Othello, the Moor of London

Othello, the Moor of London

Several potential Heritage Consortium supervisors have interests in black heritage, history and literature, and we welcome PhD applications relating to black heritage. Matthew Steggle, Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, explains his research interests:

Until fairly recently, it was thought that Shakespeare – who, famously, never as far as we know left England – would have had little or no direct knowledge of racially different people outside what he had read in books.  For early critics of Othello, for instance, it was an axiom that the central character’s colour put him far, far outside the direct experience of the audience: as A. C. Bradley put it, he ‘does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence — almost as if from wonderland’.

This turns out not to be true. In recent years hundreds of archival records have emerged showing the presence in Britain, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of numbers of black people: men, women, and children, in cities and in the countryside, working often as servants, but also in a range of occupations as various as trumpeter, diver, needle-maker, silk-worker, and soldier.

Surprisingly, these people were none of them slaves.  Up until 1677, British law was firm in its assertion that slavery was illegal, and that anyone who had previously been enslaved was free once they were under British jurisdiction: Britain possessed “too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in”.  Not until the second half of the seventeenth century, when slave plantations in the new colonies became lucrative, did a court make the shameful judgement that ‘Negroes, being usually bought and sold by merchants, and so merchandise’, could legally be recognized under British law as slaves.

Before 1677, then, those black people who found themselves in Britain, whether through travel or through forcible abduction by traders, were in a strange position. They were, to be sure, at massive social and cultural disadvantages, in a deeply racist (or rather proto-racist) culture.  However, they did not yet have, as later they did, the legal status of an unperson.  Instead, individuals and groups attempted to accommodate themselves within Tudor and Stuart Britain, with some success.  For Imitaz Habib, the first half of the seventeenth century can in fact be thought of as a ‘renaissance of English black people in the early modern age’.

I am interested in the black characters in Shakespeare – Othello, Caliban, Cleopatra, and the rest – and how their race can be reread in the light of new discoveries that Shakespeare’s England was more racially mixed, and perhaps even sometimes more racially tolerant, than was previously thought.  I have written on other early modern plays that talk about the early black British experience, such as Richard Brome’s The English Moor, in which one of the main characters is supposedly the black maidservant of a London merchant.  (In fact, she is the protagonist’s white wife in blackface disguise).  And I am working currently on black entertainers from the early modern period, some of whom can be linked, possibly, to Shakespeare.

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One Response to Othello, the Moor of London

  1. Was Cleopatra envisioned as black by Elizabethans, as in the contemporary notion of a ‘blackamoor’? I remember she describes herself as ‘with Phoebus’amorous pinches black’ but she also offers ‘her bluest veins to kiss’.

    Because of R&J’s ‘Cleopatra a gipsy’ I always thought she was imagined as dark-skinned, but more like an Arab, Indian or Mediterranean type.

    Tbh I’ve also always wondered whether she offers the back of her hand or her inside wrist to be kissed. I think I prefer the latter.

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