Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The glamour of the foreigner

[NB, I have now incorporated the contents of this post into my larger post on Shakespeare's Othello :

It's up to you if you want to read it here or go and plough through the longer essay.] 

[Image source:]

I was chatting recently to my sister and her partner about their experiences teaching in Japan a few years ago,. (Something they both did for a couple of years, via the JET programme, before they met each other. It gave them something to talk about!)

Both testified to the enormous interest, amounting to fascination, that their presence aroused among the provincial Japanese. At first this constant gazing, crowding round and longing to touch their hair or compare heights seemed oppressive and even scary. But as time went by, they each became used to it. 

And then, returning to the UK, a funny thing happened. They got culture-shock in reverse. Walking into, say, a pub, they unconsciously adopted a celebrity smile and an aura of "Well HELLO there! Let's get this party started!"  And they were almost affronted by the utter indifference that greeted their appearance. 

Accepting that it may be a bit different if you're a slave or a refugee or oyster-picking for a ganger, but there is a kind of built-in glamour to being a foreigner in a foreign land. You are living life. You are out there. Your experiences are potentially worth writing about for the folks back home. Your brain lives in the present, kept active by the stimuli of new sights and sounds. 


I was thinking about this in connection with Othello. (My earlier note is here.)

There's no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England. He had travelled, indeed. From Stratford-upon-Avon to London. In those days, that was quite a long way. 

He had surely seen people from other races. Even in those days, London was a cosmopolitan city. Travellers were starting to have black servants. It's even been suggested that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of colour. Still, the sight of people from other races hadn't yet lost its novelty value. The painters of Shakespeare's time - e.g. Rubens - manifested huge interest in the Africans, Arabs and Asians they came across. Clearly Rubens was not alone. Shakespeare too must have joined the crowd clustering eagerly around these strange phenomena. It must have been just like the Japanese country people surrounding an English (or Irish) teacher. 

All the same, Shakespeare, writing about the Moor Othello in Venice, was mainly working from his own imagination. There was already a tradition of dramas about non-Europeans, from Tamburlaine  to The Battle of Alcazar to Titus Andronicus. In the latter, Aaron is a Moorish foreigner in Rome. Shakespeare himself was the co-creator, along with Peele. Aaron is an out-and-out villain, but here already Shakespeare begins to think about what it means to be a foreigner in service. His imagination told him most of what he needed to know. Aaron was valuable, Aaron was cleverer than his native colleagues, but Aaron was an outsider, he was never secure. 

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1693, Thomas Rymer poured scorn on the notion that a "Blackmoor" could ever end up being a leading general of the Venetian republic, but I'm not convinced that Rymer knew what he was talking about. Cinthio, writing for a sixteenth-century Italian audience, makes his Moor a captain in Venice and says he married a well-born Venetian lady. The story he tells depends upon this being out of the ordinary but certainly not beyond belief.

What Rymer's note testifies to is the dramatic growth in feelings of disgust towards people of colour, as a direct consequence of enslaving them and treating them like beasts. (As everyone now knows, humans tend to demonize those they have wronged, not those who have wronged them.)

In Cinthio's and Shakespeare's day this racism was still in quite an embryonic phase, compared to the visceral feelings evinced later by Rymer and Coleridge and well described by Bradley.

Early theatrical tradition (confirmed by Iago's insults in Othello) seems to have presented Moors as looking more like sub-Saharan Africans than Mediterraneans. Yet Shakespeare very likely had encountered the embassy from Morocco that arrived in London in 1600 and stayed 6 months. Its chief was "Abdul Guahid" (Abd el-Ouahad ben Messaoud), shown in the impressive portrait above. The term "black" had a much wider currency in Shakespeare's day than it did in later, more race-conscious, times: Europeans with dark hair or complexions might also be described as "black".


Perhaps none so colourful as Othello, but Shakespeare would also have known many examples of top professionals, especially military ones, who took service in the pay of a foreign master.

In such service, it was axiomatic that you adopted the religion of your foreign master. Few people yet believed that religion was something for the individual conscience to decide.

That's why Othello appears as a Christian. And Othello is proud of being able to say things that are just what a Venetian would say ("What, are we turned Turk...?").


But Othello is a foreigner. He's a glamorous one. And at the beginning of the play, he's euphoric with the growth of his prestige in a foreign country, his indispensable services to the state, a triumph now topped off by his marriage to the much younger Desdemona, a beauty from the Venetian aristocracy. 

Such inner joy, such self-satisfaction, is something that we envious human beings are extremely sensitive to. It's not the least of reasons why foreigners are often disliked.


The UK has recently had a referendum about this. The question on the ballot-paper was (or least it appeared to be):

Do you want any more foreigners in your neighbourhood? 

__ YES     __NO 

For most people in Britain the answer was, as it always has been, a resounding No. Since we're being given the choice, let's eliminate foreigners. Let them go back where they came from. Life is primarily about our own survival. About preserving the only land we know for us and our children. 

For young, educated, confident, middle-class, high-earning people, the answer was Yes.  They found that they related well to the educated, confident foreigners they met with. These foreigners proved on the whole to be better employees and more like-minded pals; they worked harder, were more intelligent, more aware of the wider world, more switched on, and had more interesting backgrounds. The clever British achievers had aspirations to being foreigners themselves one day. 

Indeed, the clever British achievers felt a lot more comfortable among foreigners than with their own traditional class enemies, those surly curmudgeonly working classes who despise aspirational people, their fakeness and their insincerity.  Anyway, I digress. 


In the opening act of Othello, it's clear that Othello's euphoric foreignness will make enemies. In fact, he's so confident, so high on life, that he doesn't even care all that much what other people think. 

We don't need to see or hear Roderigo and Brabantio to know that surrounding Othello there's going to be a lurking xenophobia. 

Because if foreignness is glamorous, then the non-foreign populace will experience envy. Envy, as always, disguises itself as something else. Hey presto, xenophobia. 

What about Iago? Is he xenophobic? He certainly talks like he is, but mainly to manipulate Roderigo and Brabantio. Iago might be too smart to actually fall for this crude racist talk himself. But he is, very definitely, consumed with envy. Of the supremely successful Othello. Also, of the handsome and well-educated Cassio. And he's deeply cynical about Desdemona and all such high-born dames; I believe he genuinely does think that she'll soon tire of her Moorish frolic, and move on to a dashing chap like Cassio. 

The one thing that he doesn't imagine is that Desdemona would ever see anything in him, Iago. (The buried plotline of Cinthio's story resonates here.) 

He's right. Actually no-one sees anything in Iago. "Honest" Iago is a tool. Everyone talks to him and everyone relies on him, but no-one cares about him. Go and fetch the luggage, Iago, there's a good fellow. 

So Shakespeare's imagination drove Cinthio's story deeper until it touched on two of the oldest hatreds of them all: the foreigner, and the class beneath you (or above you). Come to think of it, Othello manifests quite a bit of the third ancient hatred too: hatred of women. 

It's depressing to think how vigorous all these hatreds still are today. 

These notes on Shakespeare: Full list

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