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.
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.)
Othello’s View of Himself
If you walked around all day being labeled by the color of your skin, it would be hard not to internalize some of the ‘Otherness’ thrust upon you. The same was true for Othello. When he is contemplating why Desdemona might be likely to cheat on him, he thinks, ‘Haply, for I am black, and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.’ ‘Haply, for’ means ‘perhaps because.’
Hence, Othello is naming his race–his Otherness–as a primary reason why his wife might be unfaithful to him. Clearly, he has been taught to think of his race as a negative attribute.
We see this learned self-loathing again when Othello is contemplating Desdemona’s (alleged) blighted reputation, saying ‘Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face.’ He is using his own face as a comparison for something he sees as filthy and of degraded worth! How tragic is that?
The term ‘Moor’ in Shakespeare’s Othello is meant to separate Othello on the basis of his race and culture. Throughout the play, he is set apart from the rest of the characters with labels and remarks that constantly point out his race.
As he is so forcefully set aside from the mainstream of the predominantly white 16th Century Venice, Italy, Othello is set up by Shakespeare and the other characters in the play as an Other, or one who is outside the main culture and viewed somehow as less valuable because of it.
Sadly, Othello internalizes this view of himself and expresses the belief that his race is, indeed, less desirable than that of mainstream culture. He uses the color of his face to represent a reputation besmirched by foul deeds.