“Moor” and Race in the Early Modern Period


In this topic, we will cover: definitions, a discussion about race and Othello from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kim Hall’s ideas about race and religion in the early modern period, Ayanna Thompson’s ideas about race, and current debates.

Note for students: this topic brings together the perspectives of scholars, historians, and actors who have worked on Othello. As you will see, “race” in the early modern period was deeply tied to religion and is different about how we think about race today (“we” being students in the United States in the 21st century). Remember that all of these perspectives will be slightly different (you might completely agree, for example, with one of the actors, or you may think they are completely wrong!) — it is up to you to decide which ideas best align with your own ideas and interpretations of the play.


Definitions of “Moor”

Kim Hall’s Perspective:

Moor: An “extremely malleable term used to mark geographic and religious differences…While sharing the common connotations of ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner,’ the world ‘can mean…non-black Muslim, black Christian, or black Muslim’ (Barthelemy, Black Face 7). In all of its permutations, however, the word Moor represents Christian Europe’s most profound ‘other,’” (Kim Hall 3)

On the English stage, it is most frequently connected to Islam and “to Christian conceptions of blackness” (3)

Hall’s view: “not only that Othello is about race but also that it has helped question and define race and interracial desire for centuries…race looked different to Othello’s early modern audience” (4-5)

Othello comes to represent an amalgamation of narratives about “moors, Turks, Africans, and possibly Indians into a single figure” (6)

OED Definition

“Originally: a native or inhabitant of ancient Mauretania, a region of North Africa corresponding to parts of present-day Morocco and Algeria. Later usually: a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent inhabiting north-western Africa (now mainly present-day Mauritania), who in the 8th cent. conquered Spain.”

Debate from the RSC: Is Othello a racist play?


[Full Audio Discussion]

Kim Hall’s “Race and Religion”

In this section, We will look at a video of Kim Hall talking about Race and Religion in Othello and then look at excerpts from her chapter from the Bedford Texts and Contexts edition of the play.

“Understanding Race and Religion through Othello” with Kim Hall

Hall’s Introduction

  • “Since the eighteenth century, race has dominated the Anglo-American world’s thinking about human differences; however, for the early modern period, race was an emergent category, one with shifting and paradoxical contours. Conversely, even though religion remains an important means of negotiating the contemporary world, it was an even more pervasive system of thought for Othello’s Jacobean audience” (171)
  • “A powerful cultural and political force, as well as a spiritual one, religion was the dominant means by which early moderns understood and ordered their world” (171)
  • (below): “Othello’s Lamentation” by William Salter, 1857

Early Modern Climate Theory

  • “This field of natural philosophy was the basis for most racial/ethnic distinctions of early modern Europe. As an environmental schema, it assumes that character, appearance, and temperament are all shaped by the individual’s climate or region…[it] adhered to a three-part division of the world with northern (cold), southern (hot) and middle (temperate) zones” (174)
    • Northerners: tall, white, cold, dull, credulous, warlike, sometimes cruel and jealous
    • Southerners: short, black, cowardly, subtle, wise, superstitious, and jealous
    • Middles Zones: temperate ideal (174)
  • Can you find moments in the text where “climate theory” thinking appears?

Blackness and Moors on Stage

  • “Moors who frequented the Elizabethan stage and popular entertainment were overwhelmingly, stereotypically evil and male” (182)
  • Othello is a notable exception: “noble Moor”
  • “performers used either cloth, vizards (masks), or paint with black wigs” (183)
  • Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness included Queen Anne and her ladies painted as “black-moors” (see below)

Religion: “Turning Turk” and Islam

Kim Hall

  • “English writings on the Turk, particularly for the stage, demonized Islam and the Ottomans, rendering them cruel, barbarous, bloody, corrupt, militaristic, and sexually promiscuous” (Hall 207)

Matthew Dimmock

  • “Although England’s Islamic alliances had brought Muslims and their goods into England, it was the interconnected popularity of what is known as the ‘Turk play’ on the Elizabethan stage that pushed Islam and Islamic cultures to the fore of the English imagination. The caricatures, pomp, and bombast of such plays dominated London’s stages as Shakespeare began to forge a career, and had begun with Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1587)”
  • “Why then did [Shakespeare] return to the matter of the ‘Turk play’ in Othello (1603)? Partly he did so to capitalise on the continuing currency of Islam and Islamic themes in England – a Moroccan embassy had been resident in London in 1600-01 – and partly to innovate. Indeed, Othello rips up the rulebook. An audience is presented with a protagonist from beyond Christendom, a Moorish warrior-convert, and given expansive Mediterranean geographies across which they expect to see him battle the Turkish foe. At the very least they would have anticipated an enactment of the great siege of Cyprus (conquered by the Ottomans in 1570). Instead those geographies rapidly contract into suffocating domesticity, the Turks never appear and Othello only draws his sword on Desdemona and himself. The play’s tragic conclusion, when Othello smites the ‘circumcised and turbanned Turk’ that he has become, completes this process of turning the ‘Turk play’ inside out.”

Early Modern Plays about “Turning Turk” and Conversion

A final perspective and questions to ponder.

Ayanna Thompson on Shakespeare and Race

Some questions:

  1. We can say that Othello depicts racism, but does this make the play or Shakespeare racist? Perhaps more importantly, what can Othello tell us about race in the early modern period versus today?
  2. Should black actors play Othello?
  3. How do we deal with the fact that today, we have the history of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery that cannot be “forgotten” when looking at the play?
  4. Where do we see racism in the play? How do people refer to Othello? How do we read the ending and Othello’s death scene?

Works Cited

Dimmock, Matthew. “Shakespeare and Islam.” OUPblog, Oxford University Press, 27 Dec. 2015, blog.oup.com/2015/12/shakespeare-and-islam/

Is Othello a Racist Play? . Royal Shakespeare Company, 15 Dec. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAcmVH8vqZw.

“Moor, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017.

Shakespeare and Race. Oxford Academic, 7 Oct. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsUoW9eNTAw.

Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Kim F. Hall, Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Understanding Race and Religion through Othello. Folger Library, 11 July 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1hPm2iWrks.