, , ,

Othello’s toleration or, more accurately, his masochistic acceptance of his barbaric past that is a surplus requirement of his European identity, is demonstrated in his ‘travailous history’ (1.3, line 140) that captivates Desdemona:


Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak – such was my process –
And of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders… (1.3, lines 141-146)

Othello describes a non-European space characterised by its vast caves and empty deserts. The implied gigantic scale of uncultivated land is confirmed by the alliteration in ‘Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch/heaven’. The pathetic fallacy of the ‘hills whose heads touch/heaven’ indicates exotic phallic excess that threatens to exceed its boundaries. The border created between the hilltops and heaven, or between the uncivilised and civilised, represents the close proximity of the exotic danger that Desdemona desires to hear and also desires in Othello. The fact that Othello not only tolerates his exoticism but represses it is testified by: ‘It was my hint to speak – such was my process –’. Othello wearily plays the part of an exotic artefact relating its strange and wondrous history.

The unfamiliar landscape is also filled with the cannibalistic ‘Anthropophagi’ who represent the barbaric threat of assimilating civilised Europeans by physical consumption. The ‘men whose heads/…grow beneath their shoulders’ indicate the corporeal body’s assimilation of the ‘rational’ head that personifies the barbaric or immoral version of European colonialism. The unfamiliar landscape, the cannibalistic ‘Anthropophagi’ and the ‘men whose heads/…grow beneath their shoulders’ represent the barbaric whole compared to Othello’s synecdochic barbarism, because he now regards himself as European. It is this whole discourse overflowing with immoral excess that Desdemona’s ‘greedy ear’ (1.3, line 150) devours.

Othello’s ‘travailous history’ is also comparable to the erotic discourse of courtly love. The acceptance of his own barbaric past becomes transformed into his love for Desdemona, as ‘And I loved her that she did pity them [the dangers constituting Othello’s barbaric past]’ (I.iii, line 169) testifies. Othello accepts his barbaric identity not simply because he cannot be purely European but, by transforming his barbarism into his love for Desdemona, he can unify with a European identity. Therefore, Othello essentially swaps his barbaric identity for Desdemona’s European identity – Desdemona becomes the enslaved barbarian and Othello the masterful European.


Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1602. Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2003.