Othello and the Problem of Blackness
Kim F. Hall
Last summer, I arrived in Heathrow airport from Central Asia, dehydrated and bleary eyed – only thinking of reaching a shower and a soft bed. It just so happened that, while my mind was a thousand miles away, the customs agent prematurely put me to work by asking me about Othello and race: “What brings you to London?” “I am here to do research on Shakespeare’s Othello.” “Well let me ask you something. Othello’s a Moor, right? And a Moor is not really black, is he then? He would have been an Arab and not black at all.” I froze for just an instant. While it’s a question that I encounter all the time, for a split second I thought, what if I give the “wrong” answer – or worse – a muddled answer? Would that reveal me as a fraud, someone who doesn’t really “know” Shakespeare? Trying to sound professorial and knowledgeable, rather than dazed and anxious, I explained that knowing that Othello is a “Moor” doesn’t really give us a clear idea what he is, since “Moor” stood for a variety of peoples in the early modern world. Clearly not satis?ed, the agent handed back my passport and wished me a good trip. I was not satis?ed either. Although my answer was “right,” it did not address the more crucial questions – why is Othello’s appearance still such a problem? What actually does the speaker want to know when asking whether (or insisting that) Othello was a Moor? I say that this conversation was about Othello and “race” (rather than saying that it is about Othello and “Moors” or Othello and “blackface”) because “race is a concept which signi?es and symbolizes social con?icts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (Omi and Winant 1994: 55). The question is often based on an assumption that Othello’s physical appearance – in this case his color – shapes how the play helps us interpret the world. Although I cannot read the custom agent’s mind, I do believe that, at heart, the question doubts the connection of this representation of a “black” man to the peoples of the African Diaspora, people who have had to bear the economic and symbolic weight of historical regimes of enforced labor and contemporary discrimination.
To say that Othello was not meant to be conceived of as “black” is to liberate the reader from considering that history in reading, viewing, or performing the play and to liberate Shakespeare from possible charges of racism. My answer will seem obvious to some and dubious to others: Othello’s blackness is symbolically crucial to the play and thus the character was meant to be portrayed with a black skin. However, even when Othello is not portrayed as black, the play is always about race, albeit not in the ways that we think of it now. In this essay I will track the “social con?icts and interests” that arise in conversations about Othello’s color in critical conversations since the seventeenth century. As commentators attempt to discern whether Othello should be associated more with North or sub-Saharan Africans, one can see considerations of Othello increasingly driven by the categories and theories associated with modern racism. Furthermore, critics and observers of the theatre habitually intermingle the question of color with formalist questions about the quality of the tragedy. American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, who famously declared in ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (DuBois 1996: 107), begins that work with the more subtle proposal that all of his interactions with whites are in?ected by the unasked question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” (p. 101). DuBois maintains that his “race,” his difference, disrupts the daily interactions and collective contacts that constitute social life, making it impossible for him to be fully one with the world – to be considered fully human. In critical history Othello’s color becomes a directly asked dilemma, one that mirrors the unspoken problem posed by the presence of diasporic Africans in England and America. In DuBois’s analysis the presence of an “American Negro” unhappily comments on the highest ideals of American democracy. Similarly, in Anglo-American criticism, Othello’s blackness is said to undermine the highest values that come to be associated with Shakespeare in critical and popular consciousness – transcendence, aesthetic guidance, and purity. I propose that questions of tragic form and color are related phenomena that address fears driven by Western associations of blackness with sexuality, emotion, and, signi?cantly, Christian concepts of sin and evil. Actually, the “problem” of Othello’s color is relatively recent in the play’s history. For two centuries white English actors used considerable labor to blacken their skins, seemingly without a thought as to whether it conformed to Shakespeare’s conception of the play or to more abstract ideals of theatrical propriety.
However, in 1814 Drury Lane actor Edmund Kean inaugurated what has come to be known as the “Bronze Age” of Othello: maintaining that it was a “gross error to make Othello either black or negro” (Hawkins 1869: 22l; see also Kaul 1996: 7ff.), Kean played him as a “tawny” Arab and in an extraordinarily passionate manner described by Blackwood’s as “the most terri?c exhibition of human passion that has been witnessed on the human stage” (quoted in Rosenberg 1961: 62; Honigman 1997: 94). More speci?c reasons for Kean’s
Kim F. Hallinnovation are not clear from the theatrical record. Kean played several “exotic” seemingly Arab characters earlier in his career and these performances may have given him the idea for his Othello (Cowhig: 135). More important, Kean’s Othello was on the boards at the beginning of the Abolitionist movement in England. Ruth Cowhig persuasively argues that Kean may have picked up an unease with Othello’s blackness in audiences who were already reading blackness with the demeaning depictions that accompanied exploitation of slaves (p. 134). What is a Moor? What is a Negro? But is it necessary that the Moor should be as black as a native of Guiney? (Public Advertiser, 1787) Attempts to resolve the question of Othello’s blackness by “?xing” the geographical origins – and therefore the identity – of Othello will not clarify Renaissance under- standings of the term “Moor.” Many critics have traced the multifaceted and at times inconsistent connotations of “Moor” (see Bartels 1977: 61–2; Barthelemy 1987: 5–12; D’Amico 1991; Neill 2000: 269–74; Vaughan 1994: 56–8) and it is generally recognized that “Moor” is a term of complex indeterminacy that generally marks geographic and religious difference in ways that make the Moor a profound Other to Christian Europe. While sharing the common connotations of “alien” or “foreigner,” the word “can mean…non-black Muslim, black Christian, or black Muslim” (Barthelemy 1987: 7). With these overlapping registers of race, region, and religion, the term’s links to the darker-skinned peoples of Africa can therefore be quite confusing. Indeed, there are cases in which English authors deliberately used “Moor” to refer to wide regions of Africa, thereby compounding the ambiguity attached to the term (ibid: 12–17). Unlike “Moor,” “Negro” is more speci?c, almost always referring to African peoples and associating them with blackness and a certain physical type (see Bartels 1977). While scholars of later centuries would assume (or argue for) a strict dichotomy between the two, Moors could also be and often were referred to as “Negroes.” As a result, earlier critical discussions of Othello’s origins revolve around the attempt to solidify differences between “Moors” and “Negroes,” with Moors seen as having lighter skins (and European values) and “Negroes” read through blackness and barbarism.
Given the polyvalence of the term, the color of a given literary Moor can only be deduced from its context. The word, like many others, gains meaning through collateral terms. Often, darker-skinned Africans are referred to as “Blackmoors.” For example, in a description of John Lok’s voyage to Guinea, the narrator expounds, It is to be understood, that the people which now inhabit the regions of the coast of Guinea, and the middle parts of Africa, as Libya the inner, and Nubia, with divers other great & large regions about the same, were in old time called Aethiopes and Nigritae, which we now call Moores, Moorens, or Negroes, a people of beastly living, without a God, lawe, religion or common wealth. (Barne 1903–5: 167) The English version of Leo Africanus’s Geographical Historie of Africa (1600) refers to the biblical explanation for blackness: “For all the Negros or blacke Moores take their descent from Chus, the sonne of Cham, who was the son of Noe” (p. 791). 4 The links of Moors with blackness and/or Islam were so profound that a “Moor” not associated with them would have to mark his difference from his linguistic cohorts. As Anthony Barthelemy (1987) argues, “If a stage Moor, therefore, was other than Muslim or black, he had to identify himself as such by denying his kinship with his kind” (p. 17). Allied with the problem of de?nition is the question of how many early modern people would have actually seen a Moor – either a “black moor” or a Muslim. For complicated reasons having to do with the relationship of Muslims and Blacks to the state, this question de?es a de?nitive answer. 5 For years it has been assumed, as Edward Said does, that the Elizabethan experience of Muslims, at least, was merely textual. More recent and detailed work bolsters Nabil Matar’s (1999) argument that “throughout the Elizabethan and Stuart periods Britons had extensive interaction with Turks and Moors” (p. 17). Othello, a well traveled “stranger / Of here and everywhere” (1.1.133–4), sits squarely within the play’s mobilization of discourses of blackness and fears of Islam, making him “a hybrid who might be associated with a whole set of related terms – Moor, Turk, Ottomite, Saracen, Mahometan, Egyptian, Judean, Indian – all constructed in opposition to Christian faith and virtue” (Vitkus 1997: 161). So, too, the play features the ambivalent or contradictory cultural attitudes towards Moors: the cultures marked by the term could be “admired and reviled at almost the same time” (D’Amico 1991: 4). Michael Neill (2000) suggests that even the putative visibility of the Moor’s “aggressive Otherness” was a source of doubt and concern given the term’s indeterminacy (p. 272). It would seem that, rather than trying to pin down Othello to a speci?c geographic location, Shakespeare took advantage of the rich and at times disturbing network of allusions associated with “Moor.” Othello so often becomes a vehicle for articulating an era’s racial concerns that it becomes dif?cult to draw out what is inherent in the play. In the late eighteenth century Othello criticism tends to dwell on the putative differences between “Moors” and “Negroes,” creating racialized geographies or ethnographies of Moors in ways that put them in at times tortuous odds with the language of the play. For example, in supporting Kean’s change of Othello’s color, his nineteenth-century biographer, F. W. Hawkins, readily acknowledges both the character’s origins in blackface and the language of color that runs throughout the play; however, he uses a clearly motivated historical geography to ignore that evidence: “Although in the tragedy Othello is called an ‘old black ram,’ and described with a minuteness which leaves no doubt that Shakespeare intended him to be black, there is no reason to suppose that the Moors were darker than the generality of Spaniards, who indeed are half Moors, and compared with the Venetians he would even then be black” (Hawkins 1869: 22).
Let us look at an early – and rather notorious – controversy over the use of a black “Moor” as the hero of Othello. In 1693 critic Thomas Rymer published ‘A Short View of Tragedy’, an energetic and literal-minded attack on Shakespeare and Renaissance tragedy that derides it as lacking the requisite decorum, and ignoring the classical rules of art. Among other things, he complains, “the Words and Action are seldom akin, generally are inconsistent, at cross purposes, embarrass and destroy each other” (Vickers 1974–81, II: 25). Rymer’s rather shocking attack becomes widely read, perhaps because “his literal application of Neo-Classical principles” was an embarrassment to those who agreed with the principles, yet loved Shakespeare (ibid: 3). Such critics were thus forced to defend Shakespeare’s plays as brilliant exceptions to these rules or to suggest that the rules were too narrow to encompass Shakespeare’s genius. A number of neoclassical critics, Dryden among them, rose to the challenge, claiming that Rymer’s “borrow’d Rules blind him to Shakespeare’s insights into human nature” (ibid: 302). For Rymer, probability and common sense are important yardsticks by which tragedy must be measured: he ?nds Othello almost obscenely lacking in these qualities (Rymer 1956: 17–19). The racial intermarriage and issues of class and character are central to the many improbabilities that he ?nds in the play. His complaint that Shakespeare violates precepts of noble character by creating characters who act contrary to nature moves rather quickly from an analysis of manners to commentary on the racial climate of Venice/Europe (and by extension, England): “He bestows a name upon his Moor, and styles him the Moor of Venice: a Note of pre-eminence which neither History nor Heraldry can allow him” (p. 87). For Rymer, Othello’s color puts him at odds with his reputed status in the play: The Character of that State 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 Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter: but Shakespeare would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General. (p. 91) Rymer bases this judgment on an improbability from his own era: since a black man could not rise to a position of importance in his own world, the audience cannot be expected to believe it of Shakespeare’s play-world. This judgment of Othello could be read solely as a statement about class and social position, except that it coincides with an equally negative view of Iago who does not act as a noble soldier. Here, Rymer argues, “He is no Blackamoor Soldier, so we may be sure he should be like other Soldiers of our acquaintance” (p. 93). His assertion that Iago as a white, English soldier could not act with such villainy, throws into relief the assumed negative judgments of the characters of Blacks. Thus character and class con?ate to make Othello a walking oxymoron – a noble Moor – who is an improbable husband for a noble lady. Indeed, Desdemona’s desire for Othello makes her, in Rymer’s eyes, too common for the viewer to be moved by her fate. When she asks, “O God, Iago, / what shall I do to win my Lord again?” (4.2.151), Rymer replies, “No Woman bred out of a Pig-stye cou’d talk Othello so meanly” (p. 131). The marriage and their mutual desire disrupts the proper alignment of class, race, and decorum, degrading them both and draining the play of its ability to elicit the requisite responses to tragedy. The most extended response to Rymer comes from editor–dramatist–critic Charles Gildon, who in his “Some Re?ections on Mr. Rymer’s Short View of Tragedy and an Attempt at a Vindication of Shakespeare…” (1694), reasons that “it gives suf?cient ground to our Poet to suppose a Moor employ’d by ’em as well as a German; that is, a Christian Moor, as Othello is represented by our Poet, for from such a Moor there cou’d be no just fear of treachery in favour of the Mahometans” (Gildon 1974: 72). Gildon clearly takes seriously Rymer’s implicit claims that the racial climate of England makes the play improbable and argues that, rather than being bound by social truth, the playwright should rise above it and offer the audience a moral lesson: ’Tis granted, a Negro here does seldom rise above a Trumpeter, nor often perhaps higher at Venice. But that proceeds from the Vice of Mankind, which is the Poet’s Duty, as he informs us, to correct, and to represent things as they should be, not as they are. Now ’tis certain, there is no reason in the nature of things why a Negro of equal birth and merit should not be on an equal bottom with a German, Hollander, French-man, &c. The Poet, therefore, ought to show justice to Nations as well as Persons, and set them to rights, which the common course of things confounds. The Poet has therefore well chosen a polite People to cast off this customary Barbarity of con?ning Nations, without regard to their Virtue and Merits, to slavery and contempt for the meer Accident of their Complexion. (p. 74) Even though Gildon shares Rymer’s negative views of Blacks (elsewhere he disparagingly condemns Rymer’s judgment, offering that he has less poetic taste than the “Blackamoor…in the Western Plantations”: p. 69), he discusses Rymer’s actual criticism within the context of Atlantic slavery, offering an oblique critique of race-based slavery in his suggestion that the poet has a duty to “correct” the “Barbarity of con?ning nations…to slavery and contempt.” It is useful to note here that both critics assume that Shakespeare meant to have Othello performed as a dark-skinned African. Even in ?nding the characters offensive and ridiculous, Rymer attributes the choice to Shakespeare’s faulty artistic judgment; that is, the choice is wrong, but it is Shakespeare’s choice nonetheless. Moreover, both writings show the conceptual ?ux that surrounds the term “Moor” – a semantic “indistinction” that was common (if more indistinct) in Shakespeare’s day. Othello is alternatively a “Moor,” a “Blackamoor,” and a “Negro.”
We can also see a new element that will long endure in the history of Othello: a concrete connection of blackness with slavery. England at this point is already a slave-trading power; both critics agree that that economic and political reality can impinge on the ability of the audience to connect with the character and feel the pathos of the tragedy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge produced some of the most in?uential criticism of Shakespeare and Othello, in large part creating the romanticized Shakespeare of universal genius that lingers in the Shakespeare industry. 6 In doing so he did for literary readings of Othello what Edmund Kean did for dramatic renderings of Othello: he makes a bronze Othello the best vehicle for engaging the audience’s sympathy and identi?cation. While embarked on a general project of defending Shakespeare from the neoclassical tradition of criticism, he assumes that only a bronze Othello can ful?ll the highest requirements of tragedy: Even if we supposed this an uninterrupted tradition of the theatre, and that Shakespeare himself, from want of scenes and the experience that nothing could be made too marked for the nerves of the audience – would this prove aught concerning his own intentions as a poet for all ages? Can we suppose him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead for royal birth? Were Negroes then known but as slaves? on the contrary were not the Moors the warriors, etc.? (Foakes 1989: 112) 7 In a striking difference from Rymer’s assumption of Shakespeare’s bad judgment, Coleridge imposes a clear distinction between Moor and Negro, insisting that Shakespeare would never make the mistake of asking an audience to believe in a noble Negro. An oxymoronic “royal Moor” would not only unacceptably hint at Shakespeare’s ignorance of cultural distinctions, it would also detract from his status as universal genius, “a poet for all ages,” unhindered by time, place, religion, or race. Here and elsewhere, Coleridge indicates that Othello’s blackness interferes with the concerns of art: form, feeling, and the struggle of human will. Othello’s “race” becomes a matter for or barometer of aesthetic judgment – the critics’ as well as Shakespeare’s. Law Professor Patricia Williams points out that excising overtly racialized language does not remove the power of racism. Other discourses and sentiments can have the structural force of racism, often taking the place of more overtly vicious language. In her discussion of the controversy over integrating the famous Rockettes of the Radio City Music Hall in New York she ponders how viewing the very presence of blackness as an interruption of the order of things has serious social consequences for the black individual: An issue that is far more dif?cult to deal with than the simple omission of those words that signify racism – is the very perception that introducing blacks to a lineup will make it ugly (“unaesthetic”), imbalanced (“nonuniform”), and sloppy (“imprecise”). The ghostly power of this perception will limit everything the sole black dancer does – it will not matter how precise she is in feet and fact, since her presence alone will be constructed as imprecise, it is her inherency that is unpleasant, conspicuous, unbalancing. (Williams 1991: 117) A similar sense of black “inherency” and conspicuousness haunts the Coleridge comment that a black Othello would be too “marked” – too visible, too present – for his presumably white audience. Indeed, the problem of a conspicuously black Othello continues to be presented as an aesthetic question – albeit one with racial effects.
Efforts at containment through investigation of Othello’s color are inevitably taxonomizing and racializing activities. 8 The criticism that follows obviously partakes of the discourse that most people think of when we refer to “race”: that is, a “scienti?c racism” that attempts to classify peoples into categories based on the idea that individuals represent qualities of his/her type or species and, more important, that there are permanent differences in abilities that co-relate to biological differences and characteristics. This methodology follows the principle of natural history that all of nature can be classi?ed according to a design determinable by scienti?c observation and discovery. 9 Early modern writers did not organize nationalities or physical types into the strict and hierarchical categories that are associated with modern race thinking. There was no system of types or species and, equally important, no rigid sense of permanent categories which classify peoples by color and other physical features. Human differ- ences are for Renaissance writers ?uid, multiform, and complex, marked not simply by color, but by a host of differences including language, clothing, eating habits, and adornments of body (Hall 1999); but as early modern Europe increasingly ties its for- tunes to the East and the Americas and enters new economic and social relations, these theories of difference become a signi?cant means by which England articulates its sense of place in the world. Older discursive and symbolic forms mutate and are remade as they address new political and economic structures. One link between later racial formations and the older, more ?uid notions typical of the Renaissance is the desire to resolve questions of af?nity. Etienne Balibar argues that, at its heart, “race” is about community, kinship, and the transmission of these connections through time: “The symbolic kernel of the idea of race (and of its demo- graphic and cultural equivalents) is the schema of genealogy, that is, quite simply the idea that the ?liation of individuals transmits from generation to generation a sub- stance both biological and spiritual and thereby inscribes them in a temporal com- munity known as ‘kinship’” (Balibar 2002). More simply, Tessie Liu (1995) suggests that “racial thinking developed historically out of the reasoning people did about the solidarities they held closest to their hearts” (p. 565). 10 Within this schema the ques- tion “Moor or Negro?” can be seen as interrogating place and kinship. In many of these armchair ethnographies the racial project is to frame Othello’s “difference” so as to make Othello a tragic hero that the critic (and his presumed audience) can iden- tify with and thus be moved by. Othello has to be made different enough to accom- modate the play’s clear emphasis on “belonging and estrangement” (Neill 2000: 207), yet similar enough for an empathy that can lead to self-discovery. Unfortunately, as Atlantic slave trading and colonial incursions in Europe and America harden negative attitudes towards African-descended peoples, it becomes impossible for critics to see a black Othello as fully human. A black “Noble Moor” becomes an increasingly untenable oxymoron, a “problem” in DuBois’s terms that becomes “solved” through claims of af?nity and increasingly rigid notions of dif- ference. A Dr. Elits (Stillé 1887) reveals what is at stake in such discussions when he insists, not only that Othello is a “Moor,” but that his characteristics are “Caucasian”: 364 Kim F. HallOthello was a Moor, not a negro. The monuments of Egypt, from the earliest periods of its history, prove that Negroes have always possessed the same mental and physical characteristics as at the present day. The Moors were not, like them, natives of Africa, but were of Oriental origin. They were in large part Arabians, and formed one of the chan- nels through which the science and art of the East reached Europe. They conquered, and for a long time occupied, a large part of Spain, and in literature and art have left imperish- able monuments in that country. Whether Shakespeare fully comprehended the distinction between Moor and Negro may be doubtful, but it is certain that all of the characteristics of Othello are those of the Caucasian race. (Ibid: 15, 16; ?nal emphasis added). As with other commentators, one is struck here by the enormous effort the author puts into making Othello, not simply a Moor, but a Moor who is Caucasian – that is, like him. Although he rather perplexingly suggests that “Negroes” both do and do not have civilization (they built the pyramids, but have not changed or progressed since that ancient past), in Elits’s cosmography, “Negroes” remain stuck in a monu- mentally frozen past, while “Moors” are active, civilized, and conquering. Aligned with his insistence on Othello the character’s “Moorishness” is a declara- tion of the purity of the play itself. Elits begins his discussion of the play insisting that Desdemona and Othello’s love is removed from sensual desire: In no other pair of lovers created by Shakespeare do we observe such absolute subordi- nation of the material passion to the nobler traits of love …No hint of sensuality is to be found either in the conversations of the lovers themselves, or in the Duke’s address, or even in Brabantio’s denunciation. It is only out of the foul and devilish soul of Iago and his consorts that such suggestions can spring. (pp. 13–14) The removal of sensuality from the play is common in nineteenth-century criticism and is often accompanied by banishing Othello’s blackness. Underlying the question of Othello’s race is an indirect claim that a black Othello is “too common” or “too material” to allow the viewer to feel the pathos of tragedy, a point I will return to later. In attempting to explain (or explain away) Othello’s blackness and to remove a per- ceived taint of emotion and sensuality from the play, Elits engages in a less obvious racial project – creating whiteness. Ania Loomba (1989) reminds us that “Debates over whether Othello was black, brown, or mulatto anxiously tried to recover the pos- sibility of his whiteness from this ambiguity” (p. 49). Elits’s insistence on the “purity” of their love resonates against his later connection of “Moors” with higher and non- material endeavors – literature and art. In both his discussion of nationality and his discussion of the play’s values, he insists on an immateriality and purity that are the hallmarks of whiteness. Richard Dyer’s landmark work White (1997) notes that it is the movement from body to pure spirit that makes whiteness so vastly present, yet peculiarly dif?cult to identify: “What makes whites different, and at times uneasily locatable in terms of race, is their embodiment, their closeness to the pure spirit that Othello 365was made ?esh in Jesus, and their spirit of mastery over their and other bodies, in short, their potential to transcend their raced bodies” (p. 25). Purity, conquest, and transcendence become key elements in the ideology of whiteness and we see within Elits’s earlier discussion an attribution of the properties of whiteness to Othello and Moors. Located within this urge for transcendence is the problem of sexuality. Racial for- mations often have to grapple with what Dyer calls the “conundrum of sexuality” for whiteness: “To ensure the survival of the race, they have to have sex – but having sex and sexual desire, are not very white: the means of reproducing whiteness are not themselves pure white” (p. 26). Desire, particularly interracial desire, threatens the purity that is a quintessential drive of whiteness. If Desdemona, as the frankly desir- ing woman who Rymer found so objectionable, becomes increasingly objectionable to later audiences (Dash 1981: 115), her desire for a “black” or “Negro” man promises to sully the entire race. Frank sexual desire and blackness threaten to contaminate the nobility and purity of both the play and the playwright. The play, on many levels seen as too “gross” or barbaric, also becomes unable to secure critical claims of Shakespeare’s universal genius. Rewriting the hero (and the play) as “white” creates the capacity for “transcendental claims to speak for everyone, while being itself everywhere and nowhere” (Hall 1988). If my assertion that these critics whiten the play itself seems somewhat problem- atic, consider the links between Othello’s color and the higher ideals of poetry in the words of theatre critic William Winter, who asserts that Shakespeare “anglicized the whole affair, leaving nothing barbaric in Othello but his capacity of animal delirium”: It used to be the practice of the stage to paint the Moor quite black – to present him, in fact, as a Negro. There are expressions in the text which, taken quite literally, and without allowances for the moods and attitude of the speakers, would afford a warrant for this practice. But – since to make Othello a Negro is to unpoetize the character, and to deepen whatever grossness may already subsist in the tragedy – it seems the better way to remember that poetry has the privilege to idealize all it touches, and that expres- sions of opinion are not statements of fact – and may therefore be disregarded… Besides, there is a clearly marked difference between a Moor and a Negro. The Moor should be painted a pale cinnamon colour, which is at once truthful and picturesque. (Winter 1897: 121) Like other critics, Winter is at pains to dismiss both the stage history and the textual evidence to serve his supposition that a dark-complected “Negro” is inimical to the aesthetic ideals of poetry. If a “pale cinnamon colour” is “more truthful” to a more idealized Othello, then black is both more “real” – more “gross” and material – yet somehow less truthful to the spirit and poetry of the play. As in Patricia Williams’s discussion of the black Rockette, a black Othello becomes “unaesthetic” and disrup- tive to an idealized form. 366 Kim F. HallWhen referring to the “whatever grossness [that] may already subsist in the tragedy,” Winter touches on a problem unique to Othello – the protagonist’s color either exacerbates (or is seen as clarifying) all else that is disturbing about the play. Othello’s central themes – jealousy and adultery – are typically the purview of comedy rather than tragedy. Rather than answering such tensions through the resolution of comedy, Othello, with its violent murder of an innocent woman, forces one’s attention to powerful extremes/intensity of emotion and sensuality in ways that audiences have found dreadfully moving and almost unbearable from its inception. 11 Othello thus stages many elements that discom?ted its patriarchal, somewhat cloistered culture – the agency choice of women, sexual desire, the enduring nature of conversion, and the status of outsider. In the later era that subscribed to Romantic ideals of idealized re?nement this horri?c combination can only be made palatable by abstracting key elements – sexuality, blackness, and passion – out of the text. “Your Son-in-Law Is Far More Fair than Black” Although Othello’s staged blackness is not a source of comment in its earliest history, in no way is the play Othello indifferent to Othello’s blackness (Jordan 1968: 20). Virginia Vaughan (1994) rightfully asserts that Othello depends on the hero’s dark- ness as “the visual signi?er of his Otherness” (p. 51). The play is dominated by a dualist logic that shapes its central concerns with love and jealousy. Even if Othello’s color or race cannot be ?xed within a speci?c geographic location, it is apparent that a black/white imagery, which indelibly associates human bodies with cultural norms and values (as well as moral qualities), permeates Othello. Michelle Wallace (1990) argues that the “unrelenting logic of dualism, or polar opposition – such as black and white, good and evil, male and female – is basic to the discourse of the dominant culture” (p. 60) and is the basis for much of the culture’s more negative thinking about race and gender. The insistence on vital oppositions that can never be reconciled leads to dilemmas such as the “Noble Moor” who contains nobility and jealous rage, and the allegedly submissive daughter who publicly declares her passionate love. The dualist language of black and white provides an ideological and moral struc- ture made visible in the range of crossings, substitutions, and splittings. Othello’s perceptions are challenged throughout the play. He is asked to choose between his wife and his ancient, to choose between “his image of Desdemona and the image Iago offers” (Orkin 1987). In a like manner, the play demands that its audience consider its own perceptions about the alien Moor: we are from the outset offered two versions of Othello – an overtly racist one (bestial, carnal) proffered by Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio, and the noble Moor (restrained and digni?ed) seen by Desdemona, Cassio, and Othello himself. Defenses of Othello make clear that he inhabits a potent ideo- logical divide. The Duke’s allegedly soothing words to Brabantio: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.290–1), Othello 367operate on an assumption that nobility or virtue is opposed to black skin. Moreover, the ?rst line seems to waver in resolution of the black/white contradiction. Beginning with a conditional “if,” it rests on an odd pun on “light”: Othello’s virtue is either “delighted” or “de-lighted”/darkened. The dualist logic of these formulations means that Othello’s contradictions cannot be reconciled; nevertheless the play in many ways disrupts the culture’s polarities. According to Patricia Parker (1994), “the play pro- duces a series of powerful chiastic splittings. Desdemona, the white, Venetian daugh- ter becomes, as it proceeds, the sexually tainted woman traditionally condemned as ‘black,’ part of a representational schema that gives ironic resonance to the choice of the name ‘Bianca’ (white) for the character most explicitly linked to that taint” (p. 95). Preconceptions about gender play a large role in this – women were often seen as incipiently sexually unruly unless properly controlled. Attempts to make Othello become the stereotypically violent Moor run concurrently with attempts to make Desdemona seem tainted and unchaste, and both are articulated though a language of blackness. Racial imagery and religious difference are inescapable factors in characterizing the couple’s love. Part of Iago’s arsenal is the ability to characterize Othello as hypersex- ual and their love as therefore monstrous (“an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe!”: 1.1.87–8). This characterization allows for a concomitant focus on Desdemona as a creature of changeable carnality. Iago reassures Roderigo of his plan’s success by asserting that Desdemona will tire of her husband sexually: “She must change for youth. When she is / Sated with his body, she will ?nd the error of her / Choice,” and Othello, once persuaded, bemoans: “O curse of marriage, / That we can call these del- icate creatures ours / And not their appetites.” Desdemona’s famous declaration of her love (“I saw Othello’s visage in his mind”: 1.3.253)implicitly responds to this impulse by simultaneously de?ecting attention away from Othello’s blackness (his visage) and insisting on a more transcendent love, a love not of ?esh, but of mind and spirit. That this is an underlying motif in the play can be seen in the term “gross” that not only is evoked at key moments in Othello, but also becomes the term that in the critical history marks discomfort with sexuality and blackness. Roderigo’s initial description of Desdemona’s elopement is coded in a language of materiality: Desdemona was “Transported with no worse nor better guard / But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier / To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (1.1.123–4). Just like Iago, Roderigo emphasizes the stereotypical lasciviousness of Moors and embeds it within a broader language of materiality. In his vision, once Desdemona leaves her father’s house, she is surrounded by all that is common and ?eshly – literally moving from a “knave of common hire” to Othello’s “gross” and “lascivious” embrace. Unlike the more easily recognizable racializing terms used by Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio, “gross” speaks to similar fears of bodily and spiritual impurity and is used by a multitude of characters in reference to adultery and marriage. While the OED documents that “gross” at this time is primarily used when speaking of things that are “obvious,” as in too large or signi?cant to be ignored, a secondary meaning that comes to dominate suggests a rudeness or lack of re?nement, particularly in contrast 368 Kim F. Hallwith spiritual immanence: “of things material or perceptible to the senses, as con- trasted with what is spiritual, ethereal, or impalpable” (OED III.c.). Thus “grossness” is not simply a matter of manners, but marks a diminished spiritual state. When Satan’s armies are pinned to the earth by the archangel Michael’s in Milton’s Paradise Lost, they are spiritually and physically grounded, “though Spirits of purest light, / Purest at ?rst, now gross by sinning grown” (VI: 660–1). This line encapsulates a sense not only of the signi?cant division between spirit and ?esh, but also that sin moves one from heaven to earth, spirit to ?esh. “Grossness” is a state of ?eshly sin – fullness. If we imagine a Renaissance audience used to stage blackness as the sign of lasciviousness, sin, and demonic in?uence, and a stereotype of Moors as lecherous and potentially violent, we can imagine the suspense that might be built up in the ?rst scene which circulates this host of associations without putting Othello on stage. He literally enters into an arena which has already assumed his spiritual and sexual “gross- ness” and which must have him publicly judged. In Race, Gender, Renaissance Drama Ania Loomba (1989) asserts that the language of sin and errant sexuality for both ?gures assumes its charge from Othello’s black- ness: “Othello’s blackness is central to any understanding of male or female sexuality or power structures in the play; secondly, the ?ltering of sexuality and race through each other’s prism profoundly affects each of them” (p. 41). The dualist language of embodiment reveals how deep fears over the organization of gender, sexuality, and race feed each other: blackness positions not just dark-skinned peoples, but also unruly women and the lower classes, outside of culture and civilization. It is no coincidence that much of the criticism, like Rymer’s, associates Desdemona’s active attempts to defend her marriage with women of the lower classes (see above). Early modern culture’s suspicion of women as inherently sinful subjects always puts them at risk of being labeled “black” and the “discourse of ‘blackness’ is mobilized in order to cir- cumscribe female transgression” (Loomba 1994: 27). In dualist logic the language of gross materiality/evil aligns with blackness to make visible the ways in which Othello’s racial condition interacts with patriarchal inter- ests in controlling women, thus making the pairing of black male/white female a potentially monstrous and explosive combination (Newman 1991). While Othello’s color marks him as an avatar of sin and sexuality, women, as the primary bearers of cultural anxieties about sexuality, are continually represented as notoriously unstable in this regard. As Iago continually reminds the audience of the carnality and sinful- ness of blackness, he makes Othello see Desdemona’s “grossness” – to imagine her not as the wife of his heart, but as a dangerously desiring woman. The bestial language ?rst used to alienate Brabantio from the couple is also used to in?ame Othello’s jealous suspicions of his wife: “Where’s satisfaction? / It is impossible you should see this, / Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross / As ignorance made drunk” (3.3.406–8). I should note here that this trun- cated reading of the play focuses on Iago as generating the most potent racial lan- guage, but it is too easy to make him the sole bearer of the play’s racial language (as many critics do). While I do agree that Iago certainly activates the language of black Othello 369and white in the most pernicious way, “black” and “fair,” like “gross,” appear through- out the play in a variety of contexts. For example, the “old paradoxes” Desdemona and Iago exchange on the Cyprus waterfront (2.1.116–64) are based both on misog- ynist attitudes about white women and on a color schema which assumes an associa- tion of blackness with sin and errant sexuality (Wayne 1991). Similarly, it becomes easy to examine the circulation of “race thinking” as linked solely to blackness and thus more comfortably aligned with current conceptions of race. However, Othello’s blackness also queries the meanings and values associated with fair/whiteness. The “chiastic splittings” Parker argues for also force attention to the language of fair/lightness/whiteness and potentially destabilizes the comfort of dualist logic. The many calls for “light” in the stage directions and by the characters indicate a conceptual darkness in which the truth cannot be plainly known. While black Moors are potent indices of evil in the culture and women are notoriously accused of false seeming, in this particular play, the concupiscence and demonic impulses of the other characters are both revealed and concealed. The audience clearly sees Iago’s methods (if not his motives), yet his demonic nature is quite hidden from all the play’s characters until the very end, when he is “revealed” and then tarred with that language of sin and materiality. The wish to destroy and exclude evil is expressed in terms of blackness and cultural difference. Othello’s response to the structure of impossibility that disallows his nobility and Desdemona’s chastity is to “blacken” himself and Desdemona: “Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face” (3.3.380–91), and to render himself the con- ?icted foreign other (“turbaned Turk”; 5.2.351). However, few have noted how the public revelation of Iago’s crimes moves Cassio to proclaim him alien and sinful: “Most heathenish and most gross” (5.2.310). Rymer’s earlier insistence that Iago is “no black- amoor soldier” proves strangely compelling when we consider that Iago’s theatrical predecessors, the Vice ?gures from medieval morality plays, were often portrayed in blackface or black disguise (Fryer 1984). 12 If the “white” courtesan, Bianca, is a sly symbolic foil for the chaste Des/demon/a, Iago is the “white devil,” whose seeming “belonging” and adept directing of attention to others’ transgressions (he accuses Othello, Emilia, Desdemona, and Cassio of adultery) locates potent fears of “gross- ness” in others. Iago, the omniscient, controlling citizen, operates under the cover of whiteness; he is the evil within who escapes notice by projecting sin onto others. Contemporary critics are deeply concerned that students will misread race in the play: asking whether the original play is racist or not anachronistically remakes the text in order to exact a literary justice not always offered by society. It is true that the postcolonial theory informing most discussions of race can make it too easy to recre- ate Shakespeare’s England on the terms of later periods. 13 However, acknowledging this point should not lead to a whitewashing of the text. It seems to me that one can think about the play’s alignment and questioning of sexuality, evil, and color without proclaiming the play either racist or anti-racist – terms not known by Shakespeare. Othello’s original audiences inhabited a moment of historic beginnings which are, as with any historic moment, blended with the centuries-old structures of everyday life. 370 Kim F. HallEven though England was not in the early modern period systematically traf?cking in slaves and certainly was not the empire that consolidated scienti?c racism, it is part of a confederation of countries that come to consider themselves Europe – white and Northern – in response to the threat of Islam that underpins the play. 14 It will also come to join freedom and whiteness against images of black servitude. These ques- tions of belonging – of creating communities and alliances by “referring to different types of human bodies” – are part of a racial project. The “problem” of blackness – an outsideness that interrupts desired structures of order and belonging – is not the same as, but is certainly intimately related to, the “problem” that haunts Western cultures today. We inhabit a moment of similarly seismic change and we too must make the old contend with the new. It is important to see how Othello is embedded in older discourses of belonging and ?liation, but it is equally important to think about the ways it can help us solve the “problem” of race today. Notes 1 This is by no means to suggest that other people of color are not discriminated against in the West. However, historically the transatlantic slave trade produced its own enduring codes, laws, and symbols that carry a particular resonance in Western culture. 2 For a sense of the arduousness of blackface, see Cowhig (134). 3 Informed by critical race theory in other ?elds, contemporary debates on Othello and race focus more on what constitutes race thinking in the period, rather than ?xing Othello’s identity. The work on race and Othello is too voluminous to cover in its entirety. Much is cited in this essay, but I direct the reader to Vaughan’s thorough work in Othello: A Contextual History (1994). 4 It is widely thought that Shakespeare was familiar with this text. Leo may actually have been a model for Othello. See Johnson (1985) and Whitney (1992). 5 For a discussion of the methodological issues posed when examining blacks in Shakespeare’s time, see Hall (1993). 6 For a concise discussion of Coleridge’s role in Shakespeare criticism and its in?uence on twentieth- century Shakespeare criticism, see Drakakis (1985: 4–9). 7I have omitted more overtly racist lines often attributed to Coleridge in contemporary criticism, but of doubtful provenance: “yet as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to con- ceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro” (Coleridge 1960: 42). For a critique of these lines, see Newman (1991) and Neill (2000: 245–8). For a discussion of the dif- ?culties in attributing this passage to Coleridge, see Pecter (1997). 8I am avoiding several notorious instances of racist commentary on the play. For example, the com- ments by M. R. Ridley, the editor of the original Arden Shakespeare, have been amply scrutinized (see Newman 1991; Orkin 1987; Pecter 1997; Singh 1994). 9 This discussion of race theories is indebted to Banton (2000). 10 It is important to remember that “race” is different from individual prejudice against people dif- ferent from oneself. Currently, when scholars discuss “race” they think in terms of ideologies and structures that shape human interaction and representation. 11 Unfortunately, there is not room to address fully how the play’s generic hybridity interacts with its interest in foreign difference. Susan Snyder (1979) most prominently makes the point that Othello opens with all of the generic signals of comedy. 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