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Walcott's Goats & Monkeys
(Derek Walcott)

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here.Sexual & Racial politics in Othello &
Walcott?s ?Goats & Monkeys?.

??. even now, an old black ram
is tupping your white ewe.??Othello

Walcott?s poem Goats & Monkeys has these lines, a quotation
from Shakespeare?s play Othello as its epigraph. In
Shakespeare?s play these lines occur when Iago warns
Brabantio, a Senator of Venice that he has been betrayed as
Othello the moor, a general in the Venetian army has
seduced Brabantio?s fair daughter, Desdemona.

The obvious references to Othello?s dilemma in the play
read like an extended example for Walcott?s thesis on
identity & historicity and his own dilemma in being ?black
in skin and white in mind?. The poem also critiques the
society that is still not ready to accept a black Othello
as a white Desdemona?s lover and the poet realizes that
transgressing the rigid social norms is as impossible as
transgressing divine laws.

Animal images engulf the poem with the man repeatedly
presented in the role of the ?beast?. Walcott plays with
the contrasts of color in ?his smoky hand? and ?her
charred? marble throat?. Othello represents all of Africa/
the other which is both enticing and repulsive, that must
remain alien, for the social law ?halves the world?.
Walcott employs racial stereotypes in his poem in drawing
analogy between whiteness of Desdemona & light and on the
other hand comparing Othello with the dark ominous night.
But Walcott also alludes to the fact that Othello might be
bestial or savage, not because of his race alone, but
because of the sexual angst that he suffers from, being
a ?black man? who feels insecure, uncertain of ?white love?.
Walcott attacks the social stereotyping practiced by the
white Venecian society that honors Othello?s military valor
but cannot accept him as a suitor/ husband of a white
woman. The ?native? must know his place and if he dares to
transgress then he must become the victim of the ?hellish
labyrinth of his mind?.

Desdemona who hardly emerges from a symbol shares the fate
which has befallen women perceived in male created art. The
white woman is a common symbol in modern Black Literature.
She frequently becomes a ?bloodletting to release the black
hero from the agony of attraction to White culture &
power?, a sacrificial figure and a cause of savage
mutilation of the black man himself.
The white woman easily becomes the arena for the working
out of the black man?s racial/ cultural identity, or a
target for hostility that is not released on the white man.
In other words she functions as the ?sexual political
The male attitude to purity & impurity in women is
curiously ambiguous. The woman?s role equally
contradictory: expected purity and yet desired passion
cannot combine in either the whore or the Madonna. The
unresolved contradiction of the male artist which desires
the woman to be chaste yet voluptuous, pure yet
passionate. ?She? thus becomes the symbolic manifestation
of the combination of the contradictory sexual & racial
attitudes of a man.
The woman symbolizes the white culture and power that
causes Othello to see he as an ape, a horned beast(
alluding to the fear of succumbing to cuckoldry). Othello
universalizes the male sexual anxiety, although his sexual
angst is primarily dependent on his racial position.
Othello is then the barbarous one, an uncivilized savage
who is oblivious of the fact that her ?innocence whispers
for pardon?. ?only annihilation can resolve?- then refers
to the impasse that the characters find themselves in,
wherein the only solution to resolve such a conflict would
be ?annihilation?. Othello?s suffering is intensified for
he kills what he loves most.

The black moor is victimized twice. First he is the victim
of a society that can accept his prowess in war but not his
presence as suitor-husband to a white lady. Secondly, this
prejudice breeds in the General a jealousy and lack of
faith emphasized by his own insecurity and the lack of
courage in his own convictions. Walcott on one hand is
sympathetic towards Desdemona and Othello, but on the other
there is a sense of repugnance. The reference to
the ?handkerchief?, which becomes a mobile symbol to
determine a woman?s chastity, describes how a woman?s
integrity can be judged on flimsy grounds. A mere fragile
evidence acts as a catalyst to cause the downfall of the
star crossed lovers, and heightens the fact that man cannot
undo what fate decrees.
Othello both serves the Venecian society as a General, as
well as rebels against the same society by crossing
interracial boundaries all for the desire of a white woman.
Othello thus becomes both the insider as well as the
outsider and ties well with the castaway figure. He is
victimized not just by the society, but also even by his
own self. His is the dilemma of a black man trying to both
assimilate and maintain his identity in a white society.

Walcott in revisiting Shakespeare?s play interrogates the
racial and social stereotypes and we may be even forced to
believe that racial codes are somehow negotiable, but not
gender codes. The poem instead puts the onus of the woman?s
fate on her passivity, lacking cognizance of reality. Thus
the racial and social angst of a poet black in skin, white
in mind seeking recognition in a white world, takes
recourse in his succumbing to gender stereotyping.

Pallavi Chaudhuri
[email protected]

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