Shakespeare in Black and White

by David P. Gontar (June 2013)


Shakespeare's plays are unique in Renaissance literature in the attention paid to race and racial relations. In scripts featuring European people in their dealings with Africans he is centuries ahead of his time. Instead of portraying blacks as poor oppressed bondsmen bereft of culture and education, in three plays he gives us well-developed black characters, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, all models of breeding, intelligence and savoir-faire, full of promise but increasingly tragic. The Prince of Morocco is polite but presumptuous and aggressive, Aaron is a strange blend of destructive fury and nurture, and Othello is a hero who kills the thing he loves. Can such personages be derived and created solely on the basis of reading and imagination? One would naturally look for experiences or interactions with blacks as the foundation for such rich and evocative portrayals. Consider that two and a half centuries later, Americans were debating whether Africans should be considered human beings. What actual happenings set Shakespeare's perceptions apart from those which would follow in the New World? Placing these three figures in the context of relevant historiography might provide a foundation for approaching them more helpfully. 

II.  Africans in Renaissance England

In the past a formidable lack of information about the blacks in Renaissance England made such investigations nearly impossible, but recent advances by Gustav Ungere have cracked the door. Two articles of his should be required reading for students of the plays in question: “Portia and the Prince of Morocco,” [PPM] Shakespeare Studies 31 (2003) and “The presence of Africans in Elizabethan England and the performance of Titus Andronicus at Burley-on-the-Hill, 1595/96,” [PAEE]  Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, (2008). A lack of attention paid by Plantagenet historians has left most readers with a blind spot when it comes to racial demography of the era and a sense that slavery and its consequences were not domestic problems for the English people. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it is not possible to recount the vast range of Mr. Ungere's reportage and analysis, nor is agreement possible at every point, at least we have a factual context in which to set the literature we would fathom. Here is a compendium of observations culled from Mr. Ungere.

*    England launched its slave trade as early as the 1480's. (PPM, 91)

*    English slave traders bought captured slaves in Andalusia, and ” . . . the majority of English merchants resident in Andalusia . . .were slave owners.” (PPM, 91)

*    As the slave trade expanded, English entrepreneurs came to obtain their desired commodities in Morocco. So great was the English slave trade that it resulted in a noticeable depopulation of that coastal nation.

*    Morocco was a young Islamic state, lacking in experience dealing with English slave traders.

*    In 1492, as a result of Spanish oppression, about 20,000 Sephardic Jews, including: “historians, physicians, merchants, goldsmiths, artisans, a printer, highly qualified military experts and gun casters took refuge in Morocco. Within a decade or two, the best qualified of them had worked their way up to the upper echelons of the civil service, had set up a nationwide network of business connections, and had marginalized the trade under the auspices of the sharifs.” (PPM, 94) These sophisticated professionals became middlemen in the Moroccan slave trade.

*     English slave traders in Andalusia and Morocco met and had first-hand dealings with black slaves, and with Muslim vendors and their Sephardic agents. Many slaves were shipped to England. English people frequented and patronized open slave markets, whose conditions of degradation are well known to those familiar with their later American equivalents. In addition, English businessmen also became acquainted with wealthy Moorish merchants of Islamic faith, and learned of their prosperity, refined culture, and various domestic arrangements (presumably confirming what had been noted during the much earlier crusades in the holy land, though Mr. Ungere does not mention this). By inference, then, the English in Morocco were exposed to both the benighted condition of blacks kidnapped in the African interior, as well as to the Moorish peoples of northern Africa, culturally associated with or descended from those who had preserved in their libraries in Arabia the writings of the ancient sages of Greece and Rome, which by 1500 had long been assiduously studied by artists and scholars in the city states of the Italian peninsula.  

*    The British Andalusian slave trade flourished from 1480 to 1532. (PAEE, pg. numbers unavailable)

*    The next generation of English slave traders went farther south, participating in the lucrative slave markets of Guinea, which furnished slaves for the Caribbean. 

*    With the exception of an annual per capita tax, in Tudor England slavery was not regulated by law.   (PAEE)

*    The majority of the Africans in England in the early 16th century “were black domestic slaves, a few were freedmen, and some of them were Moors, mostly Berbers from North Africa.” All came under the appellation “blackamoor”). (PAEE)  The reader will recall, e.g., the blackamoors serving the King of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost (1598). (DG)

*    As the “blackamoor” population in England swelled in the 16th century it became a concern to the English people, their government and their Queen, who, in view of the “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which . . . are crept into this realm,” issued three expulsion orders, two in July of 1596 and one in 1601. These had no effect, however. (PAEE)

*   Many English slave owners were women, both noble and common. This is discussed in  detail by Mr. Ungere. Though he focuses his attention on female domestics, it can hardly be supposed that there were no male slaves in their retinues. To the contrary, see below.

*   Slave accommodations in 16th century England were spare. “Sleeping arrangements [were] mainly communal. Servants of either sex slept in the same room, and servants of the same sex often shared the bed, a fact that was well known to raise the female servants' vulnerability to rape, seduction, and, worst of all, the specter of miscegenation. The possibility that the bedrooms of early English households were immune to color discrimination cannot be ruled out. In Spain miscegenation was endemic among the servant class; in England it was certainly on the rise. The bold interracial scene in Othello (act 5) may have been inspired by the reality experienced in middle-class English households.” (One might add that such a scene could also have occurred in households of the nobility.) (DG)

*   Many slaves were converted to Christianity. “The Anglican authorities considered slavery as reprehensible only when English [slaves] were sold to the Muslims and enticed to convert.” (PAEE)

*   “[I]n early modern England, the age of consent for marriage was set at twelve for girls.” (PAEE)

*   “Launcelot, the primary go-between in [The Merchant of Venice], who shuttles between religious communities and ethnic minorities, commits an act of interracial sex in Portia's domain at Belmont, impregnating the offstage Mooress, whose age must be put to twelve or thereabouts. His impregnation of the Mooress may have been meant to evoke a real-life incident in London.” (PAEE)

*   “Among the foreign merchants residing in England, the Portuguese New Christians or conversos, who had been accustomed to keeping and handling slaves before they took refuge in England in the 1540's, enjoyed the privilege of keeping up their old lifestyle . . . and developing their commercial networks with their old converso partners in Amsterdam, Antwerp and Constantinople.” (PAEE)

*   “The double-career men like the Gonsons, the Hawkinses and the Winters, who had a lifelong experience as members of the inner circle of the naval administration in charge of the royal fleet, had no scruples to take advantage of their public offices to promote their private enterprises. They became involved in slaving voyages as investors, ship owners and seafaring businessmen and did not hesitate to staff their households with colored servants.” (PAEE)

*  “For his services rendered to the navy and for his private ventures [William Winter] was knighted in 1573.” (PAEE) 

*   The Guinea charter, signed May 3/13, 1588 by the English government and Dom Antonio, pretender to the throne of Portugal, “granted English merchants license to trade in slaves in Senegambia.” (PAEE)

*    Following the Guinea charter, there were incidents in which the smuggling of a “considerable number of Guinea slaves” into England were uncovered. (PAEE)

*    Not all Senegambians were bondsmen. Some black Senegambians were sent to England to learn English and visit the country. (PAEE)

*    “The alleged influx of Guinea slaves in the early 1590's whether legal or illegal in terms of the Guinea charter of 1588, generated a sense of anxiety about the black presence in late Elizabethan London. The government, therefore, took measures to defuse the situation. In the wake of the investigations conducted by the High Court of Admiralty in 1592-94, the queen under the pretext of a threat to economic stability, was induced to issue the ineffective deportation acts of 1596, 1599, and 1601.” (PAEE)

*    “Government measures alone were not sufficient to allay the fear of the citizens. By 1594 the Londoners had come to perceive the presence of Africans as an anomaly within the social body of their city . . . . This was the moment for Shakespeare to step in to make an attempt to defuse the situation by confronting his contemporary audiences with the extraordinary figure of Aaron, a literate African, in 1594.” (PAEE, emphasis added)

Here we must interrupt our transmission of the excellent reportage and analysis of Mr. Ungere with a question. It may be asked whether employing the figure of Aaron, arguably one of the most noxious, malevolent characters ever conjured by the human mind, was an act “defusing” the incendiary situation in London, or was rather an ignition. Those familiar with the play will recall that it is Aaron who seduces Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and leads her sons, Demetrius and Chiron, to savagely rape and dismember Titus's daughter, Lavinia. It is Aaron's perfidious scheming that leads to the beheading of two of Titus's sons, and to the amputation of Titus's hand. Aaron dispatches with his rapier his infant son's nurse, and when he is finally captured, exults over his sanguinary deeds before the stunned citizens of Rome.

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did
I do repent it from my very soul.
(V, iii, 186-189)

It is not unimportant, to be sure, that Shakespeare gives us a black character who can quote poetic authors, but one must doubt that the Negrophobia sweeping through London like a contagion in the 1590's was much allayed by the presentation of a black man as the most dedicated and determined villain in the annals of literature. The combination of literacy with socio-pathological rage could not have served as a panacea or assurance of public safety, but was a reflection of Shakespearean remarkable realism.  

Aaron is a seducer and a rapist, one who gratifies Tamora and plainly might have ravished Lavinia had that task not been delegated to Chiron and Demetrius. The concupiscent dimension of this black character is not plucked out of thin air by Shakespeare, but rests on the anecdotal accounts concerning blacks which stretched back from contemporary London, through the English slave trade to the crusades. The association of blacks with libido and potency inherited by Shakespeare from the sources identified by Mr. Ungere and first illustrated in the portrayal of Aaron, inevitably was present when he came to write The Merchant of Venice and Othello, affecting the personalities of the Prince of Morocco and the Venetian Moor. 

Thus, while few discussions of blacks in Shakespeare can rival those of Mr. Ungere, to whom we owe a large debt of gratitude, it is precisely at this critical juncture that he seems to stray. 

III.  Representations of Sexuality in Titus Andronicus

Let's lend a most careful ear to Mr. Ungere's discussion.

Besides the contemporary relevance of the play's political message, Titus Andronicus broke new ground in its attempt to cast doubt on the conventional perception of the African other as an inferior being. The racial discourse had not lost its immediacy in 1595-96. The foundation of the Guinea Company in 1588 had led to an increased influx of black Africans and by 1593/94, when Shakespeare was writing the play in the form it has come down to us, the black presence in Elizabethan England had reached a peak. The illicit arrival of two young African notables, the sons of the chief justice of Senegambia, and of some black students to be indoctrinated in English culture, was a conspicuous event, which alarmed the English government.   Shakespeare responded to  these social, legal, and ethnic tensions in staging forms of cross-cultural encounters that called in question the entrenched English position on racial hierarchies . . . . Titus Andronicus, besides being Shakespeare's first revenge tragedy, can claim to be the first Elizabethan play to undercut the racial discourse of positioning white over black. It challenges the ideological assumptions about the black man's racial inferiority. Aaron, the black outsider, does not correspond to the black African slaves the Londoners had come to know in increasing numbers after 1588. His most salient deviation from the real-life enslaved blackamores kept in London households is his literacy. Aaron is a literate black African well versed in the classics. He knows Ovid and Horace better than sons of Tamora, the white Queen of the Goths. Moreover, Aaron's sexual behavior does not conform to the entrenched belief and stereotyped representation of a black man's uncontrollable sexuality. Whereas Tamora herself and her two sons are figures of unrestrained sexuality, Aaron is capable of practicing sexual restraint. He thereby contradicts the current notion of the black man's boundless sexual potency. He also outdoes the Romans in setting examples of moderation and self-discipline and in acting as a vehicle of moral commentary. As a father he is pitted against Titus Andronicus, an embodiment of Roman values, who does not hesitate to resort to infanticide for political and moral considerations. Aaron, however, poses as a paragon of paternal love in his frantic attempt to save his son's life. The assumption that civilized Rome cannot be barbaric is shown to be incorrect. (PAEE)

Well, the barbarism of Rome is met immediately in the play when, over the pleas of Queen Tamora, Titus and his sons disembowel Alarbus and hack off his arms and legs, burning his entrails before his very eyes. We don't have to wait for Titus to stab his own son to know that he and his offspring are moral mongrels. Drawing a caricature of sexual vitality is not enough to relieve Aaron of the charge of sexual excess. Whatever happened in Africa, it was never reported of its male natives that their ardor was so “unrestrained” that they jumped on anything that moved. The fact that Aaron plots and schemes and chooses his victims with care shows a rapist's ability and mentality, not that he is free of nuclear libido. Aaron fairly salivates over Lavinia, but tells Tamora he is more focused on revenge than lust. (II, iii, 37-38) That is why he persuades her two sons to perform the heinous act he might have undertaken himself in other circumstances. He uses his own lurid fantasies to whet the perverse appetites of Chiron and Demetrius.

Take this of me: Lucrece was not more chaste
Than this Lavinia, Bassianus' love.
A speedier course than ling'ring languishment
Must we pursue, and I have found the path.
My lords, a solemn hunting is in hand;
There will the lovely Roman ladies troop.
The forest walks are wide and spacious,
And many unfrequented plots there are,
Fitted by kind for rape and villainy.
Single you thither then this dainty doe,
And strike her home by force, if not by words,
This way or not at all stand you in hope.
(II, i, 109-120)

Sounds Roman 'restraint' thus? This is the discourse of a practiced and premeditated rapist, whose sexual dynamism is channeled by hate. Aaron is not a rutting jack rabbit, but one whose victims match his purposes. This entails precisely a massive storehouse of libido to draw on, a renewable resource not available to the louche epicures of Rome. Consider his exploitation of Tamora, who, on her honeymoon, quickly trades the etiolated attentions of husband Saturninus for the caresses of Aaron. Who exchanges dove for raven without reason? Bluntly put, Aaron gives Tamora the satisfaction Saturninus cannot afford. The name for this characteristic is virility, that for which Aaron and his forebears are renowned. Thus, in a sense we can agree with Mr. Ungere's claim that Titus Andronicus subverts or deconstructs the complacent bourgeois assumption current in Renaissance England of white superiority over black. It's quite the other way round. As Tamora and Aaron enjoy a liaison, it's hard to see how Tamora's id is any more prepossessing than her partner's. Aaron, the singular synthesis of classical learning, intelligence and prodigious sexual power, could well argue that he had transcended good and evil and had ascended to the rank of Nietzschean Übermensch. He loves none but self and son. Claiming that his paternal feelings are a sham would require textual evidence not furnished by Mr. Ungere. As a dangerous loose cannon, Aaron gets his comeuppance in the end, but not before Shakespeare has made his point. Never a sniveling egalitarian, our poet surprises and enlarges us by presenting whites as exponentially transcended, not “equaled.” Strong and free, Aaron does what he likes. It is the envious contempt resentful whites show him that prods him to extremities. Aaron is one of Shakespeare's most compelling anti-heroes, a member of the antagonistic fraternity that includes inter alia Edmund, Don John, Winchester, Richard the Third, et al. It is by now a truism that it is the villains of drama who furnish the propulsive movement carrying the plot forward. Indeed, the very word “plot” signifies both the structure of drama generally and the devious scheme of the antagonist character. Rogues act, heroes merely respond. Any Hollywood blockbuster will confirm.    

Further the Aaronian archetype understood philosophically is what is known as a permanent possibility of being. It can and does achieve instantiation in one setting after another. Consider the life and writings of abandoned American genius and civil rights activist, Eldridge Cleaver, whose personal manifesto Soul on Ice reprised unwittingly Shakespeare's Aaron in 1968.  Unlike Aaron, Cleaver was a thinker.  He brilliantly articulated the elective affinities linking the black man and the white woman, never realizing, of course, that Shakespeare, as always, had been there first. It is surely not without significance that each of Shakespeare's major black male characters is paired with a white female: The Prince of Morocco with Portia,  Aaron with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and Othello with you-know-who. Cleaver, himself a serial rapist (later reformed) and literate black man who penned a masterpiece in prison,  deserves full credit for his theories, which instinctively recognize the conjunction of “supermasculine” black male and “ultrafeminine” Caucasian female. Rather than explain it, Shakespeare's approach is simpler, more elegant: he shows us.  Nicht wahr?

Having said all this, and having been tutored by Mr. Ungere, we are now in a position to proceed to The Merchant of Venice.

IV.   The Prince and his Portion

The lead suitor in the play, the Prince of Morocco, is of special interest  for students of Shakespeare's racialism. The first words out of his mouth demonstrate that he is keenly aware of being ethnically uncleansed.  

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath feared the valiant. By my love I swear,
The best regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too. I would not change this hue
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen.
(II, i, 1-12)

This rings prettily, yet awkwardly, as Morocco echoes Shylock (who also sought fleshly incisions) and, of course, Aaron, who would never alter his dusky hue. Attempting to downplay his color as a permanent suntan, this African scion makes a cagey — yet foot-in-mouth — aspirant. Telling vain and jealous Portia that many of the “best regarded virgins of [his] clime” have loved “it” too, is vague and inept. What is “it” if not the red blood of his erotically charged flesh? Whether those “best regarded virgins” freely consented to his embraces or were compelled to do so may be one of the things that gives Portia pause. Spoiled child and habitual braggart, the Prince of Morocco is thinly disguised as a self-effacing swashbuckler before whom  Portia hesitates, as visions of being locked in her own boudoir by this demon flash through her mind. The Prince of Morocco's Aaronian ravenousness shows through, as, stymied by the subtleties of the casket gimmick, he tries to exude love and tenderness to conceal his real identity: the Lothario-of-the-harem. His custom is to take by force.

                                         By this scimitar,
That slew the Sophy and a Persian prince
That won three fields of Sultan Suleiman,
I would o'erstare the sternest eyes that look,
Outbrave the heart most daring on the earth,
Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when a roars for prey,
To win the lady.
(II, i, 24-31)

Mr. Ungere concurs: “The 'renowned Prince' (2.1.20) has no second thoughts about advertising to his bride-to-be the sexual reputation he enjoys in Morocco, suggesting he is past master at the art of deflowering the virgins of the Moroccan nobility.” (PPM, 112)  He adds:

The body of comment by Christian authors on the aggressive sexuality and cruelty of Muslim rulers left its imprint on the stage portrait of the Prince of Morocco. The Prince conforms, in the first instance, to the paradigm of the transgressive Moor who strives for miscegenational union which is doomed to pollute his European partner. He has come from Morocco, a liminal country situated on the edge of the western world; on one of “the four corners of the earth” . . .  in order to kiss the “shrine” of his “mortal breathing saint” in Belmont. On his voyage he has braved the “watery kingdom” of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, negotiating the storms and dangers as if crossing “o'er a brook to see fair Portia.” However, his greatest flaw as a suitor, as I see it, is neither his bravado as a warrior under the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, nor his tawny complexion, nor his cultural otherness; it is the self-indicting pose he assumes as the imperial rapist. (PPM, 112)

The reader will recall what calamity befalls Aaron when his partner in lust, Tamora, gives birth to a black baby, not easy to explain to Roman Emperor Saturninus. What, then, could be in the mind of Morocco? It's easy to see that such a birth would be the least of his concerns. Belmont would be his, to administer as he saw fit. Doors would open and close at his frown. He would decide who lives or dies. Marriage to this very independent ruler would mean manipulative Portia might find herself transported to a sultan's palace in Marrakesh, her children by the Prince sold into servitude or lodged in the sybaritic luxury of a harem. Only by the strictures of her father's will is she constrained to tolerate such a rambunctious royal suitor. Once she actually lays eyes on him, however, the impossible consequences of an actual union are plain. It's hard to know which is worse: having to submit to the clasps of this narcissistic potentate and do his bidding, or to bring a black baby into the glare of cruel public disdain. Hence no surreptitious clues are given to Morocco to solve the riddle of the caskets, as they will be later to Bassanio. (III, ii, 63-65)  And so he fails. It is plainly not merely cosmetic considerations that lead Portia to mutter as the defeated Prince flees the casket room:  “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so.” (II, ii, 78-79)

V.   What Ho, Othello

We are now prepared to tackle once more our Venetian general. As the perennial question surrounding  Prince Hamlet is why he cannot kill Claudius, so the issue debated by students of this play is: Is the marriage of Desdemona and her Moor ever consummated? Of course, we can't look up the solution in the back of the textbook. We must therefore seek our edification in the inquiry itself.

What makes us doubt?

Like the Moroccan Prince, Othello stands in the textual shadow of Aaron. But unlike them, Othello is noble, perhaps the son of a tribal chief. He is a leader by ability rather than birth and cherishes his reputation, a theme taken up expressly in the play. The narrow minded Venetians value him not for his principles so much as for his martial prowess. Venice is a racist realm which has a history in the slave trade much older than western involvement in that wretched business. Venice is always spiritually closer to exotic Byzantium than to Rome with its republican roots. It is another liminal state, a porous membrane nourished by human traffic running between Europe and the East. Othello wins Desdemona's heart by telling her of his perilous adventures, including his capture in the wars and later liberation. It critical to appreciate that as a young man Othello was “sold to slavery.” (I,iii,137) He confesses this to Desdemona. Everyone in Venice knows. Such experiences leave scars. Think of Othello's commanding persona and demeanor. The trauma and humiliation of slavery would have been severe. Punishments would have been endured. Othello's color, calling to mind both his enslavement and the experiences of Venice in that trade, does not endear him to the Doge and his courtiers. They may respect Othello. They may fear him. But they do not love him. 

Iago and Roderigo, two insecure and envious Marranos, act to destroy “the thick lips” with a plot. In what today would be identified as a hate crime, they incite Desdemona's father Brabantio against Othello by hurling crude racial epithets which challenge the humanity of one of Shakespeare's most painfully human characters.


Awake, what ho, Brabantio, thieves, thieves, thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags.
Thieves, thieves!
(I, i, 79-81)

'Swounds, sir, you're robbed. For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say.
(I, i, 85-92)

'Swounds, sir, you are one of those
That will not serve God if the devil bid you. Because we
come to do you service and you think we are ruffians,
you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary
horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you,
you'll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans.
(I, i, 112-116)

This is a frontal assault not merely on the dignity of Othello but on his status as a species member. Viewed externally, Iago's target would seem a difficult one at which to strike. Othello is deliberate yet decisive. He has more than his share of gravitas. He is naturally courageous. He is a model of Aristotelian megapsychia (in Latin translation, 'great-souled man'). But Iago senses a crevice of weakness within, reminiscent of Hamlet's 'dram of eale'. This can be perceived more easily by first stepping back, rather than peering microscopically into the recesses of his mind: Othello is a black man in a white society, a society saturated with racism.  Black men there must always bear the subtle taint of brutishness. Worried that they might not receive parental approval, he and Desdemona elope. But clandestine operations are not his style, and, apprehended by Brabantio, he must explain himself, putting him on the defensive. Othello is at his best in battle, conceiving bold strategies, exhorting his troops. But in the play Othello's bravery under fire is known only in retrospect. We never see it. Iago (i.e., 'Jacob'), most likely a converso himself and thus a kindred spirit, always vigilant in a city with its own Inquisition to detect religious backsliders, has a kind of night vision by which Othello's alienage, his hidden anguish, is perceived. Into this psychic breach Iago, like a fecundating arachnid, plants his seeds of suspicion. But as bad as it is to be a cuckold this is not Othello's worst fear. More terrible than that is the specter of collective disgust and rejection that always lies in wait for him, being exposed not as a rational being or brave soldier but as a subhuman, like Caliban, a poetic primate, the outsider par excellence. Doubt is an insidiously corrosive thing. For not only is there the anguish of seeing that some regard him as a beast, the more paranoid prospect is that this perception might be accurate. What is his desire for Desdemona, after all? Is it not lechery? Doesn't a small voice whisper to Othello the words we hear from Lord Angelo, the corrupt magistrate in Measure for Measure?

What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good?
(II,ii, 178-180)  

Lusting in his heart after this young woman, Othello must feel that transforming his love into physical intimacy can only sully this pure object of his devotion. Against his own despoiling of his love object, he recoils, losing the name of action.               

We may safely presume that someone situated as Othello is in the play would have a past in which wild oats were sown. He has had conquests on and off the field of sword and shield. Now he has won the hand of Desdemona, the captain's captain. (II, i, 75) What does he want in her? Mutiny? After the unseen nuptials, is there not a moment of hesitation? Though Othello is called to the wars in Cyprus, he could have found time for gentle manifesting of his love. Isn't that why Desdemona, afraid to be left behind, a moth of peace, begs to accompany him? (I, iii, 248-259) To scour the text to try to dig up signs of consummation is not only impossible, it suggests an inability to come to terms with Othello's Ulysses Complex (the anxiety that, just as Circe transformed the companions of Odysseus into brutes, so Othello may wake up one day to find himself sporting a tail). His own anatomy seems to accuse him. On the other hand, dogged as he is with this overmastering syndrome, there is the dimly sensed possibility that he might fail to perform altogether.   There is a rub indeed. (Notice Desdemona's gratuitous use of the word 'impotent', II, i, 164) To succeed and elicit a lusty wife whose liberated sensuality mirrored his own desire might be in his estimation to transform the marriage chamber into a bordello . . . or something even more base. And as for impotence, that is the altogether unthinkable thought. 

And so we come to Michael Cassio and the green-eyed monster. The fact of the matter is that Desdemona is in love with Othello and cleaves unto him as a special, older and protective man. She is not a prude, as her sexual banter with Iago demonstrates. (II, i, 110-163) Iago goes so far to tease her with a couplet which portrays Desdemona as the libidinous negress who knows how to discover her own pleasure. 


Well praised! How if she be black and witty?


If she be black and thereto have a wit,
She'll find a white that shall her blackness fit.
(II, i, 134-136)

Had Othello made his conjugal advances she would have warmly welcomed him. But, caught in mental shackles, he cannot.

Cuckoldry is one thing, but, given the legendary sexuality of Africa, for a black man to be cuckolded by a Caucasian would be, in Othello's mind, the ultimate embarrassment, the end of the universe; hence his consuming jealousy, larger than life. And there we have it, the triple threat: (1) make love with Desdemona and turn an angel into a strumpet; (2) attempt to make love with her and be so overcome with such guilt that arousal is not achieved; or (3) by tarrying, lose her to a lesser man. Is it any wonder that such a fellow might go crazy? What is the solution? In an earlier essay we considered the possibility that cuckoldry might be a male desideratum. For by removing the husband from the theatre of action and turning him into a spectator he is absolved of all responsibility for performance and is placed in a situation of subtle control.  This is the seductive lure of failure, a delicious giving in to inadequacy. Such was the behavior of many senior males in the days of the troubadours, when it was expected that a young wife would be the object of romantic attention from footloose swains.

It would not be surprising to learn that contemporary black Americans see in Othello the proverbial 'Uncle Tom', the subservient, amiable negro who defers instinctively to white authority, papering over slights with a smile. It's a bit more of a stretch to see him, the invincible warrior and leader, as guilt-ridden and paralyzed, but there is a trace of this in his inextinguishable mien of propriety. He has enough resolve to break the taboo of interracial marriage, but when challenged he cannot assert himself and take what is his with confidence. Under Iago's spell he forgets that it is always within his scope to sit down with Desdemona and talk about his concerns forthrightly. He might have challenged Michael Cassio to a duel. His options were many. Doing violence to her was the least sensible of them. In harming her he punished himself under the weight of his own misgivings. A Caius Marcus or Alcibiades might have rounded up an army and invaded Venice. It would not have been impossible for the Moor to find allies. Instead, he internalizes his aggression. Othello murders his better half first, then the worse. 

VI.  Conclusion 

Our legacies are our ghosts. We are haunted by ancestors primordial. As civilizations rise and decay, our strengths become our weaknesses. Othello inherits from Africa a sturdy reproductive drive, the envy of weaker, more inhibited peoples who content themselves with mere puzzle-solving, belittling  the prerogatives of flesh and blood. Isn't it plain how jealous Iago is of his boss? In the immeasurable eons of death and survival that is Africa, a supercharged libido and ample genital capacity were appropriate and necessary tools allowing the species to endure. Virility was a source of pride. Even as late as the Roman era, the “vir” in 'virtu' conveyed a respect for masculine potency and ardor. Only in the feminized, indoor, post-industrial world we inhabit now would a biologically founded virility be regarded as something to be ashamed of. This was the unheard message of Eldridge Cleaver, echoing D.H. Lawrence. In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare sets the assemblage of imperial weaklings (Rome), struggling to hold the “barbarians” at bay, against the superman of physis, Aaron. It is not his literacy which makes him human or “equal” to whites, but his mastery of mind and body, his Wille zur Macht, which renders him worthy of self-respect and hence the respect of others. That is his plain advantage. Aaron is like a giant tied down by ants and mocked. No wonder he is furious. Were he unconditionally, intrinsically evil, would he have cared so tenderly for his infant son? If it be objected that under no circumstances can such a one as Aaron ever be brought forward as an object of admiration, it may be sufficient to recall the teachings of J. J. Rousseau. The good in Aaron is the inheritance from nature and Africa; what is wicked and depraved is the residue of western slavery. There was assuredly violence and war in Africa before the advent of the slavers, but there were no Aarons. Such revolting deeds as we see him perpetrate can hardly be winked at on grounds of his celebrated literacy. The hate within him reflects the prior hate of white racism. Whence cometh that notorious disdain of an innocent people? It was not ships flying African flags which sailed to the coasts of England to steal its people and take them back to Africa, victims of mass deportation and involuntary servitude, but vice versa. It could well be argued, too, that the dramatic purpose served by Aaron in the play is to be a foil, against which the activities of a Titus may appear tolerable. But they do not. And what is Titus but Rome writ small? What blessings did those trampling legions confer on the folk of northern Europe? Literacy? To relish that exquisite pastime were Goths and Gauls decimated? Titus appears in Shakespeare's play as a wind-up automaton who ranges over the wide world in search of 'enemies' to subjugate, and though he buries most of his sizable progeny in the family crypt, not once does it occur to him to question the rationale of his missions or the viciousness of Roman customs such as led to the slaughter of Alarbus, the true cause of his tragedy. 

What was the real reason that white males in the American South tended to hate the black men they brought by force to America to toil for them? Wouldn't a decorous gratitude have been more appropriate? On the pretext of ensuring health and strength, black slaves were always purchased naked in the open market. With respect to the males, there was no quibble, then, about their masculine properties, no need for conjecture. The result was white envy, which issued in vicious oppression and the consoling canard of Caucasian “superiority.” Not surprisingly, this tendency is even more pronounced now, in a world in which everyone is content to sit on their behinds all day wiggling fingers over plastic keyboards. Meanwhile, our prisons have become concentration camps for millions of black men not suited to computer programming and the delusive motto of cogito ergo sum. One has to look no further than Love's Labour's Lost with its ridiculous bookmen to see what Shakespeare thought of sententious scribblers and page turners, so appropriately reviled by flesh and blood women. Aaron should therefore be regarded as the symbol of ancient wisdom, when manhood was just beginning to be a criminal offense. Shakespeare knew the value of art, but greater than art, he taught, was life.

Why, all delights are vain, but that most vain
Which, with pain purchased, doth inherit pain;
As painfully to pore upon a book
To seek the light of truth while truth the while
Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile;
So ere you find where light in darkness lies
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed
By fixing it upon a fairer eye,
Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed,
And give him light that it was blinded by.
Study is like the heavens' glorious sun,
That will not be searched with saucy looks.
Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others' books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven's lights,
That give a name to every fixèd star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know is to know naught but fame,
And every godfather can give a name.
(Love's Labour's Lost, I, i, 72-93)          

The second stage of the dialectic of race is represented by the Prince of Morocco, who discreetly veils his coveting and apologizes for his earthy color. The body and its needs are matters of shame. Here shades of the prison house begin to close around us. Portia is not won, but one can't help thinking that had she thrown in her lot with Morocco she might have had a chance for a genuine happiness. This is modern apostasy, of course, but many a heretic has been right as rain. Will any say that Belmont is the citadel of happiness and joy? Him have we offended. 

Finally we come to the full-blown modern neuroticism of poor Othello, a vestigial outdoorsman who has been browbeaten into accepting the white man's Weltanschauung. As a black slave, he had to learn submission, and this awful episode has left an imprint on his soul. Later, as general, towering over the profiteering Venetians with their weights and measures, he can be neither the hero he was destined to be, nor can he shrink, accommodating himself to a warren of crafty homunculi. To get where he is he has found it necessary to compromise, to absorb the creed of the white man and deny the exigencies of the body. Riven by guilt, he cannot free himself from the sense that he has purloined Desdemona; he cannot permit himself full satisfaction with his trophy bride. Had he managed to do that, to be wholly married to her, he would have been immune to the sly insinuations of Iago. There would have been no fatal guilt associated with taking Desdemona as his spouse. Had those things been accomplished, hearing the whispered hints of Iago he would have laughed, and sent his ancient whistling down the wind, where he belonged.


All Shakespeare quotations from: William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second ed.,  S.Wells & G. Taylor, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005

Gustave Ungere, “Portia and the Prince of Morocco,” Shakespeare Studies 31 (2003)

_____________,  “The Presence of Africans in Elizabethan England and the Performance of Titus Andronicus at Burley-on-the-Hill, 1595-96,” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, (2008)

David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.

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