“Goats and Monkeys” by Derek Walcott from “The Castaway and other Poems (1965)”, is a dark poem that justifies a black man in a world where everyone looks down on him. This poem portrays many notions of racism, sex, savagery and jealousy. However, these notions could not have been portrayed the best they have been if Walcott did not build its foundation upon Shakespeare’s “Othello”. The poem centers on the master-slave relationship. The theme is somewhat similar to Danial Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday. It is also symbolic of the rulers and the ruled, with God as the omnipotent force to be regarded with awe and reverence
Goats and Monkeys’ has obvious references to Shakespeare’s Othello. Walcott realizes that transgressing the social norms is not possible, even after hundreds of years have passed since the play was enacted in Shakespeare’s England. The thesis of the present day Negro writers is still based on identity and historicity. Walcott feels that modern society has not changed substantially to accept Othello as Desdemona’s lover even today. The poem begins with a quotation from Othello where Lago warns Brabantio, Senator of Venice, that he has been betrayed as Othello, the Moor, is making love to Brabantio’s fair and beautiful daughter Desdemona. Othello is called the black ram, who is “tupping the white ewe” (Desdemona). It is a bad omen that the heavy body of the coloured brown Moor is descending over Desdemona’s fair body like passing of Earth’s shadow over the glowing silvery moon during a lunar eclipse. But it is tragic that in Act V, Scene II, the same Othello, while bending over her lips, is “charring” her “marble throat” by suffocating her with her own pillow after putting out the “light” he is carrying. The innocence of Desdemona, the sexual jealousy of Othello and the racial, blood thirsty revenge of Lago towards Othello were the perfect symbols for Walcott to show his readers what exactly was in his mind. Therefore with the help of “Animal imagery”, he makes a perfect combo to deliver a powerful poem.
A detailed analysis-
The poem begins with images of chaos engulfing the globe. It’s nighttime (torches that belong to the time when owls are out). And the torches are guttering, that is they are flickering, unsteady, unstable. Which is what happens when a storm or strong wind is about to come and upset everything. There seems to be a scream rising in the air (perhaps a shrieking wind) which augurs/predicts terrible things. What is this terrible thing that is shaking up the world? The coming together/the love-making of a black man with a young white girl.
Earthen bulk: Othello’s dark brown body
As he makes love to her, it looks like her whiteness is like that of the moon which is being covered like the moon being covered by the earth’s shadow. Smoky hand and marble throat. As if his very touch is charring/burning her skin black. This inter-racial relationship evokes all kinds of derogatory stereotypes of Africa and Africans. It splits the people around them, the world around them in doubts. Some might approve, others have problems with such a match.
Darkness descends as they make love, the darkness is not just physical darkness but also that of racist hatred, of skepticism. Hatred and prejudice that ll lead to the destruction of the relationship itself (Put out the light is what Othello says when he’s about to kill her. So the darkness is both welcomed for making love as well as the final murder.) Once darkness descends and they are about to make love, she fantasizes about him. He is physically huge and overwhelming like the night itself. In her fantasy, through her love-filled eyes, it is he who is like the moon with lots of military medals. Like a mythical creature about whom stories are carved on stone.
In Greek mythology,
1.Pasiphae,an innocent girl, was cursed and forced to experience lust for a bull sent by Poseidon and eventually gave birth to a monster, Minotaur, an unnatural monster who has to dwell in the labyrinth. Jealous reduces Othello into a mean and repulsive monster who kills Desdimona.
- Eurydice, another mythical reference in the poem, the wife of Orpheus, while evading Aristaeus was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus with the power of music moved the heart of the god of the underworld and was allowed to take his wife on condition not to look at her until they reached the daylight. Orpheus transgressed this and was killed and reunited with her in the underworld. This mythical reference shows the plight of both Othello and Desdemina who transgress the social norms and reap the consequences. The fair lady, Desdimona burns in the hellish labyrinth of Othello’s mind poisoned with jealous and eventually is strangled to death. Walcott compares her with Euridice who too suffers in the underworld for no sin of hers.
Even today such an inter racial relationship, such a coupling (immortalized by Shakespeare’s play) produces dilemmas and doubts and makes people uneasy, angry, and divides them. There are prejudices against such relationships that stereotype the couples and especially the black partner as ape or the angry Moor.
He becomes the sacrificial beast of our racist prejudices and hatred. We see him as an animal, as a bull (since blacks are often imagined as being without restraint and bestial, uncivilized and impulsive) easily provoked into anger, screaming and snarling and not satisfied till it has drawn blood—just as in this case Othello’s jealous anger drives him to kill Desdemona.
But, the poet says, whatever anger circled his turbaned head (Othello imagined as wearing an orange turban) and his curved sword, it was not anger that had anything to do with his racial animalistic vengefulness. (The poet here is urging the readers not to see Othello’s anger, his jealousy, his final revenge and killing as tied to his racial identity, to the fact that he is a Moor/his blackness). We should not imagine him as a panther-like beast panting into her chamber, sweating and smelling like an animal.
What provoked his anger was his imagining of her moon-like purity as having changed. He imagines her as a white fruit that had been squeezed and spoilt. The fruit has ripened and become sweeter but it has lost its initial purity. His anger is provoked – like any man’s could be—by thinking that the loss of her purity is irretrievable. The loss is absolute. That there is no doubt she is no longer the girl he had married. That’s what drives his anger, not the fact that he is a “black” man responding to such a situation.
Its that anger, that male anger and jealousy that makes him behave in a savage way and arrest the moon (shut out the light of the moon). It is the kind of reaction that the moon has seen many jealous men have since time began. It’s a jealous angry reaction not unique to Othello. It is a reaction that comes from the fact that he has been often been away, pursuing his military ambitions lusting after military glory (so he knows he has been guilty of leaving her alone while he pursued his ambitions). But he only becomes angry and vengeful, as she cries out for forgiveness (even though she’s not guilty of anything).
And even today, after all the centuries, the moon looks down with its silver glow at this kind of jealousy, looks at lechery/sexual passion and the way jealous anger can end a relationship in disgrace. At how only killing/destruction becomes the only solution to reading corruption in a dreaming face. When we choose to see the pain and anger of this man mockingly as the reactions of a typical black man—that he turns his back on her, kills her for having loved and chosen him just as the moon chooses the night—his sorrow and jealousy tied to a ridiculous handkerchief.
The handkerchief’s important to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200- year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, and so to him the handkerchief represents marital fidelity and trust.
CONTEXT OF THE POEM , THE POST COLONIAL THEME & OTHELLO’S REFERENCE
Derek Alton Walcott was born into a world divided by colonialism. As a native St. Lucian in the Caribbean islands, of mixed racial parentage, his bloodline flowed from Africa and Europe. Early education through the British-based educational system impressed on him the Western canon of literature: Dante, eighteenth- century English metaphysicals, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Sahakespeare, Homer, and Virgil.
Walcott’s interpolation of personal Caribbean experience throughout everything he has ever written. Colonial education in Western classics came to Walcott in the tropical environment of his St. Lucian birthplace. Looking about his birthplace, the young Walcott somehow came to realize that his surroundings were eminently remarkable despite their historically marginal status. That which may be disdained as local, parochial, ordinary, provincial, or insular has at the same time the virtue of being close, familiar, and unexpectedly rich in potential.
The Caribbean region constitutes perhaps the world’s most Extensive and most varied site of creolization (mix of languages and cultures) as a result of the very different histories of [enslavement and colonization) that unfolded on each of those islands. The inhabitants have come from Africa, Asia, and Europe. As a consequence, many languages are spoken. In addition, the region presents a uniquely rich assortment of creole or mixed-up languages. These languages have historical affinities with different European languages (French, English, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese), they have developed along different lines, and they stand in quite different relations to the languages of the [enslavers and] colonizers still spoken in the area.
As for the poem titled Goats and Monkeys it’s a postcolonial revisiting of Shakespeare’s revered tragedy Othello. It’s a play about interracial love that ends badly for the lovers as the black hero Othello, becomes increasingly prey to the poison poured into his ears by a manipulative and evil Iago. Instead of trusting his wife Desdemona, Othello allows himself to be misled by Iago to the point that he kills his young wife out of jealous rage.
Walcott’s poem urges its readers not to locate Othello’s impulsive, uncontrollable rage in his ‘black’ identity but rather see it as the foolish, jealous behavior of an insecure husband. While Iago uses a lot of racist stereotypes to incite Othello’s insecurities as a black, older husband, the poem urges us not to fall prey to such stereotyping of black characters like Othello. Once we see his murderous rage not through the prism of racial identity but through his identity as an anxious, jealous husband being manipulated by an arch-manipulator like Iago, we can see him without feeling any racist contempt for him/his actions. Clearly the poem is asking us not to allow racist stereotypes to colour our attitudes and responses to the behavior and actions of so-called blacks.
He gets Cassio drunk so that he misbehaves and an angry Othello then demotes him from his position. Iago asks Desdemona to talk to Othello and convince him to take Cassio back, forgive him for his misbehavior. When she starts talking to Othello about this matter, Iago cunningly tells Othello that Desdemona is actually in love with the young Cassio. That she thinks she has made a mistake in marrying Othello. Co-incidentally, Desdemona one day also drops a handkerchief which Othello had gifted to her as a love-token. Iago gets his hands on it and he gives it to Othello saying that he has seen Cassio use it to wipe his mouth. Iago keeps at it. Keeps poisoning Othello’s ears, igniting his jealousy, his insecurity till Othello is prepared to kill Desdemona who he thinks is unfaithful. Othello kills Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage late in the night.
SEXUAL AND RACIAL POLITICS IN WALCOTT’S ‘GOATS & MONKEYS’ (IDENTITY CRISIS)
Walcott’s poem ‘Goats & Monkeys’ is his tribute to Shakespeare and the language that he has weaned on. He explores the identity crisis a man faces who is black in skin and white in mind. To do this he uses the character of Othello and traces his relationship with Desdemona to highlight the stark contrast and the serise of ‘other’ that Othello faces.
The poem 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 & fight 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 Venetian society that honours Othello’s military valour 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 symbol. The desire of the male artist is contradictory wherein he wants 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. 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 sultor-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 Venetian 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 outside. 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 stereotype. 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.