Did Shakespeare intend for the character Othello to be a dark-skinned African or did he intend for Othello to actually be a Moor, with swarthy skin color? It is clear from the title of the play that the Bard intended Othello to indeed be a Moor, but what do scholars say about Shakespeare and race -- and who were the Moors? How is the character Othello portrayed today? These are points that has been debated and discussed for as long as the play has been seen on stage -- and read in print format. The question that is not asked often is -- does it really matter what the skin color Othello has on stage? Thesis: racism has no doubt played a role in the many Othello characters that have appeared on stage, but the play is so brilliantly composed that if indeed bigoted attitudes are trying to determine what skin color The Moor should have, as long as the presentation of the play's scenes are followed professionally, what does race matter?
Who were the Moors?
Professor Catherine Alexander writes in the book Shakespeare and Race that the Moors invaded and conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the Eighth Century, and they established an Islamic culture in the peninsula. As to their skin tone, in the Middle Ages the Moors were known as "negars and blackamoors," but Spanish Moors were not dark skinned at all, Alexander writes on page 69 (Alexander, et al., 2000). Alexander asserts that the appearance of Spanish Moors is "…of great importance to Shakespeare's play" because the Spanish Moors -- who "seemed to have flooded Shakespeare's London" -- did not "stand out" from other Spaniards in terms of their skin color. The average Elizabethan crowd likely could not have told the difference between a "dark-skinned Spaniard and an olive-skinned Moor," Alexander explains.
At the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, as the last Moorish kingdom (Granada) was overthrown, all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were "expelled from the country," and once they were gone the only nemesis for the Roman Catholics was the Moorish culture (Alexander, 70). The Moors inherited the "fury of Orthodoxy" and though they tried to retain "some vestige of their cultural identity," there was serious racial and religious conflict in Spain, and things got worse for the Moors. Then, in 1609, a few years after Shakespeare's play was first performed, all the Moors that had not accepted Christianity, "were expelled from Spain" (Alexander, 70). Among the well-known passages in Shakespeare's play -- following the opening during which Iago and Roderigo, two "quasi-Spaniards," speak with hatred, "envy and derision toward "The Moor" -- is this statement from the Moor: "When you prick us, do we not bleed?"
To Iago and Roderigo, the Moor is a "civilized barbarian of fierce if repressed lusts," but to the playwright, The Moor is among a race of "displaced and dispossessed" peoples (Alexander, 71).
Meanwhile, Michael Dobson is Professor of Renaissance Drama at the University of Surrey Roehampton, and he points out that Shakespeare's use of "Moor" is "notoriously imprecise" notwithstanding that there has been "extensive scholarship" on that topic (Dobson, 2001). Apparently Shakespeare did not have a "specific geographical or ethnographic comprehension" of what a Moor really was, Dobson explains on page 304. There were actually two kinds of Moors, Dobson points out; the Moors were "white or tawny" or they were "Negroes or black"; and whatever Shakespeare intended to portray, a Moor was an "invariably derogatory" term and was referenced "in opposition to white ethnicity and 'civilized' Christianity" (Dobson, 304).
Racism: Othello characters' skin shades through the years
English Professor Philip C. Kolin notes that the very first Othello, Richard Burbage, played the role in blackface, and during the Restoration and the eighteenth century, actors played the role of Othello as "comfortably black" (Kolin, 2013). The actor James Quin portrayed Othello as a "large, heavy, slow-moving Moor…an imposing, spectacular figure" who walked on stage as a "big Black Moor all in white" (Kolin, 31). Quin wore a British officer's uniform, white gloves, and after slowing peeling off one glove a "black hand" was seen. The audience laughed when Quin appeared because he arrived "…in a large powdered…wig, which, with the black face, made such a magpie appearance of his head" (Kolin, 31).
On May 16, 1814, actor Edmund Kean -- who was thought of as the "most memorable" Moor of the Nineteenth Century -- eschewed black face and instead had "light brown makeup"; he did this because at this point in history production professionals putting on the play believed that Othello "…must be a tawny Moor rather than a black African" (Kolin, 32). Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an iconic poet and philosopher, is quoted making a racist statement vis-a-vis the color of Othello's skin: "It would be something monstrous to conceive the beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable Negro" (Kolin, 32). The author believes that Coleridge's biased sentiment was the reason that Kean appeared as a "tawny Moor" (32).
Another racist attitude regarding characters playing Othello was expressed by Charles Lamb, an English writer and poet; he saw "…something extremely revolting in the courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona" (Kolin, 32). In fact Lamb said that seeing a black Moor and a white woman (Desdemona) spoiled the play for him, and hence he believed the play should be read and not presented on stage for that reason (i.e., so the reader could create a picture in his own mind as to the skin color of Othello).
The sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, expressed racist views regarding the characters playing Othello. "The great moral lesson" to be learned from Othello," Adams said, "is that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature" (Kolin, 32). Adams went on to add that when a black man and a white woman marry in the theatre, that is a "violation" and that "Nature will vindicate her laws" (Kolin, 32). When Henry Irving played the role of Othello in 1876, about ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation (and the end of the Civil War in the U.S.), he played Othello "slightly tinged with walnut brown" (Kolin, 32).
According to Kolin's research, Paul Robeson was among the most "renowned Othellos of the twentieth century"; Robeson stated that indeed Shakespeare meant Othello to be a "black Moor" from Africa, an African of the highest nobility of heritage" (32). But, Robeson went on, from Edmund Kean's portrayal on, Othello became a "light-skinned Moor" because Western Europe had created a "slave center" and all Africans were viewed as slaves (Kolin, 32). Hence, a purely black Othello would be regarded as a slave, which would make him "low and ignoble" -- so the lighter skin made sense in a cultural context (Kolin, 32).
When the play was performed in the postbellum south, Othello was "whitened" due to the lingering tensions surrounding slavery; in fact there was a fear of "miscegenation" during that era (blacks and whites intermarrying) (Kolin, 33). As time passed, and the stain of slavery's impact on Europe and America began to fade, production director Margaret Webster, who directed Paul Robeson in Othello in 1943, said no longer did a "fair-skinned" Othello work very well. She quipped that actors who used "coffee-colored grease paint" looked more like they had just returned from "Palm Beach" with a nice dark tan than they did playing Othello (Kolin, 33).
That "Awkward Moment When Othello is Black"
Stanford University has a Center for Medieval & Early Modern Studies, and a writer in that program explains that audiences in Shakespeare's era "…experienced extreme awkwardness when faced with the theatrical reality that Othello was some black guy" (Kadue, 2012). Some of the critics during his era even suggested that if Shakespeare actually intended Othello to be a black man, "he shouldn't have" (Kadue, p. 1). One unnamed critic referenced by Kadue wrote that "…this shade does not suit the man. It is a stage decoration, which my taste discards; a fault of color…one of the few erroneous strokes of the great master's brush" (Kadue, p. 1).
That having been pointed out, Kadue quotes Othello lamenting that his name has become "…begrimed and black / as mine own face," which is not a "condemnation of black skin as such" because the fact that he is black did not prevent him from "earning a glowing reputation in the first place" (p. 3). Othello does claim to have achieved a "certain poetic justice in his newly soiled name"; and moreover, audiences reading a "color blind" play that lacks in "shades of nuance," would be a "dull" play, Kadue asserts (p. 3).
Avanna Thompson, writing in the peer-reviewed Shakespeare Bulletin, insists that Shakespeare's play was not written for "…black or even dark skinned actors. Instead, Othello was a white man in blackface makeup" (Thompson, 2009). The scholar goes on to state that…