The Biography of Othello: A Signifying Life
- Author(s): Solt, Susan
- Advisor(s): Stevenson, Brenda E.
- et al.
In 1604, during an age when poetry wielded power in the public sphere as political critique and social commentary, Shakespeare introduced onto the London stage his “noble Moor” as the hero of a tragedy. A heretofore demonized and lampooned creature of English Renaissance drama – “the blackamoor” – was suddenly rendered as a sympathetic and suffering, sentient human being: an honorable man cruelly victimized for nothing more than racist spite. That moment of empathy when the Englishman could weep openly for a black African as if for he himself was the birth of a modern Western consciousness of a shared human condition that could transcend race. It was a moment of unprecedented commensurability when the Western gaze saw itself reflected in the other – and his name was Othello.
In The Biography of Othello, Susan Solt demonstrates that in a gesture of extraordinary affinity during a rare window of cultural tolerance, Shakespeare used his play about an interracial marriage to make a case for racial understanding. From that moment forward, Othello, the African prince captured into slavery who rose as a free man to command the military forces of sixteenth-century Venice, would forever be enshrined as the signifying counterpoint to the prevailing Western construct of the brute African slave.
Providing the reader with a massively researched study of Othello’s life imagined in its historical context, Solt achieves nothing less than a re-write of the master narrative that reframes the underreported African presence in world history – especially in Shakespeare’s London. She critically examines what occurred when black people and white people first interacted in the intersection of cultures in the early modern world, and uncovers overlooked antecedents to America’s historical struggle with race and racism and the stain of slavery on our national character. In Susan Solt’s reading of the play, the figure of Othello is a vector for the transformative role the construction of race plays in the forces of history, which explains why a work of literature written so long ago still speaks to us today.
Although crafted on a matrix of scholarship, The Biography of Othello is not a typical history book, it is not just another book about Shakespeare – it is about us; it is about our shared cultural identity across the spectrum of human difference. Watching or reading Othello today is to live 400 years of race in Western civilization. Through transforming Othello’s fictional story into a historically-based cultural biography, Susan Solt gives face, voice, and agency to the racial other. The intimate other. The man inside Shakespeare’s storied construct. For it is through the intimacy of this encounter with Othello that we can also seek to know ourselves – our own otherness – and our own privilege.