Speaking of the Moor: From Alcazar to Othello

Speaking of the Moor: From Alcazar to Othello

Speaking of the Moor: From Alcazar to Othello

Speaking of the Moor: From Alcazar to Othello

Synopsis

Sets the early modern Moor plays beside contemporaneous texts that embed Moorish figures within England's historical record - Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, Queen Elizabeth's letters proposing the deportation of England's blackamoors, and John Pory's translation of The History and Description of Africa.

Excerpt

“Speak of as I am; nothing extenuate,/Nor aught set down in malice” (Oth. 5.2.341–42). This is the instruction that Shakespeare’s “valiant Moor” Othello offers to his audience at the end of the play that bears his name (1.3.48). Yet, as this book—and, I will argue, that play—attempt to show, to speak of Othello, of a “Moor of Venice,” as he is is not as easy or straightforward as it sounds. Othello himself goes on to supply a number of divergent images, each with a different cultural edge. He is, he implies, a proper if erring lover—“one that loved not wisely, but too well,” “one not easily jealous, but being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme” (5.2.343–45)—and “one” generic or “Venetian” enough that he requires no qualification before the representatives of Venice. He is also, however, an “Indian” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe,” and possibly (though less likely) a “Judean” (5.2.346–47). His “subdued eyes” become “Arabian trees,” his “tears” their “medicinable gum” (5.2.347–50). All “this,” he orders Lodovico, “set you down” (5.2.350). But “this” is not all. In addition, Lodovico must “say besides that in Aleppo once,” Othello “took by th’ throat” “a malignant and a turbaned Turk” (who “beat a Venetian and traduced the state”) and “smote him,” just as Othello now stabs himself with an unnoticed weapon (5.2.351–54; emphasis added).

As these images mount up, it is hard to tell whether, where, or how to draw the line between them. Othello’s directive, “set you down this; / And say besides,” which is meaningfully enjambed in the script, at once breaks and bridges the figures that come before and after. It teases us with the illusion of closure and difference—an end to “this” and a start to what “besides”—where . . .

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