“I Have Done the State Some Service”: Reading Slavery in Othello through Juan Latino


This essay argues that we can better understand representations of race and slavery in Othello (circa 1601-04) by comparing Shakespeare’s tragedy with a slightly later Spanish play, Ximenéz de Enciso’s Juan Latino (circa 1612-20). Juan Latino, like Othello, has a heroic black protagonist; however, the Spanish play differs from the English in that its protagonist is a slave whose color is frequently and explicitly linked with his enslavement. Examining how vocabularies of service are used to describe the enslavement of blacks in Juan Latino helps to uncover similar, though less overt, connections in Othello. Although the relationship between blackness and slavery is far more explicit in Juan Latino than it is in Othello, a similar tension around blackness and service can be seen in the English and Spanish play alike. This similarity can help us to see that an emergent discourse associating blackness and slavery is present in the English as well as the Spanish play. This argument based on close readings of the two plays is further supported by evidence drawn from Spanish and English history, demonstrating the presence of a sizeable black slave population in early modern Spain, and a smaller but still-visible presence of black Africans in Elizabethan England who arrived there via the Iberian slave trade. I conclude by suggesting that engaging more closely with Spanish plays about blackness can enrich studies not only of Othello but also more generally of developing discourses of race and slavery in early modern Europe.

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