Aaron and Othello: Shakespeare’s Moorish Characters
While certain of William Shakespeare’s plays have so ingrained themselves into popular culture as to be ubiquitous, others are rarely performed or read and are, in fact, largely ignored. Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the former, and Titus Andronicus, one of the latter, are vastly different plays in setting and style, but their subject matter is much more similar than it first appears. Othello’s titular character is famously a Moor and generally depicted as black, despite debate over what exactly Shakespeare meant by “Moor.” Titus Andronicus also features a Moorish character, Aaron, but his characterization brings to mind more of Iago’s villainy than any traits of Othello’s. The ten-year separation between the writing of the two plays seems to have brought about an abrupt shift in Shakespeare’s characterization of the Moor, but the impact that this shift has on the differing notions of race and otherness within both works is immensely complex. The characterization of Aaron in Titus Andronicus and Othello differ with regards to notions of masculinity, inherent barbarity, and animalism, but both plays highlight the “otherness” of their Moorish characters. In addition, both plays have strangely warped timelines and duration, which, although quite possibly mere coincidence, also contributes to the othering of Aaron and Othello.
Although Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Othello are both most certainly Moorish characters, what is meant by “Moorish” is not abundantly clear. As Emily Bartels establishes in the introduction to her work “Making More of the Moor,” the term was used during the Renaissance interchangeably with a variety of other racially ambiguous words “to designate a figure from different parts or the whole of Africa (or beyond) who was either black or Muslim, neither, or both” (434). Much of early criticism on Othello denied that the character could be black (448) and was instead intended to be Arabic, but racial epithets hurled at Othello focus on blackness; Iago refers to him as “an old black ram” (1.1.88). Aaron’s skin color is also fixated upon throughout Titus Andronicus. He himself states that he “will have his soul black like his face,” while “a black ill-favoured fly” reminds Marcus and Titus painfully of “the Empress’ Moor,” Aaron (3.1.204, 3.2.65-66). Both Aaron and the other characters in the play constantly call attention to skin color, but in Othello, Iago is the instigator of nearly all racial language (Bartels 447-48). Shakespeare’s Moorish characters are both black, and skin color plays heavily into the larger issue of power, and where it lies.
Titus Andronicus, the earlier of the two plays, depicts a much more heavily stereotyped “barbarous” black character in Aaron, who is unabashedly and undeniably evil, than does Othello. Aaron “is the one character in this play whose malignant differentness is consistently recognized and easily categorized by all, including himself and his allies,” (Bartels 442) and indeed his malignancy is practically his only personality trait. Aaron, much like Othello’s Iago, exemplifies the brooding villain, often revealing his schemes to the audience through monologues or asides. Joseph Porter notes Aaron’s similarity with Iago in his linguistic examination of the texts, “Belleforest’s ‘Vn Escalue More’ and Othello.” He appears alone in 2.1 and summarizes the action of the first act, afterwards revealing his sexual intention “to wanton with” and “mount aloft with [Tamora],” newly made empress of Rome (2.1.1-25). The lewdness of his lines here are typical of his racially charged depiction as a scheming villain, almost cartoonish to a modern audience. This near-cartoonish effect, however, is banished shortly thereafter when Aaron orders Demetrius and Chiron to “serve [their] lust, shadowed from heaven’s eye, / And revel in Lavinia’s treasury,” that is, to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter (2.1.131-132). Aaron strews destruction across Rome and across Titus Andronicus, but “that [he] had not done a thousand more [heinous deeds] / Even now [he] curses the day” (5.1.124-125). Titus Andronicus is a play concerned with subverting sympathies and uprooting normalcy, but in its depiction of Aaron, it firmly cements a racial stereotype (Bartels 442). Shakespeare’s initial depiction of a Moorish character is one of undeniable and stereotypical barbarity and differs heavily from Othello, whose Moorish character is much more ambiguously depicted.
Barbarity is far less racially cut-and-dry in Othello. Far from a barbarous figure, Othello is educated and worldly, and woos Desdemona with tales of his travels. However, much of the critical discourse surrounding the play is concerned with the ease with which Othello is persuaded to “monstrous thought and action,” as Emily Bartels puts it (448). “Valiant Othello,” as the Duke of Venice calls him, tells such compelling tales of his life and travels that Desdemona “with a greedy ear / Devours up [his] discourse” and “loved [him] for the dangers [he] had passed” (1.3.48, 148-49, 166). This is not a picture of a barbarous man, but Iago in his jealousy associates him with a devil (2.1.221), and thus with barbarity. In private, Iago turns Brabantio and Roderigo against Othello using racial associations with devils and “black rams,” but at court, where “at the least [Othello’s] martial prowess takes precedence over race … Iago knows better than to demonize the Moor” (Bartels 448-449). Barbarity, here, is far less strongly associated with the play’s Moorish character than in Titus Andronicus. In addition, the idea that Othello has some inherent barbarism that eases Iago’s persuasion is refuted by Iago himself, who admits that Othello “is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (2.1.381-82). Although he claims to Roderigo that “these Moors are changeable in their wills,” implying Iago’s belief in Othello’s racial inferiority, Iago preys upon Othello’s apparently trusting nature, weakening the already faint association between Moors and barbarism (1.3.339). The contrast between the brave general Othello and the man who so easily falls prey to Iago’s deception draws attention to Othello’s otherness (Bartels 448) but he is less overtly othered by simple barbarism, as is Aaron in Titus Andronicus.
Although similar to or perhaps simply a subcategory of barbarism, animalism is a separate trait associated with Moorish characters in both Othello and Titus Andronicus, and the language of animal traits merits a separate examination. The animalistic language used in both plays is more similar than that of barbarism, but is still distinct. Joseph Porter engages with the language of bestial traits in his article concerning the phrase “I took by the throat the circumcised dog,” present in Othello but not in Titus Andronicus, despite the fact that both works have Moorish characters, to whom the epithet is applied, and that the epithet originates in Titus’ source text (Porter 194). Despite this omission, the language of animalism is present elsewhere. As previously mentioned, Aaron is associated with “a black ill-favoured fly” that Marcus swats, and Titus is enraged at this waste of life until Marcus brings to mind the Moor, at which point Titus asks for a knife, intending to “insult on him, / Flattering [himself] as if it were the Moor” (3.2.66-72). Additionally, although “circumcised dog” is absent from Titus Andronicus, Lucius compares Aaron to an “inhuman dog,” as well as a “ravenous tiger” (5.3.14, 5). Aaron’s method of execution also brings to mind the animal kingdom; he is buried “breast deep in earth,” head emerging from the ground like a worm, until he dies of dehydration, starvation, or exposure (5.3.178-182). In animalism, as in barbarism, Aaron’s association with such traits is somewhat simpler than Othello’s, and he is a more obvious racial stereotype of a Moor.
The language of bestial traits, like that of barbarism in Othello, is largely found in the mouth of Iago, and typically in private or in asides. As Joseph Porter notes in his short work concerning the source text of Titus Andronicus, words and phrases from this source filter into Shakespeare’s Othello ten years later, particularly the epithet “circumcised dog” (Porter 195). Aside from this particular phrase on which Porter focuses, Othello is compared to “an old black ram” and is accused of being as willing “to tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are,” (1.1.88, 2.1.383-384). Iago, of course, utters both of these epithets. However, in the third act it might be said that Iago’s words begin to creep outwards to Othello himself, who “had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others’ uses,” that is, Desdemona’s love (3.3.274-277). Whether or not caused by association with Iago, Othello’s shift here to comparing himself to a toad is representative of his ongoing descent into jealous fever. Iago’s use of bestial and racial insults in private, although typically disapproved of in court, helps to turn other characters, like Brabantio and Roderigo, against Othello (Bartels 449). Compared to animalistic language in Titus Andronicus, it is significant that such speech is limited to Iago’s private moments alone or with specific other characters, and its effect is to less overtly associate Othello with the animal while still using this association to aid his downfall.
Ever-present in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as Renaissance literature in general, is the obsession with cuckolding and masculinity, which of course intersects with depictions of race in Titus Andronicus. Although Othello is perhaps more concerned with issues of sexuality and masculinity, as suspicions of adultery drive the plot, such issues are also present in Titus Andronicus. Unlike Othello, who is convinced he is a cuckold, Aaron does the cuckolding in Titus. Tamora, with whom Aaron conducts an adulterous affair, compares their illicit romance to that of Dido and Aeneas. She begs Aaron to lie with her amidst the “yellowing noise” of the ongoing hunt in Act 2, Scene 3, as “the wand’ring prince and Dido once enjoyed / When with a happy storm they were surprised / And curtained with a counsel-keeping cave” (2.3.20-24). Further proof of Tamora’s liaisons with Aaron comes with the birth of her child, which the nurse delivers to Aaron and describes as “a joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue / … as loathsome as a toad” (4.2.66-67). The child, obviously, does not belong to Tamora’s husband, Saturninus, but to Aaron. Although Aaron has henceforth had little regard for human life, he murders the nurse and presumably the midwife to protect the life of his illegitimate child (4.2.140-167). In a turn somewhat incongruous with his previous characterization, Aaron spends the final act of the play carrying his infant son. This image of parent and child is commonly associated with femininity, somewhat upending Aaron’s hyper-masculine, adulterous image. In Titus Andronicus, he who cuckolds the emperor is in turn feminized by the result of his own adultery, his child.
Masculinity is, as with many of these traits, much more complex in Othello. Iago preys on Othello’s fear of being cuckolded, which is the essential driver of the plot. Sexuality, and by extension masculinity, in Othello is an issue of power, just as race is also an issue of power (Bartels 447). Iago convinces Othello that he is a cuckold, but at the same time Iago’s private speech about Othello is hyper-sexualized, part of the Moorish stereotype that Iago attributes to Othello. Iago is convinced that “’twixt [his] sheets / [Othello] has done [Iago’s] office,” that is, had extramarital sex with Iago’s wife, Emilia (2.1.169-170). This, coupled with the fact that Othello has chosen Cassio for his lieutenant, affronting Iago’s masculinity, has lead him to “hate the Moor” (2.1.168). Iago’s insecure masculinity leads him to prey upon Othello’s equally insecure masculinity, of which Iago is well aware. Othello woos Desdemona with his worldliness and tales of his travels, not with “loveliness in favour, sympathy in years, manners, and beauties, all which the Moor is defective in,” according to Iago (2.1.223-225). Iago is not the only character obsessed with Othello’s sexuality and masculinity; Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father, is also deeply concerned with Othello’s sexual conduct. He claims that Othello must have Desdemona “in chains of magic … bound” for her to have married him (1.2.66) and he is outraged at the idea that she has lost her virginity to Othello, even though he is her lawful husband. Masculinity, it appears, is a toxic cycle. Iago perceives a threat to his masculinity and power and in turn convinces both Brabanzio and Othello of threats to their power, Brabanzio of the threat to his daughter and Othello that to his wife.
Finally, and most tangentially, the representation of the passage of time in both Shakespeare’s Othello and Titus Andronicus, while perhaps merely coincidental, contributes to the otherness of the Moor. Othello’s “dual time schemes” are well known (Cohen 2096). Literally speaking, the events of the play take place in a matter of days and Othello murders his wife less than a week after their marriage, but he also accuses her of a long-standing affair with Cassio, which is impossible (2096). Similarly, the time frame of Titus Andronicus is ambiguous. Supposedly, Titus returns from the Gothic war with Tamora and Aaron in tow and in the same day Tamora marries Saturninus, becoming empress. Titus then requests that Saturninus join him in a hunt if “tomorrow … it please [Saturninus] / To hunt the panther and the hart with [him]” (1.1.488-490). The action of this next day includes the murders of Bassianus, Quintus, and Martius, as well as the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. This day is also presumably the day of conception of Aaron’s illegitimate child with Tamora, as the audience sees their sexual banter throughout the hunt (2.1-3). There is no indication that Tamora is pregnant prior to this scene, and yet the child is born seemingly a few days later (4.2). The simplest explanation would be that there is a large jump in time from Act 3, Scene 1 to Act 3, Scene 2, but it would make little sense for the action of this and later scenes to take place conveniently nine months later. In 4.1, for instance, Marcus has Lavinia reveal the identities of her attackers by writing in the sand “without the help of any hand at all,” using her mouth and a stick (4.1.70). This is a fairly simple concept, one that would not likely take nine months to come to mind. The gestation period of Aaron’s child, it would seem, is a matter of days, just as it takes a mere forty-eight hours or so for Othello to be incited to murder his wife. This warping of time, although a small detail, endows Shakespeare’s Moorish characters with vague sub-human qualities, as though the temporal laws of humanity do not quite apply here.
Through the interaction of his Moorish characters, Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Othello, with issues of barbarity, animalistic language, sex and masculinity, and temporality, Shakespeare depicts two characters that, although they are the same race, are very differently othered in their respective plays. Both characters stand outside of the power structures driving the plots of their respective plays, but are set apart from these power structures in different ways. For Othello, it is through issues of the masculinity of others that he is “othered,” and indirect and private accusations of barbarism and animalism separate him from power. In Titus, Aaron is more directly characterized as an ugly Moorish stereotype, set apart from the very beginning of the play and remaining apart throughout. He begins the play as a traditionally masculine figure but ends it as a caricature of a feminine mother figure holding an infant, separating him from what little power he has. Although Othello is a much more complex and well-known work, comparison to Titus Andronicus is valuable in showing the relative nuance with which Othello is depicted compared to Aaron. By modern standards, of course, both plays are incredibly racially insensitive, but Othello treats its Moorish character with more finesse than a modern audience would have cause to expect based on the precedent set by Titus Andronicus.
Bartels, Emily C. “Making More Of The Moor: Aaron, Othello, And Renaissance Refashionings Of Race”. Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 433. Web.
Cohen, Walter. “Othello”. The Norton Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 2091-2099. Print.
Porter, Joseph A. “Belleforest’s “Vn Esclaue More” And Othello”. Shakespeare Quarterly 47.2 (1996): 194. Web.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy Of Othello The Moor Of Venice”. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 2100-2174. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Titus Andronicus”. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 379-434. Print.
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