Was Othello of African or Arabic descent? In the famous play Othello by William Shakespeare the topic of Othelloâ€™s ethnicity is a very widely discussed topic. Most people get to the, in my opinion, erroneous conclusion that Othello was of sub-Sahara African descent (black). The opposing point of viewâ€™s position is that he was of Arabic, or North African descent, which as I will attempt to explain throughout this paper is, in my opinion, correct. The main points people who believe that he was black use is that quite simply throughout the play he is called black a number of times, and he is also called thick lipped once, and moors donâ€™t have thick lips. He mentions he was a slave, and at the people who were slaves were the West Africans not the Arabs.
A little before Shakespeareâ€™s time queen Elisabeth had started to make the distinction between the fair Europeans and the â€œblackmoorsâ€ which was supposed to be a way to classify the people from North Africa but it was really just a way to classify anyone from anywhere in Africa. She started trading these â€œblackmoorsâ€ as slaves. And we know for sure that at least one of these shipments of â€œblackmoorsâ€ was composed completely of people from West Africa, in fact they were Spanish slaves stolen by England. So the term black started being used for the â€œblackmoorsâ€ as well as the West Africans (because of their skin color).
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All this went on while England traded goods and interacted with the Moroccans or North Africans (Bartels, pg 148-150). So even though the moors obviously had a better standing in Europe than the West Africans they still could have been captured and sold as slaves. So Othello could perfectly have been a slave at some point in his life. And it only makes sense that he would be able to walk away after running away if he was a moor, because a black person would not be able to walk free, only a moor would. Moors were able to walk free in Europe and this is why Queen Elisabeth felt she needed to put this barrier of color between Europeans and the rest of the darker world. (Bartels 148-150). The last problem that I already presented was that Othello was called thick lipped, and North Africans donâ€™t have thick lips. And this too is part of the peopleâ€™s ignorance; the term â€œblackâ€ is just a way to differentiate those who are not European (Neill, pg 368).
Proof of this ignorance is that people actually believed the wild stories about Africa to be true. Stories like some involving people whose heads grew under their shoulders and others like that (Neill, pg 362). This ignorance was not in the least the peopleâ€™s fault, the only ways they had of knowing what was outside of their city is to hear the stories of the people who came from outside the city. These were the stories they brought, but if they were confused about people with heads growing under their shoulders they certainly did not know the difference between a moor and a thick lipped black from West Africa.
And as we can see from the stories of people with no heads which Othello tells Desdemona about, we can see that Shakespeare knows of the peopleâ€™s ignorance and uses it to get their interest. Therefore â€œthick lippedâ€ is just another one of the many things Shakespeare uses to catch the audiences attention without much regard for it actually being accurate since people were very ignorant and they did not know about it anyway. To support this we might also say that the only ones who call Othello black are the ones that are trying to put him down and himself at the end when he is feeling worse every second about himself. Blackness in Othello in general represents evil and bad things in general. At that time black people were also considered less; to tell someone that he is black is to degrade him. When Othello is called thick lipped it is just a very well known feature that people from West Africa have, and to call him that is the same as calling him black just stronger, and with more weight, because it is like you just noticed that he has thick lips, and you are just saying it (whether it was said in a degrading manner or not) and we know that only West African people have lips like that, as opposed to the skin color which could be very easily confused for some other shade of a darker skin. So by not referring directly to his skin color Iago is able to insult Othello about his blackness in a much greater level than he would have been able to had he simply referred to him as black.
Some people who believe that he was black think that those who say that he was a moor believe so since he is called a moor and a Turk throughout the play, and actually those two names were used throughout all of Africa and part of India at different times going back and forth. These people therefore think that this is enough proof for the fact.