Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.
Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988.

Shakespeare’s 1603 tragedy Othello has long been ripe for adaptation and postcolonial rewritings. As the Pakistani novelist Zulfikar Ghose observes in his book This Mortal Knowledge, Othello is a truly noble man, in contrast to the calumny of “lascivious Moor” with which Iago taints him. In fact, if Othello has a fault, Ghose suggests that it is his “sexual frugality”, which leads him to make too great a distinction between body and spirit. This enables Iago to work on both Othello’s jealousy about his wife and on the “base racial instinct” Iago shares with his fellow white Venetians. The consequence is that a “beast with two backs” is created — not through sexual union but the conjoining of Desdemona and Othello in death. With its Molotov cocktail of false friendship, racism, military careers, and extreme sexual possessiveness, Othello proves irresistible to many artists from postcolonial backgrounds.

In 1966, the Sudanese author Tayeb Salih published an Arabic-language novel Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal. It was translated into the English title Season of Migration to the North in 1969 and is now a Penguin Modern Classic. In this cornerstone text for postcolonialism, Salih depicts the cultural conflict that ensues when two rural Sudanese Muslims move to Britain and then return to Africa.

Season’s events are related by an unnamed narrator who passed several years in Britain during the interwar period pursuing a higher education. Returning to his seemingly timeless village in rural Sudan, the narrator meets a mysterious older man called Mustafa Sa’eed. Mustafa had also attended university in the colonial metropole. There he seduced white British women, leaving behind a string of broken hearts, suicides and murder.

A key concern of postcolonial criticism has been to interpret how writers from formerly-colonised countries have re-envisioned classic English works

One of his lovers who takes her life, the married mother Isabella Seymour, is enthralled by Mustafa’s exotic blackness. Desdemona to his Othello, she loves his outlandish stories of the landscape, animals and people of Africa. However, Mustafa is alert to the racism underpinning her interest, as when she assumes he is a cannibal. He plays along with her fantasies, inventing fictions about the ‘dark continent’. We are explicitly invited to make connections between the novel and Shakespeare’s play when Mustafa asserts, “I am no Othello, I am a lie” and later, “I am no Othello, Othello was a lie”. Here Salih not only exhibits Mustafa’s malevolence towards his white lovers, which stems from anger at his colonial condition, but also calls into question Shakespeare’s depiction of the “noble Moor”. In doing so, he is participating in what literary critics term intertextuality; in other words, he creates a web of references to other texts. Later postcolonial writers have fashioned full adaptations of Othello or ‘written back’ to the play.

But what is writing back? One of postcolonial criticism’s key concerns has been to interpret how authors from formerly-colonised countries have re-envisioned classic novels from the English literary canon. This approach was especially inspired by one book, The Empire Writes Back (1989), by the Australian critics Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Punning on the 1980 Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back, they argued that postcolonial authors question and parody colonial ideas, writing back to the centre to contest accepted truths. In challenging imperialist assumptions, the postcolonial writers they discuss also remake the English language and the novel form. However, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin’s interest in postcolonial authors’ challenge to colonial discourse actually tethers them with European ideas as the central stake. Too much attention is still accorded to the West, even if critics now seek to dismantle its assumptions.

In her important study Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison argues that mainstream white American literature developed its own identity out of a contrast with African Americans. Morrison maintains that the notion of American individualism flourishes when cast against the stereotypical but inescapable bondage of slaves and their descendants. “Freedom,” she writes, “can be relished more deeply in a cheek-by-jowl existence with the bound and unfree, the economically oppressed, the marginalised, the silenced”.

These comments also apply to Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century English context. In her 2011 play Desdemona (directed by American Peter Sellars and with music by the Malian singer Rokia Traoré), Morrison intimates that Desdemona’s individual beauty and purity were partly facilitated by an almost-silenced figure in the play, her attentive African maid, Barbary. They were also aided by Iago’s wife, the working-class character Emilia, who mocks the entitlement of Desdemona’s heroine: “Unpin me, Emilia”. “Arrange my bed sheets, Emilia”. “That is not how you treat a friend; that’s how you treat a servant.”

In her important study Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison argues that mainstream white American literature developed its own identity out of a contrast with African Americans.

In Shakespeare’s play, we only learn of Barbary’s existence in Act IV, Scene III, when a heartbroken Desdemona tells Emilia that she is haunted by the Willow Song that her mother’s maid died while singing after being jilted by a lover. Morrison assumes that Barbary is a slave name, given that it means Africa, so in Desdemona she gives the character her original appellation of Sa’ran. Indeed, Sa’ran contradicts her mistress’s claim that they shared many experiences as young people. She tells her that they shared nothing and that Desdemona misunderstood everything about Sa’ran because she didn’t even know her real name:

“Barbary is the geography of the foreigner, the savage. Barbary equals the sly, vicious enemy who must be put down at any price; held down at any cost for the conquerors’ pleasure. Barbary is the name of those without whom you could neither live nor prosper.”

In the 2011 play Desdemona is a little older than the teenager envisioned by Shakespeare. She and her former servant as well as her murderous husband meet in the afterlife and engage in conversation. The white woman admits that in her childhood Barbary was the only person who allowed her imagination to soar by telling her “stories of other lives, other countries”. In Morrison’s writing back, it is therefore the female companion as well as Othello who inspire the girl with stories of faraway lands and their different customs. Towards the end of the play Morrison’s Othello character articulates the rage felt by Sa’ran and him (and by the fictional Mustafa before them) that their story is “cut to suit a princess’s hunger for real life, not the dull existence of her home”. But the Nobel laureate also gives Desdemona some devastating lines through which to censure Othello for his violent temper and misogynist views of her, most notably: “I was the empire you had already conquered”. Much of this dialogue is set to Traoré’s ethereal score, with the lyrics projected onto screens and incorporated into the play.

When Shakespeare’s Iago proclaims, “Men should be what they seem”, he is of course dissembling. While gaining Othello’s assent to this truism, Iago also sets him thinking about men who are not what they seem, thus planting doubt in Othello’s mind about Cassio and the possibility that he and Desdemona are lovers. More broadly, by creating this white character who is so far from what he seems and Othello, the black man destructively duped by him, Shakespeare shadows forth a great deal about the lie of colonialism. Many black and South Asian writers have pushed Shakespeare’s ideas further and updated his plays to reflect on our globalised world shaped by racism and structural inequality.


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