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Othello’s Sister:
Racial Hermaphroditism and Appropriation in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
Celia R. Caputi Daileader
Florida State University

Like any writer worth her salt, Virginia Woolf had a gift for first sentences. Her most fanciful novel, Orlando (1927), begins: “He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it— was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters” (13). As an opening, this is on par with that of her most famous work, A Room of One’s Own (1929), for its sly wit and rhetorical innovation: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”(3). In each case, Woolf breaks with the conventions of English composition to very different—although theoretically linked—effect, crafting on the one hand an overtly self-deprecating, yet covertly sarcastic feminine persona, and, on the other, a bombastic and ultimately specious male biographer-narrator. “He,” Woolf writes, then adds a dash—putting the term “under erasure” syntactically, if not in the strictly Sausserian sense. It is a bold move—as is her beginning her book-length essay on “women and fiction” with a conjunction.

Orlando’s first sentence, though, does much more than catch our attention. The gendered pronoun immediately undercut by the typographic violence of the dash both introduces the hero/ine and ironically foreshadows his magical transformation into a woman not quite halfway through the novel’s three-and-a-half century romp. In other words, Woolf’s dash enacts on her protagonist’s gender the very sort of violence she describes (as I’m similarly doing when I call him a “hero/ine”). But the genius of the sentence does not stop there. For crystallized in these mere thirty-eight words we not only find Woolf’s critique [End Page 56] of gender norms and imperialism, but also her indictment of the relationship between them. There “could be no doubt”—the narrator confidently declares— of Orlando’s biological gender because...well, look at what he’s doing, he’s playing with something “the color of an old football,” and everyone knows only boys play with footballs. That the “football” was once a man’s head is not, in the biographer’s deadpan description of this puerile mock-violence, any more remarkable than “the fashion of the time”—because “Orlando’s fathers... had struck many heads of many colours off many shoulders...,” as we quickly learn, and “[s]o too would Orlando, he vowed” (13). As I am not the first critic to point out, Orlando’s pointless brutality with the unfeeling skull parodies the brutality that placed it there in the rafters of his ancestral manor—and that brutality is deeply gendered, and deeply British (see, for instance, Phillips 186 and Hovey 398).

For a novel Woolf herself dismissed in her diaries as a “joke,” as “frivolous,” and as “mere childs [sic] play,” this opening reference to racist violence is disturbing (Diary 177, 264). Sally Potter’s filmic interpretation omits it entirely, choosing instead to begin with Orlando’s composing poetry. I myself did not know at first what to do with it—or indeed with any of the other seemingly offhand references to people of color in Woolf’s oeuvre. Is the decapitated Moor in Orlando yet another instance of the Anglophone obsession for which I coined the term “Othellophilia”?1 Indeed, Shakespeare’s tragedy of interracial love and murder seems to be everywhere and nowhere in the novel. The hero’s name alludes to As You Like It (one of Shakespeare’s most gender-bending comedies) as well as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (from whence Woolf derived her hero’s love-madness), but it also closely resembles another seven-letter name beginning and ending in the round vowel: Othello. If the resemblance is accidental, Woolf’s shorthand for the novel in her letters— “O—o”—hints further at an unconscious association (Vol. 4 23, 27). Only after viewing a performance of the play does Orlando determine to elope with his Russian princess, and that plan’s failure sets up the ensuing events of the novel as a kind of anti-Othello. It is almost as if Woolf sat down to write the story of an Othello whose Desdemona betrays him before their marriage, and then eludes (ingeniously and to feminine applause) his jealous rage.2

Virginia Woolf, no bardophile herself, was the rebellious daughter of a deeply bardolatrous, imperialist, and sexually conservative Victorian England. Her ambivalence toward Shakespeare’s literary and cultural dominance saturates her work. “...[H]is fame intimidates and bores,” she irreverently notes in her essay “On Being Ill”: “a paternal government might well forbid writing about him, as they put his monument in Stratford beyond the reach of scribbling fingers” (200). According to the great Shakespearean Julia Briggs, Woolf imagined Shakespeare not as a literary father-figure, but as her literary big brother: her relationship with her own older brother—whose tragic death greatly affected her—was largely carried out in and through their discussions [End Page 57] of the famous poet. In comparing Shakespeare’s influence on Woolf to his influence on James Joyce, Briggs places the relationship between the two male authors on a vertical axis and contrasts this hierarchical, paternal relationship to the horizontal, fraternal relationship between Shakespeare and Woolf. “While Joyce’s relationship with Shakespeare is problematized by race and nationality,” Briggs writes, “Woolf’s is complicated by gender” (128). As much as I appreciate, on feminist grounds, the way this diagram empowers Woolf relative to her male contemporary, I wish to quarrel with the race/gender binary Briggs builds into the equation, thereby occluding the importance of race and nationality in Woolf’s literary self-fashioning. Indeed, the text that takes up the most space in Briggs’s article is Orlando—a novel that, as I’ve already touched on, concerns itself with issues of race, nation, and empire from its first sentence onward. As Karen R. Lawrence observes, the novel “is a narrative of boundary-crossings—of time, space, gender, sex” (327). Its immortal hero/ine traverses not only centuries and gender roles, but also ethnic and racial categories as well: it is in Constantinople that s/he becomes female—a change that precipitates her joining a band of Gipsies—and it is the shared fantasy of “kissing a negress in the dark” that crystallizes the sexual empathy between the protagonist and her equally androgynous lover, Shelmerdine (ibid 258).

My reading of the above-quoted passage builds on that of Jaime Hovey, who considers “the ‘negress’...a racially and nationally colonized figure appropriated to mark the closeting” of Orlando and Shelmerdine’s “queerness.” But the invocation of the “negress”—metonymizing the hero/ine’s “sexual perversity and ambivalent gender identification” (401)—also points up the way in which the text consistently racializes her/his sex-change. In the context of what I will call Orlando’s “racial hermaphroditism” and in the meta-context of Woolf’s own affair with Vita Sackville-West (the dedicatee of the book and source of all the images of Lady Orlando), the fantasy of kissing a “negress” signals her resistance to the conservative sexual and racial ideologies that Shakespeare—accurately or not—had come to represent (see Taylor 162–230). That this undermines her praise in A Room of One’s Own of the Bard’s “incandescent, unimpeded” and “androgynous” mind should not surprise us (Room 57, 103). “Lies will flow from my lips” (4)—she warned her readers. And how could she help it, as a feminist, a critic of empire, and a bisexual in 1929?

What Color Is an Oyster?

Toni Morrison writes that “in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive” (13). Although Morrison speaks here of “both black and white American writers” (13), her critical paradigm offers a starting point for an analysis of Orlando’s racial subtext. For Woolf indisputably had Othello on [End Page 58] her mind when she crafted Orlando’s first chapter, yet she seems to have taken pains to “unhobble” her art from the racialized color binaries that pervade Shakespeare’s play.3 Thus, the love affair of Orlando and the Russian princess that occupies the Elizabethan section of the novel both is and is not legible as interracial to a culture as steeped in dichotomies of skin color as Woolf’s (and our own).

From first sight, the Russian princess is associated with the snow of her homeland and something else that the poet-protagonist struggles to express in metaphor. Not surprisingly in this novel, he is at first unable to distinguish her gender: when they meet, skating on the frozen Thames, she is “dressed entirely in oyster-coloured velvet, trimmed with some unfamiliar greenish-coloured fur” (Orlando 37). The oyster introduces a pattern of nautical imagery that pervades the novel; it also suggests inwardness, layering, and the female sexual organs. Modifying a color, the term becomes richly ambiguous. The exterior of an oyster can be solid white or gray, but is often marbled with purplish or bluish tints; it can also be green, or even black. An oyster shell’s interior is often pearly or even iridescent, while the flesh—and the rare pearl inside—can be white or gray. In her letter to Vita the day after beginning the novel, we see Woolf playing with the image: “But listen: suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita...suppose there’s the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people, as the lustre on an oyster-shell...?” (Vol. 3 429). This fascination with the effects of light on surfaces is part and parcel of Woolf’s modernity and anti-essentialism, and marks her departure from the early modern binary of appearance (“seeming”) versus essence that undergirds Shakespearean tragedy.

But back to the Russian princess. Woolf reinforces the ambiguity of the woman’s velvet attire by trimming it with fur the color of no earthly animal. The text then doubles back to comment on itself:

Images, metaphors of the most extreme and extravagant twined and twisted in his mind. He called her a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow all in the space of three seconds; he did not know whether he had heard her, tasted her, seen her, or all three together. (For though we may pause not a moment in the narrative we may here hastily note that all his images...were mostly taken from things he had liked the taste of as a boy...)....A melon, an emerald, a fox in the snow—so he raved, so he called her.


Shape-shifting exoticism moves through this sequence as furtively as through the protagonist’s perceptions, and it is typical of the bumbling narrator to comment so ineptly on them. Indeed, the tropes are objects of literal or figurative consumption—fruit, a fruit-bearing tree, an animal that may be hunted and skinned, a gemstone. But the list is far more suggestive than that. For one thing, none of these is native to England. We later learn more about [End Page 59] the fox: “Hence Orlando and Sasha, as he called her for short, and because it was the name of a white Russian fox he had had as a boy—a creature soft as snow, but with teeth of steel, which bit him so savagely that his father had it killed—hence they had the river to themselves” (44). Returning, thus, to the exotic objects that represent Sasha—“a melon, a pineapple, an emerald, a [Russian] fox in the snow”—we find suggested the range of capitalist-imperialist exploitation of foreign resources, from mining to trapping and skinning of animals. The excerpt—particularly when the origin and fate of the fox are considered—also subtly echoes the opening of the chapter, where a man’s head is being “sliced at” and compared to a “cocoanut” in a seeming paean to what Lawrence calls “the phallic narrative of lunging and plunging” (327). Notably, it is Orlando’s father, a figure otherwise absent from the book, who kills the animal for biting his son “savagely”—just as “Orlando’s fathers” plural are responsible for decapitating “many heads of many colours...to hang from the rafters” like mere meat to be cured.

And speaking of “heads of many colours.” This lineup of produce— coconuts, melons, pineapples, and olives—can also be used to trope skin color, and hence race. Melons can be green or flesh-toned, olives green, brown, or black, and so on. These images stand interestingly in tension with the narrator’s blazoning of Orlando himself:

The red of the cheeks was covered with peach down....The lips themselves were short and slightly drawn back over teeth of an exquisite and almond whiteness....[H]e had eyes like drenched violets, so large that the water seemed to have brimmed in them and widened them; and a brow like the swelling of a marble dome pressed between the two blank medallions which were his temples.


Peaches, almonds, violets, marble, and gold (presumably, the material of the “blank medallions”)...the conventionality of these tropes—and their racial significations—need not be belabored. Hovey argues that the details of this blazon “racialize and eroticize the contrast between Orlando’s Caucasian youthful vitality and the defeated head” of the Moor that “grin[s] at him through shrunk, black lips triumphantly” (309). But they also set up a subtler contrast with Orlando’s own blazon of Sasha—or rather his failure to blazon her at all. For Orlando struggles with—as did, presumably, his creator—the limitations of poetic language. Less satisfied with cliché than the narrator of his own life, Orlando tosses about the usual “stale” (as he calls them) Petrarchan tropes only to dismiss them, one by one: “he...would try to tell her what she was like. Snow, cream, marble, cherries, alabaster, golden wire? None of these” (Orlando 47). Woolf may have had in mind, here, the anti-Petrarchan parody of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130”: [End Page 60]

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

This is the most popular of the so-called “dark lady sonnets” ambivalently praising the dark-skinned, exoticized woman who interrupts the poet-persona’s relationship to an idealized, androgynous fair youth very like our own Orlando. We will later look more deeply into the evidence for Woolf’s interest in this famous literary love triangle. For now, I note only the way in which these sonnets prefigure the themes of androgyny, bisexuality, and interracialism of Orlando. For, though a host of Shakespeareans pre-dating Woolf minimized and whitewashed the sonnets’ misogyny and racism, Woolf clearly associated the eroticism of “snow, cream, marble,” etc. with British chauvinism and imperialism. For, rejecting the above tropes, Orlando immediately asserts:

She was like a fox, or an olive tree; like the waves of the sea when you look down upon them from a height; like an emerald; like the sun on a green hill which is yet clouded—like nothing he had seen or known in England. Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue.


If Sasha is Desdemona-like in her association with whiteness (the “oyster-coloured fur” she wears; the white fox of her namesake; the repeated references to the snows of Russia; her “pearls” [48]), she is a kind of anti-Desdemona in her frank sexuality. The hero goes on to muse, “For in all she said, however open she seemed and voluptuous, there was something hidden. So the green flame is hidden in the emerald, or the sun prisoned in a hill” (47).

Since Othello’s first performance, commentary on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy of uxoricide has lingered uncomfortably on the degree to which Desdemona is or is not sexually innocent, the degree to which, coarsely put, she somehow “had it coming to her”—whether in terms of matrimonial or filial and racial disloyalty—when her jealous, black husband smothers her.4 I find it a moot point, and, given her liberal sexual views, I suspect Woolf would have agreed. For Orlando does glimpse Sasha in the arms of another man. In Othello-like fashion, he then swoons, and allows himself to be convinced the vision was a trick of the light. Shortly after this mishap, the couple views a performance of Othello. Now the aggression displayed on the first page of this chapter is redirected from a Moor’s skull to a live woman. Orlando and Sasha witness “[s]omething like our Punch and Judy show” involving “a black man...waving his arms and vociferating” and “a woman in white laid upon [End Page 61] a bed” (56). That he is a “black man” and not a white man in blackface—as would have been the case in early performances—seems more than a casual anachronism, given Woolf’s own viewing of black actor Paul Robeson in the role two years later (Diary 304). Note, however, that Desdemona is not a white woman but a “woman in white.” Interestingly, this novel peopled with (to use Woolf’s pejorative terms) “Blackamoors,” “Turks,” “Gipsies,” “Muscovites,” “Pygmies”—even, embarrassingly, a “nigger” (so Orlando refers to the moor’s head twice in later chapters)—contains not a single white woman (see note 13 ). Here is Orlando’s reaction to the performance:

The frenzy of the Moor seemed to him his own frenzy, and when the Moor suffocated the woman in her bed it was Sasha he killed with his own hands.

At last the play was ended. All had grown dark. The tears streamed down his face. Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too. Ruin and death, he thought, cover all. The life of man ends in the grave. Worms devour us.

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn—

The quote from Othello then segues into an echo of The Merchant of Venice: “Even as he said this a star of some pallor rose in his memory. The night was dark, pitch dark; but it was such a night as this that they had waited for; it was on such a night as this that they had planned to fly” (Orlando57, my emphasis). Woolf here revises the Shakespearean duet of the Jew’s daughter and the Christian with whom she elopes:

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise—in such a night
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cressid lay that night.
Jessica.      In such a night,
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismayed away.

(The Merchant of Venice 5.1.1–9, my emphasis)

The passage continues in this melancholy vein, ending with Lorenzo’s calling his bride a “little shrew.”

Thus, in this densely allusive conclusion to Orlando’s first chapter, two Shakespearean, fugitive, interracial couples get superimposed upon Orlando and the Russian princess on the eve of their planned flight. Like Desdemona, Sasha is suspected of having betrayed the hero: like Jessica, she will come disguised “in her cloak and trousers, booted like a man” (Orlando 59). That Merchant [End Page 62] contains Shakespeare’s only female moor—offstage and impregnated by the clown (see 3.5.35–40)—may also have been on Woolf’s mind. The appointed meeting place for Orlando and Sasha at “an inn near [the] Blackfriars” Theatre further connects their romance with Shakespearean drama. I would also point out that critics frequently apply the term “stagey” to Woolf’s novel itself (for example, see Hovey 399 and Lawrence 332). That “staginess” seems a byproduct of Woolf’s Shakespearean appropriations (Woolf added the Othello reference in revision: the earliest manuscript, the Hologaph, only mentions a masque by “Jonson, Shakespeare, or another” at this point in the story [38]).

The difference, of course, is what comes of the hero’s poetic raptures. In the downpour that ensues, the Thames thaws, the ice breaks apart, and the Russian ship departs—with Sasha (presumably) on board. Woolf concludes the chapter with a deflating image of male jealousy:

Standing knee-deep in the water he hurled at the faithless woman all the insults that have ever been the lot of her sex. Faithless, mutable, fickle, he called her; devil, adulteress, deceiver; and the swirling waters took his words, and tossed at his feet a broken pot and a little straw.


If this is Woolf’s answer to the final scene of Othello, I imagine Shakespeare spinning in his grave.

“Unsex Me Here”

After his betrayal, Orlando’s first Othello-like move is to go into a trance (see Othello 4.1.42sd). But Orlando’s trance—the first of two—lasts seven days. Is Woolf commenting on Shakespeare’s strange knack of “killing” and reanimating his characters—particularly his women? Desdemona, Hermione, Juliet, Hero—the list is sizable. Then there is the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, whom I’ve quoted above. In any case, chapter 2 may well be the most “Shakespearean” of the novel, for here Orlando meets—not the Bard himself, but a character, Nick Greene, clearly based on his rival Robert Greene. And yes, this is the same Nick Greene who gets Judith Shakespeare pregnant in A Room of One’s Own—but I will be talking more about Room below. This greasy and unkempt figure represents the antithesis of Bardolatry, allowing Woolf to poke fun at not only Shakespeare but also her poet-protagonist. For Orlando gives Greene a manuscript to read only to have his efforts lampooned. This is the second of the three humiliations (the first, of course, being Sasha’s abandonment) that eventually send the hero to Turkey. The third is an encounter with an amorous duchess (in fact, a duke, we later learn) that leads Orlando to decide that “[l]ove has two faces; one white, the other black; two bodies, one smooth, the other hairy” (117). In order to flee this “harpy,” he requests an appointment as ambassador to Constantinople, a place where, ironically, all such comforting dichotomies explode. As if to punish her protagonist for such [End Page 63] zero-sum thinking, Woolf first marries him to an illegitimate, gipsy half-breed (Rosita Pepita, named after Vita’s own grandmother, a Spanish dancer), puts him to sleep for another seven days, and then turns him into a woman.

Woolf’s description of Orlando’s “unsexing” is worth quoting for the delightfully anti-Freudian implications noted by critics such as Lawrence and, before her, Elizabeth Abel: “Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably, to his bath” (Orlando 138).5 This is a far cry from the appalling and traumatic “discovery” of female genital deficiency absurdly postulated by Freud. But Orlando’s transformation manifests more than Woolf’s feminist critique of Freud specifically, or her anti-essentialism generally. As Kathy Phillips argues, the Constantinople sequence also foregrounds Woolf’s critique of British imperialism and its masculinist justifications, the latter satirized in the figure of one Lieutenant John Fenner Brigge and his hysteria about protecting “English ladies” (in what turns out to be only a fireworks display) and demonstrating the “superiority of the British” (when he realizes his own countrymen set off the rockets [127]). Shortly after this episode, the Turks favor their anxious visitors with some real action, and it is during this mayhem that Orlando’s magical sex-change occurs:

The Turks rose against the Sultan, set fire to the town, and put every foreigner they could find, either to the sword or the bastinado. A few English managed to escape; but, as might have been expected, the gentlemen of the British Embassy preferred to die in defense of their red boxes, or, in extreme cases, to swallow bunches of keys rather than let them fall into the hands of the Infidel. The rioters broke into Orlando’s room, but seeing him stretched to all appearance dead they left him untouched.

As it turns out, our hero is not dead but female (which, as Woolf’s narrator later drily notes, “amounts to much the same thing” [168]).

Why did Woolf find an Orientalist setting necessary to her uncannily prescient vision of transsexuality?6 Lawrence points out that “the first sketch for the novel that ultimately became Orlando was conceived by Virginia as she waited impatiently for Vita’s letters from her second trip to Teheran” (330). In a letter to Vita that anticipates Sasha’s projected disguise for the aborted elopement, Woolf writes, “I see you, somehow, in long coat and trousers, like an Abyssinian Empress, stalking over those barren hills” (qtd. in Lawrence 331). But there are further political implications. According to Phillips, “Orlando becomes a woman for the imperial age because the British Empire” requires the pretense of protecting its women. This is particularly the case in Constantinople, where the decline of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum impossible to resist. Phillips goes on to connect Orlando’s anti-imperialist satire to the critique of the Crimean War in To the Lighthouse, and to Leonard Woolf’s 1917 monograph, The Future of Constantinople. Apparently, [End Page 64] the Woolfs shared the view “that imperial rivalry for this city was one of the factors contributing to World War I” (189).

If the British Empire, however, has plans for Lady Orlando, she proves a typical woman in immediately thwarting them. The first thing she does as a woman is to flee with a band of gipsies, who, interestingly, adopt her without hesitation on the basis of her dark hair and complexion (so much for that “marble dome” of her boyhood brow). This episode seals the association between Orlando’s racial and sexual chameleonism. Moreover, the Gipsies— whom Orlando first considers “little better than savages”—puncture her cultural chauvinism. On boasting of her house in England with its “365 rooms,” and the nobility of her forebears, her hosts shame her into the following reflections:

To the gipsy whose ancestors had built the Pyramids centuries before Christ was born, the genealogy of Howards and Plantagenets was no better and no worse than that of the Smiths and the Joneses; both were negligible....And then, though he was too courteous to speak openly, it was clear that the gipsy thought that there was no more vulgar ambition than to possess bedrooms by the hundred (they were on top of a hill as they spoke; it was night; the mountains rose around them) when the whole earth is ours. Looked at from the gipsy point of view, a Duke...was nothing but a profiteer or robber who snatched land and money from people who rated these things of little worth, and could think of nothing better to do than to build three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms when one was enough, and none even better than one.


The Eurocentric association of Gipsies with Egypt (erroneous, as we now know) sets the stage for Orlando’s later eroticization of “Egyptian girls” (Orlando 265) and signals a secondary thread of Shakespearean appropriation/allusion here and, as we’ll see shortly, in A Room of One’s Own, involving Antony and Cleopatra. For the moment, however, I wish to linger on the Gipsies’ nomadism—their “room-lessness”—in its relation to Woolf’s feminism. Orlando’s ancestral home, by contrast, seems to grow and shrink, adding and losing rooms as a tree branches. The usual count is 365—with the obvious symbolism—but elsewhere the house has 467 and 400 rooms. For the purposes of my argument we need only note the feminization of these gipsies in their marginalization from patriarchal structures of land-ownership and inheritance. As Woolf asks in Three Guineas, “What does ‘our country’ mean to me as an outsider?” (107).

Orlando—as a woman—can never go home.

“Kissing a Negress”

In the penultimate chapter, the Lady Orlando falls in love with and hurriedly marries the adventuring Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, whom she nicknames Shel in a manner consistent with the book’s nautical imagery and his own profession as a sailor. They meet at the climax of a hilarious satirization of Victorian sexual conservatism, when the heroine—having [End Page 65] enjoyed affairs with both men and women of all classes and types—is suddenly seized by “the spirit of the age” in the form of a tingling ring-finger (Orlando243). She then runs off in an existential panic onto the moor, where she falls and breaks her ankle. Just as she tells herself, resignedly, “I have found my mate. It is the moor,” a Brontean “dark” figure on horseback gallops up to her (248). The pun on “moor” as both a black person and an expanse of uncultivated land deserves attention, not because Shel is explicitly racialized, but because his status as an “extravagant, wheeling stranger” who enchants the heroine with his “traveler’s histories” (Shakespeare, Othello 1.1.138, 1.3.138) draws comparisons not only to Rochester and Heathcliff, but also to their Shakespearean prototype, Othello.7 And it is in Shel’s stories of his adventures that we arrive at the apotheosis of Orlando’s interracialist subtext.

She would listen to every word...so as to see...without his having to tell her, the phosphorescence on the waves, the icicles clanking in the shrouds; how he went to the top of the mast in a gale; there reflected on the destiny of man; came down again; had a whiskey and soda; went on shore; was trapped by a black woman; repented; reasoned it out; read Paschal; determined to write philosophy; bought a monkey; debated the true end of life; decided in favour of Cape Horn, and so on. All this and a thousand other things she understood him to say and so when she replied, Yes negresses are seductive, aren’t they? he having told her that the supply of biscuits now gave out, he was surprised and delighted to find out how well she had taken his meaning.

“Are you positive you aren’t a man?” he would ask anxiously, and she would echo,

“Can it be possible that you are not a woman?” and then they must put it to the proof without more ado.


Thus, a shared interracial erotic fantasy crystallizes the sexual empathy between two characters who clearly stand for Woolf herself and her lesbian lover. Could the “negress,” then, be Woolf’s answer to Shakespeare’s “dark lady”? As the dark-skinned vehicle of white-on-white homoerotic passion, the figure allows one taboo—miscegenation—to stand in for another, in much the same way that, in the verbal foreplay of Orlando and Shel, “‘the biscuits ran out’ has to stand for kissing a negress in the dark when one has just read Bishop Berkeley’s philosophy for the tenth time” (257–59). Notably, the kissing goes on in the dark, where, to paraphrase a crude saying, all women are black. The reference to Berkeley’s anti-materialist philosophy adds further confusion, but seems to suggest a parallel between dry, white bread and an even less satisfying food for the brain (why must it be read ten times?).

But that doesn’t make the moment any less racist, and it is a racism that, oddly, Woolf intensified in revision (elsewhere, her revisions are anti-racist, as in her cutting the term “nigger” from the first page).8 In the Holograph Manuscript, the negress does not trap Shel, and a cancelled sentence attributes him a motive. Woolf also added the monkey—another allusion to Merchant of [End Page 66] Venice, where Jessica suggestively pawns her father’s “stones” (Elizabethan slang for testicles) for such a pet, making it perfectly clear that her elopement and conversion symbolically castrate Shylock. All together, then, it is tempting to consider these elements Shakespearean appropriations of a piece with “Othellophile” narratives like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yet, once again, the expected binaries do not hold: Shel is at once Othello (telling bewitching traveler’s stories), Desdemona (finding black skin “seductive”), and Jessica (buying a monkey); he is at once white and black, male and female, seduced and seducer, Christian and Jew. Though calling the tryst entrapment fuels one set of stereotypes about women of color, it does also render Shel sexually passive, feminized, at the same moment that his lover’s voyeuristic (even better, telepathic!) enjoyment of the episode and her locker-room style remarks render her masculine. As Hovey notes, Orlando here is “simultaneously English and foreign, white and multiracial, heterosexually respectable and polymorphously perverse” (402). Ultimately, the episode leaves it up to the reader to renegotiate “the sexual and racial terms of English national identity” (403).

A Pearl Richer Than All Her Tribe?

When I taught Orlando in a course called “The History of Illustrated Text,” I noticed the prominence of pearls in the faux portraits of the Russian princess (in fact, Woolf’s niece) and Lady Orlando (Vita). This seems not accidental, given the symbolism that pearls play in the book, from Sasha’s “oyster-coloured velvet” to her eyes like something “fished from the bottom of the sea” (38; compare Shakespeare’s “those are pearls that were his eyes...” [The Tempest, 1.2.401]), to the pearls with which Orlando buys her passage back to England (one of which, the Gipsies calculate, is worth an entire flock of goats), to the pearls whose luminescence guides Shel’s airplane to landing in the whimsical final scene. I wonder whether, in crafting this pattern of imagery, Woolf had in mind Othello’s self-eulogy before his suicide, comparing him to the “base Indian, [who] threw a pearl away/ Richer than all his tribe” (Othello 5.2.356–57).9 Shakespeare employs here the familiar Elizabethan trope for a woman’s sexual and racial purity, while also reinforcing the racialist-imperialist notion that non-Christian, “savage” Others are not the best guardians of their own riches (and let’s remember that the term pearl was frequently modified “orient”). The quote also points up the hierarchy of value wherein white women (chaste ones, anyway) stand in for whole populations (“tribes”) of dark-skinned, colonized men and women, and the way in which these highly-prized European females propel colonial endeavor in their desire for (and, one hopes, moral worthiness of) the pearls they wear.

We have seen Woolf play with the equation of women and precious stones, as when the (male) Orlando compares Sasha to an emerald. That figuration, however, lacks the racial valence of Othello’s trope for Desdemona. Nor does it [End Page 67] imply chastity—rather the opposite, in stressing the “flame” trapped within the jewel’s surface. And as for the value of Orlando’s pearls, one unit is measured not against a “tribe” of people, but a flock of goats. Moreover, when Woolf writes “chastity is [women’s] jewel...which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of” (Orlando 154), she invokes the Elizabethan/Shakespearean trope only to satirize it. Indeed, her critique of the cult of chastity runs parallel to her critique of imperialism in Orlando: her marriage to Shel is in many ways a sham, and even acts as a cover enabling her to craft those homoerotic lyrics to “Egyptian girls.” As for the sexualized imagery surrounding jewels and their exchange, the fact that Orlando weds Shel using her own ring (the sapphire s/he as a male had given in an aborted betrothal) underscores the way in which Woolf’s transsexual hero/ine essentially marries herself. Gayle Rubin’s groundbreaking feminist critique of Claude Levi-Strauss’s theorization of kinship structures seems oddly prefigured here. Arguably, no female character in English literature so thoroughly undermines the “traffic in women.” Returning, however, to Othello’s final speech, a very powerful point of contrast between Woolf’s notion of the self and Shakespeare’s becomes visible. For Othello’s self-eulogy is the apotheosis of his self-division in the murder scene: he speaks of himself in the d person as he prepares for and carries out his suicide (“That’s he that was Othello. Here I am”; “I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus” [Othello 5.2.290, 364–65]). For Shakespeare, thus, self-division is tragic. Contrastingly, in the final chapter of Woolf’s novel, when the hero/ine talks to herself and calls herself by name, this self-division is not tragic—if anything Woolf celebrates the multiplicity of the human psyche, for “...how many different people are there not—Heaven help us—all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit?” (308). Ultimately, then, it is the novel’s anti-essentialism with regard to all aspects of identity that inspires me to collapse Orlando’s (and Shel’s) sexual androgyny and racial malleability under the coinage of “racial hermaphroditism.” In describing Orlando’s selves the narrator includes “the Gipsy, the Fine Lady, the Hermit...the Patroness of Letters” (309). There is also a “barbaric necklace of heavy beads” (312) seemingly chosen to offset those pearls, along with some geographical confusion, “England, Persia, Italy” (313) all mentioned in the same breath. Significantly, though, Woolf tropes the moment in which Orlando’s selves (temporarily) unite as darkness: “The whole of her darkened and settled...and all is contained as water is contained by the sides of a well. So now she was darkened, stilled, and become...what is called, rightly or wrongly, a single self, a real self” (314).

This internal darkness becomes richly symbolic in the curious dream-vision that fills the novel’s final pages, which I now take the liberty of quoting at length. A Morrisonian reading of figurative darkness and light here may very well unlock the author’s racial unconscious. Woolf writes: [End Page 68]

Her own face, that had been dark and somber as she gazed, was lit as by an explosion of gunpowder. In this same light everything near her showed with extreme distinctness....She saw with disgusting vividness that the thumb on [the carpenter’s] right hand was without a finger nail and there was a raised saucer of pink flesh where the nail should have been. The sight was so repulsive that she felt faint for a moment, but in that moment’s darkness, when her eyelids flickered, she was relieved of the pressure of the present.


The passage continues meditating on “the shadow that the flicker of her eyes cast”—the term “shadow” appearing five times in four pages—and reiterating the strange linkage between the sight that had caused this mental darkness, that “saucer of pink flesh”:

For the shadow of the faintness which the thumb without a nail had cast had deepened now, at the back of her brain...into a pool where things dwell in darkness so deep that what they are we scarcely know. She now looked down into this pool or sea in which everything is reflected—and indeed, some say that all our most violent passions...are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head....


Woolf’s canvas then mutates from darkness to chiaroscuro, unfolding a vision of “the bare mountains of Turkey...[at] blazing noon” and the voice of the gipsy, demanding, “What is your antiquity and your race, and your possessions compared with this?” (326). The vision dissipates when the chiming of a “church clock” brings Orlando back to the obscurity of her English surroundings at dusk, “misty fields, lamps in cottage windows...and a fan-shaped light pushing the darkness before it along some lane....Night had come—night that she loved of all times, night in which the reflections in the dark pool of the mind shine more clearly than by day.” Orlando now “look[s] deep into the darkness where things shape themselves” and sees “Shakespeare...a girl in Russian trousers... then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves past Cape Horn.” She sees her husband’s ship struggling up a colossal wave: “Up, it went, and up and up. The white arch of a thousand deaths rose before it.” Seeing the ship arrive safely, the waters calm, she cries, “Ecstasy!” (327).

The sexual connotations of the sequence are hard to miss: the phallic thumb with its “pink flesh”; the imagery of liquids; the orgasmic “white arch” and cry of “Ecstasy!” But the imagery is racial as well: the “white arch of a thousand deaths” occurring off the coast of South America recalls the Middle Passage, while the “pink flesh” of the carpenter—and the disgust it inspires— can be read as commenting on his racial whiteness. The gipsy’s challenge to Orlando’s cultural and class pride is never answered: in fact, his association with light, as opposed to the murk and mist of the English countryside at nightfall, reinforces the veiled anti-racism (or even reverse-racism, if there is such a thing) of Orlando’s disgust at the English carpenter’s “pink flesh” and [End Page 69] the lack or deficiency it represents. The dreadful “white arch” rising out of the reiterated shadows and darkness of Orlando’s reveries, moreover, resonates with Morrison’s commentary on images of whiteness in American fiction: “[I]mages of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable—all of the self-contradictory features of the self. Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable” (59).

But there is more. In her “ecstasy” over Shel’s surviving the Atlantic storm, she magically summons him:

“Here! Shel, here!” she cried, baring her breast to the moon...so that her pearls glowed like the eggs of some vast moon-spider. The aeroplane rushed out of the clouds....It hovered above her. Her pearls burnt like a phosphorescent flare in the darkness.

And as Shelmerdine, now grown a fine sea captain, hale, fresh-coloured, and alert, leapt to the ground, there sprang up over his head a single wild bird.

“It is the goose!” Orlando cried. “The wild goose....”


Phillips argues that this final scene “parodies both the imperial mission of bringing light and its female mascot full of sweetness. Ludicrously, Shelmerdine’s militaristic, phallic airplane is guided to land by the ‘phospherescant flare’ of Orlando’s bared breasts and rich pearls” (199). But if the scene does ridicule empire, it does so while refusing to disambiguate the racial status of its representatives. To risk splitting hairs, I would point out that the source of this guiding light is not Orlando’s breasts themselves (“...why then her breasts are dun”?) but her pearls, and Shel, first introduced in the novel as a “dark figure,” is described here as “fresh-coloured”—meaning (as it would have to mean of a sailor) ruddy, tanned. And if the sequence “breast...moon... pearls...eggs...moon-spider” emphatically genders Orlando, it does so in a way radically discordant with the angel-in-the-house rhetoric one associates with the pro-imperialist, British, feminine ideal. On the contrary, there is something Circean and siren-like about Orlando’s luring her sea-captain down by the luminescence of her pearls. And why a goose? Why not end the novel with another avian image—for instance, a swan, that symbol of Shakespeare (“the swan of Avon”) and British cultural and racial supremacy? A goose is female—and this one is not domesticated, like a kite, a haggard, or a hen. Also, given the palette with which Woolf is working in these final pages, the bird’s color (presumably “steel blue” [327] like the metaphorical feather that appears two pages prior to her arrival) seems not randomly chosen. With the possible exception of the pearls, then (and I think of phosphorescence as tending toward the greenish side, like the algae on an oyster or the “greenish-coloured fur” of Sasha’s “oyster-coloured” skating outfit), the only white in this concluding series of dream-like images is aligned with “a thousand deaths.” This “white arch” rises out of the darkness very much like Poe’s spectral figure at the end [End Page 70] of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym or the white mountaintop at the end of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Unlike those “Africanist” moments so compellingly analyzed by Morrison, though, Woolf’s final pages resist, ultimately, a color-binary, leaving us instead with a grayish-blue goose.

I have made much of Orlando’s first sentence. The very last sentence reads: “And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded...Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-eight.” Beginning with the pronoun “he,” the book ends with a number—the year in which the book was written, of course, but also, accidentally (or not), the year that English women were granted universal suffrage. Might the wild bird, then, be read as a figure for feminine freedom, taking off just as that “phallic, militaristic” (in Phillips’s words) airplane lands? The overlapping composition of A Room of One’s Own and Orlando’s strange finale would suggest that to be the case. And, to close this critical chiasmus, a glance at Room’s ending seems appropriate. Woolf writes of “the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister” putting back on “the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners...she will be born” (Room 114). Woolf here imagines a feminist second coming.

So the wild goose becomes the Phoenix.

“Chloe liked Olivia”

Woolf’s diaries show her to have been “woolgathering” about A Room of One’s Own while completing Orlando’s final chapter (Diary 175). And if readers think her famous essay on “women and fiction” does not touch on issues of race, they may have passed too quickly over the following passage:

...[P]ublicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them. They are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and...will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it, as... [men] must do...murmur[ing as]...a fine woman go[es] by, or even a dog, Ce chien est a moi. And, of course, it may not be a dog...; it may be a piece of land or a man with curly black hair. It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.

As a trained Shakespearean teaching this text solely in courses on feminism and canon-revision, for many years I dismissed the reference to the “fine negress” as an irrelevant racist hiccup; now, viewing the reference to veiling in light of Orlando’s seeming Orientalism, a subtly anti-racist—and clearly anti-imperialist—point becomes legible in the “negress” and her male counterpart (metonymized cleverly and elliptically by his hair). It is (white) men, according to Woolf, who make human beings—white women and black men, implicitly—property, on par with dogs and real estate. Further exoticism arises in the subsequent turn to Antony and Cleopatra: [End Page 71]

What was Shakespeare’s state of mind...when he wrote Lear and Antony and Cleopatra? It was certainly the state of mind most favourable to poetry that there has ever existed. But Shakespeare himself said nothing about it. We only know casually and by chance that he “never blotted a line.”

In fact, we “know” nothing of the sort—we know the opposite to be true—and I suspect Woolf suspected as much. Shakespeare blotted plenty of lines, as all authors do. Lear itself exists in two markedly different authorial versions, a fact obscured by editorial practice so fully by Woolf’s time that we can hardly blame her for mentioning it in the same breath as a play for which no equivalent textual controversy exists (see Taylor and Warren).

It is to Antony and Cleopatra, however, that Woolf returns in Room, in a way that seems consistent with Orlando’s interracial subtext. For Antony and Cleopatra takes pride of place for Shakespearean citations in A Room of One’s Own just as does Othello in Orlando. Moreover, this other Shakespearean interracial tragedy is also—not accidentally—the source of Woolf’s only explicit complaint about Shakespeare’s female characters in her seminal work of feminist criticism.10 Narrating her perusal of (the fictitious) Mary Carmichael’s (fictitious) first novel, Woolf’s persona pauses on the statement “Chloe liked Olivia.” The names, it turns out, are selected to segue alliteratively into the following remarks:

Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!...Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair?...All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted.

It is worth pointing out that Woolf’s persona, here, identifies with the exoticized and sexualized Cleopatra—a figure the author also impersonated in one of her biographical episodes of racial drag (a subject to which I will return).11 Moreover, the Cleopatra reference works in a manner similar to the “fine negress” passage in underscoring the relationship between Woolf’s feminism and her interracialist imagination. Although Woolf does not belabor—in fact, she effaces—the racial divide between the Roman Octavia and her dark rival (in Shakespeare’s text, Cleopatra asks about the color of Octavia’s hair), her suggestion that the two women might bond despite or through their shared erotic interest in Antony is counter-Shakespeare on the grounds not only of gender but of race. In Shakespeare’s works, where female sexual rivalry plays out in racial language even between “white” characters (think of Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream),12 Woolf’s re-imagining cross-racial hetero female rivalry as a kind of interracial bi sisterhood is subversive indeed.

Interestingly, these reflections lead back to Othello. Woolf invites us to “[s]uppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as [End Page 72] the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers;...how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques...” (Room 83). Othello, as the most effeminized of Shakespeare’s heroes, stands alongside Antony—effeminized in his love for a dark-skinned “Gypsy”—on the same side of a gendered and racial binary opposite some of Shakespeare’s most admired, hyper-masculine, and (with the possible exception of Jacques) Anglicized (that is, “white”) characters. This brief thought experiment concluded, Woolf returns to “Chloe and Olivia” (that is to say, Cleopatra and Octavia) and spins out the following color-coded conceit:

If Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been. It is all half lights and profound shadows like those serpentine caves where one goes with a candle peering up and down....I wanted to see how Mary Carmichael set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures...which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex.

(Room 84, my emphasis)

The color binary here is noteworthy and it is of a piece with the slippage from “fine woman” to “fine negress” quoted earlier in this digression on A Room of One’s Own. Whatever Woolf’s own attitudes toward real women of color, in the theoretical cave or “dark continent” of female relationships, we are all in the dark, and equally “dark.”13

“Sapphism Is To Be Suggested”

In shedding light on Shakespeare’s blindness to female friendship, Woolf anticipates twentieth-century feminist criticism on his fractured female bonds generally (see, for instance, Rose, Adelman, and Jardine). But Woolf’s biography also highlights—in “meta” fashion—the way in which an investment in Shakespeare’s cultural capital can work to estrange women from one another. Julia Briggs highlights how Woolf’s discussions of Shakespeare with her brother “created a bond between them that excluded Vanessa, Virginia’s sister and beloved rival, from their discussion. Thus Shakespeare, for Virginia, was, from the beginning, bound up with sibling love and rivalry within the family” (128). In the discourse of sisterhood that permeates Woolf’s meditations on the male canon, we may glimpse not only the author’s ambivalent identification with her older brother, but also her sororophobic guilt vis-à-vis Vanessa.14 And this guilt extended to the women in her audience, who do not share Woolf’s privileged status as author, publicist, and Shakespearean.

Until this point, I have resisted contextualizing Woolf’s comments on female relationships in terms of her bisexuality, in part because a significant [End Page 73] branch of feminist thought from Adrienne Rich onwards has posited a “lesbian continuum” that renders it irrelevant, in part because Woolf’s essay on women and fiction is so determinedly “hetero.” But reading the latter as sister-text to Orlando—as theorizing the creative impulse behind the novel— compels consideration of the biographical meta-text. Thus, for instance, Lady Orlando’s poeticizing about “Egyptian girls”—then hesitating, pen in hand, over public opinion—prefigures Room’s interest in Cleopatra. The episode is also self-referential on Woolf’s part: from her earliest conception of the novel she planned that “Sapphism...be suggested” (Diary 131), and in light of the sensational obscenity trial of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness that erupted less than one week after Orlando’s publication, Woolf may very well have dodged a bullet.15

Yet there is evidence of self-censorship in Orlando. Woolf’s first draft of the novel contains a scene she later omitted, in which Nick Greene gives Orlando a letter containing “Shakespeares own account of his relations with that Mr. W. H. & the dark Lady written by him with great fulness & spirit [sic].” The typically prudish narrator/biographer then burns the letter, rather than resolving the biographical riddle posed by Shakespeare’s sonnets and their personae, for “when Truth and modesty conflict...who can doubt which should prevail?...No one of British blood will censure us for the course we took....” (Holograph 72). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, brilliantly analyzing the paradigmatic homosociality of the sonnets, takes pains to avoid anachronism in describing “Will” Shakespeare’s infatuation with the fair youth as homosexual, a classification alien to Early Modern English culture. But reading Shakespeare through Woolf (hence, post Freud) de-necessitates the usual scare-quoting. To Woolf, Shakespeare’s poet-persona—in his taste for both fair-skinned androgynous boys and “dun”-skinned, sexualized women—must have embodied the sexual/racial wanderlust played out in her correspondence with Vita and on the pages of Orlando.

What is the difference, then, between Woolf’s artistic vision in Orlando and Shakespeare’s in the sonnets? The difference is encapsulated in a single letter: “...a shadow seemed to lie across the page [of the novel by “Mr. A”]. It was a straight, dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I.’ One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it” (Room 99). As touched on in regard to Othello’s final speech, the two authors have radically different approaches to the self, and that contrast is visible both in terms of characterization and authorial self-fashioning. To elaborate, not only does that overweening, masculinist “I” pepper Shakespeare’s sonnets, but his punning on his own name (“will” was a euphemism for sexual desire and/ or the genitals) allowed for special heights of phallic boasting and misogyny in “Sonnet 135.” Explicating the transition from the lighthearted and playfully homoerotic “procreation sonnets”—wherein men beget men upon absent and [End Page 74] anonymous women—to the troubled sexual nausea of the “dark lady sonnets,” Sedgwick writes:

...[T]o be self-divided in loving the fair youth feels like being stoical, while to be self-divided in loving the dark lady feels like becoming ruined. Differently put, for a man to undergo even a humiliating change in the course of a relationship with a man still feels like preserving and participating in the sum of male power, while for a man to undergo any change in the course of a relationship with a woman feels like a radical degeneration of substance...

This difference also helps describe the impression of sexlessness that persists in the relation of the speaker to the fair youth, even in the face of any amount of naughtiness, genital allusion...and just plain love. Sexuality itself seems to be defined in the Sonnets not primarily in terms of any of those things, but as a principle of irreversible change....


Sedgwick sums up the contrast by quoting two representative sonnets from each grouping: “A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe / Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream” (“Sonnet 129”); versus love, the “ever-fixed mark” (“Sonnet 116”).

Woolf herself was no “dark lady,” at least judging from the portraits I’ve seen. But she enjoyed blacking up, most famously in 1910, when she, her brother, and some friends employed racial disguise in a practical joke against the British navy and in particular the crew of the HMS Dreadnought. The pranksters presented themselves as the emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage and were entertained unrecognized aboard ship. Woolf—the only woman in the group—cross-dressed not just racially, but sexually, donning turban, robes, facial hair, and prosthetic lips. At the revelation of the hoax, Woolf’s chastity was maligned—yet this did not prevent the author from an even more shocking cross-racial performance, when she appeared a year later at the Post-Impressionist Ball dressed as one of Gauguin’s Tahitian models, in brown makeup, flowers, beads, and scandalously little else. And I have already mentioned her impersonating Cleopatra at a fancy-dress party. As Urmila Seshagiri observes, these performances reveal Woolf’s “interest in reordering the boundaries of Englishness through tropes of racial difference” (65).

What do these biographical anecdotes tell us about Woolf’s racial politics in Orlando? Racial drag—as we know from minstrel shows—can be deeply racist. But the point of the Dreadnought hoax was to expose the cultural ignorance of the British, as Jean E. Kennard points out, linking the hoax and its fallout to The Voyage Out, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando.16 And though Woolf’s exotic party costumes may be dismissed by Seshagiri as mere participation in “London’s Orientalist fashion craze” (53), we do know from A Room of One’s Own that Cleopatra figured into her feminism. Moreover, these three episodes of racial disguise also constituted moments of sexual border-crossing, and it is this aspect that brings us back to Woolf’s appropriation of Othello. [End Page 75]


In her diary entry for April 8, 1925, Woolf describes a trip with Leonard to Marseilles and Cassis on the French Riviera, and quotes Othello: “But L. & I were too too happy, as they say; if it were to die now &c” (Diary 8–9). The passage echoes a moment in Mrs. Dalloway, which she had just completed:

...She could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy...and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall, “if it were now to die ‘twere to be most happy.” That was her feeling—Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it, all because she was coming down to dinner in a white frock to meet Sally Seton!


Tellingly, both here and in Orlando, interracialism stands in for same-sex love. But what do we do with the hetero, “white” interval in her diaries? Stressing Leonard Woolf’s Jewishness might seem to be overstating the case. Another clue arises in her biographical musings over Vita: “Am I in love with her? But what is love?...I should have been reading her poem tonight...instead finished Sharon Turner—a prosy, simple, old man; the very spit & image of Saxon. a boundless bore...” (Diary 87). The contrast of Vita and the boring “Saxon” poet speaks, I believe, for itself. If Turner represents all Vita is not, and if Turner represents the essence of Anglo-Saxon racial purity, then it follows that Vita is not Anglo-Saxon. Vita is not white.

It gets better. In a letter to Vita herself, Virginia tells of a fan-letter by a woman who “has to stop and kiss the page when she reads O[rlando]:—your race I imagine. The percentage of Lesbians is rising in the States, all because of you” (Letters Vol. 4 14). It is a deeply significant move—not only calling lesbianism a “race,” but suggesting that one can adopt this racial status, just as Orlando became a gipsy (“she would return to Turkey and become a gipsy again” [Orlando 159]). Racial hermaphroditism? Bi-racial transsexualism? For such radical anti-essentialism, our critical lexicons seem inadequate. But if there is any lesson to be learned from the Orlando/Room chronology, it’s that art precedes theory. Oedipus, remember, was originally a character in a play.

And so was Othello, a figure from which my reading of Orlando has strayed quite a bit in these pages. In summing up, though, I hope I can say that my initial, tentative diagnosis of Woolf’s “Othellophilia” has spurred— in its very inaccuracy—a fruitful exercise. For the genius of Orlando as an appropriation of Shakesepeare’s tragedy is its very ability to cite the play while deconstructing its essentialisms. And contextualizing Woolf’s explicit praise of Shakespeare’s “incandescent, unimpeded” mind in A Room of One’s Own with the critique implied by her revisions of his plots and themes allows us a fascinating look at one great artist working within and against the legacy of another. I concur with Vanessa Redgrave, who calls Woolf and Shakespeare “the two great writers of the last four centuries to be born in the UK” (qtd. [End Page 76] in Eyre 68).17 And I would not be the first to suggest that Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare was her own self-projection, her own bold attempt to wrest some of Shakespeare’s fame for herself. In her letters Woolf was not too humble to mention her own books in the same breath as Shakespeare’s,18 and her heroine’s poetry—at the end of Orlando—earns her comparisons “with Milton (save for his blindness).” Nor does Orlando, after all, choose to “bury [her] book” (324)—imagining herself, it seems, a kind of female Prospero (or rather, a female Shakespeare, speaking through the character of Prospero), cuing “heavenly music” and promising “to break [his] staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound” to “drown [his] book” (The Tempest 5.1.52–57).

That Orlando doesn’t—that Shakespeare doesn’t—that Virginia doesn’t “drown” any books is something we can all applaud.


1.  I define the syndrome as “the critical and cultural fixation on Shakespeare’s tragedy of inter-racial marriage to the exclusion of broader definitions, and more positive visions, of inter-racial eroticism.” See Daileader, Racism, Misogyny, and the Othello Myth 6.

2.  Woolf first conceived of the novel as “a Defoe narrative,” but her subsequent writings about the book and (I believe) the book itself do not bear out the force of this influence (Diary 131). For instance, Defoe is not one of the many authors mentioned in Orlando.

3.  I list the more obvious instances: “Even now...an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (Othello 1.187–88); “the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou” (1.2.71–72); “My name, that was as fresh / As Diane’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face” (3.3.391–93); “Was this fair paper, this most goodly book / Made to write ‘whore’ upon?” (4.2.73–74); “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.3–5). This and all subsequent quotes of Shakespeare’s works will be culled from the Oxford William Shakespeare: The Complete Works.

4.  This vein of criticism demonstrates the inextricability of the play’s problematic racial and sexual politics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, opines: “[I]t would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable Negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance” (Vol. I, 47). John Quincy Adams raises even stronger objections: “Upon the stage, her fondling with Othello is disgusting. Who, in real life, would have her for a sister, daughter, or wife?” (qtd in Hackett 225–26).

5. Lawrence 328. See also Abel xvi and passim.

6.  Lawrence astutely notes Woolf’s prefiguration of the real-life, twentieth-century transsexual Jan Morris, who underwent his sex reassignment surgery in Casablanca (329).

7.  On the Othello/Heathcliff linkage, see Daileader, Racism, Misogyny, and the Othello Myth 143–69.

8.  In the earliest draft of the novel, Orlando would “sometimes take a slice off the niggers [sic] nose...he was tormented with a desire to hurt; Even inanimate things; like the Moor’s skull...” (Holograph Draft 1). Woolf softened this description in later drafts, removing Orlando’s explicit sadism and reserving use of the racial epithet to two later recollections of this boyhood exercise.

9.  The Quarto text here reads “Judean,” highlighting a telling conflation of Others. Othello is simultaneously black, Jewish, a Judas, and an Indian. [End Page 77]

10.  Cleopatra is called “tawny” and “black” in 1.1.6 and 1.5.28 of Antony and Cleopatra. This, however, has not prevented Caucasian performers from monopolizing the role, most (in)famously Elizabeth Taylor. See Daileader, “The Cleopatra Complex” 203–20.

11.  On Woolf’s attending a fancy-dress party “as” Cleopatra, see Seshagiri 63.

12.  Hermia is called “Ethiope” and “tawny Tartar” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3.2.258, 264).

13.  It seems appropriate to point out here that my reading should not by any means be taken as exonerating the author for the occasional personal racism of her letters and diaries. Elsewhere, for textual consistency with Orlando, I preserve Woolf’s usage of the following antiquated racist terms: Blackamoors, Turks, Gipsies, Muscovites, and Pygmies, but do not condone or otherwise sanction their pejorative use.

14.  In using the term “sororophobia” I am adapting the concept put forward by Michie.

15.  On the scandal caused by Radclyffe’s novel and the more general public preoccupation with lesbianism and lesbian art in the 1920s, see Weeks, and Whitlock.

16.  Kennard’s and Seshagiri’s readings dovetail neatly with my own: my approach differs in focusing on the implications of Woolf’s (inter)racialist aesthetic for her relationship to Shakespeare.

17.  Redgrave answers a question about learning as an actress how to speak Shakespeare’s language, first quoting Virginia Woolf: “Everything starts with an event, an emotion which produces a sort of wave and out of the wave words come tumbling” (68).

18.  I came across this one by accident: “Is there any book or books of mine, or Shakespeare’s Hardy’s Scotts, that I can give you, in token of gratitude?” (Woolf, Letters 350).

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