Shakespeare’s Othello resists readings that consider the text quintessentially anti-black, but does that mean that we should not consider it a racist text? This essay engages the more equivocal contours of the play’s intolerance toward its Moor, arguing that it is precisely this complexity that characterizes regimes of racialism. Colin Powell provides a helpful point of juxtaposition because the former American secretary of state encourages debates about the prevalence of modern-day racism. To many, Powell’s ascent signals racism’s disappearance, because a number of his characteristics appear to extricate him from racialized stereotypes concerning African Americans. But critics of such post-racial perspectives have cogently demonstrated that an over-investment in narratives of racial transcendence hides and thus aids the persistence of more subtle and pernicious forms of racialization. In this essay, a study of Powell’s reception informs an approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Where much criticism on Othello argues against the text’s capacity for racism by emphasizing its more tolerant aspects—especially Othello’s social status, occupation, and irregular humoral description—this essay reads the Moor’s racialization as entangled with these complex, sometimes favorable features. Thus, it prompts the field to move away from conceptions of racism in which intolerance is too easily controverted by shows of tolerance, because such reductive notions inhibit the historicization of a nuanced early modern racialism.


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pp. 68-83
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