Race and Religion in Othello

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Race and the Moor in Elizabethan England
2.1 Definition of race and the term ‘Moor’
2.2 Elizabethan Stereotypes – Images of the foreigner
2.3 How well-known was “the Moor” in Shakespeare’s time?
2.4 Historical context – Why is Othello a „Moor“?

3 Religion and biblical allusions in Othello
3.1 Islam vs. Christianity
3.2 Desdemona
3.3 Iago
3.4 Othello

4 Conclusion

5 Works cited

1 Introduction

Othello, even though a decorated general and highly regarded, is still an outsider, an alien – he is valued for his service, but at the same time denied social equality The Doge of Venice and the Senators would seek his advice concerning military strategies and he would be invited to social events, but never be accepted as one of their own. This can clearly be seen in the fact that he not only marries Desdemona in secret, but that this marriage can actually be used against him by Iago and Rodriguez and that Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) is furious and demands court action and Othello ’s life for this outrageous crime.

There are several factors that could be the reason for this discrimination against Othello: his religion, his race, and the fact that he was not born in Venice and therefore never a true Venetian.

Throughout history, ever since the first staging of Othello, Othello’s skin-tone, race, religion and social status have been strongly discussed. The contradiction of high military status and his social exclusion has always caught the eye of researchers. He is the Moor of Venice but he is not really a Venetian, even though he is a highly decorated General in the service of the Venetian Military and seems to be the only one capable to deal with the horrific Turks, that are about to attack Cyprus.

Of course “the Othello that we read or see in the twenty-first century is not the same that Shakespeare’s audience read or saw in early modern England, or that slave owners saw in nineteenth-century America, or that Afrikaners saw in Apartheid South Africa” (Thompson 2016: 3) as Ayanna Thompson put it in her introduction to the revised Arden Shakespeare of Othello (Honigmann et al. 2016: 3). Nonetheless, or maybe exactly because of these ‘different’ Othello’s questions of race and religion have always been at the focus of Shakespeare researchers and there are numerous books and articles to show for it.

This paper is structured into two parts – in the first part about race I first want to talk about some theories about Othello’s race, Elizabethan stereotypes about Moors and what might have been reasons for making Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the second part I am going to focus on the part religion plays in Othello, the opposition of Christianity against Islam, the influence religion, the bible and the other character’s religious affiliations play in Othello and of course Othello ’s own religious denomination.

2 Race and the Moor in Elizabethan England

When it comes to race in Othello, there is always the question whether Othello was black or not. And then, especially in our days, whether Othello is a racist play or not, but if we want to talk about race and racism we first need to clarify what the term ‘ race’ meant in Elizabethan times and what kind of stereotypes were attached to that. Why did Shakespeare choose to make his protagonist ‘the Moor of Venice’? Why does Iago mislead Othello so cruelly? And why does Othello believe Iago's lies?

2.1 Definition of race and the term ‘Moor’

For a long time the term race had a different meaning, than it has today: French, Spanish, and German were considered race and the term was mainly used to talk about familial groups or lineage. The concept of race, as we know it today, evolved when Europeans began colonizing remote countries – before that most Europeans had never seen black people. Reasons to explain physical differences were mostly derogative and involved a feeling of European superiority. And blackness always had a special significance in European history. People believed black people to be black because they were either the descendants of the biblical Ham, who was cursed after he had sinned and therefore had black sons, or that they had a “natural infection” that was believed to be contagious. Sexual intercourse between ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ was therefore a reason for anxiety and disgust (cf. Loomba 2000: 213).

The word ‘Moor’ first arrived from the word ‘mauros’ for people from Mauretania and was soon also used for people from Barbary or Spain too, since Spain was under Arabian control at that time, and pretty soon for black people from Africa etc.. And although the terms “black”, “blackamoor”, “Moor” etc. were used rather broadly in 16th-Century England, they were all used for people with a skin-color that differed from the pale English people of that time, or people from a Muslim background (Kaul 1996: 19).

The widespread use of Moor to refer to both religious and physical difference means that the word proves incredibly elastic, stretching to encompass a wide range of peoples and cultures (Hall 2007: 177).

Therefore a Moor could come from Africa, the Middle East, Spain or even India. Also anyone who converted to Islam or was converted by force could be considered a Moor.

As Hall puts it, “the meaning depended on the context and the speaker; it most often meant ‘non-black Muslim, black Christian or black Muslim’” (Hall 2007: 181). So the term Moor could refer to a Muslim with dark skin, a Christian with dark skin or a Muslim with light skin, no matter if they were born Muslims or converted to Islam at some point. Many researchers nowadays believe that Othello most probably was a light-skinned Arab or an olive skinned Spaniard, who seemed dark to the (especially at that time) very pale British and was associated with the exoticism of Moors and Muslims.

2.2 Elizabethan Stereotypes – Images of the foreigner

During Queen Elizabeth’s reign the knowledge about remote countries, foreign people and cultures increased immensely. Especially because of expeditions and the beginning of the colonization, the topic of confrontation with exotic strangers became more and more important.

Explorers, who wrote detailed accounts of their adventures, became wildly popular and further increased their reader’s interest in the new worlds. Through these explorers, but more importantly through increasing trade with other countries, new maps became available and exotic foreigners came into the country – at first mainly as slaves, but there were also visits of merchants and foreign royalty.

Even though these foreigners were seen as fascinating and curious, they were also feared as being racially and sexually different. And everything that was different, the so-called “other”, was seen as exotic and exciting on the one hand, but also menacing and dangerous on the other hand. Otherness was seen as a threat to the social, moral and sexual order of society. Especially black men were said to have an animal-like hyper-sexuality for example.

As mentioned before, there was not one clear definition for “the Moor”, but a Moor could be everything from light-skinned Arab or Spaniard, to dark-skinned African. It is therefore not clear how dark Othello actually would have been in Shakespeare’s time, or if he would have been dark at all. Because the term “Moor” was also used for Muslims, Othello might have been European with Muslim background as well. As Anthony Barthelemy puts it: “The only certainty a reader has when he sees the word is that the person referred to is not a [white] Christian” (Barthelemy 1987: 7). And since “any familiarities most Londoners had with ‘blackamoors’ probably came from slaves and servants” (Vaughan 1996: 59), Othello would have been regarded as the exotic outsider anyway.

2.3 How well-known was “the Moor” in Shakespeare’s time?

In 1573 Sir John Hawkins started the English slave trade when he shipped Africans to the Americas. Even before that black people had been brought to England by travelers and exhibited in circuses or other public places. As mentioned above, they usually became slaves or servants later on. From 1596-1601 Queen Elizabeth requested the speedy transportation of “Negroes and blackaMoores” (Vaughan 1996: 58) from England. So it is safe to say that Shakespeare and the people of his time not only knew about black people but probably had actually seen a few – since their increased number was obviously giving cause for alarm, which would also have harmed their reputation.

After the visit of the Barbarian Ambassador Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun in 1600 to discuss “trade relations and a potential joint effort against Spain” (Vaughan 1996: 14), Shakespeare definitely knew at least him and his company in person. They were treated as celebrities and Shakespeare probably even performed for the Ambassador. The reactions to these visitors were mixed though, “ranging from the refusal of many mariners to transport the ‘infidels’, to fascination with their exotic qualities”(Vaughan 1996: 14) Vaughan credits this to two different point of views: The orientalistic point of view that saw the visitors as “seductive, different, and dangerous” and the colonialistic point of view that “their kingdom might be of use to England in its global enterprises” (Vaughan 1996: 14).

Under King James I., who showed a clear antipathy against the Turks and rather sought to fix England’s relations with Spain, the feelings towards Moors remained ambiguous and many people thought them to be wild, exotic, different and therefore possibly dangerous. This feeling is also depicted in Othello in various scenes, for example when Iago warns Brabantio that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (Shakespeare 2016: 1.1.88) and then calls Othello a “Barbary horse” (Shakespeare 2016: 1.1.110), comparing him to the famous Arabian breeding horses, calling on the stereotype of the “overactive sexual drive” (Thompson 2016: 40) of black men and evoking the age old picture of black vs. white – evil vs. good. But King James I’s court still “witnessed a significant performance in blackface shortly after Othello was first performed” (Hall 2007: 183), which shows how popular the Moor, evil or noble, was. “Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness (1605) featured Queen Anne and her court ladies painted as ‘black-moors’, at the queen’s request” (Hall 2007: 183).

2.4 Historical context – Why is Othello a „Moor“?

There are several sources that Shakespeare might have known and could have used for Othello. Ayana Thompson states in her introduction to the Arden Shakespeare of Othello

one of Shakespeare’s exceptional talents was his ability to ingest older plots, narratives and stories and then to transform them into new creations (Thompson 2016: 14).

This ‘borrowing’ from already existing material seems strange to us nowadays, but was quite common in Shakespeare’s time. And as we can see in Othello it can lead to new works of utmost literary quality.

The Geographical History of Africa, the first book about African geography and ethnography seems to have been another influential source for Shakespeare. Its Author was an Andalusian Muslim called Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan. He was captured by pirates and gifted to Pope Leo X, who then christened him and gave him a new name: Johannes Leo Africanus (cf. Thompson 2016: 15). It seems clear that Shakespeare took “the idea of a well-born, educated and experienced African who works his way into the upper echelons of white, European power” (Thompson 2016: 15) and used it for Othello. He made his tragic black hero also a descendant of “men of royal siege” (Honigmann et al. 2016: 1.2.22), also captured by “the insolent foe / And sold to slavery” (Honigmann et al. 2016: 1.3.138-9) and Othello like Leo Africanus was also christened at some point. As Thompson puts it: “Shakespeare’s Othello, then, tells a tale that echoes the fascinating reality of Johannes Leo Africanus’s life” (Thompson 2016: 15).

Further sources he might have used for Othello are Pliny’s The Historie of the Natural World and John Mandeville’s The Book of Marvels and Travels. The first, “like Africanus’s, provides a wide range of information about botany, zoology and astronomy” (Thompson 2016: 15) but has also “more fabulous parts about the ‘Nature of Man” (Thompson 2016: 15). Othello talks about the “Anthropophagi” (Honigmann et al. 2016: 1.3.145), a native people mentioned by Pliny in this ‘Nature of Man’. The second is a “fabricated tale that blends travelogues, fantasy narratives and fiction”(Thompson 2016: 16) about Moors, Cannibals and other fantastical creatures, all the while pretending to be a serious record of an English pilgrim.

For the setting in Venice he seems to have used various sources concerning social and political structures in Venice, as well as reports from travelers and a Venetian ambassador (cf. Thompson 2016: 16).

But the most important source for Othello seems to have been Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, Cinthio. Gli Heccatomithi is a collection of short Italian stories, probably modeled after Boccaccio’s Decamerone and similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, although they deal mainly with “topic and themes about love” (Thompson 2016: 13). Shakespeare seems to have used Cinthio’s stories also for Measure for Measure and borrowed “plots, themes and characters” (Thompson 2016: 13). Heccatomithi indeed is very similar to Othello in that there is a Moor who marries Disdemona/Desdemona, a white lady of class, becomes jealous and eventually kills her. But Shakespeare took the play and transformed it into something deeper, more facetted:

While Cinthio's tale has a didactic purpose - to warn young girls not to marry 'a man whom Nature, Heaven, and manner of life separate' from them - Shakespeare's Othello resists this simplistic moral thrust. Desdemona, unlike Disdemona, dies protecting Othello and continuing to pledge her love for him (Thompson 2016: 14)

But Shakespeare also managed to make his Moor a noble and tragic hero, not just the husband that kills his wife believing he has been thwarted.

There had been several plays about the evil Moor before Othello (e.g. George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar”) and Shakespeare himself wrote Titus Andronicus featuring Aaron. Both Muly Mahamet, the protagonist of The Battle of Alcazar and Aaron are described as “barbarous” (Shakespeare and Dover Wilson 2009: 2.2.78) Moors and both are “truly gifted rhetorician” (Thompson 2016: 20). Thompson states that the “smooth talking negro Moor who manipulates his European friends rhetorically, […]set the stage for Shakespeare’s depiction of race, rhetoric and intercultural collisions” (Thompson 2016: 18–19).

And indeed, whereas the Moors in the above mentioned works are clearly evil, sexually predatory, though still very intelligent and seemingly educated – in Othello the white Iago “embodies the devilish improvisational and rhetorical effectiveness” (Thompson 2016: 20) and Othello ‘only’ “embodies the blackness” (Thompson 2016: 20).

So “the Moor” already was a relatively modern phenomenon (though mainly evil) and, as already mentioned, in 1600 the Ambassador to the King of Barbary Abd el-Ouahed ben Maessaoud ben Mohammed Anoun visited London for 6 months. He came with a lot of people and paraded through London, so that by then Moors were not only popular but people had just seen Moors with their own eyes shortly before Shakespeare wrote Othello. Exoticism and the unknown, the ‘Other’ furthered the interest in Moors and stories about their exotic and adventurous life.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Race and Religion in Othello
LMU Munich
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race, religion, othello
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Nadja Niyaz (Author), 2017, Race and Religion in Othello, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/369109


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