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‘[A] Maid Called Barbary’: Othello, Moorish Maidservants And The Black Presence In Early Modern England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2022

Emma Smith
Affiliation:
University of Oxford
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Summary

Scholarly discussions of race in Othello have almost exclusively focused on the eponymous character.1 Often forgotten is another Moorish character the play evokes, even if she does not make an appearance on the stage: Barbary, the maidservant Desdemona remembers in the Folio version and with whose tragic story she identifies to process her own experience of rejection and grief.2 Barbary is an example of those women about whom Kim F. Hall wondered: why, ‘[w]hile feminists are increasingly uncovering the voices and presence of white Englishwomen’, do ‘women of color … [even though] clearly a presence in … sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, … remain “invisible women” existing at the margins of English culture and current critical practice[?]’.3 Barbary’s near absence from the critical response to the play is paralleled by the excision of her story in the early decades of the twentieth century when act 4, scene 3 was routinely cut from performances.4 This article seeks to fill this gap by arguing that Barbary, a figure with no counterpart in Shakespeare’s principal source, Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), is crucial to the play’s engagement with race and gender. Through Barbary, Othello challenges stereotyped racist and sexist representations of Moorish female servants on the early modern stage, often characterized by contempt for their alleged lustfulness, treachery, and unfaithfulness to (often) white mistresses.5Othello’s depiction of Barbary also subverts contemporary visual and theatrical portrayals of Moorish maidservants that reduce them to figures of Otherness whose Black skin serves as a racial background against which the whiteness of their mistresses’ skin – and so those mistresses’ privilege, status and virtue – shine.

Type
Chapter
Information
Shakespeare Survey 75
Othello
, pp. 89 - 102
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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