In response to:
Why Blacks Were Left Out from the February 7, 1974 issue
To the Editors:
George M. Fredrickson’s review of Winthrop Jordan’s The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (February 7) rejects Jordan’s emphasis on the importance of the “psychosexual complex” in white racism. Indeed, Fredrickson states that “some of [Jordan’s] evidence is ambiguous (as in the obvious case of the racial implications of Othello)….”
A careful reading of Othello reveals that, if anything, the evidence is a bit too obvious, that Shakespeare has perhaps made the theme of what Fredrickson calls the “revulsion at miscegenation—the ultimate horror of the racist imagination—“ too melodramatically explicit.
In I,i, when Roderigo and the carefully concealed Iago begin to provoke Brabantio about Desdemona having run off with Othello, Brabantio attacks Roderigo for his mere presence at Brabantio’s house:
Roderigo. My name is Roderigo.
Brabantio. The worser welcome; I have charg’d thee not to haunt about my doors:
In honest plainness thou hast heard me say my daughter is not for thee.
By the end of the scene Brabantio tells Roderigo, “O, would you had had her!”
What has provoked the change in Brabantio’s attitude toward Roderigo is neither an Elizabethan father’s concern that his daughter obey his will in marriage as in all other things (i.e., Desdemona has eloped with Othello). Nor is it what Fredrickson calls the seventeenth century’s “traditional repugnance to the marriage of people of different social status or condition.” It is, rather, Othello’s blackness which appalls Brabantio when he thinks of Othello as the husband of his daughter.
What brings Brabantio to dismay and to a new-found affection for Roderigo is Iago’s repeated vulgar reference to the black-white sexual act between Othello and Desdemona:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse.
Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
Roderigo finally joins Iago in his taunts: Desdemona has run off “To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.”
It is precisely this crudely presented picture of “miscegenation” which so appalls Brabantio that he would rather Roderigo had married Desdemona than Othello.
Socially, of course, it is Othello who has much to offer Brabantio as a prospective son-in-law. He is, after all, the commanding general of the Venetian armies; he is highly respected and widely admired by the members of the Duke’s court; he enjoys the full confidence of the Duke himself. What better match for the daughter of a Senator!
But Roderigo has one thing to offer which Othello lacks—white skin. And to Brabantio this quality far outweighs the social, political, and military attributes of Othello.
Indeed, Brabantio charges Othello with witchcraft before the Duke’s court. The black-white marriage is so unnatural to Brabantio that he cannot conceive of Desdemona marrying Othello of her own free will:
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not.
and she, in spite of nature,
of years, of country, credit, every- thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment maim’d and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell,
why this should be.
Brabantio’s revulsion and his charges against Othello cause the first crack in the wall of Othello’s security in Venice. Up to this point his acceptance was, so far as he could tell, complete.
Othello’s opening remarks in self-defense attest both to his acceptance and to the line Brabantio had drawn in his attitude toward Othello:
Her father lov’d me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life.
It is clear here that Brabantio was willing (and perhaps even eager) to have a man of Othello’s stature and influence as a guest in his house. It is equally clear from Brabantio’s revulsion and charges that Brabantio was not willing to have a man of Othello’s color as the husband of his daughter.
If Fredrickson had read Othello carefully, he would have realized that Shakespeare comes even closer than Jordan does “to saying that the root of…prejudice is just what racists have always contended—the fear that a Negro will want to marry your daughter.” Brabantio wasn’t worried about who was coming to dinner; but he was revolted at who did come to his daughter’s bridal bed.
Coppin State College
George M Fredrickson replies:
When I referred to the racial implications of Othello as ambiguous, I did not mean that there is no evidence in the play of a revulsion against miscegenation. The ambiguity derives from the way Shakespeare presents that revulsion and how it relates to his characterization of Othello.
The notion that there is something unnatural about the union of Othello and Desdemona is first introduced by the villian Iago and his dupe Roderigo for their own ulterior motives. Although Brabantio proves susceptible to their suggestions, the whole discussion in Act I, Scene i seems to me more a case study in how latent color prejudice can be aroused and manipulated by designing men than the reflection of a deeply rooted and widely sanctioned rejection of the intermarriage of “civilized” Christians of differing pigmentation. Furthermore, the overall characterization of Othello strikes me as consistently nonracist. Shakespeare carefully avoids relating the emotionalism of Othello to his racial or national origins. Although he derived his play from a sixteenth-century Italian story in which there is an explicit reference to the Moor’s “hot nature” as driving him easily to “anger and revenge,” nothing of this sort appears in the play. Othello does not in fact conform to any racial stereotype.
Cassio’s comment after Othello’s suicide that “he was great of heart” is probably Shakespeare’s last word on the Moor’s character and shows him as a genuine hero of tragedy who exhibits universal human qualities in heightened form rather than the special traits of any race or nation. Othello’s “fatal flaw” was perhaps not even an excess of jealous passion ill-befitting an otherwise reasonable man. As Coleridge wrote, “Othello’s belief [in Desdemona’s infidelity] is not caused by jealousy, it is forced on him by Iago and is such as any man would and must feel who had believed in Iago as Othello did.” According to this interpretation, Othello’s flaw was not the demented jealousy of a “hot-blooded” Moor but rather the generous fault of placing too much trust in undeserving men. In short, I think that Shakespeare conceived Othello not as the carrier of certain racial traits, but as a universal figure, a basically noble character who suffered an extreme misfortune that was only in part his own fault. I also think that he expected his audiences to accept this perspective and to sympathize with the agony of a black hero.
May 16, 1974