E. A. J. HONIGMANN'S introduction to the Arden Edition of Othello discusses the possibility that Shakespeare was familiar with Leo Africanus' ( 1485-1554) A Geographical Historie of Africa, published in 1600 and translated by John Pory.

He quotes Leo as writing of Moors,

Most honest people they are, and
destitute of all fraud and guile, very
proud and high-minded, and woonderfully
addicted vnto wrath...there wits are but
meane, and they are so credulous, that
they will beleeue matters impossible,
which are told them...No nation in the
world is so subiect vnto iealousie; for
they all will rather leese their liues,
then vp any disgrace in the behalfe
of their women.

(Arden, p. 4)

Is this Othello?

The Folger Shakespeare library [TEACHING SHAKESPEARE at the Folger Library © 1999 Folger Shakespeare Library] offers additional excerpts.

The commendable actions and vertues of the Africans The Arabians which inhabite in Barbarie or vpon the coast of the Mediterran sea, are greatly addicted vnto the studie of good artes and sciences: and those things which concerne their law and religion are esteemed by them in the first place. Moreouer they haue beene heretofore most studious of the Mathematiques, of Philosophie, and of Astrologie: but these artes (as it is aforesaid) were fower hundred yeeres agoe, vtterly destroyed and taken away by the chiefe professours of their lawe. The inhabitants of the cities doe most religiously obserue and reuerence those things which appertaine vnto their religion: yea they honour those doctours and priests, of whom they learne their law, as if they were petie-gods. Their Churches they frequent verie diligently, to the ende they may repeat certaine prescript and formal prayers; most superstitiously perswading theselues that the same day wherein they make their praiers, it is not lawfull for them to wash certaine of their members, when as at other times they will wash their whole bodies. Whereof we will (by Gods helpe) discourse more at large in the second Booke of this present treatise, when we shall fall into the mentioning of Mahumet and his religion. Moreouer those which inhabite Barbarie are of great cunning & dexteritie for building & for mathematicall inuentions, which a man may easily coniecture by their artificiall workes. Most honest people they are, and destitute of all fraud and guile; not onely imbracing all simplicitie and truth, but also practising the same throughout the whole course of their liues: albeit certaine Latine authors, which haue written of the same regions, are farre otherwise of opinion. Likewise they are most strong and valiant people, especially those which dwell vpon the mountaines.

They keepe their couenant most faithfully; insomuch that they had rather die than breake promise. No nation in the world is so subiect vnto iealousie; for they will rather leese their lives, then put vp any disgrace in the behalfe of their women. So desirous they are of riches and honour, that therein no other people can goe beyonde them.

The truell in a manner ouer the whole world to exercise traffique. For they are continually to bee seene in AEgypt, in Aethiopia, in Arabia, Persia, India, and Turkie: and whithersoeuer the goe, they are most honorably esteemed of: for none of them will possesse any arte, vnlesse he hath attained vnto great exactness and perfection therein. They haue alwaies beene much delighted with all kinde of ciuilitie and modest behauiour: and it is accounted heinous among them for any man to vtter in companie, any bawdie or vnseemely worde. The haue alwaies in minde this sentence of a draue author; Giue place to thy superior. If any youth in presence of his father, his vncle, or any other of his kinred, doth sing or talke ought of loue matters, he is deemed to bee woorthie of grieuous punishment. Whasoeuer lad or youth there lighteth by chaunce into any company which discourseth of loue, no sooner heareth nor vnderstandeth what their talke tendeth vnto, but immediately he withdraweth himselfe from among them. These are the things which we thought most woortie of relation as concerning the ciuilitie, humanitie, and vpright dealing of the Barbarians: let vs now proceede vnto the residue. Those Arabians which dwell in tents, that is to say, which bring vp cattell, are of a more liverall and ciuill disposition: to wit, they are in their kinde as deuout, valiant, patient, courteous, hospitall, and as honest in life and conuersation as any other people. They be most fairthfull obseruers of their word and promise; insomuch that the people, which before we said to dwell in the mountaines, are greatly stirred vp with emulation of their vertues. Howbeit the said mountainers, both for learning, for vertue, and for religion, are thought much inferiour to the Numidians, albeit they haue little or no knowledge at all in naturall philosophie. They are valiant, and exceeding louers and practisers of all humanitie. Also, the Moores and Arabians inhabiting Libya are somewhat ciuill of behauiour, being plaine dealers, voide of dissimulation, fauourable to strangers, and louers of simplicitie. Those which we before named white, or tawney Moores, are stedfast in friendship: as likewise they indifferently and fauourable esteeme of other nations: and wholy indeuour themselues in this one thing, namely, that they may leade a most pleasant and iocund life. Moreouer they maintaine most learned professours of liberall artes, and such men are most deuout in their religion. Neither is there any people in all Africa that lead a more happie and honorable life.

What vices the foresaid Africans are subiect vnto. Neuer was there any people or nation so perfectly endued with vertue, but that they had their contrarie faults and blemishes: now therefore let vs consider, whether the vices of the Africas do surpasse their vertues & good parts. Those which we named the inhabitants of the cities of Barbarie are somewhat needie and couetous, being also very proud and high-minded, and woonderfullly addicted vnto wrath; insomuch that (according to the prouerbe) they will deeply engraue in marble any iniurie be it neuer so small, & will in no wise blot it out of their remembrance. So rusticall they are & void of good manners, that scarcely can any stranger obtaine their familiaritie and friendship. Their wits are but meane, and they are so credulous, that they will beleeue matters impossible, which are told them. So ignorant are they of naturall philosophie, that they imagine all the effects and operations of nature to be extraordinarie and diuine. They obserue no certaine order of liuing nor of lawes. Abounding exceedingly with choler, they speake alwaies with an angrie and lowd voice. Neither shall you walke in the day-time in any of their streetes, but you shall see commonly two or three of them together by the eares. by nature they are a vile and base people, being no better accounted of by their gouernours then if they were dogs. They haue neither iudges nor lawyers, by whose wisdome and counsell they ought to be directed. They are vtterly in trades of merchandize, being destitute of bankers and money-chargers: wherefore a merchant can doe nothing among them in his absence, but is himselfe constrained to goe in person whithersoeuer his wares are carried. No people vnder heauen are more addicted vnto couetise the this nation: neither is there (I thinke) to bee found among them one of an hundred, who for courtesie, humanitie, or deuotions sake will vouchsafe any entertainment vpon a stranger. Mindfull they haue alwaies beene of iniuries, but most forgetfull of benefites. Their mindes are perpetually possessed with vexation and strife, so that they will seldome or neuer shew themselues tractable to any man; the cause whereof is supposed to be; for that they are so greedily addicted vnto their filthie lucre, that they veuer could attaine vnto any kinde of ciuilitie of good behauiour. The shepherds of that region liue a miserable, toilsome, wretched and beggarly life: they are a rude people, and (as a man may say) borne and bred to theft, deceit, and brutish manners. Their yoong men may goe a wooing to diuers maides, till such time as they haue sped of a wife. Yea, the father of the maide most friendly welcommeth her suiter: so that I thinke scarce any noble or gentleman among them can chuse a virgine for his spouse: albeit, so soone as any woman is married, she is quite forsaken of all her suiters; who then seeke out other new paramours for their liking. Concerning their religion, the greater part of these people are neither Mahumetans, Iewes, nor Christians; and hardly shall you finde so much as a sparke of pietie in any of them. They haue no churches at all, nor any kinde of prayers, but being vtterly estranged from all godly deution, they leade a sauage and beastly life: and if any man chanceth to be of a better disposition (because they haue no law-giuers nor teachers among them) he is constrained to follow the example of other mens liues & maners. All the Numidians being most ignorant of naturall, domesticall, & commonwealth-matters, are principally addicted vnto treason, trecherie, murther, theft, and robberie. This nation, because it is most slauish, will right gladly accept of any seruice among the Barbarians, be it neuer so vile or contemptible. For some will take vpon them to be dung-farmers, others to be scullians, some others to bee ostlers, and such like seruile occupations. Likewise the inhabitants of Libya liue a brutish kinde of life; who neglecting all kindes of good artes and sciences, doe wholy apply their mindes vnto theft and violence. Neuer as yet had they any religion, any lawes, or any good forme of liuing; but alwaies had, and euer will haue a most miserable and distressed life. There cannot any trechery or villanie be ijuented so damnable, which for lucres sake they dare not attempt. They spend all their daies either in most lewd practises, or in hunting, or else in warfare: neither weare they any shooes nor garments. The Negroes likewise leade a beastly kinde of life, being vtterly destitute of the vse of reason, of desteritie of wit, and of all artes. yea they so behaue themselues, as if they had continually liued in a forrest among wilde beasts. They haue great swarmes of harlots among them; whereupon a man may easily coniecture their manner of liuing; except their conuersation perhaps be somewhat more tolerable, who dwell in the principall townes and cities: for it is like that they are somewhat more addicted to ciuilitie.

Africanus, Leo. The History and Description of Africa. Trans. John Pory. 1600.

Shakespeare's Source:

A Short Story by Giraldi Cinthio titled HECATOMMITHI [HUNDRED TALES]. Click here for the text.

The opinion of Queen Elizabeth (from the Arden Introduction, p. 29)

1601. Negroes and Blackamoors.--Whereas the Queen's Majesty is discontented at the great numbers of 'negars and blackamoores' which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people....In order to discharge them out of the country, her Majesty hath appointed Caspar Van Zeuden, merchant of Lubeck, for their transportation...This is to require you to assist him to collecty such negroes and blackamoors for this purpose.

{See below for research indicating the Queen's interest in establishing diplomatic relations with Barbary].


After examining these sources, what do you conclude the climate of opinion to be regarding the presence of Moors in Elizabethan England that might have influenced what Shakespeare wrote.


RECENT EDITIONS OF THE SHAKESPEARE QUARTERLY and a source from SHAKESPEARE SURVEY have devoted articles to Othello's racial protocols.:

Bartels, Emily. Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello and Renaissance Refashionings of Race. SQ 41 (Winter, 1990), pp. 433-454.

Harris, Bernard. A Portrait of a Moor. SS 11 (1958), pp. 89-97.

Neill, M. "Mulattos," "Blacks," and "Indian Moors": Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference. SQ 49 (Winter, 1998), pp. 361-374)

_____. Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello. SQ 40 (Winter, 1989), pp. 383-412.

See also:

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. (click here: the text is on line and is also linked to the main page of this Web site.)

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human: New York: Riverside, 1998.

Some Considerations based on the above:

..from Bartels:

  1. "cross cultural interest" grew as England's colonial empire expanded: interest in Africa for religious, political and economic reasons: Moors competing with Christian Europe (Moslem vs. Christian), (p. 439); economic competition for control of trade vs. Spain
  2. Vocabulary; African, Moor, Ethiopian, Negro, Indian--the same?
  3. descriptions: noble, monstrous, civil, savage
  4. Xenophobic mentality
  5. Pore renamed Africans Mores "to indicate the presence of Moslems."
  6. Regarding Othello (pp. 447 ff.):
    1. racial and sexual differences
    2. sexual stereotypes---CHECK THE LANGUAGE IAGO USES
    3. Othello's threat to Iago has more to do with power politics (p. 451)
    4. Does the play deconstruct racial stereotypes? (p. 454)

...from Harris:

  1. Relations based on "commercial ambition."
  2. Article traces the history of trading companies established to promote commerce with Barbary, Africa with the aim of displacing Spanish interests.
  3. Ambassador to the English court: Abed el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun: [Instructor's note: compare his description with Othello's.]
  4. The court correspondence suggests an ambiguous attitude, racially and religiously (p. 95)

...from Neill. "Mulattos"

  1. Can the play offer commentary on racial issues of today? [Instructor's note: Othello and the "OJ" trial or Shylock and the holocaust.]
  2. Is the Moor "dislocated" in England? (p. 362)
  3. Unlike Jews, Moors cannot disguise differences
  4. What would happen if a Moor became a Christian or the converse? [Instructor's note: Hitler's "final solution" was predicated on race, not religion.
  5. Does color have moral connotations?
  6. The question of OTHERNESS...difference?
  7. Does color become the way to define racial differences? (p. 369)--Is black a noun or adjective?
  8. "...blackness is announced as the defining condition of all who are not English" (p. 373) [Instructor note: pay attention to how Shakespeare may deconstruct this.]

...from Neill. Unproper Beds

  1. Dr. Johnson's 18th comment regarding the ending of Othello. "It is not to be endured." (p, 383)
  2. Violation of marriage?--19th practice of "closing the [bed] curtains" (p. 385-390)
  3. erotic Victorian fantasies [Instructor's note: See Dracula]
  4. Racial fear and scandal (p. 391)--see also Coleridge and Bradley
  5. Is the play anti-racist? Does Shakespeare deconstruct?
  6. Is racism the natural / obvious way for Iago to entrap Othello?
  7. What is happening behind the scenes?
  8. Iago's fascination with sexual speculation. [Instructor's note: What was Hitler's favorite movie?]
  9. Is the issue racial adultery? (p. 399)
  10. "...jealously is itself an extreme and corrupted (adulterate) form of sexual excitement..." (p. 406) in a Christian country, and is BLACKNESS a symbol of this for Iago?
  11. Biblical allusion to color: p. 409--color imagery becomes immoral {Jeremiah: 13:23}
  12. Iago can articulate these superstitions

...from Bradley:

[Instructor's note: Bradley notes that Othello, although not especially intelligent, is nonetheless noble in spirit. He discusses the racial issue in the light of 19th century criticism: Lamb and Coleridge and American critics:

The horror of most American critics (Mr. Furness is a bright exception) at the idea of a black Othello is very amusing, and their arguments are highly instructive. But they were anticipated, I regret to say, by Coleridge, and we will hear him. 'No doubt Desdemona saw Othello's visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable Negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.' [1Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. Ashe, p. 386].

Could any argument be more self destructive? It actually did appear to Brabantio 'something monstrous to conceive' his daughter falling in love with Othello -- so monstrous that he could account for her love only by drugs and foul charms. And the suggestion that such love would argue 'disproportionateness' is precisely the suggestion that Iago did make in Desdemona's case:

Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.

In fact he spoke of the marriage exactly as a filthy-minded cynic now might speak of the marriage of an English lady to a Negro like Toussaint. Thus the argument of Coleridge and others points straight to the conclusion against which they argue.

     But this is not all. The question whether to Shakespeare Othello was black or brown is not a mere question of isolated fact or historical curiosity; it concerns the character of Desdemona. Coleridge, and still more the American writers, regard her love, in effect, as Brabantio regarded it, and not as Shakespeare conceived it. They are simply blurring this glorious conception when they try to lessen the distance between her and Othello, and to smooth away the obstacle which his 'visage' offered to her romantic passion for a hero. Desdemona, the 'eternal womanly' in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint, radiant with that heavenly purity of heart which men worship the more because nature so rarely permits it to themselves, had no theories about universal brotherhood, and no phrases about 'one blood in all the nations of the earth' or 'barbarian, Scythian, bond and free'; but when her soul came in sight of the noblest soul on earth, she made nothing of the shrinking of her senses, but followed her soul until her senses took part with it, and 'loved him with the love which was her doom.' It was not prudent. It even turned out tragically. She met in life with the reward of those who rise too far above our common level; and we continue to allot her the same reward when we consent to forgive her for loving a brown man, but find it monstrous that she should love a black one. I will not discuss the further question whether, granted that to Shakespeare Othello was a black, he should be represented as a black in our theatres now. I dare say not. We do not like the real Shakespeare. We like to have his language pruned and his conceptions flattened into something that suits our mouths and minds. And even if we were prepared to make an effort, still, as Lamb observes, to imagine is one thing and to see is another. Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

     As I have mentioned Lamb, I may observe that he differed from Coleridge as to Othello's colour, but, I am sorry to add, thought Desdemona to stand in need of excuse. 'This noble lady, with a singularity rather to be wondered at than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections a Moor, a black. . . . Neither is Desdemona to be altogether condemned for the unsuitableness of the person whom she selected for her lover' (Tales from Shakespeare). Others, of course, have gone much further and have treated all the calamities of the tragedy as a sort of judgment on Desdemona's rashness, wilfulness and undutifulness. There is no arguing with opinions like this; but I cannot believe that even Lamb is true to Shakespeare in implying that Desdemona is in some degree to be condemned.

...from Bloom:

  1. "...the passed-over officer becomes the poet of street brawls...and above all the uncreation of Othello, the sparagmos of the great captain-general so that he can be returned to the original abyss, the chaos that Iago equates with the Moor's African origins. That is not Othello's view of his heritage (or Shakespeare's), but Iago's interpretation wins, or almost wins..." (p. 438)
  2. Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect and drive by Iago. (p. 438)
  3. [...but] "It is important to note the greatness of Othello, despite all his inadequacies." (p. 446)

[Instructor Note: What does Bloom believe about the Othello and race?]

  1. Are we seeing Othello today in the tradition Bradley describes
  2. Does our current Middle East policy stem from these traditions?


1. Examine some Act I lines, especially Iago's, in which racially explicit language is used: for example

I,I,88 ff by Iago:

"...An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe..."

I,i,110 by Iago:

"...You'll have / your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse..."

I.i, 126 by Roderigo

"...To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor..."

I,i,169 by Brabantio

"O treason of the blood..."

I,iii,98 by Brabantio

"To fall in love with what she feared to look on?"

Continue to trace these motifs through the play. Additionally, note very carefully:

Othello: This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,
Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I'ld whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years- yet that's not much-
She's gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon,
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses. Yet, 'tis the plague of great ones:
Prerogatived are they less than the base;
'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death.
Even then this forked plague is fated to us
When we do quicken.