Friday, 22 February 2013

Concluding MM's 'General Macbeth' & Beginning bloggerlees on 'Othello'

Macbeth, in short, shows life in the cave. Without religion, animism rules the outer world, and without faith, the human soul is beset
by hobgoblins. This at any rate was Shakespeare's opinion, to which modern history, with the return of the irrational in the Fascist nightmare and its new specters of Communism, Socialism, etc., lends support. It is a troubling thought that Macbeth, of all Shakespeare's characters, should seem the most "modern," the only
one you could transpose into contemporary battle dress or a sport shirt and slacks.

The contemporary Macbeth, a churchgoer, is indifferent to religion, to the categorical imperative or any group of principles that may be held to stand above and govern human behavior. Like the old Macbeth, he'd gladly skip the future life, not only for himself but for the rest of humanity. He listens to soothsayers and prophets
and has been out on the heath and in the desert, interfering with Nature on a grand scale, lest his rivals for power get ahead of him and Banquo's stock, instead of his, inherit the earth-why this
should have seemed such a catastrophe to the real Macbeth, who had no children, is a mystery the scholars never mention. Unloosing the potential destructiveness that was always there in Nature, as Shakespeare understood, the contemporary Macbeth, like the old one, is not even a monster, though he may breed monsters, thanks
to his activities on the heath; he is timorous, unimaginative, and the prayer he would like to say most fervently is simply "Amen."

MM June 1962

The Noble Moor - Othello and Race in Elizabethan London


The Noble Moor – Othello and Race in Elizabethan London

Richard Lees suggests Shakespeare’s complex and sympathetic 

representation of the ‘noble Moor’ is the product of a unique 

moment in England’s involvement in the slave trade.

2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire and, at the time of writing this article, it seemed an appropriate moment to re-consider Othello in relation both to slavery and to Elizabethan representations of black Africans.
Shakespeare lived and worked during the early period of European colonial expansion, when countries like England, France, Portugal and Spain were beginning to carve up the world for their own profit and power, seizing territories in Africa, Asia and, most notably, the ‘new world’ of the Americas. This profit-led expansion would result ultimately in the brutal subjugation of native populations, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and the systematic destruction of ancient cultures and civilizations on four continents. The economic system which evolved to drive this colonial expansion – the transatlantic slave trade – would lead to the kidnapping, transportation and forced labour of at least 12 million black Africans over a period of 250 years.
Early voyages...
However, when Othello was first performed in 1604, English involvement in the slave trade was in abeyance, a temporary remission which holds the key to understanding how a more ‘sympathetic’ or, at least, a more complex dramatic representation of a black character could have been possible. Four decades earlier, in the 1560s, Sir John Hawkins, one of the Elizabethan seagoing ‘heroes’ of the ‘Age of Discoveries’, led the earliest English slave trading expeditions to Africa – a mixture of public and private enterprise, financed by London merchants and supported by the Queen herself. His first voyage to Sierra Leone in 1562 proved highly profitable: seizing 300 Africans ‘by the sword’, Hawkins crossed the Atlantic and sold his cargo to Spanish traders. Returning to England with prized tropical products such as ginger, sugar and hides, which he sold to London merchants, Hawkins made a fortune.

... and a disastrous expedition
This ‘success’ led to a second expedition, backed by City merchants, noblemen and the Queen, who lent Hawkins a 700 tonne royal ship, the ‘Jesus of Lubeck’. Going back to Sierra Leone in 1564 – the year Shakespeare was born – Hawkins captured 400 black Africans, and made huge profits selling them to the Spanish in the West Indies before returning to England and a knighthood. His third voyage in 1567-68, however, proved a disaster. With six ships, including two royal vessels, he returned to West Africa, seized 500 Africans and a Portuguese slave ship before sailing for the Caribbean. Bad weather forced his ships to take refuge in a Mexican port where they were trapped by a hostile Spanish fleet. Though Hawkins escaped, both royal ships were captured, the human cargo seized and all profits lost; an outcome which effectively ended English involvement in the transatlantic slave trade for over forty years.

The ‘inferior’ heathen
To do what they did, Hawkins and his London backers assumed a doctrine of white Christian supremacy over ‘inferior heathen’ races; an ideology enabling them to capture black Africans, then transport, trade and work them like animals without the slightest moral anxiety. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that literary and theatrical representations of black Africans in Elizabethan culture were generally – though not wholly – negative. Elizabethans may have found travellers’ accounts of African peoples intriguingly exotic, yet the pervading stereotype to emerge from the plays they watched equated blackness with cannibalism, cruelty, animal sexuality and the devil. Dramatic representations were often damning. Muley Hamet in Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar (1589) is closely associated with satanic practices and witchcraft. A black character called Eleazar in Lust’s Dominion is stereotyped as sexually rampant; and in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Aaron the Moor is motivated by a chilling combination of brutal cruelty and sexual predation.
Some notable exceptions
Yet, not every theatrical characterization re-enforced these negative stereotypes, and depictions of higher status characters were often more positive. King Mullisheg in Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West is portrayed as generous and gallant, rational and poetic; Greene’s Orlando Furioso and Webster’s The Thracian Wonder both represent Moorish kings as noble and honourable men.
Heroic not barbaric
In Othello, Shakespeare draws immediately on the contradictions in this culture. Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio describe ‘the Moor’ as ugly, barbaric and sexually bestial – the conventional racist stereotype of black Africans that Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with. So the delayed appearance of Othello, ‘the noble Moor’, could not have been more dramatic in reversing their initial expectations. Instead of the monster they were encouraged to pre-conceive, Shakespeare presents an articulate and rational Christian, a successful and respected General, and, in the first third of the play at least, a wholly heroic and sympathetic figure.

A drama of isolation
Having thoroughly overturned the racist slanders directed towards Othello’s character, and, by Act 2 Scene 1, having cut short the Venice versus Turkey storyline, Shakespeare begins to explore the social dynamic of what it might be like to be the only black character in an otherwise white world. Othello’s isolation is emphasised casually and continually: everyone refers to him not by his name but as ‘the Moor’, a term both de-personalising and distancing (ie not one of ‘us’), if not quite openly offensive or degrading. Shakespeare fully exploits paradoxes related to the symbolism of black and white with monochromatic religious references almost too numerous to mention, continually reminding the audience that, though deceit and jealousy may provide the motivations driving the play towards its tragic conclusion, colour is the main issue here. With tenuous ties – despite his marriage – to the Venetian aristocracy, Othello’s isolation makes him vulnerable to Iago’s duplicitous manipulation, a disguised antipathy that, with little evidence to the contrary, a modern audience might reasonably consider to be racially motivated.
Shakespeare and race
So, the question arises, why should Shakespeare be interested in exploring issues of racial isolation and victimization? One reason could be that it was something he encountered on a daily basis in the London society around him. Imtiaz Habib, in his landmark study Shakespeare and Race, concludes that Shakespeare’s London was neither wholly English nor wholly white:
We now have documented proof of the residences of black people, which must be reckoned into the colours of Shakespeare’s world, in a very literal sense. Shakespeare knew people of colour. He walked through their neighbourhoods every day.
How had these black Africans come to London? As a direct consequence, it would appear, of those early Elizabethan slavery expeditions: Habib describes how ‘adventurers’ like Hawkins, John Lok and Martin Frobisher brought some of their enslaved African cargo back to London in the 1550s, to form a small population who:
existed initially as a miscellaneous assemblage of exotic, personally possessed decorative fetishes and human curiosities…

The expulsion of the ‘blackamores’
This small population gradually grew over the following 40 years to a point where the Queen herself began to implement policies that, in modern terms, can only be described as institutionally racist. In 1596 she wrote an open letter to the Lord Mayor of London stating that:
there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are already here to manie

The letter re-produced above was written by Elizabeth, in the 1590s. Therein she promulgated the expulsion of the Moors of England from the land of their birth.
ordering that they be deported. A week later she repeated her intention ‘to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande’, commissioning a leading merchant, Casper van Senden, to ‘take up’ certain ‘blackamoores here in this realme and to transport them into Spaine and Portugall’. In 1601, complaining again about the ‘great numbers of Negars and Blackamoores which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm’, Elizabeth made a Royal Proclamation authorizing the deportation of ‘infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel’. Historically, these expulsion orders represent a kind of xenophobic racist state policy not seen in England since the exiling of Jews at the end of the 13th century.
We can only speculate about the reaction of black Londoners to this form of state persecution, but it isn’t too difficult to picture a vulnerable, fragmented community struggling against a climate of fear and hatred, trying hard to resist an onslaught of bigoted distortions and racial attacks. Embattled by state directives and white society’s growing hostility towards their presence, marginalised black Africans in London must have become increasingly susceptible to exploitation, manipulation and lies.
Habib suggests that Shakespeare’s relationship with black Londoners would have been close, the playwright regularly interacting with the black community while visiting friends, going to pubs and attending theatrical rehearsals and performances. More controversially, Habib believes Shakespeare may have formed a more personal, intimate relationship with a black woman living in Clerkenwell, not far from Shakespeare’s neighbourhood of Cripplegate. Habib points out that, as a sex worker, this black woman could easily have come to know Shakespeare in an area of the city where brothels and theatres flourished side by side.
Race politics and Othello
Viewed beside these intersections of black and white histories, Othello can be interpreted as a play which drew directly from experiences of race politics in Jacobean London, written by someone determined to explode race-hate myths, to represent more positive and multi-faceted images of a noble black African and to explore the consequences of explicit and implicit racist persecution on an isolated individual. However, Habib warns us against seeing Shakespeare as some kind of liberal liberator or social reformer of the theatre: his portraits of black characters remain Westernised, imagined and dramatically realised through European eyes in the language and favoured narrative form of the coloniser. In the end, the fate of his black character re-affirms cultural domination and the pattern of one culture subsuming the other. Iago’s role in this process – reducing the rational black nobleman to tortured wife-killer – remains crucial. By stimulating and controlling Othello’s jealousy – a patriarchal possessiveness that Shakespeare is careful to represent as racially non-specific, with Brabantio and Roderigo both staking claims over Desdemona – Iago propels Othello towards murder and self-destruction, effectively restoring, albeit in tragic circumstances, white supremacy within the Venetian ruling elite. Yet this is not a simple matter of theatrical ethnic cleansing. Look more carefully, Habib suggests, and you will also discover the beginnings of a turbulent, protracted conversation, a ‘difficult negotiation’ that continues into the present:
I can’t say Shakespeare reached a point of closure and an emancipated, enlightened view of people of colour
Habib concludes:
He didn’t. But he did put persons of colour into European culture, there to remain. And that enriches the cultural discourse.
A complex representation
Othello, then, draws from the race culture and politics of its day in a clear and direct manner. Written at a time when English participation in the transatlantic slave trade had been temporarily halted by Spanish market protectionism, Shakespeare fully exploits the unique cultural opportunity to develop a more complex and sympathetic representation of black experience for a predominantly white audience whose sensibilities were not yet closed to such characterizations. In the century to come, such a receptive audience would gradually disappear: as English slave traders developed their own highly profitable market in the North American colonies, enslavement of black Africans became the dominant means of economic production, and with it the full power of racist religious and political ideologies grew to exert a controlling influence over Western culture.

Richard Lees teaches English at South Hunsley School, East Yorkshire.

From emagazine 39, February 2008.