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English Literature   >   Shakespeare – Othello and Race

The Meaning of Race

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Shakespeare – Othello and Race

In this course, Professor Ania Loomba (University of Pennsylvania) explores the question of race in Shakespeare's 'Othello'. In the first module, we think about what race meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, exploring the long history of blackness in European literature, and considering some of the key historical changes in 15th- and 16th-century Europe that contributed to changing attitudes about race. In the second module, we think about the extent to which Othello's jealousy is presented as being dependent on his race – to what extent, in other words, is his jealous because he is black? – before turning in the third module to consider the interplay between sex, sexism and racism in the play, especially the extent to which Othello's status as a victim of racism is linked to his status as an agent of sexism. In the fourth module, we delve a little deeper into this topic by thinking about the interplay between race, sex and class in the play, before turning in the fifth and final module to consider the issue of race in the performance history of Othello.

Note: We used the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.

The Meaning of Race

In this module, we think about what race meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, focusing in particular on: (i) the changes that were happening in Europe at this time, including: the discovery, exploration and exploitation of the New World, the establishment and expansion of the Transatlantic slave trade, and the opening up of new trade routes in the East; (ii) the extent to which English society became more cosmopolitan at this time, and the extent to which negative ideas about non-whites, non-Europeans and non-Christians hardened as a result; (iii) Shakespeare's use of the word 'race', which is sparing and never in relation to blackness; (iv) the concept of the Curse of Ham, the different sections of society this curse was thought to apply to, and the connection between ideas of class, religion, sexuality and blackness; (v) the importance of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (early 13th century), in which we see a European knight (Gahmuret) marry a black queen (Belacane), the reason why the relationship does not last, and the importance of the child they have together, who is literally half-black and half-white; (v) the fusion of religion and colour in the word 'Moor', which originally referred to an individual's religion, but in late 16th-century England had come to refer to an individual's skin colour; (vi) the tendency in medieval iconography to depict non-Europeans/non-Christians as black – including those who weren't in fact black (e.g. Jews, Saracens, etc.) and even the personification of negative traits (e.g. the depiction of Danger as a black man in a late 15th-century manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose); (vii) the impact of the expansion of the slave trade on the perception of black people in England in this period: the figure of Sir John Hawkins, one of the earliest slave traders in the country, his coat of arms; and (viii) Elizabeth I's attempts in July 1596 to have all black people deported from England ("There are of late divers blackmoors brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many […] These kind of people should be send forth of the land.")

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Loomba, A. (2021, November 02). Shakespeare – Othello and Race - The Meaning of Race [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Loomba, A. "Shakespeare – Othello and Race – The Meaning of Race." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 02 Nov 2021,


Prof. Ania Loomba

Prof. Ania Loomba

University of Pennsylvania