In the Elizabethan era, Europeans had not yet fully developed the concept of “race” as it has come to be understood in later centuries. In Elizabethan English, “black” could be used to describe any complexion from suntanned Northern European to sub-Saharan African. Very pale skin was considered conventionally attractive, especially in women, but Shakespeare makes fun of this preference his sonnets. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who is so desirable that “she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies,” is “with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black.” There was an age-old association of blackness and darkness with evil, and traditionally devils were portrayed onstage with black skin. Shakespeare is referring to this tradition rather than a racial stereotype when his character Aaron (Titus Andronicus) says that his villainous deeds will make “his soul black as his face.” However, Europeans did have a number of prejudices about the darker-skinned people they encountered in Africa and the Middle East. There were particularly strong prejudices about Muslims, or “Moors.” (Aaron is a Moor, as is Othello.) For centuries, the Christian countries of Europe had been in conflict with the Islamic powers of North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East, and the two civilizations continued to pose a military threat to one another in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
In 1550 a Moorish convert to Christianity called Johannes Leo Africanus published A Geographical History of Africa. Leo, whose Arabic name was al-Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Wazzān al-Zayyātī, described his extensive travels in Africa, and attempted to list the traits of African people. His descriptions are neutral, listing both good and bad traits, but they are stereotypical, and each time Leo’s book was translated into another European language, the translators made his descriptions more negative. In the English translation by John Pory (published in 1600), Leo says that Africans are “Most honest people” but also “subject to jealousy.” They are “proud…high-minded…addicted unto wrath” and “credulous.” Shakespeare’s most famous Moorish character, Othello, demonstrates many of these traits. Iago exploits Othello’s credulousness and jealousy to make him suspect Desdemona of adultery, and it is the Moor’s tendency to wrath which causes him to murder her. Leo also says that Moors are vulnerable to the “falling sickness,” which may lie behind Othello’s “epilepsy."
Pory’s translation of A Geographical History of Africa was published in 1600 to capitalize on the arrival in England that year of an ambassador from Barbary. Barbary was a large and powerful Muslim kingdom centered in modern-day Morocco. The Ambassador and sixteen colleagues stayed in England for six months, and they were treated with the same respect given to the representatives of European monarchs. They visited Elizabeth’s court over Christmas. The seasonal celebrations that year included a performance by Shakespeare’s company, so it’s probable that Shakespeare saw or even met the Moorish diplomats. The Ambassador was forty-two in 1600. He was in England to discuss the possibility of a military alliance against Spain, and in the portrait of him that was painted during his visit he is depicted with his hand resting by his sword. In Shakespeare’s Othello (written around 1603), the Moor Othello, who Iago calls “a Barbary horse,” is a middle-aged man and a respected military leader.