Letter: Othello: educated gentleman of any colour

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Sir: Why do we accept the assertion that "not white" = "black" ("Can it be wrong to `black up' for Othello?", 7 August)? Othello was a Moor: strictly, a person of Berber and Arab descent; but a word more loosely used at the time of Shakespeare to indicate any persons of North African or Islamic origin. He may indeed have had black ancestry (the trans-Saharan slave trade flourished for thousands of years and is rumoured to continue to this day) but this is not necessary. All that is certain from the text is that he was darker-skinned than 16th-century Venetians, to whom "black" meant anything swarthier than themselves.

Far more important than his colour is Othello's cultural background, from a military Islamic society strongly influenced by an ancient and sophisticated Persian culture, and with trading contacts with India and China. It is unlikely he would have reached the rank of general in his own country, let alone Venice, without education in science and the arts. Arab culture saw no incompatibility between a soldier's profession and an appreciation of literature and poetry. They were essential, social accomplishments, hence those poetic and storytelling skills which captivated Desdemona. Yet this sophisticated gentleman is too often portrayed as an unpolished simpleton played upon by the cunning Venetian.

Cast a man of any colour as Othello but, please, let us see a more imaginative interpretation than theatrical tradition has afforded us.


Maidenhead, Berkshire