Zanche the Moor

Zanche is Vittoria's Moorish servant. As both a Moor and a servant she is treated as an inferior, and, particularly with regard to her colour, she is associated with dark Zanchedeeds:

  • Flamineo is attracted to her but disregards ‘some such dark promise' he made to marry her (Act 5 sc 1)
  • However, he feels bound to her because she knows so many of his secrets and dark machinations
  • Both Cornelia and Marcello mistreat her and consider she is not good enough to marry Flamineo
  • Lodovico later refers to her as an ‘infernal', that is, a demon.

So Zanche is in many respects a social outsider, vulnerable to manipulation by others in her desire to be valued and accepted. This might explain the speedy transference of her allegiance when she encounters Francisco disguised as Mulinassar, the Moor. She turns to him as a compatriot, believing she will find acceptance:

‘He comes. Hence petty thoughts of my disgrace –
I ne'er loved my complexion till now,' (Act 5 scene 2)
More on the Moors:

To the Jacobeans, a Moor indicated someone of North African descent, familiar to Europeans as for 800 years they had ruled much of Spain. Shakespeare's commander Othello is referred to as a Moor.

Like Jews, Moors were a racial minority whose identity set them apart from the predominantly white European society in which they lived. In fact Queen Elizabeth expelled ‘negars and blackamoors' from Britain in 1601, probably referring to Moorish refugees from Spain.

In terms of moral rhetoric, blackness was associated with staining, impurity and evil. Othello's vengeance is regarded as a ‘black' desire, his ‘dark' emotions are immoral.

Zanche's role in the play       

Like Flamineo, Zanche's life revolves around the dictates of others. Her job is to facilitate the whims of her mistress, yet at the same time she is looking out for her own interests, realising that no one else will.

In conversation with ‘Mulinassar' Zanche reveals that she would love to be married, rather than simply made love to, but has no dowry to tempt a husband. Once she throws her lot in with her fellow ‘Moor', she decides to steal Vittoria's ‘coin and jewels' to furnish such a dowry, hoping that ‘Mulinassar' will marry her for that if nothing else.

Zanche knows that she can be disregarded. Part of the quarrel between Flamineo and Marcello, which leads to Marcello's death and Cornelia's madness, is because she is not seen as a worthy object for anyone's affections.

Noble or ignoble?

Surrounded by double dealing, Zanche reflects the mercurial nature of court life. She is complicit in her mistress's potentially adulterous liaison with Brachiano: ‘See now they close.' (Act 1 sc 2), yet she quickly runs away once Cornelia catches the couple. Later she betrays the lovers by revealing the truth about the murders of Isabella and Camillo to ‘Mulinassar'.

Yet Zanche ultimately defends her mistress. Faced with a vengeful Flamineo in Act 5 sc 6, it is her quick-wittedness that enables the women to persuade Flamineo to commit suicide before them so that they can escape. She is thwarted by Flamineo's double dealing in only pretending to die.

At her end, the vulnerability of Zanche's position is demonstrated on stage – she is tied to a pillar unable to escape the blows dealt her by powerful men. Yet she dies bravely, more sure of her own value. When Carlo approaches to stab her, referring to her as a ‘black fury' she retorts:

'I have blood
As red as either of theirs …
I am proud
Death cannot alter my complexion,
For I shall ne'er look pale.' (Act 5 sc 6)

Characteristically this displays a mixture of pathos (recalling the Jewish outsider Shylock's plea for compassion: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?' in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice) and defiance. For all the play's efforts to paint her as a ‘black devil', to parallel her mistress the ‘white devil', Zanche is not purely evil. It might be fairer to say that she appears more the victim of the court's pervasive corruption than its originator.

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