Othello’s Black Skin

Othello’s Black Skin

  Iago.  ‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

Othello, 1.1.86-92

At first identified only by his race, “the Moor” receives a series of racist slanders from Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantino – “thick-lips,” “old black ram,” “the devil,” “Barbary horse” – Shakespeare setting up a character who, like Aaron the Moor, “will have his soul black like his face.” Dismayed that his daughter loves this devil, Brabantino accuses the Moor of witchcraft; yet Brabantio had also invited the Moor into his home and encouraged him to embellish his adventures with elements of magic and romance, what Iago later calls “fantastical lies.” In other words, Brabantino is a magical thinker, not only enchanting the world with myths and monsters, but also dividing it into literally black-and-white terms: the bad vs. the good, the African vs. the European, the other vs. the self, the black vs. the white. But when “valiant Othello” finally appears on stage himself, addressed now as an individual, not a racial abstraction, he shows himself to be polite, honest, humble, patient, brave, heroic, and worldly wise – what we might call “a great man.” Thus, in the first act of Othello, Shakespeare asks us to see racism as magical thinking and magical thinking as demonstrably wrong, a point punctuated when the Duke says to Brabantino, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Much virtue in “if,” as Shakespeare said in a different context. If virtue is beautiful, then Othello is not black, yet Othello is obviously black, which demolishes the premise of the Duke’s conditional: virtue is not necessarily beautiful, beauty not necessarily virtuous, which is the theory of aesthetics, along with the notion that stigma is a form of magical thinking, that informs the critique of stigma that occurs in the remainder of Othello and in The Tempest as well.

In Othello, this critique of stigma as magical thinking operates alongside an even more radical disruption of Renaissance aesthetics: a total disavowal of the figure of stigma. I have used this term, the figure of stigma, to represent the dramatic system Shakespeare used to manage characters who were discredited by their births, characters such as the physically deformed Richard III or the racially inferior Aaron the Moor. In this system, a character’s abnormal body at birth points forward to his villainous behavior in life, an allegory of evil offset by a comic vitality and irony, speaking as the stigmatic does directly to the audience about both his marked body and evil actions: thus stigma assumes the structure of tragicomedy, the grave and serious metaphor of vileness both inside and out counterbalanced by both the naughty joy we take from our intimacy with him and the felicity of a plot in which the “normals,” good and beautiful, always overcome and slaughter the stigmatics. The problem with the case of Othello is that his story looks nothing like this: it is Iago, not Othello, who fills the role of a Richard or an Aaron, even though it is Othello, not Iago, whose body is stigmatized. Like Richard and Aaron, Iago is a villain in the tradition of the Tudor Vice: a schemer and plotter with a “motiveless malignity” (to use Coleridge’s well-known phrase). And, again like Richard and Aaron, Iago is a witty interlocutor with the audience, articulating his villainy with a wicked vitality, leading us to an unsettling intimacy with the evil man. And, once more like Richard and Aaron, Iago ends up punished at the end of the play by the representative of good, Gratiano planning to torture him even as Richmond slaughtered Richard and Lucius executed Aaron. Unlike Richard and Aaron, however, Iago has no physical abnormality. He has no physical abnormality, yet his villainy, irony, and tragicomedy are all textured with the rhetoric of stigma: in his first soliloquy, he calls his villainy a “monstrous birth,” for example, and Othello sees him as a cloven devil at the end of the play when the tragedy signified by that villainy is fulfilled. Obviously, Shakespeare did not have to use the system he previously reserved for his stigmatics to shape the story of Iago, yet Shakespeare chose to do so in the context of another character who does bear a stigmatized body, an exchange so surprising and bracing that it must be significant and pointed. In the end, Shakespeare’s point seems to be that those like Othello whose whose bodies have been stigmatized still have the potential to fashion a course for their lives outside the figure of stigma, while those like Iago whose bodies are normal can still attain the heights of villainy Shakespeare previously reserved for his stigmatized characters.


Black Skin in Renaissance Italian Literature
Black Skin in Early English Literature
Black Skin on the Jacobean Stage
Black Skin in Shakespeare 


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