In Kim F Hall’s introduction to the “Race and Religion” chapter of the Bedford/St. Martin’s Othello, she explores ideas of race in Shakespeare’s time. Hall addresses the notion that race and skin color had in the early modern divided people less than religion. However, in order to understand the synthesis of race and religion as seen in Othello, she asks us to remember how both denoted the OTHER in the early modern worldview, especially in terms of the word “Moor.”
Africans and “Moors” have long been connected to Christian salvation, in both Scripture and religious tradition. However, “blackness” often refers to spiritual impurity. The appearance of Othello was a novelty on the English stage, in that Othello himself is a black protagonist. Given the implicit connection between Moors, the OTHER, and evil, most blacks in theatre were consummate villains (much more like Iago’s character).
Additionally, the ambiguity of the term “Moor,” denoting at different times both race and religion, makes Othello’s ethnicity and faith unclear. Although he is described by the Venetians as “black,” it is unclear whether this is a physical blackness, an allegorical or religious blackness, or a perceived blackness based upon a Muslim or African background. “Moor,” as Hall quotes Barthelemy, could mean “non-black, Muslim, black Christian, or black Muslim,” but could also be expanded to mean natives of all of Africa, or even the Americas.
In studying the OTHER, it is important to take into account the OTHER’s views of themselves, in order to perhaps arrive at an objective compromise. A Geographical History of Africa was written by an African Muslim who was converted to Christianity in the early 16th century, who took the name John Leo Africanus. The excerpt of the book presented to us by Hall oustlines “The Commendable Actions and Virtues of the Africans.” Africanus writes of the Africans of Barbary, and their religiosity, intelligence, and innovation.
Even in describing their virtues, however, he writes “NO nation in the world is so subject unto jealousy; for they will rather lose their lives, than put up any disgrace in the behalf of their women. So desirous they are of riches and honor, that therein no other people can go beyond them.” Even in listing what is commendable about the people of the Barbary coast, Africanus shows what could be seen as an ideological difference between them and those who view them as the OTHER: a difference in ideas of virtue. For example, the Western world, heavily influenced by Christianity, would see jealousy not as a virtue, but as a sin.
So, in acting on his jealousy, would the OTHER in Othello really have been acting out of sin? Or, in some twisted way, could his jealousy be seen as a virtue?