George Washington University The Shakespeare Association of

George Washington University
The Shakespeare Association of America, Inc.
Slaves and Subjects in Othello
Author(s): Camille Wells Slights
Source: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 377-390
Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University
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Slaves and Subjectsin Othello
... Shall I say to you,
"Let thembe free. . . "? You will answer,
"The slavesare ours."'
involvedin the slavetrade.During the same period,as numerous scholarshave argued,a new formof personal identitydeveloped. I want
to suggestthatthe representationof these phenomena on the earlymodern
English stage shows thattheyare interconnected.By attendingto these interconnections,we can learn a good deal not onlyabout earlymodern subjectivitybut also about our own understandingsoflibertyand coercion.Using
Othelloas an example,I willargue thatemergingunderstandingsof selfhood
help to explain ideas and attitudesabout slaveryand that theyin turnilluminate emergingunderstandingsof self.
In Sourcesof theSelf: The Making of theModernIdentityCharlesTaylorargues
that the formof consciousnessemergentin earlymodern Europe, what he
calls the "disengaged self," was bound up with an ideal of freedom and
independence and with a vision of instrumentalcontrol of an objectified
world and an objectifiedself. In the traditionalview derived from Plato,
Taylorexplains,"reason can be understoodas the perceptionof the natural
or rightorder, and to be ruled by reason is to be ruled by a vision of this
order"; "gaining masteryof oneself,shiftingthe hegemonyfromthe senses
to reason, was a matterof changing the directionof our soul's vision." In
contrast,the disengagedsubjectno longerlocates the selfas an inherentpart
of a meaningfullyordered cosmos. This subject does not find order in the
neutralizeduniversebut constructsit internally:"The new model of rational
mastery... presentsit as a masterof instrumental
control.... The hegemony
of reason is definedno longeras thatof a dominantvisionbut ratherin terms
This essay originatedwith work done for a seminar titled "Slaves and Slaveryin English
Renaissance Drama," chaired byJudithWeil at the annual meetingof the ShakespeareAssociation ofAmericain Albuquerque,New Mexico,April1994. I am gratefulto Geraldo U. de Sousa,
Michael Keefer,RoslynL. Knutson,JosephA. Porter,CarolynPrager,JulieR. Solomon,Alden T.
Vaughan, VirginiaMason Vaughan, and JudithWeil fortheirgenerous and stimulatingsharing
of ideas and information.
1 TheMerchantof Venice,
4.1.93-94, 97-98. Shakespeare quotationsfollowthe Riverside
Shakespeare,ed. G. BlakemoreEvans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
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of a directingagency subordinatinga functionaldomain."2 In this ethic,
rational controlmeans the power to objectifythe body and the passions; a
depends on the subject'sstatusas a rationalbeing.
sense of self-worth
and developed a
The disengaged self fostereda sense of responsibility
concept of moral and politicallaw which establishedpersonal freedomand
rights.This selfalso fostereda feltneed to controlthe experienceof the self
and theworldexternalto the self.3The new individualismof the seventeenth
century,Taylor argues, replaced an older politicalconcept, in which social
communitiesweretakenas givens,witha newconcept of politicalatomism,in
whichthebasic social unitis theindividual,whosemembershipin community
mustbe created. From thisconcept developed what C. B. Macpherson calls
possessiveindividualism,"a conception of the mostbasic immunitieswe enjoy-life, liberty-on the model of the ownershipof property."4Indeed, as
Seyla Benhabib has pointed out, the rightof propertyand a man's authority
overhis household ofwife,children,and servantscame to be included among
those basic rights.5The autonomousself"generatesand ... reflectsan ideal
Being "on his own," he mustfind
of independence and self-responsibility."
Individualautonomy,then,was bound up
withan ideal of freedomand withindividualisolation.The idea of the autonomous self,Benhabib suggests,was most clearlyformulatedby Thomas
Hobbes: "Let us ... considermen as ifbut even now sprungout of the earth,
withoutall kind of
and suddenly,like mushrooms,come to full maturity,
engagementto each other."7
In earlyseventeenth-century
England,the concept of unique, autonomous
selves-of men as mushrooms-supported the developingvalues of privacy
and indiand individualliberty;it also created fear of social fragmentation
vidual isolation.For example,JohnDonne's anxietyabout the "new philosophy" takes the formof dismayat a world thathas lost "all Relation":
Prince,Subject,Father,Sonne,are thingsforgot,
he hathgot
Foreverymanalone thinkes
To be a Phoenix,and thattherecan bee
None of thatkinde,ofwhichhe is,buthee.8
Donne's theorizingof social structuregroundshierarchyin the necessityof
social relations.His personal letterstestifyto his own terrorof isolation.
Writingto a friendabout his failureto finda place in the courthierarchy,
insiststhatfailureto "contributesomethingto the sustentationof thewhole"
is social death: "to be no part of any body, is to be nothing."9There is
2 Charles Taylor,Sources
(Cambridge,MA: Harvard
UP, 1989), 121, 143, and 149.
3 See Taylor,143-76.
4 Macpherson,quoted here fromTaylor,196.
and Postmodernism
in Contemporary
5 See Seyla Benhabib, Situating
Ethics(New York: Routledge,1992), 155.
6 Taylor,167 and 193.
7 Thomas Hobbes, TheEnglishWorks
ofThomasHobbes,ed. W. Molesworth,11 vols. (London:John
Bohn, 1839-45), 2:109.
An Anatomyof theWorld" in TheComplete
8JohnDonne, "The FirstAnniversarie:
Donne,ed. John T. Shawcross(New York:New York UP, 1968), 270-86, esp. 278 (11.214-17).
9JohnDonne, Letters
toSeverallPersonsofHonour(1651), intro.M. Thomas Hester (New York:
Scholars' Facsimilesand Reprints,1977), 51.
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another expression of recoil from self-creating individualism in Milton's portrait of originary evil in a figure who denies divine creation and fantasizes
limitless autonomy, claiming to be "self-begot, self-rais'd."'"
Othello,too, explores the autonomous, atomistic identityemerging in early
modern Europe. Roderigo's description of "an extravagant and wheeling
stranger / Of here and every where" (1.1.136-37) is a hostile version of
Othello's self-description of his "unhoused free condition" (1.2.26). Valuing
personal freedom more than familylineage and inherited loyalties, Othello
assumes that his position in society derives from conscious choice and service
to the state. Unlike such protagonists as Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth, who are
tightlyembedded in networks of kinship and feudal allegiance, Othello's
sense of personal and social identityis based on individual achievement and
merit. He owes his position in Venetian society to personal ability and the
chances of war. Though he proudly claims descent from "men of royal siege"
(1. 22), he sees no disjunction between his origins and his current position; his
sense of social identity derives from "My services which I have done the
signiory" (1. 18).
Venice, famous in Renaissance Europe not only as a cosmopolitan trading
center but as a flourishingindependent republic, is the appropriate home for
a militaryhero participating in a civic community characterized by values of
justice, public service, and individual merit.11For example, Lewes Lewkenor,
on whose translation of Gasparo Contarini's De MagistratibusetRepublica VenetorumShakespeare drew for some details of his representation of Venice, has
only praise for things Venetian:
their iustice is pure and vncorrupted:their penall Lawes most vnpardonably
executed: theirencouragementsto vertueinfinite:especiallybytheirdistribution
of offices& dignities,which is ordered ... [so that] it vtterly
subtiltieof all ambitiouspractises,neuer fallingvpon anybut vpon such as are by
the whole assemblyallowed formen of greatestwisedome,vertueand integritie
of life... 12
Contarini attributes the Venetian Republic's freedom and stabilityto its tradition of devotion to the common good. He warns that historyteaches that
"sundry commonwealthes ... [,] by the vndermining ambition and treachery
of some their wicked and vnfaithfullcitizens, were brought into seruitude and
bondage.''l3 In contrast:
our auncestors,fromwhomewee haue receyuedso flourishing
a commonwealth,
all in one did vnitethemseluesin a consentingdesire to establish,honour, and
amplifietheircountry,withouthauing ... the leastregardeof theirowne priuate
"0JohnMilton, ParadiseLost in JohnMilton:Complete
Poemsand Major Prose,ed. MerrittY.
Hughes (New York: OdysseyPress, 1957), 322 (Bk. 5, 1. 860).
" Othellois discussed in the contextof Englishimages of Venice in MurrayJ.Levith,Shakespeare'sItalian Settings
and Plays (New York:Macmillan,1989); David C. McPherson,Shakespeare,
Jonson,and theMythof Venice(Newark:U of Delaware P, 1990); and VirginiaMason Vaughan,
A Contextual
History(Cambridge:CambridgeUP, 1994).
12 Gasparo Contarini,TheCommonwealth
and Gouernment
trans.Lewes Lewkenor(London, 1599), sig. A2v. Referencesin Othelloto Lewkenor's translationare recorded in A New
ed. Horace HowardFurness(Philadelphia:J.B. Lippincott,
1886), 1.1.200n, 1.3.61n; and WilliamR. Drennan, " 'Corruptmeans to aspire': Contarini'sDe
Republicaand the Motivesof lago," Notes& Queries35 (1988): 474-75.
13 Contarini,77.
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glorieor commodity....[O]ur auncestors
notin vaineglorie
or ambition,buthad onlytheirintentiue
careto thegoodoftheircountry
and common
Moreover,while he makes clear that Venetian societyis hierarchicallyordered, with power correspondingto "nobilitie of lineage" ratherthan to
"estimationof wealth," Contariniinsiststhat political power derivesfrom
civic virtue:"all which were noble by birth,or enobled by vertue,or well
deservingof thecommonwealth,did ... obtainthisrightofgovernment."He
continueswitha pointparticularly
forOthello's positionin Venice:
"yea and some forrainmen and strangershave beene adopted into this
numberof citizens,eytherin regardof theirgreatnobility,or thattheyhad
been dutifulltowardesthe state,or els had done unto them some notable
service.''l5 In settinghis play and in identifying
his hero as a "Moor of
Venice," then,Shakespearedrewon the humanistmythofVenice,an ideal in
whichcivicvirtueproduces a powerful,freesocietythatin turnprotectsand
nurturesthe honor and freedomof its members.'6
But ifin the figureof the Moor ofVenice the playcelebratesa new kindof
hero and a new relationof selfto state,it also revealsdangersin the autonoThe sinisterobverseofOthello is lago, who claims
the position of lieutenant on merit-"I am worth no worse a place"
(1.1..11) -and offersas proofhis servicein the field.Like Othello, he values
independence fromconstraints,and, like Othello, he assumes that service
ratherthan birth,rank,or factionshould be rewardedand thata positionof
in the stateconstitutesreward.lago articulatesand appeals to
the autonomous self's sense of inviolableprivacywhen he contemptuously
refusesto wear his hearton his sleeve (1. 64) and when,at Othello's urgingto
"give thyworstof thoughts/ The worstof words" (3.3.132-33), he protests,
"I am not bound to thatall slavesare free [to]" (1. 135). Of course,to point
to continuity
is not to claimidentity.lago's insistenceon the rightto keep his
thoughtsto himselfis a deliberatemanipulationof Othello's need forfrank
and open exchange. The contrastsbetweenOthello's love and lago's malice,
betweenOthello's "free and open nature" (1.3.399) and lago's secrecyand
hypocrisy,are crucial to the play's moral economy; but, as self-fashioned
autonomousindividualsvaluingpersonalfreedomand definingthemselvesby
theirpublic service,theyshare an epistemologicalspace. If lago was created
out of theEnglishstagetraditionofMachiavellianvillains,Othellowas shaped
Contarini,6- 7.
Contarini,18. Venice relied militarily
onforeignmercenaries.Contariniendorsed the practice as allowing citizens to devote time to public life and as preventingthe developmentof
militaryfactionsamong citizens.Machiavelli,in contrast,opposed the use of mercenariesand
argued passionatelyfora citizenmilitiaon the groundsthatcitizensmake the best soldiersand
disciplineteachescivicvirtue.SeeJ.G.A.Pocock, TheMachiavellian
and theAtlantic
RepublicanTradition(Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUP, 1975), 321-22
and 200-201. Some criticsbelieve thatOthello is a hired soldier,whileothersassume thathe is
a citizen. For the formerposition,see Vaughan, 35; for the latter,see Carol Thomas Neely,
"Circumscriptionsand Unhousedness: Othelloin the Borderlands" in Shakespeare
and Gender:
Deborah Barkerand Ivo Kamps,eds. (London and NewYork:Verso,1995), 304. The play
does not specify,and I believe thatby stressingboth thatOthello is a foreignerand thathe is
dedicated to the city,the play conflatesVenetian practicewiththe ideal of the patriot-soldier.
16 In addition to Contariniand Machiavelli,importantcivichumanistswere Leonardo Bruni,
Donato Giannotti,Francesco Guicciardini,and Colluccio Salutati. Pocock's The Machiavellian
Momentis a magisterialmodern account of the republicantradition.
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bythe discourseof civichumanismto whichNiccol6 Machiavelli'sDiscorsiwas
a major contribution.
An old womansaid thatonce theywereslaves,butnowtheywerefree.... The
smallboywaspuzzled.... He askedtheteacherwhatwasthemeaningofslave,
and theteacherexplained.Butitdidn'tmakesense.... He toldtheteacherwhat
theold womanhad said.She wasa slave.And theteachersaid shewasgetting
ithad nothing
dotish.Itwasa long,long,longtimeago.... Andmoreover
withpeople in Barbados.No one therewas evera slave,the teachersaid.
... ThankGod, he wasn'tevera slave.He or his fatheror hisfather'sfather.
ThankGod nobodyin Barbadoswasevera slave.It didn'tsoundcruel.It was
and denial exestrangement,
The combinationof curiosity,
perienced by George Lamming'sprotagonistgrowingup in Barbados in the
1940s can, I think,help to focussimilarlycomplicatedresponsesto slaveryin
earlymodern England. Collectionsof travelliteraturesuch as those of Richard Hakluytand Samuel Purchascontainedaccountsof Ottomanslavery;the
growthof tradeand travelthroughoutthe sixteenthcenturybroughtEnglish
into contactwiththe actual practiceof slavery.'8Enmerchant-adventurers
glishparticipationin theAtlanticslave tradereached itsfullestdevelopment
in the eighteenthcentury.But fromthe 1560s, whenJohn Hawkinsmade
threeslavingvoyages,tradingin human merchandisewas highlyprofitable.In
the Caribbean, English colonistswere establishingthe systemof plantation
slavery.Africanslaves were firstbrought into England itselfin the midFor the
sixteenthcentury,'9and the numberof slavesincreased thereafter.
at courtand
mostpart,slaveswereused as domesticservantsand entertainers
in the households of richmerchants.
Slaveryas a materialpractice,then,was well known.Nevertheless,
tended to see itself,howeverinaccurately,as a land withoutslaves.For exofEngland(1587), WilliamHarrisonwrote:
ample, in his Description
bytheespecialgraceof God and bountyofourprincesthatifanycomehither
fromotherrealms,so soon as theyset footon land theybecomeso freeof
all noteofservile
as theirmasters,
bondageis utterly
Justas English culturesimultaneouslypromotedand denied slavery,so it
understandingsof the natureof slavesand slavery.In
a societywhereall exceptthemonarchweresubjects,and wordssuch as subject
George Lamming,In theCastleofMySkin (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), 57.
For the followingbriefsummaryof Englishslavery,I have relied primarilyon Peter Fryer,
ofBlackPeoplein Britain(London : PlutoPress,1984); Alden and Virginia
Vaughan, "Racial Slaveryin EnglishRenaissanceDrama: HistoriographicalContexts" (Unpublished paper, 1994); and JamesWalvin,Blackand white:theNegroand Englishsociety,
(London: Penguin Press,1973).
19Walvindates slaveryin England from1555 (1 and 7), and Fryerfrom1570 (5 and 8).
20 WilliamHarrison, TheDescription
Life,ed. GeorgesEdelen (Ithaca,NY: CornellUP forthe FolgerShakespeareLibrary,1994), 118.
Harrison's descriptionseems to be accurate only for Europeans. Nonwhiteslaverywas legally
enforcedin England throughoutthe sixteenthand seventeenthcenturies;see Fryer,113-26.
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and serverarelyhad pejorativeconnotations,subjectionin itselfwas not disgraceful.Nor did the commodificationof people as propertyprovokeviolent
abhorrence. Several formsof subjection,such as apprenticeship,imprisonment,and marriage,limitedmovementand entailedpropertyrights.Enslavement throughmilitarymisadventure,remediable throughransom,was regarded as unfortunateratherthan disgraceful.Parish records indicate that
collectingmoneyto ransomvictimscapturedand enslavedby"infidelTurks"
was a familiarpracticein manypartsof England.2' But thisrecognitionof the
actual contingencyof slaverycoexisted witha concept of the naturalslave,
incapable of honor.
In earlymodern drama thiscombinationof familiarity
and denial, of pity
and contemptis evident.Clever Plautine slaves scheme and plot to the discomfitureof theirmastersand the delightof theateraudiences, and references to cowardly,lying,perfidious,pernicious,base, and murderousslaves
crowd the language of insult.Tamburlaineenslavescaptivekingsand yokes
themto his chariot,and theepithet"slave" comes readilyto Hamlet's tongue
to expressdisgustwithClaudius and withhimself.Yet despite the inscription
of slaveryin character,metaphor,and stagedaction,itis curiouslyeffacedand
distanced.The forceof Hamlet's self-description
as a "peasant slave" and of
his self-recrimination
fornot having "fattedall the region kites/ With this
slave's offal" (2.2.550, 579-80) depends on distance fromthe literal.The
beatingsthe Dromio twinssufferand Caliban's enslavementbringinto dramatic focus the physicalviolence thatis the basis of slavery,but these subjugationsare located in ancientEphesus and on a remoteisland. On the EnglishRenaissance stage,slaveryhappens long ago and/or faraway.
Othelloprovidesa clear example of the simultaneousforegroundingand
distancingof slaveryand of viewingslaveswithboth pityand horrifiedcontempt.Although Cinthio's storyof the Moor of Venice does not mention
slavery,Shakespeare's Othello tellsDesdemona "Of being takenby the insolentfoe / And sold to slavery"and ofhis "redemptionthence" (1.3.137-38).
Othello's account, moreover,is not one of shamefulsubjectionbut instead
formspart of a narrativeof valor and triumph.The storyof being sold into
slaveryis one of the "disastrouschances" (1. 134) he has sufferedand courageouslyovercome.As withthe "movingaccidentsby flood and field" and
the "hair-breadthscapes i' th' imminentdeadly breach" (11.135, 136), his
enslavementand redemptionmoveDesdemona to pity.As withhis talesofthe
"Anthropophagi,and men whose heads / [Do grow] beneath theirshoulders" (11.144-45), his storyof captivity
contributesto the exotic image that
attractsher to the noble Moor. WinningDesdemona's love by tellinghis life
storyand defending himselfagainst Brabantio's charges by narratingthe
courtshipare of a piece withOthello's confidencethat "My parts,mytitle,
and myperfectsoul / Shall manifestme rightly"(1.2.31-32).
Beyond this brief mention in 1.3, there are no referencesto Othello's
enslavementand none to slaveryas a historicalinstitution,
recurs frequentlyas an epithet of abuse. Othello in agonized jealousy exclaims,"O thattheslavehad forty
thousandlives!/ One is too poor, too weak
for myrevenge" (3.3.442-43). Emilia speculates thatDesdemona has been
21 See RoslynL. Knutson,"Elizabethan Documents,Captivity
Narratives,and the Marketfor
26 (1996): 75-110; and CarolynPrager,"The
Problemof Slaveryin TheCustomofTheCountry,"
Studiesin EnglishLiterature
28 (1988): 301-17.
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slandered by "Some cogging,cozening slave" (4.2.132), and lago calls Roderigo a "murd'rousslave" as he stabshim duringthe brawlin the fifthact
(5.1.61). In thefinalscene Montanoand Lodovico call lago a "damned slave"
(5.2.243, 292), and, as Othello envisionshis damnation,he exclaims, "O
cursed,cursed slave!" (1. 276).
The fearand loathingelicitedby thisconstructionof the "naturally"base
slave registers,I believe,a pervasiveanxietythatthe developmentof autonomous subjectivity
bringsabout thedissolutionofsocial relations.The defining
characteristicof chattelslavery,as distinguishedfromotherformsof subjection, is the social death of slaves and their natal alienation. According to
Orlando Patterson,"[b] ecause the slavehad no sociallyrecognizedexistence
outside of his master,he became a social nonperson.... Alienatedfromall
'rights'or claims of birth,he ceased to belong in his own rightto anylegitimate social order." The antithesisof slavery,then,was not autonomybut
belonging,being "embedded in a networkof protectivepower."22Saxon law,
David Brion Davis observes,regardedthe " 'autonomous' strangerwho had
no familyor clan to protect him ... as a slave."23 As the shoulder note to a
translationof Euripidesobserves,"Al exiles are like bond-
men. '24
In Othello,literal slaveryis represented not as a manifestation of individual
or racial inferioritybut as a result of militaryand financial exigencies. But
while Othello's enslavement is presented merely as an unfortunate mishap in
the vagaries of a militarylife, slave as a sign of social death is a term of absolute
contempt. Thus when lago is repeatedly called "slave" in the final scene, the
epithet registershis total alienation from human society and justifies inflicting
on him "any cunning cruelty/ That can torment him much, and hold him
long" (5.2.333-34). Both senses of slave bear on Othello. In the undramatized past he survived bondage unscathed to achieve a position of eminence
and power in Venice. The play unfolds his degeneration from honorable and
honored member of Venetian society to a dishonorable slave, a monstrous
outsider, and the tragedy lies in the potential for monstrositywithin honor.
lago is able to manipulate his victims so skillfullybecause he thinks in the
same terms they do. In fact, lago articulates the rationale for self-fashioning
and individual responsibilitythat Othello embodies:
'tis in ourselvesthatwe are thus or thus.... the power and corrigibleauthority... lies in our wills.If the [beam] of our liveshad not one scale of reason to
theblood and basenessof our natureswould conduct
poise anotherofsensuality,
us to most prepost'rousconclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging
Orlando Patterson,Slaveryand SocialDeath:A Comparative
Study(Cambridge,MA: Harvard
UP, 1982), 5 and 28.
23 David Brion Davis, Slavery
and Human Progress
(New York: OxfordUP, 1984), 15.
Iocastain TheWholewoorkes
... (London, 1587 [STC 11638]), sig.Hiv.I am
indebted for this referenceto Joseph A. Porter,"Othello's Enslavementas a CulturalLens"
(Unpublished paper, 1994).
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Othello does not,like lago, numberlove among "our ragingmotions"; but,
as severalcriticshave shown,he becomes vulnerableto lago's identification
love withlust because he, too, suppressessensuality,assuringthe Venetian
senateon hisweddingnightthat"feather'dCupid" willnot distracthimfrom
"business" (11. 269, 271).25 While Stephen Greenblatt'sinfluentialessay
tracesOthello's disparagementof passion and sensualityto traditionalChristian distrustof sexuality,I want to argue that it has less connection with
Christianasceticismthanwitha neo-Stoic ideal of rationalself-control.Othello proteststo thesenate thathis desireforhis brideto accompanyhimis not
To pleasethepalateofmyappetite,
withheat (theyoungaffects
Norto comply
In [me] defunct)and propersatisfaction;
Butto be freeand bounteousto hermind.
In the termsof Charles Taylor's analysis,Othello's account of his attitude
towardDesdemona has less in common withan Augustinianconcept of two
kinds of love, charityand concupiscence,than witha Cartesianideal of rationalcontrolin whichone's desiresare objectifiedand strengthofwillis the
In opposition,then,to the now-dominantviewthatOthello's vulnerability
lies in his positionas an alien,a Moor not fullysecurewithinVenetiansociety,
I see Othello as not merelya Moor in Venice but the Moor ofVenice, whose
deepest values and sense of selfare fullyconsonant withthose of Venice's
other inhabitants.The warriorwho believes thatmilitaryserviceto the state
"makes ambitionvirtue" (3.3.350) is articulatinga centraltenetof civichumanism.26InterpretingOthello's Venetian values as alien cultural norms
tenuouslyadopted can implythathis transformation
to murdereris one of a black barbarianemergingfrombehind his civilized
mask and revertingto his savage origins.
Recent scholarshipshowsthatthe earlymodern period was a crucial moment in the historyof European responses to black-skinnedAfricans.Alverifiable,biologicallydistinctraces did
though the concept of scientifically
not gain currencyuntilthe nineteenthcentury,such scholarsas Karen Newman, Michael Neill, and Kim Hall have documented the emergenceof racist
ideas duringthisperiod and analyzedtheirimportantrole in constructions
Similarly,althoughwe need to resistanachnational and personalidentity.27
asronisticallyimposing on the Renaissance our post-nineteenth-century
25 For discussionsof Othello's sexual anxieties,see Edgar A. Snow, "Sexual Anxietyand the
Male Order ofThingsin Othello,"ELR 10 (1980): 384-412; and Stephen Greenblatt,Renaissance
(Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980).
26 See Pocock, 132-35; and Quentin Skinner,"The republican ideal of politicalliberty"in
Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner,and Maurizio Viroli,eds. (CamMachiavelliand Republicanism,
bridge: CambridgeUP, 1990), 293-309, esp. 303.
27 Among the growingvolume of valuable scholarshipon race in earlymodern England, I've
found the followingespeciallyhelpfulforstudyingOthello:EmilyBartels,"Making More of the
41 (1990):
Moor: Aaron, Othello, and RenaissanceRefashioningsof Race," Shakespeare
"Othello"(New York: G. K. Hall
433-54; Gerard Barthelemy,ed., CriticalEssayson Shakespeare's
30 (1990):
and Co., 1994); Edward Berry,"Othello's Alienation," Studiesin EnglishLiterature
in theEarlyModern
"Race," and Writing
315- 33; Margo Hendricksand PatriciaParker,eds., Women,
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we can see itsbeginnings.Blackand slavewere
sumptionsof racializedslavery,
by no means interchangeabletermsin the seventeenthcentury.As Ania
Loomba observes,"the slavepopulationofEurope consistedofTartar,Greek,
Armenian,Russian, Bulgarian,Turkish,Circassian,Slavonic, Cretan,Arab,
African(Mori), and occasionallyChinese (Cathay) slaves."28But we should
not extrapolatetoo much fromsuch evidence.Justas lago's image of "an old
black ram" (1.1.88) appeals to an "increasinglybiologized idea of race"
which Kwame AnthonyAppiah has located in the nineteenthcentury,29
Brabantio's cry that "Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be"
(1.2.99) articulatesan emergingidea of racializedslavery.
I cannot claim to contributehere to the projectof uncoveringthe rootsof
racism-the repugnanceat physicaldifferenceinscribedin Othellois already
well documented.But I do suggestthatattentionto the interactingideas of
personal identityand slaverymay complicate and illuminate the history
of race. Earlymodern slaverywas not racialized,but when the profitability
slavelabor in theAmericascreateda need to rationalizethe dehumanization
of black-skinnedAfricans,the driveforcontroland the fearof isolationthat
characterizedisengagedselvesproveduseful.Such attitudesencouraged understandingthe sociallydead slave as inherentlyother and understanding
slaveryas the product of naturalbaseness ratherthan as a contingentand
threateningpossibility.ComplementingOrlando Patterson'sargumentthat
of the idea of freedom,30I suggestthat
the practiceof slaveryis constitutive
of the ideologysupwas constitutive
the freedomof self-defining
Still,as Appiah warns,"if it is clear enough how this ideology that will
develop into racialismcould servealreadyin the seventeenthcenturyto license the domination of subject peoples, it is also importantto mark the
31 While race and slavery
interwowould eventuallybe so tightly
ven thattheywere seen as naturallyinseparable,in the early1600s theywere
distinct.Othellois a key textin this historynot only because it mixes selfrace, and slaveryin an unstableand explosivecombination,but also
because theycombine onlyoccasionally.This veryinfrequencysuggeststhat
was not inevitable.
ofRaceand Gender
Period(London: Routledge,1994); KimF. Hall, ThingsofDarkness:
EarlyModernEngland (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995); Eldred D. Jones, Othello'sCountrymen:
Africanin EnglishRenaissanceDrama (London: Oxford UP, 1965); Ania Loomba, Gender,
RenaissanceDrama (Manchester:ManchesterUP, 1989); Michael Neill, "Unproper Beds: Race,
Adultery,and the Hideous in Othello,"SQ 40 (1989): 383-412; and Karen Newman,Fashioning
Drama (Chichgo:U of Chicago P, 1991), 71-93.
and EnglishRenaissance
and Renaisculturaldifference,
28 Ania Loomba, "The Color of Patriarchy:
sance drama" in Hendricks and Parker,eds., 17-34, esp. 29. See also Lynda Boose, "The
'Gettingof a LawfulRace': Racial Discourse in EarlyModern England and the Unrepresentable
BlackWoman" in Hendricksand Parker,eds., 35-54; PeterFryer,BlackPeoplein theBritish
(London: Pluto Press, 1989), 63-72; Neely,303-4; and WilliamD. PhillipsJr.,
An Introduction
Slave Trade (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
fromRomanTimesto theEarlyTransatlantic
1985), 6-7.
Study,Frank Lentricchiaand
29 Kwame AnthonyAppiah, "Race" in CriticalTerms
Thomas McLaughlin,eds. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990), 274-87, esp. 279.
people simplycould not have conceived of the thingwe call freedom.Men
30 "Before slavery
and women in premodern,nonslaveholdingsocietiesdid not, could not, value the removalof
restraintas an ideal" (Patterson,340).
31 Appiah, 279.
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The play neitherportraysnor evokes stable responsesto Othello's blackness. The image of "an old black ram" is more than counterbalancedby
referencesto the noble and valiantMoor. On the whole,Othello's blackness
and culturaldisplacementare correlativeof,ratherthan contrasting
role as self-defined,
he commandsin Venice. Jagomanipulateshim not throughhis alien exoticism but throughhis Venetian need for social order and epistemological
clarity.Like his possessivejealousy, Othello's pervertedsense ofjustice is "a
monster/ Begot upon itself,born on itself" (3.4.161-62).
The ethic of rationalcontrol,as Taylorpointsout, internalizedthe virtues
of the honor ethic. For example, in Descartesgenerosity-"the centralmotiveof the honour ethic" -means "thatstrongsense of one's ownworthand
honour whichpushed men to conquer theirfearsand baser desiresand do
great things."32In Othello the honor ethic of the aristocraticwarriorhas
into the self-esteemof the freeman whose reason controls
been transformed
his passion and whose honor entailsthe defenseof the civilizedcommunity
fromall thatis barbarousand bestial.When he upbraidsCassio forsacrificing
"reputation" for "the name / Of a night-brawler"(2.3.194-96), and when
Cassio in disgracelamentsthat,in losingreputation,he has lost "the immortal part" (1. 263) of himself,Jagofindsthe groundsfortheirruin.Realizing
thatCassio, Desdemona, and Othello are not drivenby carnal lustsso much
as theyare motivatedbytheirsense of themselvesas participantsin a civilized
loyalty,and a sense of self-worth
based on responsiblyfillingpositionsof trust.He can count on Desdemona's
generous and forcefulintercessionon Cassio's behalfjust as he can relyon
Othello's "free and open nature." The pernicious brillianceof Jago's destructivescheme is preciselythat he turnsOthello's strengthsagainst him,
forthecommongood intomurder,"else
hissense ofresponsibility
she'll betraymore men" (5.2.6).3 Unlike Richard III, who manipulatesa
pervasive greed for power, Jago turns his victims' virtues into "pitch"
(2.3.360); and out of theideals and qualitiestheymostvalue in themselves,
makes the net thatenmeshes
CorrelatingwithVenetian ideals of civic order and justice and of participation in civic life is fear of losing control. Such fear lies behind Cassio's
shame at his betrayalof public trust,Brabantio'sclaim "I am glad at soul I
have no otherchild,/ For thyescape would teach me tyranny"(1.3.196-97),
and the Venetian senators'methodicalpreparationsfordefendingtheirempire againstthe Turks.All theseare in turncontinuouswithOthello's determinationto controlhimself,Cyprus,and Desdemona.34To Othello,orderin
dissolvesOthello's civilizedveneerso thathe reverts
oppositeview,thatlago corrosively
to primitivesavagery,has remainedcurrent,althoughmanyof the play's acutestcriticshave, I
refutedit. Compare,forexample, the followingquotations:"to attributethe
to man's 'bestialnature,'to thesexual impulsebreaking
impulsesunleashed in Othello
throughthe civilizedbarriersthatusuallycontainit,is to turnthe visionof the playon itshead.
Shakespearelocates the principleof eviland malice at the level of the superego,the agencythat
enforcescivilizationon the ego" (Snow, 410); "for the momenthe [Othello] has a clothingof
civilizationover his rough essence, but waitingto erupt at any moment are dark forces
primitiveand elementalchaos" (Levith,32).
control of its empire is
34 Like Othello's control of himselfand his world, the city-state's
tenuous.Althoughin the playthe Turkishthreatto Cyprusdissipatesin a storm,some members
33 The
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the stateand the cosmosis not so much perceivedas imposed: "For Christian
shame,putbythisbarbarousbrawl" (2.3.172); "when I love thee not,/ Chaos
is come again" (3.3.91-92). He experiences Jago's questioningof Cassio's
and Desdemona's loyaltyas an invasionof his privacyand a violationof his
When his sense ofcontrolis undermined,thepossessiveness
inherentin his love becomes explicit:"O curse of marriage!/ That we can
call these delicate creaturesours,/ And not theirappetites" (11.268-70). As
John Donne recognized,"Love is a Possessoryaffection,it deliversover him
that loves into the possession of that that he loves."36 But an identity
of being
grounded in controland possessioncannot toleratethe vulnerability
possessed,so Othello mustdestroylove.
By insinuatinga hidden threatto Othello's "good name," Jagoactivates
need forcertainty
and clarity.Bydefiningjealousy as
Othello's overwhelming
the irrational uncertaintyof one "Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet
[strongly]loves" (3.3.170), he manipulatesOthello into equating rationality
withdispassionateexaminationof evidenceleading unambiguouslyto certain
judgment. Once Othello takesa stanceas impartialobserverof an objectified
Desdemona, then generalizationsabout femalesexualityand Venetiansocial
mores replace his own experience of Desdemona and of theirlove as constiof love,
tutingknowledge.37Lacking the interdependentorder and certainty
reason opposed to ragOthello adopts Jago'sdualisticvisionof instrumental
ing lust. His perceptionof chaotic animalityis a pathologicalversionof BraBrabantio's theorythat Othello could have no
bantio's fear of witchcraft.
power over Desdemona "Sans witchcraft"(1.3.64) reflectsthe troubling
power that the idea of unnatural evil exerted in Renaissance English culin Europe curiouslycoincided witha
ture.38Noting thatbeliefin witchcraft
general decline in beliefin magic,Taylorsuggeststhat
and thespectacular
riseof beliefin and
sense of threatfromthem,can be partlyunderstoodas a crisisarisingin the
The aspectof possession,
of ravishment,
and obsessional
justat thetimeand to thedegree
of the play'sfirstaudienceswouldhave knownthatin factVenice lostCyprusto theTurksin 1571.
See McPherson,30 and 79.
35 For discussionof Othello
in the contextof the women-as-propertyideology,see Kenneth
Burke, "Othello:An Essayto Illustratea Method," TheHudsonReview4 (1951): 165-203; Peter
theRenaissance:TheDisStallybrass,"PatriarchalTerritories:The Body Enclosed" in Rewriting
in EarlyModernEurope,MargaretW. Ferguson,Maureen Quilligan,and
NancyJ.Vickers,eds. (Chicago: U of Chicago P 1986), 123-42; and JamesL. Calderwood, The
of "Othello"(Amherst:U of MassachusettsP, 1989).
36JohnDonne, TheSermons
Donne,ed. George R. Potterand EvelynM. Simpson,10 vols.
(Berkeley:U of CaliforniaP, 1953-62), 1:184.
37 See the illuminating
discussionsof epistemologyin Othelloin Joel Altman," 'Preposterous
Conclusions': Eros,Enargeia,and the Compositionof Othello,"Representations
18 (1987): 129-57;
in SixPlaysofShakespeare
(Cambridge:CambridgeUP, 1987),
125-42; KatharineEisaman Maus, Inwardness
and Theater
in theEnglishRenaissance(Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1995), 104-27; and Naomi Scheman, "Othello's Doubt/Desdemona's Death: The
Engenderingof Scepticism" in Power,Gender,Values,JudithGenova, ed. (Edmonton, Canada:
Academic Printingand Publishing,1987), 113-33. Scheman's essayis particularly
demonstratingthe male genderingof the Cartesiandisengagedself.
38 For a discussionof the evidentiary
proceduresin witchcraft
trialsin relationto Othello,
Maus, 110-20.
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thatthe identitywas emergingwhichwould break our dependence on ordersof
ontic logos, and establisha self-defining
Terror of the irrational and uncontrollable, of being possessed, corroded the
identityof the emergent autonomous self.
Othello's effortsto gain certaintybecome obsessive and self-defeating. The
last strawis the loss of the handkerchief, which signifiesto him not merely loss
of exclusive control of Desdemona but also cultural isolation. In Othello's first
account of the handkerchief's provenance, his mother received it from an
Egyptian charmer with the promise it would "subdue my father / Entirely to
her love" (3.4.59-60), and his dying mother gave it to him to pass on to his
wife when he married. In the shorter, second version, his father gave the
handkerchief to his mother, and Othello gave it to Desdemona as a "pledge
of love" (5.2.214). However we interpret the inconsistencies in the two accounts, the constants are that the handkerchief is a symbol of love, the power
of which derives from its connection to Othello's parents. With its loss, Othello, like a slave, has been cut off"from the social heritage of his ancestors."40
He kills Desdemona and himself in a desperate effortto regain connection
with society through identification with ordered, free Venice.
I am arguing, then, that the early modern English fascination with and
occlusion of slaveryregister the fear that a developing concept of individual
autonomy could lead to isolation, that an ideal of freedom conceptualized as
control over an objectified self and external world could lead to its opposite.
Milton's Satan, claiming total autonomy, is revealed as "not free, but to
[him]self enthrall'd.'"41 So, too, in Othello slavery and freedom transform
themselves into each other. Othello's "unhoused free condition" incorporates his period of slavery,but his attempts to defend his honor and to assert
total control over Desdemona enslave him to lago's interpretation of him and
his world. Faced with the terrible consequences of his revenge, Othello remembers his earlier potency:
I have seen the day
That withthislittlearm,and thisgood sword,
I have made mywaythroughmore impediments
Than twentytimesyourstop.
But memories of former power lead him to recognize fantasies of autonomy
as futile-"But (O vain boast!) / Who can control his fate?" (11. 264-65).
Othello can no longer imagine making his own way through impediments; his
mind now is possessed by self-images neither of power and control nor of
weakness and defeat but rather of exclusion and isolation:
Now-how dost thou look now? 0 ill-starr'dwench,
Pale as thysmock!when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thinewill hurl mysoul fromheaven,
The phrase is Patterson's(5).
41 Milton in Hughes, ed., 328 (Bk. 6,1. 181).
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And fiendswillsnatchat it. Cold, cold, mygirl?
Even like thychastity.0 cursed,cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possessionof thisheavenlysight!
The terribletruththatDesdemona is chaste and dead means thatOthello is
damned, a cursed slave.42
was writtenand firstperformedin a transitionalmomentbetweena
worldwhere all people were to some degree subject to othersand enslavementwas a misfortuneanyone mightsufferand one where the enslavement
of certain groups of people was scientifically
justifiedas natural.The play
registersthe ambivalenceof thistransitionalperiod. By representingOthello's tragedyas subjection to "the practice of a damned slave" (1. 292), it
recordsfascinationwiththe idea of slaveryas dishonorableabjection.Yet it
adds an episode of Ottomanslaveryto Othello's pastadventureswhileerasing
European slaveryas a social institution:
the "manya purchas'd
slave" Shylockobserved (MV, 4.1.90) are nowhere to be seen in Othello's
Venice. Such simultaneouseffacementof and fascinationwithslaverywere
characteristicof English culture.Dramatizingboth the empoweringdignity
and the fragilevulnerability
of the self-definingautonomous self,the play
embodies culturalanxietiesabout isolation and illuminatesthe conditions
thatin the late-seventeenth
centurywould produce both a flourishingslave
trade and theoriesof inalienable human rights.
Othello,whose honor consistsin servingthe common good, and Jago,who
followsonlyto servehis own turn,are twoversionsof the morallyand politically autonomous self our liberal traditionshave conflated.John Locke's
concept of a disengagedselfgeneratedideals of freedom,responsibility,
inalienable human rights."Slaveryis so vile and miserablean Estateof Man,
and so directlyopposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation," he wrote,"that 'tis hardlyto be conceived,thatan Englishman,
less a Gentleman,
should plead for't."43 But Locke the Englishgentlemanwas
both an administrator
of slave-holdingcolonies and an investorin the Royal
AfricanCompany,and he also wrotethatslaves "are by the Rightof Nature
subjectedto theAbsoluteDominion and Arbitrary
Powerof theirMasters."44
Recentlysuch theoristsas Quentin Skinnerand Chantal Mouffehave argued
convincinglythatthe traditionof civichumanismis potentiallyusefulin addressingthe politicalproblemsof our own time,providinga wayof reconciling a "negative" concept offreedom(i.e., the absence of constraint)withthe
idea of personallibertyrealized throughcivicvirtueand public service.45
figureof Othello, who servesthe common good in a culturallydiverseand
ordered society,gives imaginativeforce to such arguments.But Othello's
The phrase "0 cursed,cursed slave!" is ambiguousand can also referto lago; see Furness,
ed., 5.2.339n. In any case, it denotes isolationfromhuman community.
43JohnLocke, TwoTreatises
quoted here fromDavid Brion Davis, TheProblem
Slaveryin Western
Culture(Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1966), 118.
44 Locke, quoted here fromDavis, TheProblem
120- 21. See also Fryer,BlackPeople,65.
45 Skinner,293-309; Chantal Mouffe,"Radical Democracy:Modern or Postmodern?"
Paul Holdengraber,in Universal
AndrewRoss, ed. (Minneapolis: U of MinnesotaP, 1988), 31-45.
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tragicfall also reminds us that civic humanism assumes a self-possession
powerand thenof property.46
foundedon possessionfirstof military
the ideal of freedom throughpolitical participationcan supplement the
purelynegativefreedomof rights-basedliberalism,it does not solvethe problems created by possessiveindividualismand by the disengaged self's alienation fromobjectifiedothers.
In George Lamming's novel, quoted in section 2's epigraph, the school
teacher denies thatslaveryever had anythingto do withthe people of Barbados: "It was in anotherpartof the worldthatthose thingshappened. Not
in LittleEngland." The old people rememberslaveryand rememberthatit
was Queen Victoria,the "greatand good queen," who freedthem.47But they
fail to rememberthat,as David Brion Davis points out, "it was not the enslaverswho colonized and subjectedAfrica,but the European liberators.''48
Cf. Pocock, 463.
Lamming,57 and 56.
Davis, Slaveryand Human Progress,
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