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Where did Othello come from?

Hannah Jo Uy

Ateneo De Manila University

Transmedial Shakespeare

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Where did Othello come from? Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is once again a showcase of the pitfalls of humanity. However how big of a role does Othello’s race play in his downfall?

For decades, Othello has been portrayed as a black man. However, our perception of him is shaped by our contemporary perception of someone who is racially ‘different, not necessarily because the nature of his race was explicitly stated in the text. In cinemas, paintings and stage adaptations Othello is depicted as african, yet there remains a heavy debate what nationality he truly has.

Race became a weapon that they wielded against Othello throughout the story, especially with Iago and Roderigo’s exchange is often filled with racist remarks in which the color of his skin and race is presented in a negative way.

—  Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is tupping your white ewe.” (I.i. Pg.13. 97-98)

—  “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are {now} making the beast with two backs.” (I.i Page 15. 129-131 )

—  “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. Page 15. 123-127)

Clues to his origin are present in the text, we do know that he is a Moor, that is an exotic novelty in the present society which he inhabits. That he isn’t different however is not so much based on subjective descriptions but rather subjective descriptions of Iago and Roderigo.

This description has carried on to be accepted throughout adaptations, but is it not possible that this image of Othello that we keep is a result of historic bias instead?

The following are the images that has been commonly used in regards to Othello:

In Tim Blake Nelson’s O, released in 2001, is a modern retelling of Othello with the setting that of Palmetto Grove High School. In this story, Othello is Odin James, the star basketball player. Desdemona, is Desi, Odin’s girlfriend and the daughter of Dean Brable, who’s counterpart is Brabantio. Iago, is hugo, played by Josh Hartnett who acts out on his deep-seated jealousy, and his father is the Duke of venice, named Duke  and played by Martin Sheen in the movie.  Cassio is Michael Casio, a basketball player and friend to Odin and Desi, Roderigo is Roger, Hugo’s bestfriend who is in love with Desi, and Emilia is Emily, the bestfriend and roommate of Desi and Hugo’s girlfriend.

“o” trailer:

Towards the end, with everyone following the same tragic end, as it had on the text that it is based on, as we see Odin’s breakdown, we see him voice out certain stereotypical characteristics often associated with African Americans, despite the fact that at the beginning, before the manipulation of Hugo, he was a popular, accomplished and loved high school student.

In the chilling last scene however, we see how it is not race or color that affected him, but the horribly manipulative and selfishness of Hugo, and in his last stand as he realized that Hugo had betrayed him, he begs to be remembered for his love for desi, the same love that drove him to kill her.

The following link is to the climax of the story and bloodshed:

The effect that Shakespeare’s Othello had on the Arab culture as it was  being something represented in the Western World is often overlooked. In Ferian J. Ghazoul’s The Arabization of Othello he says “No work of Shakespeare touches chords of Arab  sensibility and identity so much as the tragedy of Othello. For one thing, the hero is a Moor, and therefore an “Arab”. Furthermore, he is not simply an Arab character in an Arab context, he is an Arab in Europe, necessarily evoking all the complex confrontations of Self/Other in a context of power struggle. “

Although there are clues that denote his black skin, , but is this really the case? And if he wasn’t what would that mean to the story and to us as audiences of that story?

A moor is someone who descended from North Africa, however being as big of a continent as it is, the difference that this denotes can lend itself to many different interpretations.

Moor can often be referred to denote Muslims, and anyone coming from North Africa that also includes people from many exotic races. A moor is also a term used for Arabs.

It has been said in fact, and also depicted in some renaissance paintings that Othello was an Arab. In the paintings in which he is exhibited as such he is garbed in traditional Arab clothing with a turban and their long traditional clothing

A theory that supported the idea that Othello could have been Arab is the story coinciding around the time that queen Elizabeth received a Moorish ambassador, named Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun.

Hailing from Morocco, he stayed in England for a significant period of time, to promote the commercial alliance between England and the Arab world. Othello was written soon after, and it has been said that the ambassador provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s exotic character. His painting hangs at the Shakespeare Institutue.

Othello’s race despite being ambiguous has been stereotyped as a story of a black man in a white man’s world.

Why is this so? Is this how Shakespeare intended it to be?

Although there are clues to his race, the most important thing to note that Othello was different, and it is this difference, this exoticism that became his downfall by one man who wanted to twist it into something bad. Despite that he was a decorated general who was respected, praised and has gained the hand of an aristocratic woman who had never ceased to love him and who has never even taken notice or mentioned the color of his skin, yet this jealousy, fueled by Iago and drove him to commit a horrible murder in which was as painful for him as much as it is for Desdemona.

Another thing to ponder is that, maybe there is a reason that Shakespeare kept Othello’s race ambiguous is because it wasn’t important. Because frankly, it wasn’t important.

And maybe, the way in which we reacted by stereotyping him ourselves is a clue to why Shakespeare wanted Othello to remain ambiguous.

Othello, as he is presented and played now is also a result of our prejudices and history, because we created this boundary in the first place because it is the difference that is familiar to us.

An interesting point that was set forth by Solomon T. Plaatje, who had translated several Shakespearean works into Tswana said, “Sheakespeare’s dramas..show that nobility and valor, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any color. “

My question is not whether Othello was an African, or which part of Africa or an Arab, but rather, does it really matter? Or do we just need it to matter because we need to find once again the parameters of difference and normal.

At the end of the day, Othello isn’t really a story of racism or prejudice; it’s about the traits of envy and jealousy that can cross race and nationality.

References:

Othello and the “plain face” of Racism by Martin Orkin. Shakespeare Quarterly 1987

The Arabization of Othello nu Ferial J. Ghzoul. Winter 1998, Volume 50 number 1, Comparative literature.

“Smells Like Teen Shakespirit,” Or the Shakesperean Films of Julia Stilesb Robert York.

 

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Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. May 8, 2017 at 11:18 am

    I’m glad that the article does say that “African” doesn’t necessarily mean “black.” The history and demographics of Mediterranean-basin Africa are largely “Caucasoid”; and the word “Moor” has denoted everyone from blue-eyed, blond Islamic rulers of Islamic Spain (see Ibn Hazm’s account) to blackamoors such as Shakespeare made his Othello.

    It seems that the Elizabethan English gave “Moor” a racial connotation that it usually had not had in Spain, and that they were evidently so enamored of the idea that Moors were all or typically black that though it’s said that Abd el Ouahed ben Messaoud (pictured above) was the inspiration for Othello, the Bard seemed to feel obliged to make the character a black man….

  1. January 19, 2017 at 8:29 pm

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