- “I Have Done the State Some Service”: Reading Slavery in Othello through Juan Latino
When he recounts the story that won Desdemona’s heart, Othello mentions having been “taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery.”1 For readers today these lines, spoken by a character described as “black” on multiple occasions, immediately evoke the specter of the Atlantic triangle and the widespread enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans. In recent years, however, many critics have warned against such associations on the grounds that they are anachronistic. They argue that we lose sight of Othello’s historical specificity if we read it in the context of racial categories that would only crystallize later in the century with the rise of a plantation economy.2 Instead, scholars such as Jonathan Burton, Julia Reinhardt Lupton, and Daniel Vitkus have suggested that Othello’s capture by the “insolent foe” should be read not in the context of the Atlantic slave trade but rather that of piracy and kidnapping in the Islamic Mediterranean. In this reading, the play becomes a “drama of conversion,” in which Othello’s “Moorishness” associates him with Islam as much as it does with blackness.3 Placing Othello in this Mediterranean context thus avoids naturalizing—enshrining as timeless and essential—vocabularies of race that are in fact the product of a particular moment in the development of a global economy.
In his introduction to the most recent Oxford edition of Othello, Michael Neill ably sums up the significance of this Mediterranean-focused approach to our understanding of the play’s engagement with slavery:
For modern audiences, Othello’s story of enslavement will inevitably be colored by the horrors of that later history; but, as the work of Nabil Matar and Daniel Vitkus has demonstrated, “Moors” were, on balance, more likely to figure in the early seventeenth-century English imagination as [End Page 529] enslavers than as slaves; and Othello’s narrative of capture, enslavement, and “redemption thence” actually parallels the experience of many prisoners on both sides of a Muslim-Christian conflict that stretched back at least to the Crusades. As such it belongs not to the industrialized human market place of the Atlantic triangle, but to the same Mediterranean theatre of war as the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.4
Neill and the critics cited above propose that we read Othello as a Mediterranean “drama of conversion” instead of as an engagement with the rise of color-based slavery. In this essay, I draw on and develop their important insights, but argue that this “instead of” is unnecessary: it is not in fact anachronistic to read Othello in the context of both the Mediterranean and the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans.
If we read Othello as participating in a nascent discourse that associates enslavement with blackness, we do not need to see that interpretation as looking forward in time, anticipating a global system of chattel slavery that is yet to be firmly entrenched. Instead, I argue that we can see Othello’s engagement with slavery by looking across space, and bringing the play into dialogue with early seventeenth-century Spanish representations of blackness. There were tens of thousands of enslaved black Africans in Spain and Portugal by the turn of the seventeenth century, and the Spanish comedia inscribes a relationship between blackness and slavery.5 Although the relationship between blackness and slavery is far more explicit in these Spanish plays than it is in Othello, a similar tension around blackness and service can be seen in English and Spanish texts alike.
I begin with a brief history of the Iberian slave trade and representations of blackness and slavery in the Spanish comedia before turning to a close reading of one Spanish play, Ximénez de Enciso’s Juan Latino. My reading demonstrates the ways in which representations of slavery and blackness were closely intertwined on the early modern Spanish stage. I conclude by reading Othello in the context of Juan Latino’s frequent and explicit references to the enslavement of black Africans.
I. Spain, Slavery, and Representations of Blackness
The significance of Spain to developing discourses of race in early modern Europe has been widely recognized in...