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Woke Shakespeare—or, tryst with a blackamoor

It has long been observed, for over a hundred years now, that the West has a sentimental relationship with women, children, and black Africans; it was old news when Wyndham Lewis observed the trend in the 1920s, it was old news when Harriet Beecher Stowe became “the little lady who started a big war” with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s generally taken that the West’s sentimental relationship with black Africans originates in “white guilt” over the Atlantic slave trade and the continued “failure to thrive” among America’s black population. However, it’s worth consideration that Shakespeare, in Othello, depicts a black man who is courageous, physically vigorous, and yet also naïve and trusting—just like a child. He is betrayed by white men who are envious as regards his prowess, perhaps even his sexual vigour—since Iago, the “honest man” who sets up Othello, believes he has slept with his wife.

Indeed, the whole trope in Othello matches contemporary liberal sensibilities: the black man is set up by the authorities—Othello dinnu do nuthin, he really didn’t. This interests because Othello was written in the early 1600s. English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade started in the mid-1500s, so slavery was current but small-scale—it is unlikely that Shakespeare felt guilt or moral outrage over it. Besides, Othello is a Moor—a blackamoor—from North Africa, not a sub-Saharan slave; and there is no indication that Shakespeare was “anti-slave trade” and, indeed, such a concept would be barely meaningful in Elizabethan England—although there has always been a current, particularly in Christianity, that seeks clemency for slaves if not outright manumission (Bartolomé de las Casas being an example contemporary with Shakespeare). Nevertheless, the basic Shakespearean trope—noble black man, honest and courageous, set up by bitter sexually jealous white men—remains current down to today.

The title is provocative: Shakespeare was not “woke”—he is not anti-slave trade. Desdemona’s father is reluctant to believe his daughter has married a Moor—puts the match down to malign magic—but he is not demonised for his opposition to an interracial match. In a contemporary film, a white father who objected to a mixed-race match would be axiomatically “evil”—for Shakespeare Desdemona’s father has an opinion that is incidental; he’s typical as regards any father whose daughter has acted rashly—his reservations have a racial dimension but are not condemned as such (it’s more the case the playwright favours “star-crossed lovers” who unite against fathers, tribes, and mores in all circumstances).

Nevertheless, the parallels to the way “blackness” is conceptualised in contemporary woke products—the way blacks have been sentimentalised for at least 150 years—are striking; and it gives me grounds to think that perhaps what is known today as “wokeness” is, in part, a deeply embedded cultural trope or archetype that goes back to Othello. After all, the play is among the standard Shakespeare works—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello. The role of “the Moor” is intrinsic to Anglo-Saxon culture, also the culture that predominates in America—Othello is Anglo canon; and he is definitely an “ill-used fellow”.

This offers the intriguing possibility that wokeness predates the Atlantic slave trade, predates “white guilt”, predates wily Jewish socialists who make “whiteness” and slavery an issue. Rather, we’ve been trapped in a particular relation to “blackness” from before we even widely interacted with black Africans—and that relation held they were noble, naïve, trusting and ultimately betrayed by whites (the play is set in Venice and Cyprus, so there is no suggestion this is an “English betrayal”—except that there is a metacontext that the audience knows the play is performed in England; and even Othello is played by an Englishman).

So perhaps Shakespeare gave birth to a notion that would, once Anglo societies became decadent, blossom into a particular political stance towards “blackness”—one unconnected to Marxism, postmodernism, or any left-wing belief. Whether or not you think this is likely depends on how far you think words can be black magic.


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