The Moors were a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent who populated the Maghreb region of northwest Africa during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Despite originating on the African continent, in the eighth century the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula—what we know today as Spain and Portugal. The Moors controlled the Iberian Peninsula until the fifteenth century, when European forces finally drove them out. In the early modern European imagination, the Moors fit in with the other Muslim populations that were seen to threaten Christendom. For centuries, Christian Europe had been in conflict with the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from modern-day Turkey into the Middle East and across North Africa. Starting with the earliest Crusades in the eleventh century, and continuing into Shakespeare’s lifetime, the clash of Christian and Muslim civilizations posed a military and religious threat that destabilized Europe and contributed to negative views of the Moors.
Although Moors had dark skin, it is important to note that in Shakespeare’s time Europeans had not yet developed the concept of “race” as it came to be understood in later centuries. Unlike today, early modern Europeans did not link skin color to genetic or evolutionary heritage, which are two concepts that arose in the nineteenth century with the emergence of modern biological science. Even so, early modern European culture did maintain a color prejudice that stemmed from two very different sources. The first source was medieval climate theory, which linked dark skin to sun exposure and thus connected the hot climate of Mediterranean North Africa with blackness. The second source stemmed from Christian theology, which tells the story of how God cursed Noah’s son Ham to be “black and loathsome.” The blackness of Ham’s lineage does refer to skin color, but blackness chiefly plays a metaphorical role in that story, marking Ham’s sin. Shakespeare refers to this latter tradition rather than a racial stereotype when, for example, he has Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus declare that his villainous deeds will make “his soul black as his face.”
An important historical source on the Moors appeared in 1550, when a Moorish convert to Christianity named 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. These traits became increasingly stereotyped as Leo’s book was translated in European languages and 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 likely read Leo in Pory’s translation. We know this because 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 his wife. Leo also says that Moors are vulnerable to the “falling sickness,” which may lie behind Othello’s “epilepsy.”