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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: November ::
Re: Othello and Ethnicity
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0879. Wednesday, 8 November 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Jean Peterson <
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        Date:   Monday, 6 Nov 1995 16:32:01 +0200
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0873 Q: Othello and Ethnicity
 
(2)     From:   Stephen Buhler <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Nov 1995 09:24:57 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: Romantics and Race
 
(3)     From:   Amy E. Hughes <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Nov 1995 21:57:23 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Race in *Othello*
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jean Peterson <
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Date:           Monday, 6 Nov 1995 16:32:01 +0200
Subject: 6.0873 Q: Othello and Ethnicity
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0873 Q: Othello and Ethnicity
 
Reply to Shaul Bassi:
 
Michael Neill's "Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery and the Hideous" in Shakespeare
Quarterly 40 (1989) deals specifically with  racist 19th-century views, as does
Karen Newman's "Wash the Ethiope White" essay (I've forgotten the exact title,
and in what essay collection it appears--can someone help?), which is
reproduced as a chapter in her book "Fashioning Femininity." Both terrific
essays, in my view.  Martin Orkin's "Othello and the Plain Face of Racism" in
SQ 38 (1987) might (faulty memory again) also take up some of these issues.
 
Jean Peterson
Bucknell University
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephen Buhler <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Nov 1995 09:24:57 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        Re: Romantics and Race
 
Shaul Bassi might want to take at look at Karen Newman's "'And wash the Ethiop
white': femininity and the monstrous in *Othello*," in *Shakespeare
Reproduced*, ed. Jean Howard and Marion O'Connor (NY and London: Methuen,
1987), pp. 142-62.  The second half of the title deliberately borrows a term
from Coleridge, who serves as one of Newman's prime examples of how readers --
as well as characters within the play -- have responded to Othello's and
Desdemona's marriage.
 
Stephen M. Buhler
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Amy E. Hughes <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Nov 1995 21:57:23 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Race in *Othello*
 
In hopeful response to Mr. Bassi's questioning regarding Othello's relative
blackness, as well as the Elizabethan attitude towards Moors, I can offer some
recent research I did in preparation for my production.
 
Eldred Jones in *Othello's Countrymen* writes,
 
"For poets and dramatists the most interesting aspect of Africa was its
strangeness. No other part of Pliny was more fascinating to writers than the
sections in which he descrives the fantastic specimens of human and sub-human
life in Africa."
 
Passages in the play suggest that Othello is not "light-skinned" or half-black,
either. Roderigo calls him "the thick-lips;" Iago calls him "an old black ram"
and plays the race card in the temptation scene, refering to the differences in
complexion between Desdemona and Othello. Othello says "Haply, for I am black"
and "black as my own face." These are just a few of them.
 
As for the Elizabethan attitude?---most evidence I found supports the idea that
it was a racist one. Eldred Jones writes,
 
"Many dramatists used the terms Moor, Negro or Ethiop in a simile of blackness,
cruelty, jealousy, lustfulness or some other quality commonly credited to
Africans."
 
"The opportunities for seeing Africans in London grew as the century wore on.
W.E. Miller cites two assessments of strangers in the parish of All Hallows,
London in 1599 which gives the names of four Negroes, three of whom were
female, living in the parish. Indeed there were so many Negroes in London by
1601 that [Queen Elizabeth] had cause to be 'discontented at the great number
of "Negars and blackamoors" which are crept into the realm since the troubles
between her Highness and the King of Spain,' and for her to appoint a certain
Caspar Van Zeuden, merchant of Lubeck, to transport them out of the country."
 
"A comparison between [Shakespeare's] Aaron in *Titus Andronicus* and his noble
Moor shows two extremes in his work. In the earlier play, he is the young
dramatist exploiting the tastes of his times; in the later [*Othello*] he is
the mature dramatist flying in the face of tradition --- a creator rather than
a follower of popular taste."
 
This seems to lead to two conclusions: 1) Shakespeare and his audience knew
what Moors looked like, and 2) they didn't like them. *Othello*, therefore,
becomes more complicated: in the context of its time, it both defied the
stereotype (a Moor with status enough to be a general and get away with
marrying a white woman) and followed it (a Moor whose "jealous and violent
nature" defeats his status).
 

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