Exploring the language of race in Shakespeare’s Othello does not mean exclusively focusing on the title character, as Farah Karim-Cooper demonstrates in her new book, The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race.
“We tend to think of race in the play constellating around Othello’s body,” writes Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies at King’s College, London, and a director of education at Shakespeare’s Globe theater. “But race is represented by the other characters too,” including Desdemona. Read more in the excerpt below.
Like so many sonnet mistresses of the Elizabethan age and so many female characters in Shakespeare, Desdemona’s virtues are registered by her skin; but the ‘fairness’ of a woman – the combination of white, glistening complexion and internal virtue – is precarious. Advice written into sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books instructing Christian women how to behave shows just how fragile female virtue was. A conduct book translated into English and widely circulated reminded women that ‘chastity is the principal virtue of a woman’. It was the measure by which all of her other qualities were judged. But how were people supposed to know if a woman was chaste? It offers an answer: ‘she that is chaste…fair, well favoured, rich, fruitful, noble and all best things that can be named’. The author also tells us that ‘nothing is more tender than is the fame [reputation]…of women, nor nothing more in danger of wrong’. Once a Renaissance woman is accused of adultery or called a ‘whore’, whether it is true or not, she is, well, cancelled. It becomes impossible for her to make a good match or to recover her husband’s or father’s reputation or her former beauty.
As with Othello, our impression of Desdemona is partly determined by what other people say about her throughout the play. Crucially, the first thing we learn is that she is young and white; remember, ‘an old black ram is / Tupping your white ewe’, as Iago snidely spits out under Brabantio’s window. In the early acts, she is a ‘fair lady’ (1.3.127), ‘gentle mistress’ (1.3.178), ‘jewel’ (1.3.196), and according to Iago a ‘super-subtle Venetian’ (1.3.357); for Othello, she’s a ‘fair warrior’ (2.1.179); to many she is ‘virtuous Desdemona’ (3.1.35), but then as Iago works on twisting Othello’s imagination and our own, we notice an alteration in Desdemona as she begins to change colour. Iago admits he wants to turn her ‘virtue into pitch’ (2.3.355), meaning literally turn her from white to black. She is also like a text, a blank page that Iago has written ‘whore’ upon in black ink; the ‘fair paper’ (4.2.72), the ‘goodly book’ (73). Her face which was ‘as fresh / As Dian’s [the moon = symbol of chastity] visage, is now begrimed and black’ as Othello’s ‘own face’ (3.3.389–91); as she’s transitioning on this racial spectrum, she is momentarily in limbo – a ‘fair devil’ (3.3.48); but then she transitions completely to ‘Devil!’ (4.1.239), judged ultimately to be the ‘Impudent strumpet’ (4.2.82), the ‘cunning whore of Venice’ (4.2.91).
Black and white are unstable notions in Shakespeare, transferrable between characters as the meanings become detachable from skin, as we’ll see in both tragedies and comedies not typically linked to race. Desdemona is initially bathed in language praising her whiteness, but we witness her gradual permeation with blackness as Othello’s perception of her shifts. He projects on to her the colour he himself associates with the label ‘whore’: his own skin colour, revealing the scarring, weathering effects of internalised racism. But the way Shakespeare plays with this colour binary is even more complicated. Iago is an example of a ‘white devil’ – a figure in the Elizabethan period that presented as ‘fair’ but was actually rotten to the core. The seventeenth-century preacher Thomas Adams felt ‘haunted’ by this figure in his sermon called simply The White Devil, aligning it with an insidious deception and hypocrisy; in 1612 the Jacobean playwright John Webster of Duchess of Malfi fame penned a tragedy The White Devil along similar lines. Iago is the white devil of Shakespeare’s play, though he’d have you believe Desdemona is. According to the racist logic of Elizabethan colour symbolism, he is metaphorically as ‘black’ in his purpose as Othello is in his complexion.
Conversely, as we have seen, Othello is called ‘far more fair than black’ as someone who has acquired success in the white, elite spaces of Venice. It’s intriguing that this transference of symbolic colour is materially realised in the staging of race and gender in the original performances – Othello played by Richard Burbage in blackface and Desdemona by a boy actor in whiteface – the facial makeup used might have been literally transferred or stained the other during the couple’s more intimate exchanges.
The play reaches a startling and tragic climax. Once Othello decides to kill himself, he delivers a speech comparing himself to the ‘base Indian’ (5.2.345) who, unable to recognise true value, throws away a ‘pearl’, an unforgiving stereotype about non-Europeans that Othello succumbs to in his final realisations. In 1585 Thomas Harriot described the indigenous people he encountered in Virginia, asserting the superiority of the civilised English: ‘[I]n respect of us they are a people poor and for want of skill and judgment in the knowledge and the use of our things, do esteem our trifles before things of greater value’. The image of the Indian holding a white pearl thus animates the colour trope of black/white binary that the play’s language consistently evokes. We tend to think of race in the play constellating around Othello’s body, as many characters remind us: whether he is the ‘lusty Moor’, or the ‘noble Moor’. But race is represented by the other characters too; whiteness emerges in the play as a racial category that is ethereal, vulnerable, permeable and powerful. It is the default position, which Shakespeare renders visible.
From The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race by Farah Karim-Cooper, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Farah Karim-Cooper.
Hear more from Farah Karim-Cooper on our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast:
Farah Karim-Cooper on The Great White Bard
Can we love Shakespeare and be antiracist? Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book explores the language of race and difference in plays such as Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and The Tempest.
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