Shakespeare's "Moor"

Shakespeare’s Moor:
The Sources and Representations

One theme consistently reemployed throughout Shakespeare’s plays is that of the Other. The Other is usually characterized as a character that is somehow separated, stigmatized, or noted as being different from the mainstream ideal. For the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare’s time, it may have been a self-defensive maneuver against the encroachment of something which threatened too close to home (Bartels 450). Bryant lists several methods used to employ this convention of the Other: race such as that of Shylock and Aaron, nationality as in Iachimo, bastardy such as the characters Don John and Edmund, social status such as that belonging to Iago, and deformity, for example, Richard III (35). Not every Other is characterized as evil, but nonetheless depicted as being somehow different or separated from society. Characters such as Malvolio, Faulconbridge, Macbeth, and Othello are of this subdivision.

One sect of Otherness is that of race. During this time, England seems at first glance to be separated culturally from any area of the Ottoman Empire. However, this assumption proves to be false. There are four characters in Shakespeare’s plays, Caliban, Othello, the Prince of Morocco, and Aaron, who are of distinctly African, or Moorish heritage. Whether these persons were of Negro, Berber, Spanish, or Arab descent is definitely in question. The use of the term Moor also is of importance. This word is used to describe Aaron and Othello, but not to describe Caliban or the Prince of Morocco, both who come from areas classically referred to as being Moorish. The origin of the word Moor comes from the word mauri. Mauri refers to the Berbers who lived in the Roman province of Mauritania, in North Africa (Everett 104). However, the English language expanded upon this word, making it more generalized and ambiguous, coming up with further descriptions such as blackamoor, a word which denotes darker skin color. Whether the term Moor had a definition of white or black, of pagan or Muslim religion, or area of origin seems to be interchangeable when one notes the differences between Shakespeare’s four characters. Sources of the Elizabethan image of the Moor most likely came from sources such as classical descriptions, actual encounters, travel narratives, and literary conventions (Bartels 433).

Why is the Moor prevalent during Shakespeare’s time? What was the importance of or the sources for this new Other in English literature? Shakespeare uses the Moor as being characterized in several ways and used for varied dramatic purposes. In order to have a full understanding of the Moorish character in Shakespeare’s works, one must look to history’s relations and depictions of the Moor and how it influenced Shakespeare.

Moors were characterized in Elizabethan England as being alternately or even simultaneously noble or monstrous, civil or savage. Being a different race meant, primarily, being an Other, non-English, as well as non-Christian (Braxton 8). The term Moor, as I have noted before, was fairly vague in definition. Bartels points out that in common usage, the word was used many times interchangeably with “similarly ambiguous terms as ‘African,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ ‘Negro,’ and even ‘Indian’” (434). The convention of Christian art to represent Satan or other devils as being black or dark-skinned also lent another connotation to the reader, viewer, or performer of Shakespeare’s plays. The Moor’s increasing visibility in print most likely paralleled an increasing visibility in actual English society and/or knowledge (Bartels 434). There are three possible branches that most likely gave birth to the confused Elizabethan image of who and what a Moor was. This would be the Spanish Morisco, the North African Berber/Arab, and the Negro.

The advent of Islam’s revelation and spread throughout the area of North Africa took place in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E. The invaders were of Arabic origin, having dark skin and hair. The previous inhabitants of the Maghrib, or Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lybia, and so on towards Egypt, were the Berbers. The Berbers are a people who had inhabited this area for so long that few truly know their origin. There are references to them going back as far as Homer’s lotus-eaters. The Arabs and Berbers subsequently went out into Spain in the eighth century C.E. With these invasions came along not only Berber, Negro, and Arab blood, but the religion of Islam, pre-Islamic culture, and intermarriage. Barbara Everett’s article “’Spanish’ Othello: The Making of Shakespeare’s Moor” points out that although some of the invaders into Spain were Arab, the majority were of the Berber ethnicity (104). Another fact is noted that throughout north Africa, Berbers (from whence the terms Barbary and Barbarian sprung) are characterized less by race than by linguistic family. Berbers range in color from very dark with Negro facial features to very Caucasian with blond hair and blue eyes.

From the eleventh century through the fifteenth century, the Christians reconquered Spain, with the year 1492 not only marking the discovery of the Americas and the expulsion f the Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella, but the final part of Spain, otherwise known as Granada, being reclaimed. With the reclaiming of Spain came a need for the Orthodoxy of Catholic Christianity. Pope Paul IV’s reference to “that breed of Moors and Jews, those dregs of the earth,” shows how the threat of the reconquest of Spain by the Berbers caused a great widespread fear and racism. In the Cronica Sarracina, King Roderigo’s sins are the cause of the Arab invasion to take over Spain (Burshatin 103). As a result of these fears, many Moors inhabiting Spain adopted a more European culture, with many embracing Christianity, at least at surface level, becoming what were later termed Moriscos (Braxton 7).

With politics of the late 1500s and early 1600s, not much had changed in terms of enmity. Israel Burshatin states that the Moors in North Africa were seen as “deadly bretherin” of the Ottoman Turks, and it was not difficult to expand this feeling to the Spanish Moriscos (99). Racial strife between the Moriscos and the Catholic population characterized the last decades of the 1500s (Everett 105). In 1609, this hatred and fear culminated into the expulsion of some 300,000 Moriscos by Phillip III (Burshatin 98; Everett 105). The story told in Genesis 21 verses 8-10 of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael paralleled what Spain saw in itself. Queen Margarita was seen as Sarah and Phillip III as Abraham casting out the “illegitimate” Morisco Ishmaelites (Muslims), and retaining the legitimate child, or Catholic Spain (Burshatin 113-14).

International trade and politics of the Elizabethan era also lent a hand in Shakespeare’s depiction of the Moor. Although the Spanish interpretation of the Arab/Berber/Negro was most likely a factor in the Elizabethan image, extensive trading contracts and international diplomacy had a fair hand in offsetting the negative stereotype while at the same time perpetuating it. Both England and what we will call Morocco had a great anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish sentiment that bound their relationship further (D’Amico 7). Although Africa was considered a continent of infidels and pagans by many, the political danger of an invasion by Catholic Spain prompted England to forgo the stigma of trading in munitions with Morocco. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama by Jack D’Amico chronicles the international trading carried on in North Africa and the Ivory and Gold Coasts further south. Continuous trade was believed to have begun in the mid sixteenth century (D’Amico 8). Blacks from Africa were also first present in England during this time. Although mostly documented as slaves, before the triangular slave trade became institutionalized, there were also many free blacks who came and went throughout Europe (Jones 15).

During trading expeditions, many times English merchant traders would forcibly kidnap native peoples from the African continent and take them back to England. They were oftentimes taught English, and were later used as interpreters during further voyages to the same lands (D’Amico 10). This displays how the people of the African continent were viewed as being socially inferior by the white, Christian Englishman. These “Moors” who were now living in England were probably put on display to some extent as a kind of curiosity, and therefore, were most likely visible enough to lend an idea to the general English mind.

Trading continued with such countries as Morocco and Guinea for such items as gold, dates, gum arabic, horses, ivory, and sugar in exchange for English cloth. However, politics began to have a greater focal shift towards North Africa as well. Relations between Spain and England were rapidly deteriorating in the 1570s, and England’s fear of invasion increased (D’Amico 16). England found itself having a greater need for saltpeter, a dear military supply. English traders discovered that Morocco had a surplus of saltpeter as well as a need for iron bullets and other munitions. Against the protests of the Portuguese and Spanish, England went ahead with the trade of these items, with Queen Elizabeth stating that Morocco had its own leaders (i.e. not the Portuguese or Spanish) (17).

In 1577, Mohammed El-Mesloukh, otherwise known as “the Black King” through his mother’s side, was overthrown by his uncle on his father’s side Abd El-Malik (D’Amico 16). Trading merchants and English diplomats noted not only the differences of the lighter complexion of Malik, but also noted how he was “versed in the Old and New Testaments.” This view lent to the Elizabethan picture of a Moor as having lighter, or orientalized skin (20).

Perhaps the greatest event to take place as an influence on Elizabethan England’s view of North Africa was in 1578 at the Battle of Alcazar. This battle drew the attention of all Europe not only because of the victory of the Moroccans, but by the fact that three kings died during this time (D’Amico 18). This battle “marked the end of Portuguese influence... and the eventual annexation by Spain” (21). El-Malik, who was believed to be poisoned during the battle, was succeeded by his brother Ahmed El-Mansour (meaning victorious) (20).

El-Mansour’s position as king was unstable at best in the beginning, and he received political pressure from two areas of the world: the Spanish and the Ottoman Turks, two nations that just happened to be enemies at the time. Equally inconvenient for Mansour was the fact that Spain possessed Moulay ech-Cheikh, the Christianized son of El-Mesloukh, who was otherwise known as “Don Philip of Africa” (D’Amico 21). The Turks also had their own pretender to the Moroccan throne, Mansour’s nephew Moulay Ismael, the son of El-Malik. With pressure from Spain in the North and from the Ottomans from the East, El-Mansour was forced into making an alliance with Spain in the form of a “mutual pact against the Turks” (22).

England continued to be a factor in Moroccan history. Without the past Portuguese influence, Spain was an even greater threat than before:
Whatever else may have happened, though trade and
diplomacy could not wash the Moor white, they might
make him look better than a Spaniard (22).

Trade became institutionalized with the formation of The Barbary Company by Queen Elizabeth. In addition, an embassy of Moroccans were received by Elizabeth in 1600. The development of a bi-characterization of the Moor arose. those merchants not belonging to The Barbary Company who preferred old, unregulated trade tended to characterize the Moor as being unpredictable and devious. These same characteristics were reversed by others, showing the Moor as being good business men or shrewd. Islam was characterized as being either, “too incontestably different or too appealingly the same” by world leaders (Bartels 439). Also along with a Moroccan envoy to England in 1600, there were two decrees issued by Elizabeth in 1599 and 1601, expelling Moors from Africa as well as Spanish Moriscos from the boundaries of England (Braxton 4).

History plays its own part in how the Moor came into the spotlight of the Elizabethan era. Another source, perhaps closer to Shakespeare, was that of the literature of the period. Moors appear not only as subject matter in writings during this time, but as authors as well. Two nooks that may have influenced people’s views of Africa were Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, written in 1589, and John Leo Africanus’ A Geographical Historie of Africa, which was widely read in Europe in the latter half of the 1500s and translated into English by John Pory in 1600 (Bartels 435).

Hakaluyt’s work is characterized by descriptions of his personal travels through various areas of Africa. In regards to the idea of the Moor, he refers to their place of habitation as the “hither part of Africa which is now called Barbarie” (Bartels 439). The North African is further described as being orientalized and more “civilized” than the remainder of the continent. Unfortunately, Hakaluyt also makes the usual cross-terming by intertwining the word Moor with that of African, Negro, and “Ethiope” (438).

The story of John Leo Africanus is not only of an author, but of a Spanish Morisco. Born “Al-Hassan Ibn Mohammed Al-Wezaz Al-Fasi” in Granada, he traveled extensively throughout Africa and wrote a book about his experiences and observations (Bartels 437). Hailed as one of the least bigoted authors upon the subject of Africa, it is noted that his Geographical Historie is sans Anthropophagi (man-eaters) and “men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (Bartels 436; Othello 146-7). Later one, Al-Fasi converted to Catholicism, making him an official Morisco, and was later renamed John Leo at his baptism by Pope Leo X, and later Africanus after his writings (Bartels 437).

Such narratives from “experts” on Africa and political events led to works centering around the North Africa or Barbary area. Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great Part I depicts the character Bajazeth a “dread lord of Afric” with companions “great kings of Barbary” (D’Amico 45). Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso, written in 1594 depicts exotic rulers of distant lands such as the Soldan of Egypt and Mandricard, the king of Mexico (42). Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar, written one year after the actual event took place, depicts what seems consistent with English literature’s Moor: a dichotomy of bipolar opposites with the ruler Muly Hamet depicted as a “cruel blackamoor” and his uncle Abdil Melec as an orientalized dignified “white” Moor (Bartels 434).

These dual images of the noble versus evil in terms of Moors goes on to reveal a series of further bipolar opposites: lighter versus darker, affluent versus ignorant, powerful versus weak, and outsider versus insider. Although the Moor is used by Shakespeare to depict that of the Other in society, there are varying degrees of Otherness. The character can be accepted within the society to a certain point or rejected completely due to other factors. Aside from these characteristics, it is also fascinating to note a similarity between all four of Shakespeare’s Moors: their sexuality and/or sexual relations with white European women. Using the theory of bipolar opposites, I propose to contrast the characters of Othello, Caliban, Aaron, and the Prince of Morocco.

Firstly, I will address the Moors who are not specifically pointed out as being Moors: the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice and Caliban from The Tempest. Both of these characters are Others due to their births. Caliban’s mother, Sycorax, was from Argier, otherwise known as Algiers in North Africa (Tempest 408). His mother is further characterized as being blue-eyed, and therefore it follows that she is most likely of Berber descent.

The Prince of Morocco is another character who is not specifically referred to as a Moor by Shakespeare. He is given a country of origin in his very title, setting him apart as Other by his non-European and non-Venetian background. From what we know of history in this paper, he was most likely one of those “tawny” orientalized Moors that was romanticized into the exotic. His Otherness is due not only to his country, because every suitor Portia has except Bassanio is foreign, but his skin color. He asks that Portia not judge him by his complexion, and goes on to describe it as the “livery” of the sun. The word livery denotes an outfit worn by a servant, offsetting Morocco’s noble blood which he proclaims ready to shed at a moment’s notice.

The similarities between the Prince and Caliban then seem to diverge for a moment. Caliban is depicted as a deformed lowly servant of illegitimate birth (Tempest 461). Morocco is a man who plays an important role in Western society by mediating tensions between Europe and the Ottoman Empire (D’Amico 162). He has his own power, and is of noble birth aside from his coloring. In addition, the Prince of Morocco is shown as being noble on the inside, whereas Caliban is a monstrous schemer seeking to gain power, or at least a better master than Prospero. Prospero claims Caliban as being “a devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (Tempest 450). Portia, although she pokes jokes at all her foreign suitors says to Morocco that “yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet / For my affection” (Merchant 60). However, the Prince remains an outsider by the fact of his boasts of military conquests, scimitars, and nationality. The test of the caskets further lends to a sense of Otherness even if Morocco is not a true outsider. Only an insider of Venetian society could truly understand the double meanings of the written messages as well as the types of metals upon which they are inscribed. D’Amico points out that cultural relativism plays a part, showing Morocco’s trust that the words on the caskets are literal in meaning (173).

When addressing the subject of Caliban, his part in society is non-existent in a sense because before the advent of the tempest, his society and world consisted of only three people. Being in such an artificial situation is painfully obvious by his switching of allegiance from Prospero, a nobleman, to that of Stephano, a drunken butler. This shows he is not versed in the social classes. Although Caliban and the Prince of Morocco both play minor parts in Shakespeare’s plays, their Otherness is clearly defined by their ethnic backgrounds.

Otherness also bleeds over with the Moor in main characters as well. Both Othello and Aaron are considered to be major characters in the plays Othello and Titus Andronicus. Even though each man is portrayed as being blackamoors, their treatment by Shakespeare also reflects several dichotomies.

In reference to ethnicity and race, both Othello and Aaron are portrayed as being referred to as Moors. Although neither are named as being African or Negro, Othello’s “thick lips” and black skin are pointed out on several occasions (Othello 5). Aaron is also characterized as being a “blackamoor,” “raven-colored,” and possessing woolly hair (Titus 63). However, when reading Othello closely, I came upon two situations that lead to some speculation about Othello’s origins that would logically follow a doubt about Aaron as well.

At the beginning of the play we have two characters, Iago and Roderigo, talking about how much they hate the Moor Othello. Barbara Everett points out two interesting facts: the names of these men are Spanish in origin, not Italian as one would expect in Venice, and, more specifically, the name Iago is a shortened version of the Spanish name Santiago. Saint James of Spain, also known as “St. James the Moor-killer” assisted in the eleventh century Battle of Clavijo, which turned the tides in the Moorish-Spanish struggle for land control (103). In Spanish, Santiago is how one would say Saint James (104). Isn’t it convenient that Othello’s villainous enemy happens to be the namesake of a man noted for the slaughter of Spanish Moors? In addition, with this Spanish aspect inserted into the picture, could Othello be a Morisco? Furthermore, Aaron’s nationality or country of origin is vague in part because of the fact that the play Titus Andronicus is staged in ancient Rome, not at the turn of the seventeenth century like the other three plays.

Othello and Aaron diverge in numerous ways. Othello is a definite Other due to his skin color, but is more of an insider than his Caucasian enemy Iago. This is displayed in Iago’s assertion that in following Othello, he is following himself (Bartels 451). In addition, D’Amico states Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, doesn’t see Othello as any kind of threat or “someone to guard against” until after his daughters subsequent elopement (164).

Aaron in Titus Andronicus is definitely an Other who can also be categorized as an outsider. Bartels notes that while “Aaron has the freedom and ability to manipulate and maneuver close to the court circle, he is still an underling servant with no possible avenue for advancement” (449). In act five, scene one, Aaron recognizes the fact that his complexion is a hindrance to societal acceptance, “thou mightest have been an emperor,” when speaking to his illegitimate blackamoor son by Tamora, queen of the Goths (Titus 111).

Another separation between Othello’s Moor and Aaron is that of power in their environment. Othello serves a function within society whereas Aaron must manipulate in order to get anywhere. In Titus Andronicus, black is a threat and white is beloved. This shows through in Tamora’s duplicitous dealings regarding her white son and her black son. At the opening of the play, we find Tamora pleading for the life of her white son to Titus Andronicus, but to no avail; he is murdered. Later on in the play when she gives birth to her son sired by Aaron, and the infant’s complexion uncovers Tamora’s infidelity with her slave, she orders Aaron to commit infanticide on his own son. The result is the opposite, however, and as far as we know, Aaron’s offspring is the only son who lives (Bartels 446).

Lastly, one characterization that all four characters seem to share is that of the Moorish sexuality. All four men are portrayed as sexually aggressive in one form or another. Christian tradition at this time had the notion that Africans were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah who was cursed for gazing upon the naked body of his father (D’Amico 64). Also, the identification of Islam with polygamy and legal concubinage gave an image of a Moor who was “frequently represented as sexually unrestrained” (63-65). Miscegenation and miscegenist desires were a common theme emerging in literature, for example, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Although not portrayed specifically as a societal threat by Shakespeare, sexuality and the Moor were undivided in his plays. Othello, the “old black ram” is characterized as preoccupied with “making the beast with two backs” with the “white ewe” Desdemona (Bartels 448). In addition, Iago also mentions that he has heard a rumor that Othello is “tupping” his own wife. Aaron is the “raven colored lover” of Queen Tamora (443). The Prince of Morocco is a suitor to Portia; a man whose skin color has drawn “the best regarded virgins of our clime,” making the Prince not just sexual, but boastful as well (Merchant 59). Finally, in The Tempest, Prospero addresses Caliban: “I have us’d thee, / ...with human care, ... / till thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child” (411). Even Caliban, the lowliest Moor portrayed by Shakespeare’s plays, is involved with cross-racial desire.

So many contradictory aspects surround the Elizabethan image of the Moor. The varied historical references point to differences in ethnic origin, religion, temperament, and savagery give forth two opposing sides to the tale of the Moor. Always an Other, Shakespeare uses the ideas of the Moor to create effective reflections of Elizabethan society’s ethnocentric view of other cultures. Ranging from the Morisco to the Negro, these widely diversified images still do not wipe out the fact that, good or evil, Othello, Caliban, the Prince of Morocco, and Aaron all lose in the end.

Works Cited

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 41.4 (1990): 433-452.

Barthelemy, Anthony. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “Othello: The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review. 55.4 (1990): 1-17.

Bryant, J.A. Jr. “Aaron and the Pattern of Shakespeare’s Villains.” Renaissance Papers. (1984): 29-36.

Burshatin, Israel. “The Moor in Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence.” Critical Inquiry. 12.1 (1985): 98-118.

D’Amico, Jack. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1991.

Everett, Barbara. “ ‘Spanish’ Othello: The Making of Shakespeare’s Moor.” Shakespeare Survey. 35 (1982): 101-112.

Jones, Eldred. The Elizabethan Image of Africa. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1971.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Kenneth Myrick. New York: Signet, 1965.

---. Othello. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

---. The Tempest. Ed. Charles W. Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier & Sons, 1969.

---. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet, 1964.


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