Race / Religion

Othello, the Moor of Venice.

As I’ve mentioned before, “Moor” was Elizabethan shorthand for Muslim (though through the Middle Ages, “the Moors were widely supposed to be mostly black or very dark-skinned” [“moor” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.]). Though we know that Othello is black (or at least black-er than the other major characters on stage)–because of some descriptive (and descriptively racist) references–how important is his Muslim-ness?

What is “moor” important (bad pun, I know) within the play, being black or being Muslim?

Based upon sheer numbers, my answer would be black. References to color, particularly black, but taking into account Desdemona’s “fair”-ness, any comparison between the two, abound. In the play’s first scene, Roderigo makes reference to Othello’s stereotypical facial features, reducing the entire man to calling him “the thick-lips” (I.i.65). As if picking up a cue, in the very next speech, Iago foretells Othello’s downfall, saying the Moor’s “joy…may lose some color” (I.i.72).

When beginning his verbal onslaught against Brabantio, he makes the Moor not only black, but “an old black ram // [who] Is tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” (I.i.87-88). This and the comparative reference by Roderigo of Brabantio’s “fair daughter…[and the] lascivious Moor…an extravagant and wheeling stranger” (I.i.120, 124, 133) have an effect on Brabantio, who in the next two scenes refers to Othello’s “sooty bosom” (I.ii.70) and says that he cannot believe Desdemona “f[e]ll in love with what she feared to look on!” (I.iii.98); the use of the sight sense and appearance create a link to Othello’s blackness. To this, however, the duke himself tells Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.290).

The newlywed wife Desdemona may be more in tune with visual appearance (particularly given the color difference between her and her husband), and thus in the midst of Iago’s faux-praise speeches for imaginary types of women, she asks for praise for one who is “black and witty” (II.i.131).

Iago says that Desdemona has “loveliness in favor…which the Moor is defective in” (II.i.227,229). And what is his “defect”? It’s simple, to Iago, and it’s not just because the Moor is “black Othello” (II.iii.29). Othello’s real defect (or at least the real defect in Iago’s mind and plan) is the Moor’s insecurity over his appearance. Iago plays upon this when the reminds Othello that Desdemona “seemed to shake and fear your looks” (III.iii.207), and that he is not “of her own clime, complexion, and degree” (III.iii.230).

And it works. In only the sixth line of his first soliloquy, Othello states, “I am black” (III.iii.263), and later bemoans that his name is “now begrimed and black // As mine own face” (III.iii.387-88). Even his geographical references are suffused with blackness: he tells Iago of the “Pontic Sea” (III.iii.453), which was another name for the Black Sea. He is black, and Desdemona is white, paper white; he even uses the metaphor when he calls her “fair paper, this most goodly book” (IV.ii.71), but one in which he has now written “whore.”

And when it comes to light that he has killed this white angel, he becomes, in Emilia’s words, “the blacker devil” (V.ii.131).

Throughout, the black/color aspect seems overwhelming in its seeming importance. But this last reference is not purely about race or color. By using the word “devil,” we move into a more religious realm. For this, the first reference again goes back to Iago’s interaction with Brabantio in the play’s very first scene. Iago says that “the devil” (I.i.90) will make Brabantio and grandfather if they don’t stop her daughter from being with Othello. Brabantio later says that their statesmen–like Othello–will be only “bondslaves and pagans” (I.ii.99), or “a non-Christian… savage, uncivilized” (“pagan, n.; A.1a” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 13 February 2016.).

Othello says that he was “taken by the insolent foe // And sold to slavery” (I.iii.137-38), and then speaks of his “redemption” (I.iii.138). Now, while that could mean “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment” (“redemption, n.; 1a” OED Online.), one has to wonder who would have paid for such a rescue. More likely, the redemption is “deliverance from sin and damnation, esp. by the atonement of Christ” (“redemption, n.; 1a” OED Online.). As I said when discussing Othello’s story of his history:

At the age of seven, he was taken from his Northern African family by the Turks, and sold into a kind of military slavery. He grew up a Muslim warrior for the Ottoman empire. At some point, he was captured by Venetian forces and converted to Christianity. He continued his martial profession, rising through the ranks, fighting the Turk, and earning a reputation for valor. During this time, he met Iago and together they have fought throughout the region. Only in the last year (nine months to be exact) has he had any length of peace, coming to settle in Venice.

This is a conjecture on my part, but not only would it fulfill the “redemption” reference, but would also support the concept of what Iago calls Othello’s “baptism, // All seals and symbols of redeemed sin” (II.iii.331-32, 348). It would also explain why, when Othello calls for calm after the street fight their first night in Cyprus, he says, “Are we turned Turks?…For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” (II.iii.159, 161). Why would “we” become Muslims (Turks) if they were Muslim already? Why would a Muslim appeal to Christian shame?

Even if Othello has converted to Christianity, his religious history is unavoidable, especially when people insinuate pagan savagery, as Iago does when telling Roderigo, “We work by with and not by witchcraft” (II.iii.359). It’s possible that “we” could refer to Venetians, but that use of “witchcraft” implies a religious rather than geographical emphasis, and thus a kind of Christian spiritual superiority. Like Iago, Desdemona falls back on religion as a buttress against accusations of promiscuity, telling Othello, “I am a Christian” (IV.ii.82), and “I shall be saved” (IV.ii.86).

By the end, Othello has been broken. His marriage is destroyed. His military career is destroyed. And his religious conversion from Islam? That feels destroyed as well. His final words point in that direction:

 in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him–thus.
  • V.ii.352-56

Aleppo was considered to be the second most important city in the Ottoman empire. Of course, the majority of the major events in this play take place in Cyprus; for this broken Moor, however, it’s like being where he was before becoming a Christian. He’s now (again) Muslim who has struck his Venetian wife and symbolically transported Venice to Turkey (“traduce, v.; 2a” OED Online.). But in his last act, an attempt to take back his now lost Christianity, the slays the Muslim (“circumcised”) dog that he is.

So which is Moor (sorry again for the pun) important? Race or religion?

I would argue religion is symbolically more important, more deeply meaningful.

Race, however, is easier to convey on stage.

Black is easy to see; circumcision, not so much.

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