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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: November ::
Re: Othello and Ethnicity
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0886. Thursday, 10 November 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Nov 1995 17:38:07 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0879  Re: Othello and Ethnicity
 
(2)     From:   Tom Bishop <
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        Date:   Thursday, 9 Nov 1995 16:02:45 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0879  Re: Othello and Ethnicity
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Nov 1995 17:38:07 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 6.0879  Re: Othello and Ethnicity
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0879  Re: Othello and Ethnicity
 
I don't agree that Shakespeare necessarily had a black1;2c African in mind when
he wrote Othello. The word black was used for everthing darker than ash blonde
(just as I ws called a blonde when I lived in Spain, although I have auburn
hair). Shakespeare refers to "black eyes" and "itchballs" as eyes, although
noones eyes are really black. Black ws another word for brunette. There is no
doubt that this was racist. The term for a black African at that time was
blackamoor. A moor was what we would call an Arab. To the thin lipped English
the lips of the middle-easterners seemed heavy. Thus Shakespeare's use of the
terms "black" and "thick-lipped" must be seen in the way they were seen then,
not as we see now.
 
It is my personal belief that the author was grafting onto the original tale
(by Cinthio?) aa dark vision of Philip of Spain. Although Philip was fair, his
features were heavy, and he had the appearance of having African or
middle-eastern blood. This was not lost on the English, who called him all
sorts of names. The entire Spanish nation was seen as "black" in this same way
to the English. TheI see in the plot of Othello references to the rumor that
absorbed all Europe, that Philip had murdered his young wife, Elizabeth Valois,
out of jealosy for her relationship with his son, Don Carlos, to whom she had
been betrothed before his father decided he wanted her for himself. The
handkerchif story featured in this scenario, in which the Princess of Eboli
played the part of Emilia. , with Iago in somewhat the same position as Antonio
Perez. Although historians fiercely deny its truth, it has survived for
centuries, most recently rforming the plot of Verdi's Don Carlo. I think it not
at all unlikely that the first version of the play was done with Othello
dressed in black velvet, with a big lace ruff. The warlike side of his nature
was perhaps supplied by Philip's half-brother, the noble Don John of Austria,
the era's greatest general.
 
Stephanie Hughes
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
 
Two essays to add to the pile, both a little out of the mainstream of those
cited so far, for interestingly different reasons.  In chronological order:
G.K. Hunter's British Academy Lecture of back a ways, "Othello and Colour
Prejudice"(Proceedings of the British Academy 53 (1967), 139-63) was one of the
first to open this ground to academic discussion.  More recently, Ben Okri's
"Leaping out of Shakespeare's Terror; Five Meditations on Othello" (in Kwesi
Owusu, ed., Storms of the Heart, Camden Press, 1988, 9-18) is a fine meditative
piece by a wonderful writer.
 
Cheers,
Tom Bishop
 

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