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Program Notes - The Image of Othello


The narrative spirit and psychological sinew animating Shakespeare's Othello can be traced to Leo Africanus' autobiographical travel journal The History and Description of Africa (1526). Both Africanus and Othello share similar histories as Africans of royal blood, enslaved prisoners of war and converts to Christianity. In his history, Africanus characterizes Barbary people as “decent, valiant, patient, courteous, honest, skillful warriors … and exceeding lovers and practicers of humanity.” North Africa's Barbary Coast was originally settled by Amazighs or “Berbers” during antiquity and later conquered by Arabs in the seventh century. The intermixture of Africans and Arabs produced a hybrid population commonly known as Moors.

Othello first appeared on the English stage in 1604, during a complex period in Barbary/English relations. Queen Elizabeth had previously issued edicts, in 1599 and 1601, decrying “the great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors” that have “crept into this realm.” Yet, during Elizabeth 's reign, England also developed favorable trade relations with North African nations, and many enterprising British mercenaries joined the ranks of the infamous Barbary pirates. Shakespeare's Othello is a fascinating embodiment of England 's complicated relationship with the Barbary Coast , but more directly, he is a man struggling with internal doubts about his marriage, cultural assimilation and religious conversion.

A warrior from the age of seven, Othello has witnessed countless wonders and conquered many challenges. When he relates his history, Othello boasts, “I fetch my life and being from men of royal siege …,” so clearly he is not awed by Desdemona's pedigree or his current position in the Venetian hierarchy. In a rare moment of modesty, Othello does profess to be rude “in my speech, and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.” But such humility is misleading; in truth, Othello's “discourse” is emotionally engaging and thoroughly persuasive. Desdemona, his amorous target, once admitted that if the silver-tongued general decided to teach some lover how to relate his story, that petitioner could surely sway her.

Nobility and narrative facility aside, Othello has detractors. Brabantio, Desdemona's father, refuses to accept Venice's enforcer as a well-bred warrior and instead dismisses him as a “bondslave and a pagan.” Iago, Othello's standard-bearer, claims to be an expert on North Africans and explains to Roderigo that “these Moors are changeable in their wills,” a character flaw that Iago plans to exploit. Also an expert on fidelity, Iago lists what is necessary for lovers to remain constant, specifically, “loveliness in favor, sympathy in years, manners and beauties.” Iago pronounces the Moor “defective” in all these areas; therefore, this couple's “frail vow” has little chance of survival. He argues that Othello is too aged, ill-mannered and unattractive to sustain the interest of a lovely younger woman, and, to make matters worse, that Desdemona is similarly fickle and “must change for youth.”

In his journal, Africanus described licentious activities among the Moors, explicitly depicting their Islamic “holy” men as sexually obsessed predators. English dramatists transformed Africanus' two-dimensional imagery into theatrical flesh and bone. George Peele's Battle of Alcazar (1588) popularized an aggressively seductive and shamelessly conniving Moorish king named Muly Hamet. Shakespeare soon followed with his first stage Moor, Aaron from Titus Andronicus (1594), a ruthless personification of unrestrained black sexuality who sows political and familial discord among the Romans.

However, unlike earlier dramatic models, Othello is not interested in subverting European cultures. Othello offers a new vision of the Barbary Moor, a carefully constructed and reformed “barbarian” who wants to assimilate into and preserve Christian society. Even in the permissive atmosphere of a Cyprus war camp, he counsels Cassio “not to outsport discretion” and remain abstemious during the evening's revels. And after a brawl erupts, Othello berates his soldiers, calling them “Turks,” appealing to their sense of “Christian shame.” He is every measure the virtuous Christian soldier with minimal traces of overt sexuality or unruliness. As far as Othello knows, he harbors no malice toward his adopted Venice or its prized daughter.

Africanus' journal reveals that “converted” Moorish guards like Othello were common at Italian courts, but many viewed the new initiates with suspicion, believing most Moors switched from “the Mohammedan religion” to Christianity out of self-interest. Unlike her father and Iago, Desdemona fully embraces Othello's conversion and sees him as he sees himself, a valiant warrior of noble birth possessing a “perfect soul,” or uncorrupted conscience. But regrettably, how Desdemona views her husband is inconsequential to this narrative, because the psychological action hinges on Iago, the true author of Othello's internal doubts.

Iago attacks Othello's uncorrupted conscience and cultivates an unnatural jealousy in him. Before Iago began his demolition, Othello hardly thought himself a jealous man, but Iago's subtle insinuations force him to consider why Desdemona might prefer a younger, fairer, more genteel Cassio. The Moor muses, “Haply for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation … or for I am declined / Into the vale of years.” Echoing Iago's theories on constant lovers, Othello now questions whether he has the looks, manners, and youth to keep his bride. That slim seed of doubt rapidly erodes Othello's self-assurance and he laments that he would rather not have known, reasoning that “‘tis better to be much abused” than “to know't a little.” Knowing a little proves so destructive that Othello declares his warrior “occupation” gone, and his unraveling worsens when Lodovico arrives with news that Othello has been recalled to Venice and Cassio has been given command of Cyprus.

Othello's final actions reveal the depth of his internal crisis and the limits of his conversion and assimilation. Having commanded Desdemona to say her last prayers, Othello sees himself as an “honorable murderer,” sacrificing her body but saving her soul. But once this ritual sacrifice is proven baseless, Othello disavows his entire Christian charade and aligns himself not with the “perfect soul” in his mind's eye, but with the “base Judean,” or unbeliever. He painfully identifies as the “turbaned Turk,” an infidel who undermined the city-state he promised to protect and murdered a faultless bride. Iago's vicious little doubt has crushed the confidence of a valiant general and tragically distorted his sense of honor, propelling Shakespeare's Berber general towards a final, inescapable deed.

—Marvin McAllister
Howard University



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