Shakespeare’s Othello is usually read as the tale of a black man’s lust for a white woman and the chaos that ensues from their union. In his “Goats and Monkeys”, Walcott attempts to present Othello’s act of murder differently from the play by reducing the significance of Othello’s colour and race. In order to accomplish this, he uses monsters and bestial imagery- most repeatedly, the bull. Walcott’s monsters exist in the form of fantastical beasts, fearsome or abnormal creatures and humans who perform ruthless or cruel actions. Walcott changes the motive for the murder by simultaneously highlighting Othello’s bestiality and disengaging it from his race. His use of beasts and monsters causes the reader to pay attention to incidents in Shakespeare’s Othello that shift the motive from racial stereotypes to well orchestrated jealousy.

Walcott states his understanding of Othello’s motive most clearly in the final line of his poem- “this mythical, horned beast who’s no more/ monstrous for being black” (Walcott, 47). The word ‘monstrous’ is synonymous with being outrageously inhuman and frightening. Walcott explains that Othello’s act, though terrible, is not more abnormal or barbaric because of his race. The focus then shifts to the ‘mythical, horned beast’ that he is talking about. There is an earlier reference to them in the poem- “like Pasiphae, poor girl, she’d breed horned monsters?” (Walcott, 15). In Greek mythology, Pasiphae has intercourse with Poseidon’s bull (a monster because of its fantastical nature) and gives birth to a monster- a Minotaur with the head of a bull and the body of a man. By referring to Othello as a ‘mythical, horned beast’ and to Desdemona as ‘Pasiphae, poor girl’, Walcott superimposes them onto this myth. What could they breed but something monstrous? The reference to breeding ‘horned monsters’ then directs one to Iago’s speech in Shakespeare’s Othello – “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / it is a green ey’d monster” (Act 3:3,165). The ‘mythical, horned beast’ seems to be a reference not to the bull, but to a different kind of Minotaur with the head of the ‘green-ey’d monster’ and the body of Othello. But what is it that causes this change from the magnificent bull of Poseidon to the lowly, repulsive monster?

The change comes from a carefully orchestrated set of circumstances that cause Othello to suspect Desdemona. In the poem, Walcott brings up an important image- “bellowing, goaded /a black bull snarled in ribbons of its blood” (Walcott, 23). The image is reminiscent of a Spanish bullfight. The bull has been aggravated beyond bearing and its rage is almost monstrous. The matador goads it with the red flag and, bellowing, it charges when the flag is dropped. Walcott also describes Othello’s grief as “knotted in a handkerchief” (Walcott, 44). The idea of Othello’s woe being situated in a handkerchief links back to Shakespeare’s play. Iago’s carefully planned deceit causes events to spiral to their tragic end when Desdemona first drops her handkerchief. Othello’s trust in Desdemona and his sanity are all tied up in the handkerchief. Like the matador, Iago uses the handkerchief to goad him- planting suspicion and jealousy in his mind. Like the bull, Othello charges in mad anger after the handkerchief falls. By situating Othello’s misery in the handkerchief, Walcott brings its significance to mind. Othello’s rage does not come from sorrow that the handkerchief has been lost. It comes from sorrow at the loss of what the handkerchief stood for. For him, the loss of the handkerchief proved Desdemona’s infidelity and so, he justified his act of murder in his jealousy. The use of this image shifts focus on to the actual murder and the way in which it is read.

One of Walcott’s most important devices is his act of implicating the reader into the flow of events. In his last stanza, after Desdemona is killed, he writes “we harden with mockery at this blackamoor” (Walcott, 41). This line distances the act of murder from the audience (making it a performance to be viewed) and causes the audience to think more deeply about the circumstances surrounding the final act of murder and the narratives that inform their judgement. This directs the attention to the extremely important animal motifs that are present in the epigraph which is borrowed from Iago’s speech in Othello –“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/ is tupping your white ewe” (Act 1:1, 89). In the play, Iago does not dislike Othello because of his race. He is jealous of Othello’s fame and military prowess. In order to orchestrate Othello’s downfall, Iago plays on the racial fears of the other characters in the play and by extension, the audience’s fears. He uses the images of the ‘black ram’ and the ‘white ewe’ to remind Brabantio of the so called ‘danger’ of miscegenation. With this sentence, Iago also brings up all the stereotypes that surround the black man- the lustful, barbaric, fiendish monster. It is Iago’s careful manipulation of his audience that causes the Othello’s colour and race to become such an important part of the play. Walcott’s use of the epigraph could be read as a reminder of Othello’s race. But, when read in conjunction with the last line of the poem, it seems to play a much larger role. The epigraph reminds the reader that Iago too, was envious of Othello. It reminds the reader that Iago played with the audience’s preconceptions. By distancing the act of murder, Walcott seems to be reminding the audience that Iago played with their conceptions and preventing them from once again, falling prey to the same machinations. This tactic highlights not Othello’s race, but Iago’s jealousy projected upon Othello.

In his poem, Walcott manages to give Othello’s character a certain amount of subjectivity. He frees Othello from the bonds of a racially- constructed identity and allows him to be judged without the stereotype of the monster lurking within the black man. His use of bestial imagery begs the audience to be aware of the prejudices that inform their judgement.


One Response to ““The green-ey’d monster”: Walcott’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Othello”

  1. deepshikha Says:

    Awesome 🙂

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