“For she had eyes and chose me.”
– from Othello, by William Shakespeare
My English Literature teachers would be proud, if they could see me now. After having abided the rigors of a demanding high school curriculum as a student, I now return several decades later to Shakespeare, willingly, albeit grudgingly. No, ’tis not madness which doth beset me, but an ague of sheer intellectual necessity. Comprehending Billy’s writings — crafted, enmeshed, and shrouded in Elizabethan English, with the meaning behind them all being oblique to the middlebrow sensibilities of my adolescence — was sheer torture. This was the case especially after a satisfying, heavily intoxicating lunch anchored by a hot Jamaican beef patty, and sandwiched by a pillowy coco bread. For a growing lad, such a soul-satisfying meal served only to complicate and also to woefully neutralize comprehension and any expected astute literary analysis.
I recall that as a student, there was a teacher — not even from the English department, mind you — who saw Shakespeare as a very great man. By contrast, given wisdom, acquired through much reading and countless conversations, I am learning never to be too rash in heaping accolades of greatness upon any individual. Amazingly, a single, simple historical detail can dramatically alter the canvas of a revered portrait of a life. Nevertheless, being as conservative as I am, I must agree that William Shakespeare was, without a doubt, a unique individual who was ahead of his time. After all, he was a playwright who, in 1604, dared to craft the character of an esteemed Black man, integrating noble qualities of an ilk typically only associated at that time with white men and the class of patrons forming the audience to his plays. And, again, one so daring as to write of an interracial marriage between a man of colour and a “fair maiden” — what can anyone say? Remarkable for his time! Remarkable, indeed!
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, was set in the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1570–1573, which sought to settle control of the Island of Cyprus, a possession of the Venetian Republic since 1489. Othello was a Christian Moor and a general of the armies of Venice. He was an eloquent and a physically powerful figure, respected by all those around him. His elevated status, nevertheless, made him easy prey to his own insecurities regarding his age, his life as a soldier, and his race. He was brave, confident, smart and physically strong. Unfortunately, he was also a racial outsider, insecure about his Moorish background, emotionally out of control and naïve. Though a tragic protagonist, the playwright’s quill at no time tarnished the immutable humanity and the inalienable dignity of Othello’s character, nor that of any other who held his likeness.
This is quite intriguing, given when this play was written and then produced. That racial prejudice existed within Europe against non-white races during Shakespeare’s era, provides an interesting backdrop for Othello’s treatment. A paper titled “Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans” written by American historian Dr. Alden T. Vaughan and Research Professor of English Dr. Virginia Mason Vaughan, explored the mindset of Europeans towards people of colour by surveying works of literature produced on that continent. In that scholarly piece they wrote:
“Othello’s yarns are symptomatic of the travellers’ tales that circulated in England during the second half of the sixteenth century and beyond — narratives that ranged from mythical accounts of monstrous races and imaginary places to fact-filled reports of actual strangers and their remarkable homelands. Circulating in various written forms and, to a lesser extent, in visual embodiments on stages, in public pageants, and occasionally in graphic arts, such representations fashioned in many English minds a host of exotic Others-the distant denizens of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Much of the printed material appeared in translations of Continental texts; much more, as time went on, was of English authorship, when the island nation belatedly joined Europe’s age of reconnaissance and examined, personally or vicariously, the world’s hidden wonders.
Not all European representations of previously unknown peoples emphasized Otherness. Written accounts of New World natives, it has recently been argued, were an early modern form of ethnography that show ‘genuine interest in the diversity of human societies and implicit grappling with the epistemological problems attendant upon cultural encounters’….”
They went on to say that their essay intended to show “…representations of sub-Saharan Africans circulating in Elizabethan England generally focused on difference, implying their natural inferiority and non-assimilability into English notions of civility and proper appearance. The sub-Saharan Africans’ ‘black’ skin and drastically unfamiliar customs and convictions, the evidence suggests, set them apart in English eyes and imaginations as a special category of humankind.”
General Othello, the Moor, emerges from this pall of prejudicial, yet, sometimes understandable “otherness”, arising from an ethnocentricity born of ignorance and a curiosity akin, in some respects, no doubt, to that of gawking adolescents. But, having perused the monograph of Drs. Vaughan, I did not detect a sense of racial superiority which bordered on violence. What is just as fascinating was the treatment meted out to people of African descent — consistent with Shakespeare’s treatment of Othello — in the edition of the Holy Bible published in 1611 through the auspices of King James I. Rather than a prejudice so curdled by greed and a lust for power which grew to unbearably toxic, demeaning, dehumanizing, catastrophic and fatal proportions, biblical characters were all clothed in the garments of basic humanity and respect. This is seen in the presentations of individuals including the Queen of Sheba, or even Moses’ Ethiopian wife, and also the Ethiopian Eunuch in the service of Candace the Queen.
By 1619, at the advent of European colonization of unfamiliar lands of warmer climes than the colonists were accustomed, the perception of people of color began to take a turn, reworking Shakespeare’s Othello as a work of sheer fiction in which life was never to imitate art. It also demanded an exegesis of Holy Scripture which saw all people of color as the spawns of the accursed Ham, son of Noah, who looked upon and who laughed at his father’s drunken nakedness, or as creatures who had devolved to such depths of moral depravity that they could not and should never be viewed as nothing more than “savages,” “heathens,” and beasts of burden fit for nothing else but to serve the white man’s baleful intentions.
Of course, race was not the only predicate for man’s oppression of other men. One only needs to read the history of the commercial syndicates in Shakespeare’s England who bought and sold children as slaves, and traded women as “breeders” in exchange for tobacco. All this with a mercenary attitude towards people in order to secure acres of land on which to put hapless, poor, defenceless white people to work.
This case study in greed, selfishness and condescension, makes for eye-opening, painful reading in the work White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain’s White Slaves in America, authored by Don Jordon and Michael Walsh. The pattern for what would later become African chattel slavery was created from the barbarous treatment of poor whites during colonial times by the judiciary, as well as by the powerful, monied elites in London. White people were shipped as slaves in great numbers, regularly crammed into vessels like sardines in a tin, and died from infections as a result. This was a precursor to the African slave ships and the horrors of “The Middle Passage”.
At a certain point in time, it was a capital offense for white servants to run away from their masters, or to rebuff an extension of their indentured service. Many were released from the cruel whipping posts of indentured service into the tyrannies of broken promises, of landlessness and of utter poverty. Of the 300 children sent to Virginia in the few short years between 1619 and 1622, only 12 were still alive. He who will eat his own young will eat yours.
As Othello wrestled with allegations of Desdemona’s infidelity, an insidious and a spiteful yarn woven by Iago, the antagonist in the play, he sought to assure himself of his wife’s innocence by saying, “For she had eyes and chose me.” Desdemona saw beyond the pigmentation of Othello’s skin, even where others viewed him with condescension and hate, falling deeply in love with the beauty of the character of the man. But Iago’s arrow, sped from his bow of malice, found its mark, leading to Othello taking the life of his wife and then that of his own. He had, somehow, allowed Iago’s perception of him to supplant his wife’s adoring vision of him, thus ending all in great tragedy.
Othello’s struggle with how he saw himself and how others saw him continues to be the struggle of people of colour all over the world, perhaps no more so than the people of African descent in these United States. Validation for people of colour should be intrinsic, and certainly never necessary from a white man like William Shakespeare. Still, such esteem should not be causally and summarily disregarded.
For Afro Americans and other people of colour elsewhere in the diaspora to think that slavery “had eyes and chose” only them for that “peculiar institution,” is a determination that does not accord with the facts of history that were, hitherto, long buried and almost forgotten. The reasons for their plight are much deeper, are much darker, and are far more deadly. They suggest demons of soul and of mind, the willing tools who work the spindles and the distaffs of human misery and oppression, to fashion the warp and woof of hell, which, though wearing different masks and appearing at different times, lurk deep within the heart of everyman.