Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism

By Ania Loomba | Go to book overview

2
Religion, Colour, and
Racial Difference

Apart from Morocco, one of Portia's suitors in The Merchant of Venice, there are only two black men in Shakespeare's plays: Aaron, the evil Moor of Titus Andronicus (1593–4) and the valiant Moorish hero of Othello (1604). These two plays are usually juxtaposed only to highlight the enormous distance Shakespeare seems to have traversed in his understanding of the 'black Moor'. The difference between the two characters is not just that Aaron is pathologically evil whereas Othello is a more complex mix of nobility and violent jealousy, but that they highlight different aspects of the term 'Moor', a word that could mean both 'Muslim' and 'black'. Aaron's depravity is attributed entirely to his colour—he is repeatedly called 'irreligious' and boasts himself that he holds no God sacred. Although the play does not comment directly on his religion, 'valiant Othello', with his 'bombast circumstance | Horribly stufled with epithets of war' (1.1.13–14), his 'sword of Spain' (5.2.260) and his violent jealousy, evokes Renaissance stereotypes of the 'malignant and a turbaned Turk' (5.2.362). Aaron leads us to literary, religious, and theatrical traditions that had equated black skin with godlessness and sin, and their relation with emergent colonialism. Othello invites us to consider how that lineage is also intertwined with the long history of Christian interactions with various kinds of Muslims—the Saracens of the Holy Crusades, the Arab Moors of Spain, the Turks whose growing empire threatened Europeans, as well as the Moroccans, Indians, and others with whom the English wanted to trade.

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