What did it mean to be a Moor in Shakespeare’s time?

Answered by Michael Wilson

In Shakespeare’s time, the term “Moor” carried multiple meanings and connotations. Primarily, it referred to people of Muslim descent or those from North Africa, specifically the region of Morocco. However, the term was not limited to these geographical or religious associations and was often used more broadly to describe individuals with dark skin.

During this period, Europe was expanding its contact with different cultures through trade and exploration. As a result, there was a growing familiarity with people from diverse backgrounds, including those from North Africa. However, this exposure did not necessarily lead to acceptance or understanding. Instead, it often gave rise to stereotypes and prejudices.

In Shakespeare’s play “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice,” the protagonist, Othello, is referred to as a Moor. Othello is a general in the Venetian army and is characterized by his dark skin. Throughout the play, his racial and cultural background becomes a central theme, affecting how other characters perceive and interact with him.

Being a Moor in Shakespeare’s time meant facing prejudice and discrimination. The term was often associated with negative stereotypes, portraying Moors as exotic, mysterious, and even dangerous. They were seen as outsiders, different from the European norm. This perception was fueled by a lack of understanding and the prevailing prejudices of the time.

In “Othello,” Shakespeare explores the consequences of this prejudice. Othello faces suspicion and doubt regarding his character and ability solely based on his race. His marriage to Desdemona, a white Venetian woman, further intensifies the racial tension within the play. The societal disapproval and underlying racism contribute to Othello’s tragic downfall.

It is important to note that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello as a Moor is not necessarily an accurate representation of all Moors in his time. Rather, it reflects the prevailing stereotypes and prejudices held by Europeans towards people of African and Muslim descent.

The use of the term “Moor” in Shakespeare’s works was not always consistent. Sometimes, the distinction was made between “blackamoors” and “white Moors,” suggesting a distinction based on skin color. This differentiation demonstrates the fluidity and ambiguity surrounding the term, which could be influenced by both race and religion.

To be a Moor in Shakespeare’s time was to be subject to stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. The term encompassed a broad range of individuals, often conflating racial and religious identities. While Shakespeare’s portrayal of Moors in his plays may not accurately reflect the reality of all Moors at the time, it sheds light on the prevailing attitudes and prejudices towards those who were perceived as different.