The meaning of blackness in Othello

The Metropolitan opera only just stopped using blackface performers. Yes! White dudes were blacking up to play Othello until 2015 and still things needed to be explained to them.

In Shakespeare's time, though—before the Atlantic slave trade, before imperialism, before Jim Crow, before civil rights, before inconsiderate cosplay—blackness was different. Why, then, was Othello black?

To us today, the word “black” carries with it a specific cluster of associations informed by history, culture, stereotypes, and literature. Othello may have started in conversation with Shakespeare’s definition of blackness, but today, he speaks with ours.

A much more interesting question, really, is: Why is Othello black? Why did Shakespeare write a domestic tragedy about jealousy, and make the husband a Moor? Is Othello’s race a canard, or is it the key to unlocking the play’s deeper meanings?

Would you believe the answer to all of this might involve pirates?

The key, Isaac Butler relates, is to consider that to renaissance Englishfolk, "Moorish" would have been inextricably tied into religion: Othello is a converted Muslim, and his tragedy, then, is possibly one of failed assimilation and acculturation.