9 Othello’s Unfortunate Happiness

Cora Fox

William Shakespeare’s Othello opens with a plot to change the color of Othello’s joy. After he has informed Roderigo of Othello’s secret marriage to Desdemona, Iago famously ignites Roderigo’s jealousy and prejudice in a series of slurs that draw attention to Othello’s racialized body, provoking the lament: “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe / If he can carry’t [his marriage to Desdemona] thus!” (1.1.65–66).[1] Building on this regret over what Roderigo deems Othello’s potentially “full fortune,” Iago suggests to Roderigo that he manipulate Desdemona’s father by informing him publicly of her deception:

Call up her father,
Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets, incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies! Though that his joy be joy
Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t
As it may lose some colour. (1.1.67–72)

Although the ultimate target of this weaponized unhappiness is explicitly Othello, Brabantio’s shame is framed first as a means to that end, but the pronouns and the misery already migrate in Iago’s speech from Brabantio to Othello. Because Roderigo is focused on Othello’s successful and presumably pleasurable marriage to Desdemona, the joyful man (the repeated “him” and “he”) in Iago’s urgings becomes more likely Othello. After all, who is it who will be proclaimed in the streets and whose dwelling in Venice’s fertile climate is more at stake? Iago is referencing the climactic humoral landscape that produced multiple, sometimes competing, early modern stereotypes of character and race based on geographic location, a discourse termed “geohumoralism” by Mary Floyd-Wilson.[2] Geohumoralism informs early notions of race, so it helps to construct the figurations of racial hatred and fear of miscegenation that circulate in this scene. The metaphor comparing sorrow-bringing anxieties or suffering to the flies that can infest a fertile climate draws attention to Othello’s embodied geohumoral difference, building upon the assumption that as a Moor, Othello was born in a climate unlike that of Venice and thus is a humoral outsider. Iago is likely fantasizing about how to destroy Othello’s embodied person — imagining poisons and plagues and flies that would be associated with decaying flesh. Ultimately, it is Othello’s presence in Venice that is more a focus of the play’s attention, and not Brabantio’s. It is “his joy be joy” that is imagined as somehow quintessential or “unalloyed delight,” according to E. A. J. Honigmann’s editorial note. Othello’s body is imagined as both the site of a core emotion — joy (and sexual pleasure) — and the locus for decay and suffering, as the different location of his birth suggests a vulnerability in his humoral ecology that can be exploited by Iago.[3] Roderigo has already held up Othello as one who might wrongfully achieve a “full fortune,” and, as I will discuss, the term for the positive feeling “happy” meant “fortunate” as much as it meant to be joyful in this period in the concept’s shifting history. Iago’s syntactical slide from what Roderigo should do to Brabantio to what Iago will ultimately do to Othello highlights and forecasts the irregular and doomed circulations of positive feelings that intersect with and help to produce the formations of race and difference in the play. Joy has a color in Othello, and Iago and the Venetians repeatedly call attention to the ways it is contingent and threatening when that color is Black.

Through a focus on the ways Othello highlights happiness not just as a good feeling, but also as a structure maintained and constantly reinforced through social practices, this essay  examines how the play comments on and challenges happiness as a structuring affective attachment. Addressing the work of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, as well as other affect theorists participating in what Ahmed has called a “happiness turn” in affect studies, this reading of the play documents the racial politics of Othello’s experience of positive emotions and explores the play’s stakes in narratives of happiness that underlie social practices. In doing so, it records Othello as a figure in what Ahmed has called a Western “unhappiness archive.” According to Ahmed:

these archives take shape through the circulation of cultural objects that articulate unhappiness with the history of happiness. An unhappy archive is one assembled around the struggle against happiness. We have inherited already so much from authors who have challenged the very appeal of happiness — and yet these authors are never or rarely cited by the literature of happiness. These archives do not simply supplement philosophy and its happiness archive. They challenge it.[4]

Shakespeare’s play — created within the representational forms and structures of early modern romance and domestic tragedy — offers just this kind of challenge and struggle against happiness. Beyond reinforcing the tragic decline of its protagonist, it obsessively returns to the promise of happiness that motivates marriage and the forces that pervert and prevent this attachment for the racialized Moor. In its representation of a Black character who is promised a happy inclusion in Venetian life only to have it eroded within a tragic frame, Othello is a play that does the work of challenging the appeal of happiness itself.

Othello begins the play as a joyful man, but the plan before Iago actually has a plan, as articulated in this first scene, involves revoking Othello’s unlicensed access to happiness. That his state of joy should “lose some colour” references the humoral associations of positive emotions with the sanguine, or ruddy, body and face. But color here is figuratively connected to Othello’s Blackness as well.[5] Iago’s plan seems to be to change the humoral intensity of joy’s hue on Othello’s face or to lessen the positive feelings associated with his darker complexion. The color in this exchange is ambiguously attached to Othello, and in particular his skin and his feelings, suggesting the ways his humoral emotional regulation is tied to his embodied characterization as a Moor in the play. The “changes of vexation” (or “chances” in the Folio) will rob the joyful man of what is deemed his unfortunate good fortune. In fact, the unfortunate happiness circulating here also attaches to Desdemona herself, since once Brabantio discovers that Desdemona has indeed eloped with Othello, he calls her “unhappy girl!” (1.1.161) after declaring that his own pleasurable life has been permanently altered: “what’s to come of my despised time / Is naught but bitterness” (1.1.159–160). The biopolitical negotiations and threats to individual happiness that are articulated in the opening minutes of the play highlight the structural and networked nature of joy itself, which shifts and changes and makes human beings vulnerable to the vexations of social life.

In addition to foreshadowing Iago’s plot to bring down Othello by manipulating racializing narratives and stereotypes, this opening scene focuses on the way positive affects, as structures of social experience, will be weaponized in the plotting of the play to bring about Othello’s unhappiness. Articulated within the form of tragedy, the play reveals the structural contingency of Othello’s joy and his sense of belonging. Affect theorists have called attention to the ways happiness as a structure draws boundaries that include and exclude individuals or groups.[6] As Ahmed explains, “ideas of happiness involve social as well as moral distinctions insofar as they rest on who is worthy as well as capable of being happy ‘in the right way.”[7] The play, and Othello as a character himself, question whether he can be happy in that “right way.” Happiness, according to Ahmed, is at the center of philosophy and ethics because it is “what we want, whatever it is.”[8] It is an affective structure related to optimism, which — as Lauren Berlant points out in her analysis of contemporary lifecan operate to create unhealthy attachments, unethical social practices, and biopolitical exclusions, particularly when it obscures social conditions.[9] Although the appeal of happiness, like desire itself, is an empty structure, the content filling that form — the values and formations of individual and communal identity that constitute social life — are neither politically neutral nor culturally timeless. Instead, they reflect and construct new social conditions in each iteration, in each representation of what joy looks like and who experiences it. To place the play in an archive of unhappiness — on a timeline of how happiness is used to define the conditions of life for racialized others — is to suggest the power of this particular drama as a precursor to the racialization of happiness in the present. It is an attempt to speak of Othello as he is now, as Ian Smith has suggested, to meet what he calls the play’s “intellectual demand” on its literary critics to engage the play as a source for racial formations in the present.[10] As Ahmed points out, “through narrative, the promise of happiness is located as well as distributed,”[11] and Othello both reinforces and extends Ahmed’s analysis of the dangers of the promise of happiness.

Reading Othello’s refiguring and theorizations of happiness is made more urgent by the fact that joy expressed by a Black person is still a threat to central cultural formations that reinscribe white privilege in the present. Witness, for instance, the aggressive white policing of joyful events attended by Black people, such as the incident in McKinney, TX, in 2015, in which a happily boisterous teenage pool party prompted emergency calls from white neighbors. In that instance, video of a white police officer tackling a teenage girl in a swimsuit and drawing his weapon on her friends who tried to intervene prompted some outrage, but also further disciplined and traumatized its viewers.[12]  Joy was also policed in the 2018 “Barbecue Becky” incident, in which a white woman in Oakland, CA,  called the police to break up a happy barbecue, citing an inappropriate use of public park space as a cover for her privileged aggression.[13] Ahmed’s work helps to shed light on how white supremacy and other embedded structures shut out certain bodies from happiness’ promise, and these events reveal the physical manifestations of that cultural logic — shutting them out of literal spaces of joyful gathering. Furthermore, these examples are indicative of how certain cultural practices of happiness themselves can offer an affective structure of desire that excludes racialized subjects from the experience of joy.

To investigate the history of positive feelings that are challenged by Othello is to draw attention to the ways happiness, considered structurally, can reinforce unjust or inequitable structures of power. Both historically and especially in this moment, numerous scholars and theater practitioners have pointed out that Othello is a provoking and dangerous play: so dangerous, in fact, that Ayanna Thompson and some Black actors — notably Harry Lennix — argue that it should not be staged in the United States in order to avoid the racist stereotypes it reinforces through repetition.[14] The play also has the potential to do harm because it can reproduce on the stage a politics of happiness amenable to white supremacy. As a tragedy, however, and an entry in the “unhappiness archive,” the play can highlight, and possibly resist, the unjust attachments and practices in this fictionalized social world that are both the promise and condition of a certain kind of happiness. Community and belonging are stolen from Othello; expressions of joy that accompany community and belonging are policed today. But recognizing the biopolitics of these structures in the tragedy might suggest ways to make present day happiness less unhealthy and unjust. If happiness is, as Ahmed describes it philosophically, “what we want, whatever it is,”[15] then recognizing the historical social practices and values shaping Othello’s unhappiness might allow for new attachments and new social practices that are more open to including all persons.

However, Othello’s happiness, as it would have been understood in Shakespeare’s theater, is both “what we want, whatever it is,” and a historically specific, early modern, and particularly shifting emotion. This period in English history witnessed a cultural transition from residual notions of happiness as good fortune to emergent ones that defined it primarily as an elevated individual mood or state of joy.[16] Although I have used “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably in discussing the biopolitics of positive affect more generally, further distinctions could be made between moments in the play when the emotion is described as “happiness” and when it is referred to by other terms. The importance of the early modern period as marking a transition in ideas and evaluations of positive emotions can be traced in the word “happiness” itself, which traveled  from meaning “lucky” or “fortunate” (with “hap” at its root) to the more modern sense of a pleasurable feeling or mood attached to words like “joy.”[17]  The words “happiness,” “delight,” “content” and “joy,” in fact, reverberate in this play, and although I will point to some of the repetitions of these terms, I am more concerned with Othello’s investment and attachment to positive emotions more generally than to a particular category of pleasurable feeling.[18]

In fact, the play navigates competing conceptions of happiness as it is constructed through various models of the body and self that determine Othello’s identity as a Moor. The work of many scholars has uncovered the history of “Moor” as a category that was slippery in the period, used to signify differences of race (primarily Black), location (primarily African), and religion (primarily Muslim).[19] As Dennis Britton has argued, when Othello is called an “erring barbarian,” his characterization reflects a conception of Moors associated with the growth of the African slave trade, but it also situates him within the romance tradition from which Shakespeare takes his central narrative. Within that tradition, Britton argues, Othello is at least provisionally framed as a heroic character of Christian conversion, although his self-division in the final moments of the play suggests that its tragic structure forecloses the possibility of a structuring happiness based on those romance narratives.[20] Many of these stereotypical narratives surrounding Othello’s character that insist upon his difference are excellent examples of what Giovanni Tarantino has called “emotional orientalism.” As Tarantino points out, Moors and Black people in the period are often referred to as an “unhappy race,” suggesting both their lack of good fortune and their melancholy.[21] As I have suggested, a historicist focus on this geohumoral formation, however central, only captures some of the complexity of how emotion is linked to color and race in this play and the culture if reflects.

Othello’s famous expression of joy when he meets Desdemona in Cyprus — “If it were now to die, / T’were now to be most happy” (2.1.174–75)  — most insistently calls him out as a character in Ahmed’s unhappiness archive. His articulation of a contingent, temporary, and qualified kind of happiness receives a strong normative response from Desdemona:

Othello: It gives me wonder great as my soul’s content
To see you here before me. O! my soul’s joy,
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas,
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
’Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Desdemona: The heavens forbid!
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow.

Othello: Amen to that, sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content;
It stops me here; it is too much of joy: (2.1.181–95  emphases added)

This scene has sometimes been read — following Carol Thomas-Neely’s characterization of Othello as foolishly idealistic in his understandings of women and Stephen Greenblatt’s focus on his sexual anxiety — as evidence that Othello is sexually immature, inexperienced, or anxious because he does not understand the true nature of happiness to be found in heterosexual sex and marriage.[22] This reading is supported if, as the text of the play leaves open, Othello has delayed his sexual union with Desdemona until after they have arrived in Cyprus. Desdemona’s definition of happiness in marriage, in contrast, reflects a more central cultural formation and ideal of heterosexual union, one that promises an increase in comfort (but interestingly, not joy) over time. Othello’s response to Desdemona’s correction (“Amen to that!”) however, is not naïve, and suggests instead that Othello is characterized as knowing precisely the promise of happiness that is being offered in his marriage to Desdemona. He loses speech when trying to articulate the difference between the satisfaction (“content”), “comfort,” and “joy” he feels in Desdemona’s presence and the structural and affective investments and risks of marriage, since he says he fears it cannot be guaranteed that he will feel such happiness again. Emphatically — at lines 181, 182, and 189 — he invests his soul, which he feminizes, with these positive affects, distancing them from his body as if aware of the physical dangers of this attachment. Because sexual consummation was also figured in the period as a little death (i.e., ejaculation was sometimes considered a release of the body’s vital forces in Galenic medicine), Othello might also be expressing in his sexual desire for Desdemona a simultaneous worry about the vulnerability of his body in this marriage. His fear, it turns out, is well-founded and prophetic, as the tragedy narrativizes not just the failure of his interracial marriage, but also the descent of his characterization into some of the most violent stereotypes attached to Moors in the period. As Ania Loomba and others have pointed out, he becomes the “turbaned Turk” that he memorializes killing in the final moments of the play, and he murders that racialized other within himself as his final act.[23] Othello’s articulate insistence on his fear signals his distrust for and alienation from Christian marriage as assurance of happiness. His character recognizes, in other words, that marriage with Desdemona is a potentially unhealthy and unhappy attachment. Rather than a moment in which Othello misunderstands married love, this is a profound moment in which the play marks, through his character, the split between the performance of joy and the forecasted affective state of comfortable happiness. It is the promise of married happiness that Othello recognizes as future-oriented and that the play gives and then takes from its central character. Othello’s incoherence in the face of this joy reflects an awareness of the likelihood that this yet-unlived life will be impossible, positioning Othello in the archives of unhappiness.

Before the play reaches its tragic conclusion, Othello’s character is further excluded from the affective structures of community and the promise of contentment in marriage by the intensity of his emotional reactions to Iago’s manipulations, which invoke other painful emotional scripts attached to adultery. As Justin Shaw argues, Othello is increasingly constructed in the play through the intersecting systems of both racism and ableism, and he is excluded from any network of communal care and belonging that might have mitigated these social forces.[24] Instead, his body is displayed to the audience as unsound, most notably when he is given “ocular proof” in the form of the handkerchief he gave to Desdemona. The handkerchief, a symbolic object of attachment for Othello and Desdemona that is circulated as a result of Iago’s plotting, becomes the catalyst for Othello’s literal fall on the stage, where the manifestations of his anger and despair in his body help to convince him of her treachery: [25]

Othello: Handkerchief! confessions! handkerchief! — To confess,
and be hanged for his labor!  First to be hanged,
and then to confess: I tremble at it. Nature would not
invest herself in such shadowing passion without some
instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus. Pish!
Noses, ears and lips! Is’t possible? Confess! handkerchief!
O devil!                       Falls in a trance.

Iago: Work on,
My medicine, work! (4.1.37–45)

Iago labels Othello’s trance an “epilepsy” a few lines later (4.1.50), and this scene establishes the weakness of Othello’s affective bodily resistance to Iago’s ironic medicine, as Othello notes “it is not words that [shake him].”[26] This “fit” is interpreted and framed by Iago and Cassio in this scene, so Othello is indeed shaken by words. Once detached from happiness and its promise, Othello’s body registers his suffering and the play thrusts him into a new structure in which what he wants — which is, structurally, his happiness — is tragically only revenge and death.

Othello’s alienation from the happy Venetian community becomes the theme of the play’s tragic conclusion when he attempts and fails to kill Iago in revenge. Iago announces that he bleeds but is “not killed,” and Othello replies: “I am not sorry neither; I’d have thee live, / For in my sense ’tis happiness to die” (5.2.286–87). This is a final ironic turn in the play’s meditation on happiness, as Othello recognizes that the only happiness promised to him in the play’s realigned racial formations is death. As Ahmed points out, citing the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, “Even suicide is an expression of the will to happiness … happiness should be thought of not as content but form: if in tending toward something, we tend toward happiness, then happiness provides a container for tendency. Happiness must be emptied of content if it can be filled by ‘whatever’ it is that we are tending toward.”[27] What is this suicidal happiness that Othello is tending toward? Here is where literary representation and the embodied stage represent a challenge to structures of happiness beyond the fiction that might make suicide a happy goal, attachment, or conclusion. The “emptied container” of happiness that ends in suicide is strikingly similar, and in this case identical, to the form of tragedy. Since the play repeatedly reveals in its own representations that happiness is both a structuring force and an amorphous container for tendencies and attachments, the final moments stage the full biocultural politics and the ethical stakes of happiness. Therefore, the cathartic satisfaction of witnessing Othello exert his own will to suicide implicates spectators in the politics of happiness that leads to this tragic conclusion. This might be one reason why the play is so difficult to watch.

Additionally, the happiness that has death as its object removes the living body of the actor playing Othello from the social world of the play. After Othello murders Desdemona and Iago’s instigation has come to light, Lodovico arrives as the voice of the Venetian state and asks: “Where is this rash and unfortunate man?” (5.2.280). Othello replies: “That’s he that was Othello. Here I am” (5.2.281). Othello is described as rash because he has committed the murder, but he is also read as unfortunate by the onstage witness of the play’s tragedy.  Othello’s reply, however, suggests that he recognizes himself in the present to be no longer rash or unfortunate, as he replaces his tendency toward marriage to Desdemona with suicide. His death speaks back to the traditional scripts of happiness that circulate in the play — particularly those attached to marriage and Venetian tolerance — and calls attention to happiness’ potential for harm and tragic consequences.

Othello finally refers to the murder of Desdemona as an “unlucky deed” in his famous farewell: “I pray you in your letters, / When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, / Speak of me as I am” (5.2.338–40). He does not, notably, refer to it as an “unhappy” deed, because the affective structure of happiness has become suicidal and disciplinary. As Smith has argued: “His act of self-slaughter, an attack on his own body, is designed to punish a racialized self who, like the ‘turbaned Turk,’ has committed the heinous assault on Venice in the person of Desdemona.”[28] The promise of happiness in married love is replaced with a tending toward suicide, removing Othello’s body from Venice but allowing his physical death to be replaced by a brief social glorification in the Venetian state. This structure of desiring his own death is also deeply intertwined and embedded in the generic representational structure of tragedy. The play stages the violence that weaponized and failed narratives of happiness can inflict, just as it develops Othello’s narrativized recognition of Venice’s contingent and unjust distribution of joy, and it represents his suicide as a final consolatory act of will. In doing so, it draws attention to Othello’s tragic and unfortunate happiness, recognizing the irony of tending toward death as the fulfillment of tragedy’s formal expectations, giving both the onstage and playgoing audience “what they want, whatever it is.” For Othello as a character, happiness emptied of joy is death. For the spectator, that structure is tragedy, which both narrativizes and repeats the racist logic of exclusion that is unleashed when Iago sets out to manipulate the very color of Othello’s joy.

Although not generally considered a play about happiness, and in fact, one of the most painful tragedies to watch by many accounts, Othello is deeply invested in exploring the social attachments, consequences, and practices of happiness.[29]  This might be the case because Othello is written at a transitional moment in European history, during which the meaning of “happiness” as a word and an idea shifts from a residual sense of “good fortune” to the more emergent and modern  sense of “pleasure.” The linguistic shift marks larger cultural transformations that might explain the play’s focus on the structures of a happy married life. In this sense Othello functions as a primary document in the prehistory of contemporary happiness, operating as a lens for examining the intersecting and intertwined representational investments of social forces influenced by shifting notions of race and gender. At the same time, as a literary work in the unhappiness archive, the play questions joy itself and what it means to want to be happy, especially for those who are made aliens in and to the structures that produce happiness itself, either in the literary form of tragedy or the social world.

Finally, considering Othello’s stolen happiness might provide historical insight into the particular disciplinary tendencies of present-day extreme reactions to expressions of Black joy in its recent encounters with white privilege in the United States. When I set out to follow the ways notions of happiness, joy, and comfort circulated in the play, I did not expect to reconsider Othello’s suicide as a kind of extreme happiness, and that tragic lesson reverberates beyond the historical situation of the play’s writing. If happiness is at the center of philosophy and undergirds human will and desire in these complex structural ways, then acts of joy can indeed be subversive and a form of resistance. Joys that celebrate embodied differences or previously disenfranchised groups rather than structuring exclusions might be further entries in the unhappiness archive, speaking back to past attachments and their false promises. Although this essay  can only begin this conversation, this reading of the play clearly supports various political and activist movements that theorize, structure, and celebrate Black joy in the present.[30] Recognizing Othello’s place in the archive of unhappiness might also let it reflect on recent attempts to call out toxic positivity, allowing the play’s doomed representation of happiness’ promise to challenge unhealthy attachments to “what we want, whatever it is.” Although to be happy is no longer synonymous with being lucky, historical awareness of the social situatedness, precarity, and structural nature of positive feelings might generate the conscious practice of a better, more just, and more inclusive happiness.

  1. Unless otherwise stated, all references to the play are to William Shakespeare, Othello, rev. ed., ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2016).
  2. On geohumoral notions of difference and their complex and contradictory intersections with emerging concepts of race, see Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  3. Floyd-Wilson argues that the play “sustains a conflict between an emerging racial stereotype of African sexuality and an older geohumoral discourse. While Iago and Roderigo characterize Othello as a lascivious beast, the Moor draws attention [in his request to have Desdemona accompany him to Cyprus] to his distinct lack of ardor” (English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama, 147).
  4. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 18.
  5. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “color” in this period in both humoral and racial terms. OED Online, s.v., “color,” n.1: “the hue of a person’s skin, typically of the face, esp. as reflecting or indicating physical health or emotional state; a person’s complexion” (I.2.a); “rosiness or ruddiness of the complexion as an indication of health or wellbeing” (I.3.a); “pigmentation of the skin, typically as an indication of someone’s race or ethnicity; spec. dark skin, as opposed to white or fair skin” (I.4.a). For a thorough consideration of humoral notions of health and the emotions as marked by signs on the face, see Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). Addressing the complexities of facial and bodily color in early modern racial formations, see Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).
  6. In reading this opening exchange and the play overall as they represent the ways happiness affectively constructs racial identities, I am responding broadly to Ahmed’s work in The Promise of Happiness and Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).In my focus on unhealthy or unproductive affective attachments, I am inspired by Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).
  7. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 13.
  8. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 14.
  9. Berlant, Cruel Optimism.
  10. Ian Smith, “We Are Othello: Speaking of Race in Early Modern Studies,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 112.
  11. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 45.
  12. See NAACP, “NAACP Statement on McKinney Police Department Incident,” 8 June 2015, Common Dreams, https://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2015/06/08/naacp-statement-mckinney-police-department-incident.
  13. Yesha Callahan, “#CookingOutWhileBlack: White Woman Calls Cops on Black People Cooking Out in Oakland, Calif., Park,” 10 May 2018, The Root, https://www.theroot.com/cookingoutwhileblack-white-woman-calls-cops-on-black-1825920347.
  14. See Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  15. Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, 14.
  16. On culture as a complex of residual, dominant, and emergent processes and values, see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), Chapter 8. For a short history of happiness as an idea, see Darrin M. McMahon, Happiness: A History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).
  17. For an analysis of “hap,” see Richard Chamberlain, “What’s Happiness in Hamlet?” in The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, ed. Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 153–74.
  18. “Joy” occurs 5 times and not after Act 2, “happiness” 3 times, words derived from “hap” 18 times, “content” 15 times, “delight” 5 times, “merry” 3 times, and “bliss” 2 times. By contrast, words containing “honest” occur 45 times, and “jealous” 16 times. Happiness as an idea, then, is subject to some of the same scrutiny that these other feelings or elements of human character have been. And if the play is about jealousy, as much previous criticism maintains, then it is equally about happiness. One moment not discussed here but important in reading happiness more broadly is Desdemona’s insistence that she is pretending to be merry when bantering with Iago to disguise her anxiety while waiting for Othello in act 2 scene 1, for example. In that scene, as in those enabling Othello’s tragedy, positive feelings are constructed as both natural and humoral, but they can also be deployed and feigned. Data collected through OpenSource Shakespeare, http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/, accessed 17 June 2017.
  19. There has been excellent work historicizing “the Moor,” often launched by investigations into this play. Multiple essays in Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds., Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London: Routledge 1994) are important entries in this scholarship; Ania Loomba Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), is foundational. For a discussion and theorization of various works and approaches to this research spanning the last three decades, see Kim F. Hall, “Othello and the Problem of Blackness,” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, Volume 1: The Tragedies, ed. Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 357–71; Ayanna Thompson, “Introduction,” in Othello, by William Shakespeare, rev. ed., ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2016). On Moors, early modern race, and the question of how to grapple with charges of anachronism and still engage the history of present racial formations, see Vanessa Corredera, “‘Not a Moor Exactly’: Shakespeare, Serial, and Modern Constructions of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 30–50.
  20. Dennis Britton, “Re-‘Turning’ Othello: Transformative and Restorative Romance,” ELH 78, no. 1 (2011): 27–50.
  21. Giovanni Tarantini, “The Colour of Fear in Early Modern Europe: From Sexual Shock to Affective Encompassment” (paper, Powerful Emotions/Emotions and Power c.400–1800 conference, Humanities Research Centre, University of York, UK, 28–29 June 2017).
  22. Carol Thomas-Neely argues that this scene cements Othello’s representation as dispassionate and controlled, since “Othello feels utterly content with a simple embrace” in meeting her (“Women and Men in Othello: ‘What Should Such a Fool / Do With so Good a Woman?’” Shakespeare Studies 10 [1977]: 138). Stephen Greenblatt examines Othello’s sexual anxiety partly in Lacanian terms, and also recognizes that it sets him up as an outsider to narratives preserving orthodox Christian marriage in the play. He notes that “The rich, disturbing pathos of the lovers’ passionate reunion in Othello derives then not only from our awareness that Othello’s premonition is tragically accurate, but from a rent, a moving ambivalence, in his experience of the ecstatic moment itself” (Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980], 243).
  23. Loomba, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, 97.
  24. Justin Shaw, “‘Rub Him About the Temples’: Othello, Disability and the Failures of Care,” Early Theatre 22, no. 2 (2019): 171–84, doi https://doi.org/10.12745/et.22.2.3997.
  25. For one particularly relevant investigation of the significance of this famous handkerchief, see Ian Smith, “Othello’s Black Handkerchief,” Shakespeare Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2013): 1–25.
  26. Shaw reads this moment as analogous to the exhibition of an anatomist’s theater: “In five short lines, Iago provides three different diagnoses for Othello’s condition — epilepsy, lethargy, and the potential for madness” (“‘Rub Him About the Temples,’” 176). It is a failure of medicine that is linked to the overall failure of networks of care in the play, a lack represented by Cassio’s weakness and self-centeredness as a friend to Othello and enabled by underlying systems of white supremacy.
  27. Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 4.
  28. Smith, “We Are Othello,”111. For a reading of Othello’s divided subjectivity, especially at this moment of his suicide, theorized by postcolonial playwrights and through the work of Frantz Fanon and Homi K. Bhabha, see Jyotsna Singh, “Othello’s Identity, Postcolonial Theory, and Contemporary African Rewritings of Othello,” in Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (London: Routledge, 1994), 287–99.
  29. Walter Cohen remarks that Othello “has always been popular in performance, although — or perhaps, paradoxically, because — it is excruciating to watch” (“Introduction to Othello,” in The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, The Sonnets, 3rd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. [New York: Norton, 2016], 2073).
  30. See, for example, Kleaver Cruz, “The Black Joy Project,” https://kleavercruz.com/the-black-joy-project, https://www.instagram.com/theblackjoyproject/; Andrea Walls, “Museum of Black Joy,” https://www.museumofblackjoy.com/; Neda Ulaby, “At the ‘Museum of Black Joy,’ It’s the Everyday Moments that Go on Display,” NPR, 14 August 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/14/1026447517/museum-of-black-joy-andrea-walls ); adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019). 


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Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature Copyright © 2022 by Cora Fox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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