters who know about the infant’s real father urge Aaron to kill his newborn Black son. But Aaron refuses. He opts instead to fiercely protect his beloved child.

A white man with a sword is chasing a person covered in cloth carrying a baby.

Amid all the drama that occurs around the child’s existence, Shakespeare momentarily offers a beautiful defense of Blackness in the play’s fourth act.

“Is black so base a hue?” Aaron initially asks before challenging the cultural norm. “Coal-black is better than another hue, in that it scorns to bear another hue.”

In other words, at least to Aaron, being Black was beautiful, Blackness exuded strength.

Such words about the Black identity are not uttered elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays – not even by the more popular Othello .

3. The power of whiteness

In plays such as “ Hamlet ,” “Macbeth” and “ Romeo and Juliet ,” race still figures in the drama even when there are no dominant Black characters.

Shakespeare does this by illustrating the formation and maintenance of the white identity. In a sense, Shakespeare details the nuances of race through his characters’ racial similarities, thus making racial whiteness very visible.

A book is opened to a page with an image of a white man and a note to the readers.

In Shakespeare’s time, much like our present moment, the presumed superiority of whiteness meant social status was negotiated by everyone based on the dominant culture’s standards.

In several of his plays, for instance, the playwright uses “white hands” as noble symbols of purity and white superiority. He also called attention to his character’s race by describing them as “white” or “fair.”

Shakespeare also used black as a metaphor for being tainted.

One such moment occurs in the comedy “ Much Ado About Nothing .”

A young white woman, Hero, is falsely accused of cheating on her fiancé. On their wedding day, Hero’s groom, Claudio, charges her with being unfaithful. Claudio and Hero’s father, Leonato, then shame Hero for being allegedly unchaste, a no-no for 16th-century English women who were legally their father’s and then their husband’s property.

With Hero’s sexual purity allegedly tainted, her father describes her as having “fallen into a pit of ink.”

Sex before marriage violated the male-dominated culture’s expectations for unwed white women.

Thus, in that play, Hero momentarily represents an “inked” white woman – or a symbolic reflection of the stereotyped, hypersexual Black woman.

4. The future of scholarship on Shakespeare and race

Today, scholars are publishing new insights on the social, cultural and political issues of Shakespeare’s time and our own. In fact, there are dozens of scholars and theater practitioners devoting their professional lives to exploring race in Shakespeare’s literature and time period.

In his 2000 book “ Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice ,” UCLA English professor Arthur L. Little Jr. explored British imperialism, racialized whiteness and the sexual myths about Black men.

In 2020, playwright Anchuli Felicia King wrote “ Keene ,” a satirical riff on “Othello” that offers a modern-day critique on whiteness. In “Keene,” Kai, a Japanese musicologist, and Tyler, a Black Ph.D. student, meet at a Shakespeare conference where they are the only two people of color at the elite white gathering. While Tyler is focused on writing his thesis, Kai is focused on Tyler. A romance ensues, only to see Tyler – much like Othello before him – betrayed by his closet white confidant, Ian.

In 2019, British actress Adjoa Andoh directed Shakespeare’s “ Richard II ” with a cast of all women of color – a production that she called “a thought experiment into the universality of humanity.”

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Book contents

  • The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race
  • Copyright page
  • Contributors
  • Note on Shakespeare Editions
  • Chapter 1 Did the Concept of Race Exist for Shakespeare and His Contemporaries?
  • Chapter 2 The Materials of Race
  • Chapter 3 Barbarian Moors
  • Chapter 4 Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy
  • Chapter 5 Race in Shakespeare’s Histories
  • Chapter 6 Race in Shakespeare’s Tragedies
  • Chapter 7 Experimental Othello
  • Chapter 8 Flesh and Blood
  • Chapter 9 Was Sexuality Racialized for Shakespeare?
  • Chapter 10 The Tempest and Early Modern Conceptions of Race
  • Chapter 11 Shakespeare, Race, and Globalization
  • Chapter 12 How to Think Like Ira Aldridge
  • Chapter 13 What Is the History of Actors of Color Performing in Shakespeare in the UK?
  • Chapter 14 Actresses of Color and Shakespearean Performance
  • Chapter 15 Othello
  • Chapter 16 Are Shakespeare’s Plays Racially Progressive?
  • Chapter 17 How Have Post-Colonial Approaches Enriched Shakespeare’s Works?
  • Chapter 18 Is It Possible to Read Shakespeare through Critical White Studies?
  • Further Reading

Chapter 15 - Othello

A Performance Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2021

Adrian Lester talks us through his research in preparation for his portrayal of Othello at the National Theatre in 2013. His examination of the play’s racial politics in performance includes interviews with Iago (Rory Kinnear), Desdemona (Olivia Vinall), and the iconic James Earl Jones who has played Othello four times. In this chapter Lester argues that our reaction to the play is not based on Shakespeare’s intentions but based on Western culture’s manipulative, complex racial history and sexual politics – a history that clouds any attempt at a balanced view when looking at these subjects.

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  • By Adrian Lester
  • Edited by Ayanna Thompson , Arizona State University
  • Book: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race
  • Online publication: 09 February 2021
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108684750.015

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  • Shakespeare Bulletin

Iago as the Racist-Function in Othello

  • Eric Brinkman
  • Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 2022
  • 10.1353/shb.2022.0001
  • View Citation

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Ayanna Thompson has publicly discussed her role as “Othello Whisperer”: she is called in to help Black actors struggling with playing the role of Othello. The reason Black actors struggle with performing this role is because it was not written for them: rather, Othello is a play for white people about how they feel about how Black men are treated. Othello’s early identification as the only Moor in the play marks him for unequal treatment and destruction and, to avoid feeling white guilt over watching this unfair treatment of a Black man, Iago is offered as a scapegoat to give white, middle-class, liberal audiences someone to blame for Othello’s fall, a role I call the “racist-function.” Continuing to (re)produce the play in this manner allows the white audiences for which it is intended to avoid recognizing their own complicity in structural antiblackness. This article traces how the racist-function has changed and evolved over time to meet the needs of white liberal audiences by first analyzing how the text is structured in the Folio and Quarto editions, then demonstrating how later stage and film productions have continued to center whiteness, including case studies of Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 National Theatre and Iqbal Khan’s 2015 RSC stage productions.


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  • Title : Othello: A Survey of Criticism
  • Author : Jessica Slights

ISBN: 978-1-55058-466-0

  • Edition: Othello
  • A Survey of Criticism
  • Introduction
  • A History of Performance
  • Textual Introduction
  • Bibliography
  • Othello, Modern
  • Othello, Quarto 1, 1622 (Old-spelling transcription)
  • Othello, Folio 1, 1623 (Old-spelling transcription)
  • The Battle of Alcazar (Selection)
  • Cinthio's Tale
  • A Godly Form of Household Government
  • A Table of Human Passions
  • Coryat's Crudities
  • Counsel to the Husband
  • Letters Permitting Deportation of Blackamoors from England
  • Certain Tragical Discourses
  • The Passions of the Mind
  • Boston Public Library
  • British Library
  • Brandeis University
  • New South Wales
  • Second Folio
  • Third Folio
  • Fourth Folio
  • Works Rowe, Vol.5
  • Works Theobald, Vol.7

1 Othello has always been a popular play with acting companies and audiences, and over the centuries it has occasioned considerable and varied response among scholars. While many critics have regarded it as one of Shakespeare's most successful plays, there have been vocal detractors, both early in the play's life and more recently. The flash point of critical controversy has most often been the race and social status of its title character, but significant debates have also arisen about the play's dramatic structure, its representation of women, and the powerfully disturbing figure of Iago. The following discussion sketches in broad strokes some of the most influential literary critical approaches to Othello , including character criticism, formalism, psychoanalysis, and a range of politically inflected approaches such as feminism and new historicism.

2 As early as the final decade of the seventeenth century, Othello was criticized for depicting a man of color as a tragic hero. Thomas Rymer (c. 1641-1713), whose A Short View of Tragedy appeared in 1693, is notable for providing the first major published criticism of the play, and also for the intensity of his dislike of Othello and its titular hero. Attacking the play as merely an unfortunate and implausible stage adaptation of the Italian prose tale from which its plot derives, Rymer argues that Othello ignores a number of key principles of dramatic composition, specifically the neoclassical prescription that a play ought to trace, in real time and a focused manner, the events of a single day in a single location. He saves his most virulent attacks, however, for what he presents as the play's violation of the conventions of a natural hierarchy that positions people of color firmly below white Europeans, and non-Christians below Christians. Discussing Othello's rank in the Venetian military, Rymer argues:

The character of that state [i.e., Venice] is to employ strangers in their wars, but shall a poet thence fancy that they will set a negro to be their general, or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk? With us, a Blackamoor might rise to be a trumpeter, but Shakespeare would not have him less than a lieutenant-general. . . . Nothing is more odious in nature than an improbable lie, and, certainly, never was any play fraught, like this of Othello , with improbabilities. (91-92)

Of the many attacks on nature for which Rymer holds Othello responsible, he clearly considers its depiction of the marriage of a senator's daughter to a military commander irksome, and its portrayal of a man of color in the illustrious rank of general truly loathsome.

3 Although Rymer's hostility to Othello and his overt racism make unpleasant reading for modern critics, A Short View of Tragedy is not without valuable perceptions about the play, and it is worth noting that Rymer is the first published critic to recognize (however disapprovingly) that language or "talk" is the basis of Othello's courtship of Desdemona:

Shakespeare, who is accountable both to the eyes and to the ears, and to convince the very heart of an audience, shows that Desdemona was won by hearing Othello talk . . . . This was the charm, this was the filter, the love powder that took the daughter of this noble Venetian [i.e., Brabantio]. This was sufficient to make the blackamoor white and reconcile all, though there had been a cloven foot into the bargain. (89-90).

While Rymer takes Brabantio's part in understanding Othello's rhetorical skill as a kind of devilishness, the critic's insight that language is presented in the play as equal to the task of reconciling difference, if not finally of overcoming tragedy, is one that continues to inform modern readings of the play.

4 Othello was particularly popular with eighteenth-century critics, few of whom were convinced either by Rymer's strict views on neoclassical dramatic form or by his claim that the play's plot and characters were implausible. On the contrary, readers such as Samuel Johnson (1709-84), one of the most influential essayists and commentators of the period, defended the play specifically on the basis of its compelling portrait of human behavior. In this excerpt from the commentary in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare's plays, for instance, Johnson highlights the aesthetic value of Othello , and then argues that the play offers crucial insight into human nature:

The beauties of this play impress themselves so strongly upon the attention of the reader, that they can draw no aid from critical illustration. The fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless, and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge; the cool malignity of Iago, silent in his resentment, subtle in his designs, and studious at once of his interest and his vengeance; the soft simplicity of Desdemona, confident of merit, and conscious of innocence, her artless perseverance in her suit, and her slowness to suspect that she can be suspected, are such proofs of Shakespeare's skill in human nature, as, I suppose, it is vain to seek in any modern writer. (473)

As Johnson's comments suggest, the construction of Shakespeare as a national literary hero that was well underway by this time was firmly tied to the perception that he had a particular skill for creating convincingly human characters.

5 While critical interest in the dramatic portraits drawn by Shakespeare produced some engaging readings of his work, the developing conviction that literary texts could hold, as Hamlet would have it, "the mirror up to nature," contributed to the problematic assumption that that which is "natural" is at once fully consistent and apparent to everyone. As socially constructed notions about race, religion, nationality, gender, and class came to be presented instead as the product of an unalterable "nature" that recognized the inevitable superiority of a white, Christian, European, male elite, readings of Othello as a literary confirmation of this hierarchical view began to gain ground. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845) reads Othello's descent into murderous jealousy not as a shocking reversal, but as the inevitable return of an innately barbarous man to his ostensibly uncivilized roots:

We recognize in Othello the wild nature of that glowing zone which generates the most ravenous beasts of prey and the most deadly poisons, tamed only in appearance by the desire of fame, by foreign laws of honour, and by nobler and milder manners. His jealousy is not the jealousy of the heart, which is compatible with the tenderest feeling and adoration of the beloved object; it is of that sensual kind which, in burning climes, has given birth to the disgraceful confinement of women and many other unnatural usages. A drop of this poison flows in his veins, and sets his whole blood in the wildest ferment. The Moor seems noble, frank, confiding, grateful for the love shown him; and he is all this, and, moreover, a hero who spurns at danger, a worthy leader of an army, a faithful servant of the state; but the mere physical force of passion puts to flight in one moment all his acquired and mere habitual virtues, and gives the upper hand to the savage over the moral man. (Lecture 25)

In Schlegel's view, nature dictates that that which is European is civilized and moral, while that which is Moorish is savage and immoral; Othello may have "acquired" a veneer of civilization, but he was born with savagery in his "blood," and it is this "poison" which causes his fall. While this gross oversimplification of the play based on racist stereotypes seems absurdly simpleminded now, its account of the association of Moorish identity with violent sensuality persisted, in various guises, throughout the nineteenth century.

6 As Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge's (1772-1834) comments on the play illustrate, the conviction that Othello depicts fundamental truths about human nature did not always lead to the sort of condemnation of its central character found in Schlegel. Favoring a view of Othello "not as a negro, but a high and chivalrous Moorish chief"—and thereby providing scholarly support for actor Edmund Kean's so-called "tawny" stage Othello—Coleridge reads the tragic hero's actions as the product not of innate and uncontrollable passions, or even of jealousy, but rather as the consequence of moral indignation and wounded honor, and he argues that by generating an empathetic response in the audience the play is finally sympathetic to Othello (2:350). Coleridge was also fascinated by the figure of Iago, and his assessment of the play's enigmatic villain as a "passionless character, all will in intellect" (1:49) influenced readings of the play for decades. Indeed, Coleridge's claim that Iago's final soliloquy is best understood as "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity" (1:49) remains one of the most quoted assessments of Iago to this day.

7 In addition to prompting a reassessment of Iago, the nineteenth-century view of Shakespeare's characters as expressions of fundamental truths about human nature stimulated a growing interest in Desdemona. This attentiveness to the play's tragic heroine intersected with a notable increase in the number of women's voices contributing to public conversations in the realm of literary criticism, as female actors began lecturing and publishing on the roles they performed on stage, and as women slowly began to be admitted to the ranks of professional scholars of Shakespeare. Among the latter category, Anna Jameson (1794-1860) is notable as the author of the first substantial and systematic discussion of Shakespeare's female characters, a volume published first in 1832 as Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical , and later retitled simply Shakespeare's Heroines . Jameson challenges boldly many of her contemporaries by locating Othello 's tragedy not in the plight of its male hero, but rather in the character of its heroine, arguing that "the source of the pathos throughout—of that pathos which at once softens and deepens the tragic effect—lies in the character of Desdemona" (224). Discussing Desdemona at length, Jameson describes her in amusingly patronizing terms as "one in whom the absence of intellectual power is never felt as a deficiency, nor the absence of energy of will as impairing the dignity, nor the most imperturbable serenity as a want of feeling: one in whom thoughts appear mere instincts, the sentiment of rectitude supplies the principle, and virtue itself seems rather a necessary state of being, than an imposed law" (224). Desdemona is, on Jameson's account, a young woman who is neither clever nor dynamic, and whose dominant features—her goodness and gentleness—are both beyond her control and inadequate to ensure her survival: "Desdemona displays at times a transient energy, arising from the power of affection, but gentleness gives the prevailing tone to the character—gentleness in excess—gentleness verging on passivity—gentleness which not only cannot resent—but cannot resist" (218).

8 Jameson's work on Othello is also significant for locating the play's fundamental opposition not in the marriage of Desdemona and Othello, which so many of her contemporaries viewed as a hopeless mismatch, but in the relationship between Desdemona and Iago:

Had the colours in which [Shakespeare] has arrayed Desdemona been one atom less transparently bright and pure, the charm had been lost; she could not have borne the approximation; some shadow from the overpowering blackness of [Iago's] character must have passed over the sunbright purity of hers . . . . To the brutish coarseness and fiendish malignity of this man, her gentleness appears only a contemptible weakness; her purity of affection . . . only a perversion of taste; her bashful modesty only a cloak for evil propensities; so he represents them with all the force of language and self-conviction, and we are obliged to listen to him. (64)

Picking up on the play's discourse of color, Jameson argues convincingly that Othello 's horror lies not in the affectionate relationship of the white-skinned Desdemona and the black-skinned Othello, but rather in the profound clash between the virtuous Desdemona and the malevolent Iago.

9 Critical interest in Othello continued into the early twentieth century, when, thanks to A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), the play gained a place alongside Hamlet , King Lear , and Macbeth in the pantheon of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. Bradley finds Othello "the most painfully exciting and the most terrible" of the tragedies, arguing that "the reader's heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation" (131). In the midst of this maelstrom Bradley locates a thoroughly romanticized Othello, a noble and mysterious everyman whose destruction results from the cunning Iago's ability to turn his virtues against him and whose ruin speaks to a universal experience of tragedy. Like Othello, Desdemona is not a particularized character in Bradley's account, but a representative figure, "the 'eternal womanly' in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint," and the story of her love for the "noblest soul on earth" becomes for Bradley the story of anyone who has ever aimed high and been held back: "She met in life with the reward of those who rise too far above our common level" (150). While Bradley's brand of character criticism—his practice of treating the literary text as a "little world of persons" (28) populated by characters whose behavior could be explored just as one might discuss the behavior of one's neighbors—is the defining feature of his approach to Shakespeare's tragedies, he is also attuned to matters of dramatic structure. Of Othello , he argues that it was "not only the most masterly of the tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension" (131). This analysis of the structural basis for the feelings of frantic and claustrophobic intensity generated in the play has gone on to shape the insights of many later critics.

10 Bradley's sympathetic reading of Othello , with its emphasis on Othello's nobility, Desdemona's saintliness, and Iago's central role as destroyer of their mutual and admirable love, has been enormously influential, although his approach has been attacked vigorously over the years, mostly notably in the 1930s by G. Wilson Knight, L.C. Knights, and F.R. Leavis, and again more recently by poststructuralist critics. For Knight, Bradley's Romantic reading of the play as an anatomy of generalized human nature misses the point completely. "In Othello ," Knight claims, "we are faced with the vividly particular rather than the vague and universal," and his own reading of the play focuses on explicating the symbolic function of its characters and celebrating what he calls the play's "formal beauty" (109). L.C. Knights's objection to Bradley, famously articulated in his mockingly-titled essay "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth" (1933), lies in what he sees as Bradley's refusal to acknowledge Shakespearean tragedy's status as poetry. Knights accuses Bradley of treating the plays as novels, an approach he claims leads to an erroneous emphasis on their psychological dimensions at the expense of their verbal constructions. In "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero" (1937), F.R. Leavis contributes to this attack, finding Bradley's reading of Othello excessively sentimental, and accusing him of an over-identification with Othello that blinds him to what Leavis reads as the general's "self-approving self-dramatization" (142). For Leavis, Othello is not the naïve and noble victim of Iago's superior intellect, but an egoist whose "self-pride becomes stupidity, ferocious stupidity, an insane and self-deceiving passion" (146-47).

11 Perhaps the most influential close reading of the language of Othello remains William Empson's 1951 essay "Honest in Othello ." Noting that the word "honest" appears so often throughout the play, Empson explores how this key term is used by various characters at significant junctures in the action, locating his discussion within an analysis of shifts in the word's meaning over time. According to Empson, Shakespeare is attentive to this semantic slippage and employs "honest," particularly as it is associated with Iago, as a means of acknowledging a gradual cultural shift toward individualism. Bernard Spivak's reading of Othello also afforded Iago particular attention, though his Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (1958) locates the play not within linguistic history but within the history of dramatic form. Noting that Othello shares a number of features with traditional morality plays, Spivak argues that Iago is best understood as a version of the stock character Vice, a personification of evil with a dangerously privileged relationship with the audience.

12 For critics a generation and more later, the suggestion that Othello criticism ought to consist in consideration of the play's generic antecedents, in appreciation and explication of what Knight had earlier called the "music" of its language (109), or in analysis of its thematic preoccupation with jealousy as this relates to a generalizable experience of action, emotion, and moral value began to seem at best naïve and at worst politically suspect. In the 1960s, critics on both sides of the Atlantic sought to understand Othello not as remote from the social and political effects of its historically specific sites of production and reception but as shaped by them. Influenced by the same impulses that propelled the American civil rights movement, many of these critics explored the play's relationship to early modern representations of race rather than its formal properties. This period produced such groundbreaking work as Eldred Jones's Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (1965) and G.K. Hunter's " Othello and Colour Prejudice" (1967), which offered accounts of medieval and early modern discussions of blackness, traced the effect of racial prejudice on the reception of literary texts featuring characters of color, and so introduced productive ways of exploring race in/and Othello . Although the impact of this early work on race in history and drama was gradual, the trail it laid was developed in the 1980s in a series of influential books, including Elliott Tokson's The Popular Image of the Black Man in English Drama, 1550–1688 (1982), Anthony Barthelemy's Black Face, Maligned Race (1987), and Jack D'Amico's The Moor in English Renaissance Drama (1991). The collective effect of these studies was to remind readers of the prominence of black characters on the early modern stage and literary page, to prompt new thinking about the impact of pernicious stereotypes equating blackness with ugliness, disloyalty, and evil, and to encourage further investigation of the historical realities and enduring legacies of slavery. Othello criticism became increasingly politically charged as scholars debated the play's relation to modern conceptions of race and racism. For some the play came to be about "a black man whose humanity is eroded by the cunning and racism of whites" (Cowhig 7), while for others it was an antiracist polemic that "in its fine scrutiny of the mechanisms underlying Iago's use of racism, and in its rejection of human pigmentation as a means of identifying worth . . . continues to oppose racism" (Orkin 188).

13 Although attempts to carry issues of history and race to the center of the conversation about Othello gained ground in the 1960s, the determination persisted to read the play's characters and events as representative of a universal human experience. Bradleian character criticism had fallen out of favor, but the impulse to address the psychological complexities of Shakespeare's characters found fertile new ground in the insights of psychoanalytic theory. First published in the 1950s and reprinted a decade later, a series of influential psychoanalytic readings of the plays found a readership fascinated to explore links among Shakespeare, Freud, and the psychological dimensions of human sexuality. Martin Wangh's " Othello : The Tragedy of Iago," for instance, treats Iago as a case study in repressed homosexuality, arguing that the ensign's stifled erotic desire for Othello causes him to despise, and so to seek the destruction of, his rival for the general's affection, Desdemona. Building on Wangh's analysis of Iago as a paranoiac motivated by hatred for the wife of the man he cannot admit he desires, Gordon Ross Smith adduces a more general case for a psychoanalytic approach to Shakespearean drama on the grounds that it provides a "common sense" understanding of tragedy. "One may, if he wish," Ross argues, "continue to consider Othello a poetic melodrama creakily hinging upon an inexplicable villain and trivial mischance, but the sense of tragedy cannot be brought about by such elements" (182). Instead, in a move reminiscent of the character criticism that dominated in the previous century, he suggests that it is best to understand "all the major figures" of the play as "possible people caught in a net of circumstance which their characters make them unable to escape" (182).

14 The influence of psychoanalytic approaches to Shakespeare continued to be felt as feminist criticism and sexuality studies evolved throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and as Othello criticism began to consider the play's language, symbols, and characters in relation to such broader social institutions as marriage, religion, and law. In an oft-quoted 1975 article titled "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,'" for instance, Lynda Boose argues that the strawberry-spotted handkerchief given to Desdemona by her husband gathers a heavy symbolic burden in the course of the play as it comes to stand for that much larger expanse of fabric, the couple's wedding sheets, and thus for both "the sanctified union promising life and the tragic union culminating in death" (373). Similarly, Edward A. Snow's "Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello " (1980) offers a symptomatic reading of Othello in which the "truth" (387) of its determination to expose a "pathological male animus toward sexuality" rooted in "the social institutions with which men keep women and the threat they pose at arm's length" (388) is both revealed and concealed by its theatrical and verbal discourses. Snow notes that the play's language and its "theatrical spectacle" (387) are marked by disavowal, denial, and introversion, and he calls on readers to "look for what resists dramatic foregrounding and listen for what language betrays about its speaker" (387), a process which reveals a world of sexual repression and misogyny in which the superego, the "voice of the father" upon which patriarchal social order is founded, is exposed as the site of "evil and malice" (410). Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) also finds in Othello the operations of a patriarchy based in sexual repression and the subordination of women. Reading Desdemona's proud claim "my heart's subdued / Even to the utmost pleasure of my lord" as a "moment of erotic intensity," Greenblatt argues that her forthright display of sexual submission, rather than reassuring Othello of her fidelity, plays into Iago's slanderous account of her as adulterous because it appears to confirm her as a sensual and desirous woman instead of as the sexually reluctant but obedient wife that marriage manuals and church doctrine taught men to expect and to value (250). Coppélia Kahn also accounted men's expectations about women's lustful nature responsible for Desdemona's death in her analysis of the intensity of early modern anxiety about cuckoldry in 1981's Man's Estate , while Marianne Novy focused her psychological account of gender relations in Othello on the paradoxical subconscious fantasy of "fusion with a woman both maternal and virginal" (133) that she argues forms the basis of Othello's desire for Desdemona.

15 Irene Dash's sociological approach to Othello in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare (1981) marked an important moment in the history of the play's reception as, for the first time, it focused critical attention on its depiction of the potential destructiveness for women of the institution of marriage. According to Dash, Othello explores the tragic possibilities for married women trapped within a patriarchal system that condones their subjection and even their abuse. Desdemona experiences "a slow loss of confidence in the strength of the self, always with the aim of adjusting to marriage" (104), and thus her death must be laid at the door of a sexist system that celebrates compliance and self-abnegation in wives rather than mutual respect in marriage. A few years later, Carol Thomas Neely's Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (1985), with its nuanced understanding of history and its attentiveness to the operations of power within patriarchy, helped feminist criticism develop a more robust account of the role of marriage in the social and dramatic construction of early modern women. Her reading of Othello locates the characters within an early modern moment that celebrates a newly emerging ideal of companionate marriage even as it continues to advocate for women's subservience to their husbands. Desdemona and Emilia become, on Neely's reading, the victims not of marriage but of male characters who view them through the opposing but mutually reinforcing cultural lenses of romantic idealization and anxious misogyny. The legacy of feminist scholarship committed to exploring both the historical and political dimensions of Othello continued throughout the 1990s in the work of critics such as Lisa Jardine, who reads the accusations of adultery levied against Desdemona within the context of defamation cases involving real early modern women, and in the 2000s by critics such as Sarah Munson Deats, who reads the play within the context of early modern debates between the religious doctrines of obedience and conscience.

16 Gradually the discourses of race studies, psychoanalysis, feminism, new historicism, and sex/gender criticism began to coalesce as scholars became increasingly alert to the interplay of sexual politics and race in Othello and in history. In 1987's "'And wash the Ethiop white': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello ," for instance, Karen Newman argued that Desdemona's love for Othello represents a direct threat to Venice because it embodies the twin dangers of freely expressed female desire and miscegenation. This take on the play was then developed by Ania Loomba who argued that "the 'central conflict' of the play . . . is neither between white and black alone, nor merely between men and women—it is both a black man and a white woman. But these two are not simply aligned against white patriarchy, since their own relationship cannot be abstracted from sexual or racial tension" ("Sexuality" 172). The work of male critics, too, integrated analysis of the play's psycho-sexual elements with historically aware discussions of its treatment of race and of gender. For example, picking up on Snow's earlier analysis of Iago's repressed sexuality and employing a similar hermeneutic of suspicion, Michael Neill's "'Unproper Beds'" (1989) finds in the play's curtained bed a potent symbol for an "unutterable" anxiety about interracial love and sex (394). Bruce Smith's pioneering work on homosexuality in early modernity also built on Snow's insights as it investigated the fraught relationship between masculine friendship and marriage in Shakespeare ( Homosexual Desire 1991). Smith's reading of Othello suggests that aspects of the relationship between Iago and Othello that might be characterized in modern terms as gay, are presented in the play as assertions of masculinity, while love of women is consistently associated with the threat of effeminacy.

17 The imbrication of scholarly discourses on gender and race found perhaps its clearest material confirmation in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker's 1994 volume Women, "Race," and Writing in the Early Modern Period , a collection which included a number of essays that touched on Othello . Most notable was Parker's own "Fantasies of 'Race' and 'Gender'" which interrogates notions of monstrosity, barbarousness, and civility by locating in the play a series of "split chiastic exchanges and divisions" that see Desdemona and Othello trading cultural identities as they assume varied roles within the complexly racialized and gendered narratives of literary teratology and colonialism. In the same year, Ruth Vanita's work on Othello addressed directly the vexed issue of its relationship to both sexism and racism, arguing that "the play forcefully combats racism (which posits blacks and whites as essentially different) precisely by its presentation of Othello as not at all different from any white husband" (342). Vanita's article indicts not only the play's male bystanders but also its readers and audiences for silent collusion in Desdemona's murder, claiming that she "is killed not only by Othello and Iago but by all those who see her humiliated and beaten in public, and fail to intervene" (338). Virginia Mason Vaughan's Othello: A Contextual History (1994) embodied the scholarly commitment to recognizing literature and history as mutually constitutive modes of discourse, both intimately connected to expressions of, and struggles for, power. Locating the play within both the historical moment that participated in its original production and the multiple pasts within which it was received and reconstructed by successive generations of players, audiences, and readers, Vaughan's wide-ranging study presents Othello as an index of changing conceptions of race, religion, and gender, and as itself a powerful producer of cultural meaning. Joyce Green MacDonald's work on burlesques of Othello is another important example of the influence of cultural criticism on the practices of stage history. By exploring the vexed relationship of Othello to conventions of blackface minstrelsy codified in the first half of the nineteenth century (see Contextual Materials: , MacDonald demonstrates how Shakespeare's play became part of the complex process of both constructing and challenging ideas about race at a moment in history when "playing race became a deadly serious kind of cultural work" (234).

18 While work on Othello throughout the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by the impulse to contextualize in general and to historicize in particular, Edward Pechter's Othello and Interpretive Traditions (1999) offered a productively skeptical consideration of the drive to "embed" literary texts. Though keenly aware of Othello 's status as "the tragedy that speaks most directly and powerfully to current interests" (2), Pechter insists, pace the cultural critics, that the play must be recognized as distinct from the narrative of its critical and theatrical reproduction, even though the latter will inevitably "contaminate" every reading of the former. Pairing a sustained reading of the formal and affective qualities of Othello with analysis alert to both discontinuities and consistencies in almost 400 years of critical and theatrical response to the play, Pechter demonstrates that the interpretive traditions that have grown up around Othello often say more about the preoccupations of their creators than about the play they purport to elucidate.

19 Throughout the 2000s Othello criticism continued to benefit from the development of increasingly sophisticated accounts of the body, the self, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and citizenship, while postcolonial theory offered useful frameworks within which questions about Othello's nature and his relationship to the people and institutions around him could be examined. Ania Loomba's Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002), for instance, maps the complex connections among race, religion, and colonialism in the play, suggesting that Othello is best understood as the product of a historical moment which understood ethnic identity as fluid: "Despite being a Christian soldier, Othello cannot shed either his blackness or his 'Turkish' attributes, and it is his sexual and emotional self, expressed through his relationship with Desdemona, which interrupts and finally disrupts his newly acquired Christian and Venetian identity" (96).

Mary Floyd-Wilson's English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (2003) also understands early modern notions of ethnicity and race as unstable. Situating Othello within the discourse of early modern geohumoralism—the myth that "variations in topography and climate produced variations in national characteristics" (133)—Floyd-Wilson argues that while early in the play Othello matches early modern constructions of southerners as cool and wise, he is later contaminated by Iago and becomes "hybrid—alienated from his Moorish complexion by an Italianate doubleness" (155). For Julia Reinhard Lupton, Othello is best located within a dramatic tradition preoccupied with the intertwining of religion and nation. In Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005), she argues that the play models a profound religious ambiguity in the figure of Othello, who seems at once a convert from paganism whose new faith is assumed to be stable and a convert from Islam whose conversion is immediately suspect. On Lupton's reading, Othello becomes increasingly Islamicized in the course of the play, and she presents his self-stabbing as an act of extreme circumcision, what she calls a "death into suicide" that affirms both his commitment to Venetian Christianity and his identity as a Muslim man even as it reveals the tragic cost of early modern Europe's refusal to allow him this hybrid identity.

20 Othello 's intersections with Islam have also fascinated a number of other critics, including Daniel Vitkus whose Turning Turk (2003) identifies the play as one of a series of early modern dramas about the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the complex commercial, political, and ideological space of the early modern Mediterranean. According to Vitkus, Othello participates in stereotypes about Muslim men as despotic, lustful, and emotionally undisciplined by presenting Othello as a Christianized Moor so overcome by jealousy that he reverts to "a version of the Islamic tyrant" (99) and then ensures his own damnation by committing suicide. Jonathan Burton's Traffic and Turning (2005) also takes up the idea of conversion in Othello , arguing that Othello tries to counter the destructive psychological effects of an intense desire to be accepted by Christian Europe with "purple speech, his position at the vanguard of Christendom's forces against the Turks . . . and his marriage to Desdemona," all actions which Burton claims authorize the Moor's place in Venice and simultaneously reveal his profound self-doubt (253). For Burton, as Othello begins to believe in "his own irredeemable difference," and to embrace the discourse of misogyny, he loses the ability to "unsettl[e] the meaning of his skin," and this inability becomes proof of his Christian faith (254). For Emily C. Bartels in Speaking of the Moor (2008), on the other hand, Othello is one of a range of early modern texts that represent the Moor not as a figure of "racial or cultural difference" but of cultural indeterminacy (194). According to Bartels, "the Moor's story is never exclusively his own—or, rather, is his own, if we understand that story as insistent on the extravagant interplay of cultures here and everywhere" (189). Instead of enlisting Othello as evidence of a hostile collision between Islamic East and Christian West, Bartels argues, critics ought to understand the play as a product of a historical moment in which overlapping concerns about race, religion, and nationalism were being negotiated within the militarily and commercially significant space of the Mediterranean, and ought to view its titular Moor as emblematic not of cultural discord but of proto-globalization.

21 While consensus is building around the notion of Othello as a text of the early modern Mediterranean, new work on connections between early modern London's black community and the city's playhouses (Habib 2013) and on links between sixteenth-century dyeing practices and the properties of Desdemona's handkerchief (Smith 2013) suggests that alternative historical contexts for the play will continue to emerge. The direction of Othello criticism will also be affected as literary criticism's longstanding commitment to cultural historicism comes under pressure from those who argue that explorations of context often come at the expense of literature's formal properties and affective registers, and as developments in the digital humanities enable fresh methods of exploring this engaging text.

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Racial Disgust in Early Modern England: The Case of Othello

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Bradley J Irish, Racial Disgust in Early Modern England: The Case of Othello , Shakespeare Quarterly , Volume 73, Issue 3-4, Fall-Winter 2022, Pages 224–245, https://doi.org/10.1093/sq/quac057

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The ongoing development of Premodern Critical Race Studies (PCRS) is perhaps the most exciting intellectual current in early modern studies today. 1 In this essay, I attempt to put the vital insights of this research into conversation with scholarship from another prominent subfield: the interdisciplinary study of emotion. 2 I do so through a reading of Othello , in which I argue that the circulation of racial meaning in Othello ’s Venice is intimately tied to the circulation of affective meaning—and that the inscription of racial identity onto Othello by the inhabitants of Venice is fundamentally an emotional process. More specifically, I will suggest that the affective mode of disgust plays a central role in how Othello is perceived by others in the play. While few would deny that jealousy is the dominant (and most explicitly articulated) emotion in Othello , I argue that racialized disgust is what more precisely animates Iago’s plot to undo his master, serving both as a personal motivator and as an instrument by which he poisons how Othello is perceived by others.

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“Fall’n in the practice of a damned slave”: Racial Ideology and Villainy in Shakespeare’s Othello

Mari rooney.

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In a chapter from his book  The Moor in English Renaissance Drama , Jack D’Amico asserts that some Renaissance-era plays encouraged their predominantly white European audiences to reevaluate their own views on outsiders, particularly Africans, as well as the validity of their belief in their own superiority. I suggest that Shakespeare’s  Othello , more so than any of the plays D’Amico discusses, similarly sought to challenge the racial and xenophobic ideologies of its audience and, by extent, Renaissance England. My analysis of select examples of 16 th  century discourse s on race and Africans illuminates the foundation of these racist and xenophobic ideologies, namely: since Renaissance England’s sense of social order demanded the supremacy of white men, any cultural space for black male empowerment seemed dangerous. Moreover, according to these texts, such as George Best’s A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discouerie , miscegenation posed the worst threat since mixed children jeopardized white homogeneity and superiority .  These documents demonstrate how white men employed racist language to emphasize the otherness and inferiority of Africans, creating an ideological justification for their own superiority and thus maintaining societal order. In contrast ,  the play criticizes the racist and xenophobic ideologies of Renaissance England by associating them with the villain, Iago, an immoral and corrupt representative of white male identity. Therefore, Othello ventriloquizes racist discourses, but ultimately reveals the flawed nature of the societal order that such discourses and ideologies attempt to uphold or restore.

In her paper on the role of cosmetics in the creation of racial identities in Renaissance England, Kimberly Poitevin suggests that Renaissance England’s “preoccupations with … the penetrating powers of blackness gesture toward a larger concern about the vulnerability of English or European borders to foreign goods and persons” (Poitevin 80). Reports on Africa and Africans from the 16 th century reveal how stories regarding “the penetrating powers of blackness” fueled concerns about Europe’s “vulnerability” to outsiders and the consequences of miscegenation. Best, an English chronicler, includes the following anecdote in his 1578 book A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discouerie :

I myself have seene an Ethiopian as black as cole brought into Englande, who taking a fair Englishe woman to Wife, begatte a Sonne in all respectes as blacke as the father was, although England were his native Countrey, and an English woman his Mother: whereby it seemeth this blacknesse proceedeth rather of some naturall infection of that man, which was so strong, that neyther the nature of the Clime, neyther the good complexion of the Mother concurring, coulde any thing alter, and therefore we cannot impute it to the nature of the Clime. (29)

Best’s explanation for the cause of blackness, though no less erroneous than the hypothesis it seeks to disprove (that black skin comes from overexposure to the sun), reinforces the supposed inferiority of black skin and its potentially dominating qualities. His use of the term “infection” suggests that black skin possesses both negative and contagious properties. Furthermore, his claim that the “infection” of the father’s blackness consumed the mother’s “fairness” and “good complexion” corroborates the belief that blackness had the potential to dominate whiteness. Thus, as Kim F. Hall asserts in her book Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England , “Best’s anecdotal evidence … articulat[es] the cultural anxieties—about complexion, miscegenation … and, above all, ‘Englishness’—brought out by the presence of blacks” (Hall 11). Hall explains these cultural anxieties, stating that the English associated fairness and whiteness with “Englishness” and blackness with the racial “other”: a black person could not be English. Therefore “to include” a miscegenated child “in the nation [England] would be to break the desired homology between land, skin, and group identity, thereby overturning the associations of England with whiteness and fairness” (Hall 12). Moreover, to accept such a child as genuinely English posed a threat to the contemporary white-dominant system as the child, despite being partially black, would possess white status. Thus, miscegenated marriages represented the possibility of white dilution and black empowerment, both of which imperiled white English men’s sense of societal order: their own supremacy.

In the play, Brabantio voices the belief that miscegenation will lead to the decline of white superiority when he claims that “if such actions” (i.e., the marriage of Desdemona and Othello) “may have passage free, / Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (1.2.121-3). Though the meaning of this line may be interpreted in many ways, I suggest that Brabantio expresses his fear that mixed marriages, particularly between black men and white women of the higher classes, would lead to a disordered government controlled by men descended from slaves and non-Christians. Building on the fears Brabantio expresses, Iago bemoans Desdemona’s choice “not to affect many proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, / Whereto we see in all things nature tends” and claims that “her will, recoiling to her better judgment, / May fall to match [Othello] with her country forms / And happily repent” (3.3.269-73). Iago’s words belie the early modern English belief in the unnaturalness and chaos of miscegenated marriages. Furthermore, he states the necessity of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness as it will allow her to “happily repent” from the sin of her miscegenated marriage and reestablish the proper order of English society in which white women do not marry black men. Thus, Iago’s mission to destroy Othello appears as both a personal vendetta and a perverted attempt to salvage white hegemony.

The early modern English sense of order, in which white men possess the highest level of sociopolitical power, stood in stark contrast to the perceived disorderliness of the African continent. Hall explains that travel accounts from Renaissance England emphasized the disorderly landscape of Africa and the chaotic characteristics of its black people, creating a “new nervousness about skin color and cultural ‘disorder’” (28). The 16 th century encyclopedist Konrad Lykosthenes, in a description of the so-called African anthropophagi , or those “who doe eat mans flesh,” writes that “they have no lawes, neither is there any judge among them, but live at their own pleasure” (Lykosthenes 7). Lykosthenes’ portrayal of Africans as lawless peoples who engage in taboo activities perpetuates the image of Africa as a place of chaos—a place where people did not obey the “lawes” of nature or society. Due to such reports of Africans, African-ness and “blackness beg[an] to represent the destructive potential of strangeness, disorder, and variety” (Hall 28). Miscegenation would bring African disorderliness directly into English society and allow for the empowerment of black men, therefore mixed marriages themselves represented a challenge to societal order. The English felt threatened by the presence of “disorderly” Africans in England, a fact corroborated by several royal proclamations, issued at the turn of the 17 th century, which mandated the immediate deportation of “Negroes and blackamoors” (“Licensing” 221). One proclamation from 1601 states that a “great number of Negroes and blackamoors…are fostered and powered here [England], to the great annoyance of her [the Queen’s] own liege people that which covet the relief which these people consume, as also for that the most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel … shall be with all speed avoided and discharged” (“Licensing” 221-2). The document illustrates the intensely negative feelings the English possessed towards Africans. Furthermore, the proclamation reveals that these feelings stemmed from the belief that the apparent enfranchisement and empowerment (“fostered and powered”) of Africans would jeopardize the dominating authority of the white English. Additionally, the complaint that they “hav[e] no understanding of Christ or his Gospel” further demonstrates the English fear of African disorder—these “Negroes and blackamoors,” because of their status as “infidels,” could not fit into the structure of England’s Christian society and they must therefore be removed from it.

Iago’s intention to, in a sense, remove Othello, whom he perceives as a political and sexual rival, parallels with the early modern English elite’s desire to deport the “blackamoors.” In the opening scene of the play, Iago complains that Othello has chosen another man as his lieutenant and maintained Iago as merely “his Moorship’s ancient,” a term the Folger editors define as “the lowest-ranking commanding officer in the infantry” (Mowat fn. 35 on p. 8). Iago cites this denial of his political ascension as the reason for his hatred of Othello and his wish to “serve [his] turn upon him” (1.1.45). Later, in Act 2, Iago reveals his secondary reason for his hatred: “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat” (2.1.316-7), an allusion to Othello sleeping with Emilia, Iago’s wife. Thus, Iago’s intentions of “put[ting] the Moor / At least into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure” (2.1.322-4), fueled by his insecurity in the face an empowered black male, indicate a determination to ruin and potentially eliminate Othello.

Iago, in his attempt to disempower Othello, depicts him as bestial and animal-like, drawing on the cultural misconception of Africans as monstrous and subhuman. This misconception appeared as the result of 16 th century literature on Africans, such as Konrad Lykosthenes’ 1581 book The doome warning all men to the iudgemente , which reports that “Aethiops” were (allegedly) “black men [ that ] have four eyes” and were “mouthed as a Crane, the other part of the heade like a man” (Lykosthenes 6-7). By describing these “Aethiops” as part animal, Lykosthenes contributed to the image of Africans as monstrous and “deformed” (7) creatures, rather than people. Moreover, suggesting that the “Aethiops” have “strange” (7) and animal-like characteristics perpetuates the belief in their supposed inferiority. Lykosthenes’ use of the word “that” where a modern writer would have used “who” reveals his conception of black people as non-human and further indicates a desire to separate these Ethiopians from Europeans.

According to James Aubrey, the play utilizes monstrous imagery for the same purpose as Lykosthenes does: to emphasize the otherness of Africans—in the case of the play, Othello. However, I argue that Othello includes the imagery to scrutinize how Iago uses contemporary associations between monsters and Africans to denigrate and discredit Othello, much as white English men employed the same imagery to disparage and alienate Africans. Iago warns Brabantio that “an old black ram / Is tupping [his] white ewe” and thus “the devil will make a grandsire of [him]” (1.1.97-98, 100). Iago employs contemporary associations between Africans and animals in calling Othello a “ram” and, a few lines later, a “Barbary horse” (1.1.125), and he demonizes Othello by referring to him as “the devil.” Iago couples these associations with the dichotomy of “black ram” and “white ewe” to emphasize Othello’s otherness, the racial difference between him and Desdemona, and the unacceptability of their socially-disruptive marriage. The racist ideologies Iago voices coming from another character would fail to strike the audience as anything other than commonplace. However, because of Iago’s obvious villainy, his use of these ideologies, and the ideologies themselves, appear questionable, even deplorable.

Othello ’s scrutiny of racial stereotyping, racist language, and xenophobic ideologies belongs to a genre-wide shift that occurred in Renaissance-era dramas, which were beginning to encourage their audiences to reconsider their society’s perceptions of Africans and the validity of white superiority. D’Amico claims that another 16 th -century play, also starring a lead “Moorish” character, All’s Lost by Lust “[made] a tentative step toward representing a complex society of which the Moor is a part, and toward opening up the audience to more challenging ways of imagining their relationship to the outsider” (D’Amico 98). D’Amico argues that All’s Lost by Lust offers its audience a brief opportunity to reflect on themselves by providing the perspective of a Moor, who makes a negative, but logical, assessment of Europeans. However, D’Amico acknowledges that All’s Lost by Lust , despite its momentary reversal of societal perspectives, continued to perpetuate negative depictions of Moors, thus contributing to preexisting beliefs of African bestiality, disorderliness, and inferiority. I argue that Othello extends All’s Lost by Lust’s fleeting attempt at subversion by vilifying Iago, a mechanism which also serves to oppose the prevailing negativity towards Africans that persisted in All’s Lost, amongst other plays . Much as these other plays equate African-ness with villainy to discourage miscegenation and black empowerment, Othello associates racially motivated hatred and xenophobic ideology with Iago, who embodies immorality and masculine insecurity, to undermine the legitimacy of this hatred and ideology. Furthermore, Iago’s status as a white European and his close relationship with the audience suggest that he represents the populace of Renaissance England, and thus as the play condemns Iago’s deeds it scrutinizes the xenophobia and racial stereotyping of Renaissance English society.

The revelation of Iago’s villainy in the final act presents the culmination of the play’s subversion: by displaying the other characters’ criticism of Iago’s actions towards Othello, the play condemns not only villainy, but the racist ideology associated with that villainy as well. Lodovico calls Iago a “viper” (5.2.335) and a “Spartan dog” while Montano refers to him as “a most notorious villain” (5.2.286) and “a damned slave” (5.2.290). Furthermore, though Othello has just murdered his wife, the play emphasizes Iago’s culpability rather than Othello’s. Lodovico asks Othello, “O thou Othello, that wert once so good / Fall’n in the practice of a damned slave, / What shall be said to thee?” (5.2.342-4), to which Othello responds, “An honorable murderer, if you will, / For naught I did in hate, but all in honor” (5.2.346-7). Lodovico’s words acknowledge Iago’s responsibility for Othello’s actions, thus attributing the blame to Iago rather than “good” Othello. Of more significance, Othello’s claim that Iago’s crimes stemmed from his “hate,” rather than honor, creates an association between Iago’s method, the use of racist ideology, and hatred and dishonor. A sense of this hatred and dishonor color Lodovico’s final words, spoken to Iago: “Look on the tragic loading of this bed. / This is thy work” (5.2.426-7). As Lodovico invites Iago to “look on” the victims of his machinations, the play invites the audience of Renaissance England to examine the consequences of an attempt, driven by racial bias and xenophobia, to reestablish their society’s sense of order: white supremacy and homogeny. While Iago’s successful elimination of both Othello and Desdemona may represent the restoration of order within the play, the play itself disrupts the order of Renaissance England by questioning the morality of a society that values an order which subsists on racially motivated hatred and xenophobia.

My reading of Othello contradicts earlier interpretations of the play as a cautionary tale about the threat of race-mixing and the inherent evil of Africans—I recognize the profound subversive work the play performed within the context of 16 th century Europe and acknowledge the foundation of its continuing relevance. Othello provides insights on the racist ideologies and xenophobic attitudes of early modern England; however, the play suggests that these ideologies and attitudes, while prevalent, did not enjoy universal support. The play employs compelling characters and creates sympathetic situations as a matrix in which to explore the possibility of more positive, progressive views on foreigners and otherness, while condemning the contemporary negative perspectives on the subject. Due to the diverse and extensive audience Othello attracted in early modern England and Shakespeare’s ability to write authentic characters, the play possessed a profound power to shape audience perspectives and challenge societal standards.

Works Cited

Aubrey, James. “Race and the Spectacle of the Monstrous in Othello .” Clio , vol. 22, no. 3, 1993, pp. 221-234. Academic OneFile , link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/apps/doc/A14212950/AONE?u=mlin_b_bumml&sid=AONE&xid=d658d111. Accessed 4 Apr. 2018.

Best, George. A true discourse of the late voyages of discouerie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northvveast, vnder the conduct of Martin Frobisher Generall . Imprinted by Henry Bynnyman, London, 1578. English Books Online . Accessed 2 April 2018.

D’Amico, Jack. “The Moor Within.” The Moor in English Renaissance Drama , University of South Florida Press, 1991, pp. 98–134.

Hall, Kim F. “Introduction: Who is English? The Black Presence in England.” Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, Cornell University Press, 1995.

“Licensing Casper van Senden to Deport Negroes.” The Later Tudors (1588–1603) , vol. 3 of Tudor Royal Proclamations , edited by Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, Yale University Press, 1969, pp. 221–2.

Lykosthenes, Konrad. The doome warning all men to the iudgemente . Translated by Stephen Bateman, imprinted by Ralph Nuberry, London, 1581. Early English Books Online , eebo.chadwyck.com/search/full_rec?SOURCE=var_spell.cfg&ACTION=ByID&ID=99836886&ECCO=param(ECCO)&FILE=../session/1522953234_21040. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. “Introductory Material and Footnotes on Othello .” Othello, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.

Poitevin, Kimberly. “Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England.”  Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies , vol. 11, no. 1, 2011, pp. 59–89.  JSTOR , www.jstor.org/stable/23242188. Accessed 2 April 2018.

Shakespeare, William. Othello . Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.

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Introduction. Othellophilia

Othello : She's like a liar gone to burning hell: ’Twas I that killed her. Emilia : O, the more angel she, And you the blacker devil! William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice
The Devil's penis was the obsession of every Inquisitor and the “star” of nearly every witch's confession. The women invariably said it was cold but there was disagreement on other details . . . Most reported it was black and covered with scales . . . One likened the Devil's penis to that of a mule, which the Evil One constantly exposed, so proud was he of its massive size and shape. 1

Uncannily familiar? Indeed, the women's testimony oddly prefigures the modern myth of the hyper-sexual black male. Sometimes, in fact, the discourses of witch-craft treat the Devil's blackness as literally African, as in the 1324 trial of Lady Alice Kyteler, wherein a witness claimed to have seen her with “three large Negroes bearing iron rods in their hands.” 2 These racialized demons seem perplexingly “modern,” and the narratives in which they appear suggest certain constants in the development of racial stereotype. Yet there is one other historical constant here that deserves pointing out: these narratives justify a woman's death on the basis of her sexuality – even, very often, on the basis of one single (if singular) sexual act.

For as long as women have existed they have died as a result of sex. When it didn't happen “naturally” – as a result of childbirth – male power found ways to make it happen, either literally or symbolically. This, for me, is the story of Shakespeare's Othello (1603): it is the story of a woman killed – smothered in her bed – for having sex. 3 Which particular man she is killed for having sex with matters less to me than the sexual nature of the transgression she dies for: that is, her “innocence” of the charge of adultery with Cassio strikes me as immaterial, as from the standpoint of masculinist–racist hegemony it is her defiance of paternal authority and the miscegenation taboo that results (and rightly so) in her death.

In the apt phrasing of Michael Neill, Othello “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.” 4 I don't set out to resolve this “like/unlike” problem, although it will underlie many of the book's discussions: the problem has generated abundant excellent and fascinating scholarship, and is as yet to be resolved. Perhaps it never can be. And indeed the question “Is Othello a racist play?” may be, at least at this juncture in the play's critical history, somewhat beside the point. Othello himself, the character, does not exist; he is as much a construct as the devil in the witch-craft trials mentioned above, the devil to whom Shakespeare's text frequently compares him. Rather, my own problem with the play, and the reason why – almost despite myself – I have returned to it again and again in my research, like that nagging insect bite or eternally crooked painting, can be summed up in a single comment by one of my undergraduate students: “If my wife cheated on me, I'd kill her.”

That relatively few objections to Shakespeare's politics in this play have focused on its treatment of domestic violence – as opposed to its treatment of race – seems to me worthy of comment. Indeed, even those critics who categorize the play as “domestic tragedy” overwhelmingly resist applying the language of domestic violence, 5 a subject confined, seemingly, to the domain of journalists, psychologists, law enforcement officers, consciousness-raising groups, and other traffickers in the mundane world of the real. Yet this attitude – implicitly elevating literary violence to a level above social or cultural critique – leaves uninterrogated the ways in which the text naturalizes Othello's extreme reaction to a set of otherwise unremarkable circumstances. To argue that this reaction – “jealousy,” in the universalizing language of liberal humanist interpretation – is “natural” not just to black men, but to people (to men?) “in love” is not to rescue the play's message for progressive post-modern politics. As Linda Charnes argues, “The love story has been one of the most pervasive and effective – yet least deconstructed – of all ideological apparatuses: one of the most effective smokescreens available in the politics of cultural production.” Charnes points to “the historical popularity of crime stories purveyed as love stories” in arguing that “love” is not a universal human truth, but rather a culturally constructed “genre” – “one whose coercive influence is camouflaged by its very obviousness.” 6 I would like to treat Othello as one of those “crime stories”: wife-murder, after all, is a crime . Wife-murder is a crime – in Shakespeare's culture as in our own – even when the wife is “guilty” of adultery . 7

The language of criminality, indeed, seems appropriate to a reading of Othello, yet in a way that only underscores the feminist point here. As critics such as Katherine Maus have demonstrated, the play is deeply fascinated by legalist questions of guilt and innocence, with the notion of “ocular proof.” 8 Yet this language, throughout the better part of the play, is most often applied to Desdemona, not Othello; indeed, discussions of “domestic tragedy” repeatedly misapply the language of crime and punishment, criminalizing the wife's adultery rather than the husband's murder. 9 That this reversal of culpability is culturally over-determined does not excuse our own failure of attention to it as critics who allegedly “know better” than to say that wives who commit adultery deserve violence. And in fact, attention to the (often inconsistent) details of the play brings to light the fact that sexual infidelity of one type or another is rampant amongst Shakespeare's dramatis personae . Cassio, for instance, is “almost damned in a fair wife” ( i .i.12), yet flagrantly courts (and scornfully boasts of) Bianca, all the while worshiping Desdemona. 10 More strikingly, Iago suspects that Othello has cuckolded him, and he mentions this as one of his many motives for revenge – against Othello, not against Emilia. Critics tend to ignore this point of plot, but in my reading it sheds significant light on the play's treatment of female sexuality. No one wonders why Iago – the character whose villainy my students often cite as evidence that the text is not racist (“But Iago is white, and look how evil he is . . .” 11 ) – does not consider his own wife's alleged adultery as grounds for violence against her . This is not, of course, to praise Iago at Othello's expense: eventually, Iago too kills his wife. But Iago's violence is practical, not symbolic – he kills Emilia to prevent her from incriminating him, not because she has “contaminated” his marriage bed ( iv .i.205), as Othello believes Desdemona has done. Is this why readers so seldom notice, let alone believe in, the suggestion that Othello and Emilia have committed adultery? Is this why Iago has been so famously held up as an example of “motiveless malignity” 12 – why he does not seem, to us, to believe in his own motives? Because a sexually jealous Iago would act precisely the way he urges Othello to act – he would lash out in misogynistic violence. Perhaps the homoerotic reading of Iago's interactions with Othello might explain his apparent indifference toward his wife – it is Othello, as Iago's primary love-object, who bears the brunt of his jealousy. But this does not explain the critical silence surrounding the other adultery plot – a silence that underscores our complicity in the notions that perpetuate domestic violence. 13

Let us return briefly to the subject of witch-trials and consider the status of the women who confessed to knowledge of the devil's penis. What happened to their bodies as a result of the confession? What happens to bodies that burn? They char, they blacken. The witches thus join with their devil-lover in the sooty blackness associated with hell-fire. The transformation, of course, is irreversible; innumerable proverbs of the period insist on the indelibility of blackness as a moral signifier. The notion of “washing the Ethiope,” indicating an exercise in futility, is only one. Another such expression is “Pitch defiles.” 14 Pitch defiles; it does not just dirty; and it does so by physical contact. Moreover, it does not merely rub off on someone; rather, it sticks. Like the cultural inscription of the hymen as, not a minuscule and biologically useless membrane, but rather an irreplaceable (and tenuous) state of moral purity, the reification of blackness has little to do with the physical properties of, say, pitch (which is hard to wash off) or soot (which isn't) and has everything to do with the addressee of the proverb, the potential handler of the pitch. Along the same lines, the discourse of racial blackness and its proscriptions against inter-racial sex have little to do with real people of color. As Toni Morrison says, “The subject of the dream is the dreamer.” 15

One aspect of Shakespeare's controversial play that has not been the subject of debate is whether we should credit Othello's statement in the epigraph to this Introduction, his characterization of the dead Desdemona as “gone to burning hell” ( v .ii.127). The question may seem naïve or overly literal from the stand-point of a secular, post-modern community of scholars, readers, and play-goers, but early modern audiences would have been acutely aware that Othello, as a murderer-suicide (never mind a Moor and born heathen) would be going to hell. Yet Desdemona also compromises her spiritual status in this scene, for she has taken on the blame for her death: “ Emilia : ‘O, who hath done this deed?’ Desdemona : ‘Nobody. I myself. Farewell’” (121–2). Othello immediately underscores this as a lie, and one that re-casts her death as a suicide and hence symbolically damns her. Othello, not wishing to “kill [her] soul” (33), has given her a chance to pray, and she makes only a feeble effort: asked to “Think on [her] sins,” she oddly confesses, “They are loves I bear to you,” and he, even more oddly, replies, “Ay, and for that thou diest” (39–41). The audience may well have agreed with them both: her love for the Moor could not be anything less than a sinful perversion, and one that ensured her ultimate destruction, physically and spiritually. 16 Though Emilia's speech emphatically attempts to redeem her dead mistress and re-assert moral binaries, she, as a female and a servant, is the least authoritative voice in the scene, and she promptly dies anyway. Of all the men onstage in the final 119 lines of the play (there are six, plus an unspecified number of “officers”), only the murderer himself says anything good about the victim, calling her a “pearl . . . / Richer than all [my] tribe” (345–6). The final speech refers to Desdemona only obliquely and grimly in the “tragic loading of this bed.” Notably, the dead lovers are indistinguishable – and indistinguishably hideous – in death: “This object poisons sight, / Let it be hid” (361–3).

The early modern Prince of Darkness was indisputably black, but some lesser devils were known to wear white. Thomas Adams' popular sermon The White Devil; or, the Hypocrite Uncased (1613) developed Martin Luther's notion of “the white devil” as “black within . . . but white without”; 17 just one year before, John Webster's The White Devil (1612) had dramatized, in the words of the title page, “The life and death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian curtizan.” Desdemona is from Venice too. Even if she has not committed adultery with Cassio (and we know she hasn't), the “foul disproportion” and “unnatural” desires ( iii .iii.237) that led her to elope with the Moor risk placing the “fair devil” (481) in the same moral category.

Pitch defiles. Or, in the more positive terms of the contemporary African-American sexual boast, “Once you go black, you never go back.”

The devil, iconographically speaking, is no longer black. In the popular imagination, he is generally a cartoon figure in red tights with a goatee, horns, and a pointy tail. Hardly an intimidating figure. And so it should be: does anyone miss witch-hunts? This is not to say our culture lacks demons: from the Cold War to the “War on Drugs” to the “War on Terrorism” our demons are increasingly ideological – or, at least, more overtly so.

One could even say that in the official discourse of post-modern, white democracy, the devil is racism itself. That is why so many scholars, theatre-goers, and readers have been struggling, for so many years, to prove that Othello either is or is not racist, either is or is not “about race.” I have a different set of questions to ask of the play and of the discussions surrounding it: namely, Why this play? Why Othello? Of all seventeenth-century treatments of blackamoors, why was Othello singled out for all this attention? Mary Floyd-Wilson situates the play “at a crossroads in the history of ethnological ideas when an emergent racial discourse clashed with the still-dominant classical and medieval” paradigms. At the same time that the play reflected these changing views, however, it also, in Floyd-Wilson's analysis, helped to solidify them: she explains, “. . . it is the legacy of Shakespeare's play that this portrait of ‘Moorish behavior’ [as irrational, jealous, and lascivious] established many of the strains of modern racial discourse.” 18 Floyd-Wilson's arguments are persuasive; they do, however, raise the question of whether this “legacy” or impact owes itself to the intrinsic literary merit of the play, to some preternatural ability of the play to anticipate more modern (albeit offensive) attitudes toward racial difference, or to the mere fact that Shakespeare wrote it. This book aims to explore this set of questions.

Let me introduce a term that will be central to this analysis: Othellophilia , the critical and cultural fixation on Shakespeare's tragedy of inter-racial marriage to the exclusion of broader definitions, and more positive visions, of inter-racial eroticism. I originally coined the term to address a very specific problem in contemporary classical theatre: the habit of casting black actors in “color-blind” roles that uncannily recalled the role of Othello. Thus, Hugh Quarshie, the actor who broke the color-line in the Royal Shakespeare Company, managed to make a name for himself without playing Othello, a play that he views as reinforcing racial stereotypes. 19 But, as I argue in my essay on black actors, the role continued in many ways to haunt his career, cropping up in the language of reviews, alluded to in the semiotics of costuming and blocking. Likewise with Quarshie's successor, Ray Fearon, whose 1996 roles as Bracchiano in The White Devil and Paris in Troilus and Cressida subtly evidenced his status (as one critic put it parenthetically) as “a future Othello.” Indeed, even Fearon's acclaimed performance as Romeo (1997) – despite, seemingly, the director's best intentions – inspired Othellophile musings, at least in the critics. 20 When he went on finally to play Othello – opposite the same actress who'd played Juliet to his Romeo (a fact I will return to later) – I could not help but wonder whether the critical enthusiasm didn't owe something to collective relief at seeing Fearon's professional destiny fulfilled.

My work on Othellophilia in casting opened my eyes to the way Anglo-American culture generally “casts” black men as Othellos. The fixation on the coupling of a black male and a white female, with the attendant cultural anxieties played out in the story's tragic result, is not unique to the RSC or even to English “classical” drama. The discourse I call Othellophilia is not solely theatrical – or even, necessarily, consciously Shakespearean.

An exemplary phenomenon is the popular approach to modernizing Romeo and Juliet – namely, the device of translating the medieval blood-feud into the language of modern, particularly American, racial conflict. In my fact-gathering about so-called “non-traditional” casting, I discovered that these inter-racial productions almost inevitably cast Romeo, not Juliet, as black – an observation that says as much about contemporary racial discourse as its early modern progenitor in the portrayal of blackamoors like Othello. 21 Thus, something that appeared as a mere, awkward note in my essay on racial casting – that is, the practical invisibility of black female performers in Anglocentric, classic theatre – becomes the aporia this book aims to explain, if not to fill. Why, for instance, have white performers monopolized the role of “tawny” or “black” Cleopatra – as the text calls her ( Antony and Cleopatra , i .i.6; i .v.28) – throughout the play's 400-year performance history? This puzzling stage legacy occupies the flip-side of Othellophilia, and points toward its own suppressed counter-discourse: the more historically pertinent if more ideologically troubling story of white male sexual use of black females, the slave-holder's secret.

This book proceeds from the simple observation that in Anglo-American culture from the Renaissance onward, the most widely read, canonical narratives of inter-racial sex have involved black men and white women, and not black women and white men. Why? True, Anglocentric beauty standards might discourage authors from setting up women of color as objects of lyric praise, but conventions can always be played with – as indeed Shakespeare does with Cleopatra, as well as the “Dark Lady” of the Sonnets. Moreover, historical fact simply does not bear out the myth that women of color are sexually repugnant to white men. If anything, the opposite.

For the first miscegenists were European males. The very first documented case of inter-racial sex in English history involved an African woman impregnated and abandoned during the famous expedition of Sir Francis Drake. 22 And the pattern continued: there were no women on board the first ships to arrive on the shores of Africa or the New World, and European women were in short supply in the colonies into the eighteenth century. Furthermore, until 1800 the vast majority of women sailing to America were non-European. 23 This means that unless the European colonists remained doggedly chaste (or insisted only on homosexual relations) any sexual interest would have been directed at either native or enslaved females – that is, Indians or blacks. Correspondingly, the first miscegenation statute in Virginia in 1662 specifically addressed the offspring of white masters and their slaves: “Children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother, and if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he shall pay double the fines of a former act.” The wording of this infamous statute barely acknowledges the possibility that an English woman might fornicate with a Negro man, though that is clearly covered in the second clause. In any case, Virginia law did not address the children of such a union until 1691. 24 Indeed, the widespread prostitution – literal and de facto – of women of color in the West Indies has been well documented, and historians have noted the disproportionate number of female versus male manumitted slaves, manumission being a frequent reward for sexual service. 25 The practice of West Indian concubinage was so deeply entrenched that by the early 1800s white males openly commented on the comeliness of “the ladies of color.” One historian notes that “white males possessed a sexual typology in which white women were valued for domestic formality and respectability, coloured women for exciting socio-sexual companionship, and black women for less-structured covert sexual adventurism.” 26 If there is a class hierarchy affording relations with “coloured” (i.e., part European) women a prestige denied those covert relations with blacks, this doesn't discount the latter group as erotic objects. In fact, the very presence of those “coloured” women evidences the sexual desirability of their black mothers.

This book claims that masculinist racist hegemony used myths about black male sexual rapacity and the danger of racial “pollution” at least partly to exorcise its own collective psychological demons: the slave-master's sexual guilt, and his fear of the products – filial and social – of the inter-racial trysts so powerfully portrayed in slave autobiographies. Another motive, of course, was the control of white women. According to Kim F. Hall's ground-breaking Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England , women's bodies in the discourses of English colonialism become “the symbolic repository of the boundaries of the nation.” 27 Yet this description also applies to American racism, as is made obvious by the title of the white supremacist propaganda film Birth of a Nation (1915). As stated in the first sentence of the first novel written by an African-American, William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), “With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slave-owners, and their mothers slaves.” 28 Thus, the historical popularity of Othello on American stages – even despite squeamishness about inter-racial marriage – makes perfect sense. Whatever might have been Shakespeare's point in telling the story, it has served well as a cautionary tale for white women who might besmirch either their own (sexual) “purity” or that of their race. In lynching, white female sexuality justifies racist violence: in Othellophilia the woman is lynched too.

I had originally conceived of this as a study of inter-racial eroticism, and that is how a draft title phrased it. But the further my work proceeded, the less erotic the “eroticism” of the material appeared. Many of the texts are, indeed, obsessed with (generally female) sexuality; many contain scenes bordering on pornographic; but the ideology these images serve is, at basis, profoundly sex-phobic. The paradox is only an apparent one: as I have argued elsewhere, many sexually explicit representations are colored by loathing of the flesh, designed to chastise, purge, annihilate, or contain the erotic body. 29 When one body is female and white and the other black and male the ideological stakes are especially high.

This project is ambitious in its chronological scope: in tracing the impact of a cultural trope across four centuries and across the Atlantic, I am consciously flouting the central dictate of New Historicism: that of avoiding comparisons across what Foucault calls “epistemes.” 30 In doing so, I align myself with an increasing number of scholars critical of that by-now orthodox critical practice. 31 I feel I need not apologize for the project's trans-historical reach, having garnered ample evidence of a trajectory of racialized sexual discourse that originated in Shakespeare, that achieved dominance in and through his reputation, and that continues to shape Anglo-American cultural fantasies. In this respect, the book is a kind of critical history of Shakespeare's Othello , but one with broader political and theoretical implications. New Historicism's caution in discussing race in the early modern period, its insistence on scare-quoting, qualifying, and piling syllable upon syllable to the term (from racism to racialism to proto-racism to proto-racialism) is all well and good if these habits do not function to silence or de-legitimize scholars looking for continuity as well as change across historically defined discourses. Foucault himself, after all, attempted to write a complete History of Sexuality . Arthur J. Little, Jr., in one of the books that inspired my project here, points out that New Historicism's “narratives about how early modern culture is discrete, about how it is not us” in effect posit “a virginal Renaissance culture (a Renaissance or Shakespeare of transcendent signification), outside the fictions through which we engage in it.” 32 Little here is concurring with Neil L. Whitehead, who states, “If historicism achieved the aim of understanding a past culture ‘in its own terms,’ the result would be totally unintelligible, except to that culture and at that moment.” 33 Finally, I believe that a feminist or black feminist – or, in my shorthand, black/feminist 34 – theoretical framework to some degree requires a kind of “retroactive” reading. Bell hooks, for instance, traces color rivalry among African-American women back to those first generations of lighter-skinned (“coloured”) daughters born of the slaves the masters abused. 35 In an academy obsessed with classification, stratification, and specialization, with the accumulation of detail, of intellectual minutiae, it is sometimes necessary to state and re-state what so many of us in our personal lives know (insofar as we can know anything) to be an obvious truth: that certain forms of oppression and discrimination have endured, and that moreover they will continue to endure without the very kind of analysis and discussion scholars like Little and Hall propose. As Ania Loomba observes, “It is as necessary to confront the long histories of race as it is to show that racial thinking has a history and is not fixed and universal.” 36

My approach to Shakespeare is first and foremost political, and my approach to the literary canon first and foremost revisionist. I argue in this book that Othellophile narratives are less concerned with the praise or blame of their black male protagonists than with the sexual surveillance and punishment of the white women who love them. In other words, Othellophilia as a cultural construct is first and foremost about women – white women explicitly, as the “subjects” of representation; black women implicitly, as the abjected and/or marginalized subjects of the suppressed counter-narrative. The topic of female authorship arises naturally out of the book's concern with canonicity, as well as its feminism. We will find that the intervention of female authors – as early as Aphra Behn in 1676 – alters the discourse in interesting and often surprising ways.


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