“A Good Question”

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Paul Robeson as Othello

Each year I taught a different Shakespeare play. The year I was in graduate school, I was teaching Othello to my first year students. One of them asked me what it meant that Othello was a Moor. I gave the standard answer I had learned in school, that he was a North African, but not black.

However, the question nagged at me and, since I was enrolled in a Shakespeare course myself, I decided to research the answer. This was 1978, years before internet searches existed. Research involved long hours in the library, reading academic journals and their referenced articles. I found myself fascinated as I realized that earlier critics of the play had unable to believe that Shakespeare meant that Othello was black. They wrote that would have been unthinkable. But as I studied both the specific language of the play and read about Queen Elizabeth’s edict to rid England of the “black-a-moors” I came to believe that, Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal aside, Othello was meant to be black.

I wrote my essay on my conclusions and actually won the Clark Prize for the best graduate essay of the University for that year. With the $100 prize–a large amount for me in those days–I bought my daughter a Big Wheel and took a friend out for a seven course Italian meal.

In a final ironic twist, at my Master’s oral exam, one of the examiners challenged my reading of Othello. He maintained that everyone knew Shakespeare never meant he was black. I tried to respond that the point of my essay had been to refute that. He refused to listen to me, crossing his arms over his chest, and frowning. Fortunately, I passed anyway.

6 thoughts on ““A Good Question”

  1. This is interesting. Academic research must have been burdensome before the internet age. It seems that you sowed a seed of doubt in the examiner’s firewall of knowledge. Sometimes questions are more important than answers.

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