(Isaac Butler’s article appeared in Slate, 11/15; via Pam Green.)
Is Othello black? With the news that David Oyelowo will play Othello opposite Daniel Craig’s Iago and that the Metropolitan Opera is finally discontinuing the practice of blackface in productions of Otello, we may see a revival of this oft-asked question. What people mean when they ask if Othello is black is: What did Shakespeare mean when he called Othello black? Would we say Othello is black today?
It’s an understandable question. Shakespeare’s writing mostly predates the transatlantic slave trade and the more modern obsession with biological classification, both of which gave rise to our contemporary ideas of race. When Shakespeare used the word “black” he was not exactly describing a race the way we would. He meant instead someone with darker skin than an Englishman at a time when Englishmen were very, very pale. Although Othello is a Moor, and although we often assume he is from Africa, he never names his birthplace in the play. In Shakespeare’s time, Moors could be from Africa, but they could also be from the Middle East, or even Spain.
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