Copyright

Othello, The Moor of Venice

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Why does Shakespeare's play Othello have the subtitle, 'The Moor of Venice'? Why is Othello so often referred to as 'the Moor'? It turns out this is an essential piece of understanding this play's context and characters. Let's take a closer look.

What is a 'Moor'?

Generally, we don't go around referring to people by their race or ethnicity. It's not polite, to say the least. In the time of William Shakespeare, however, it was a perfectly socially acceptable thing to do. That is how the play Othello came by its subtitle, 'The Moor of Venice.'

The term 'Moor' has been used historically to refer to people who are Muslim, African, Arab, or just generally not 'white' or not 'Christian'. While it can mean many things, it is certain that the term is racially and culturally charged--and not in a flattering way.

Because of this loose usage, it is impossible to tell exactly what Othello's race is supposed to be, but it is very clear that Shakespeare and the other characters in the play wish to establish him as an 'Other'--or someone who is not part of the mainstream.

Venice

Othello is called 'the Moor of Venice.' He is the general of the Venetian army, and the play begins in Venice, Italy. The play was written in the first few years of the 17th Century, and it is supposed to have taken place in the latter part of the 16th Century. Venice, Italy in the late 1500s was populated primarily by white people.

Othello, being not white, would therefore be even more likely to be singled out as the Moor of Venice. There probably weren't a lot of nonwhite people to choose from, so he was most likely quite noticeable. This would have contributed to his status as an Other.

Being Made an 'Other'

The term 'Other' is here used in the sense of one who is set apart from the cultural mainstream. It brings with it connotations of discrimination and of being valued as less than one who is not an Other. It can also be used in verb form--the act of Othering is the act of making someone an Other, which is precisely what happens to Othello.

Shakespeare himself sets Othello apart as an Other in adding 'The Moor of Venice' to the title of the play. The characters follow suit and perpetuate that Otherness throughout the play.

An Old Black Ram

Othello is the target of some pretty offensive racial remarks and ideas. Iago, after telling Brabantio that Othello has married his daughter, calls out, 'Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.' Here Iago is drawing attention to Othello's racial Otherness by calling him 'an old black ram' and is being rude beyond that as 'tupping' here means 'having sex with'.

Many, many other times in the play, Othello is referred to as 'the Moor' or 'black Othello'. His race is constantly a focal point and frequently pointed out. He is not allowed to just exist for who he is, but is perpetually labeled by his race. ('Black' here, by the way, can mean anyone who is not 'white', so it doesn't help us identify Othello's race any more than the word 'Moor' does.)

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