In honor of Black history month, and the impending Ides of March, I’d like to highlight two wonderful black British actors, Ray Fearon and Paterson Joseph, two of the best actors at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In this video, they discuss their interpretation of Act III, Scene ii of Julius Caesar, in a groundbreaking production set in Africa.
I’m very excited! As some of you know, I wrote a piece about Orson Well’s 1936 Federal Theater Project production of “Macbeth,” set in Haiti. This was an important moment in theater history, and helped keep theater and African Americans employed during the Great Depression, so it deserves to be remembered. Imagin my joy when I found out that there’s an independent movie about the creation of this show! Below is the trailer. If you go to https://www.voodoomacbethfilm.com/, you can see the screening dates. Check it out when it comes to your town!
I realize that Black History Month is nearly over, but before it completely wanes, I would like to give a shoutout to a wonderful article I read about famous black Shakespearean actors, and to link to a few of my old posts that detailed how Shakespeare approaches the issue of race. Enjoy:
- Shakespeare In Action (blog): “Celebrate Black History Month- Black Actors In Shakespearean Roles:” Retrieved 2/27/19 from: https://www.google.com/amp/s/shakespeareinaction.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/celebrate-black-history-month-black-actors-in-shakespearean-roles/amp/
- Play Of the Month: Othello, the Moor Of Venice
- Was Shakespeare Racist?
Part I Before the Throne
As I have written before, Richard claims the throne by manipulating everyone in the British political machine- stoking hatred among the nobles, while trying to appear as a pious, humble man to the common people. Because of his years on reality television and experience as a businessman, even I must admit Trump has a gift at manipulating people’s perceptions and playing the part of a man of the people:
If you watch Trump in interviews, he often closes his remarks with “believe me,” Richard also understands the power of oaths and pretends to speak like a plain blunt man, claiming that the British nobles hate him because he ‘tells it like it is’:
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm? But his simple truth must be abused by silken, sly, insinuating jacks!- Richard III, Act I, Scene iii
As for Trump, even though he is a privileged billionaire with inherited wealth, he pretends to be an unpretentious, unapologetic common man, abused by the ‘mainstream media’ and his political opponents.
Richard is also a fan of the moral equivalence argument, (also known as whataboutism). He tries to offset his own murders by mentioning other people and their misdeeds during the Wars Of The Roses, making them seem as bad or worse than Richard:
Let me put in your mind if you forget what you have been ere this and what you are, withal what I have been and what I am. RIII Act I, Scene iii.
Part II: The descent
What is an authoritarian? Basically an authoritarian regime concentrates power into the hands of one person, and tries to hold onto power by:
1. Projecting strength.
2. Demonizing opponents, both real and imagined.
3. Destroying institutions.
From the moment the crown is placed on his head, Richard starts to see threats to his power, and uses all his newfound resources to destroy every each and every threat. First he kills his nephews, (the legitimate heirs to the throne), then he kills his wife, so that he can remarry a princess to try and consolidate his power. And finally, when he faces his greatest threat the armies of Henry tutor Earl of Richmond, Richard goes full on dictator, calling himself a tower of strength, demonizing Richmond as a foreigner, and claiming that his soldiers will rape the English wives and daughters.
Trump is guilty of every one of these authoritarian strongman habits. He tries to convince people he is strong both physically and politically by having photo ops with doctors who claim that he is “the healthiest president ever”. He also attempted to project strength by misrepresenting the size of the crowds at his inauguration (which was a flat out lie), Furthermore, Trump demanded a military parade to emulate autocratic governments like North Korea. Then there’s his ultimate misguided show of American strength: the wall, which even Fox News has calculated will cost $25 billion dollars at least, and will do little to nothing to stop the flow of drugs and illegal immigration.
Trump also has from the beginning waged war on the Internet against any and all who oppose him. Let us not forget that Fox News is a 24 hour a day propaganda machine that exists almost entirely to condemn anyone who opposes the president and his agendas. And in terms of destroying institutions, his constant claims of “fake news“ seeks to destabilize the Free Press. America’s finding fathers guaranteed free press with the knowledge that if the government is corrupt, the only way the public can fight back is through the knowledge provided by a free and Independent press. But if the media is the enemy, we have no one to listen to except Trump himself.
Richard is even more comically trigger happy than Trump. Look at this scene where in less than 10 minutes, he sends a murderer to kill his nephews, plots to murder his wife and marry his niece, and completely throws off the Duke of Buckingham, his only supporter on his way to the crown!
Richard’s authoritarian tactics actually spring from one of the best political theorists of the renaissance, unfortunately it was Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli saw how the crown heads of Italy consolidated power through violence and intimidation, and he came to realize that the power behind the throne is much less to do with divine right or royal bloodline, and more with who can play the game and project power and strength. In Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth Part III, Richard brags that in his quest to the good for the crown he will send Machiavelli to school: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v6ji07tsI2M
I unfortunately don’t have enough time to get into the connections between Machiavelli, Richard, and Trump. Suffice it to say that all three advocate rule by fear and have no interest in preserving democracy. Below are some quotes and articles that I have collected about Machiavelli and his connection to Shakespeare and Trump:
Sadly, the ultimate similarity between Shakespeare’s Richard III, the real King Richard, and Trump is that the actual human has been swallowed up by a narrative. Even though most of what Trump says is a lie, to his supporters he is the one person who ‘tells it like it is,’ not because they believe him, but because they want to believe in the narrative he constructs.
- These Ohio Voters Made Trump President. They’re Still With Him – TIME
Not only are his lies compelling, Trump himself has become a powerful symbol to the disenfranchised that the system is broken and corrupt, so why not vote for someone like him? He brands himself as a ‘plain blunt man’ who isn’t afraid to offend or criticize people in power, even though he is much worse than they are at running the government. According to the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump described his own campaign as the ” The greatest infomercial in political history.” His campaign was from the start, a scam, where the ultimate con man told people he was going to fix healthcare, fix the immigrants coming into the country, and fix everything they didn’t like about America.
Trump and Richard exploit what you and I want to believe. A New York Times article from 2016 made an interesting comparison between Trump’s odious political persona and that of one of the “heels” or bad guys in professional wrestling. These characters are unrepentantly evil, and love to stir up anger in the crowd, and everyone knows that their every word and action is fake, but they buy into the story. This kind of suspension of disbelief is of course, the central guiding principle of theater itself, and arguably Shakespeare created a villain who would make a very effective wrestling heel.
The real Richard’s devolution from a historical king into a villainous archetype is more tragic, but just as powerful. The lies that the Tudor chronicles told about him were more compelling and politically convenient than the truth, and Shakespeare’s genius just further distanced us from caring what the real man was like. In essence, Shakespeare was inventing fake news far before Trump was railing about it. Just as we as an audience are complicit in the pretend crimes of a fake king when we watch the play, we are also complicit in perpetuating a comfortable simplistic story of the 15th century War of the Roses king Richard Plantagenet.
Trump and Richard show that history can be distorted when we focus less on what is really happening and more on what we want to see. More people wanted to believe his lies than Hillary Clinton’s facts, the same way people were forced to believe the Tudor lies instead of the real truth of what happened from 1483-1485. Likewise Shakespeare’s Richard exploits people’s fear, greed, and gullibility to gain power for himself, but this is his only talent; eventually his supporters lose faith in him, his enemies mobilize, and he is taken from power.
Was Shakespeare racist? When reading Othello by William Shakespeare, the only play he wrote where the hero is explicitly black, I truly feel like the Shakespearean student as opposed to the Shakespearean teacher. it’s a play that I find very difficult to get into, and very difficult to understand. Above all, the question I have is whether Othello is a positive or negative portrayal of a black man. So I am going to analyze the play, the prevailing views about race from Shakespeare’s time, and try to draw some conclusions about the play and its creator.
Disclaimer: I don’t advocate trying to speculate about how Shakespeare felt about anything. My real point in this post is to determine if the play Othello and its portrayal of people of color, has merit in today’s society, which is important to establish given the culture in which Shakespeare wrote it.
Part I: Black People And Shakespeare
By our standards, Shakespeare was probably racist. If you look at the ways black people are mentioned in documents of the period, the writers frequently describe black people with an air of otherness and superiority that shows little interest in the humanity of other races. In fact, one reason why the word “moor” is so problematic is that it basically referred to anyone not born in Europe. It could refer to people from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Spain. Clearly, Europeans at the time weren’t interested in the particulars of their non-Caucasian neighbors’ culture and herritage.
This is not to say that Shakespeare never knew any black people. Michael Wood in his book In Search Of Shakespeare estimates that there might have been several thousand black people in London alone. City registers mentions not only black people employed in the city, but even some of the first inter-racial marriages. Therefore, the notion of Othello marrying Desdemona would not have been unheard of even in 1601.
As an important note, the black people living in Europe at the time weren’t slaves. The transatlantic slave trade didn’t really get started in and America until the 1650s, and slavery was illegal in England at the time. Wood mentions that there were black dancers, black servants, and other free black people living in and around London (Wood 25). Dr. Matthieu Chapman wrote an excellent thesis back in 2010 about the possibility that some black people might even have been actors in Shakespeare’s company. Furthermore, scholars have wondered for centuries if the Dark Lady of the sonnets was Shakespeare’snon-Caucasian mistress.
In any case, it is likely based on what we know about the growing multiculturalism of England in the 17th century, that Shakespeare knew some black people, and might have worked along side them. Though Shakespeare probably knew black people though, it is impossible to know if they influenced his play Othello.
Though black people were allowed to live and work without bondage, their lives were highly precarious, and far from easy. In 1601, Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief counselor, presented a plan to explel all black people from England (Wood 251). The Cecil Papers at Hatfield House details that:
The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘n—‘ and ‘blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her highness and the King Of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people.
Cecil mentions that a great deal of black people living in London were former slaves freed from captured Spanish ships. Spain of course was Catholic and their king Phillip II had sent a vast armada against the English which helps underscore a major reason for the hostility against these formerly Spanish moors; the fear that, even though these people were baptized English Christians, they might secretly be traitors, sympathetic to the Spanish or to the great numbers of Muslims living in Spain. The English weren’t the only ones concerned. In 1609, the Spanish king expelled the Moors from Spain entirely, probably due to the high levels of Muslims in Spain. With this in mind, you can see how topical Othello was for its time, since it touched on many contemporary issues of race and politics.
One important thing to remember about Othello is that he is not only a black man in a predominantly white country, he is in all probability a converted Muslim who helps the Venetian army fight Muslim Turks. With this in mind, you can imagine how hard it must be for the people of Venice to trust him, and how hard it makes it for Othello to feel like a true Venetian.
A very high profile example of the mixture of admiration and anxiety towards Moors comes from 1600. Ambassador Abdul Guahid from Morocco, (himself a Moor), came to visit London to discuss a military plan to take the East and West Indes away from the Spanish. He stayed at the court for several months during which time, Shakespeare’s company performed for him and the court. To commemorate the visit, a writer called Leo the African presented the ambassador with a book called A Geographical History Of Africa, and he himself posed for a portrait, shown below.
Most scholars cite Guahid as one of the likely inspirations for Othello’s character. Some even suggest that Othello’s original costume and appearance might have been taken from Guahid. Although he was honored publicly, according to the documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, in private, courtiers were whispering about Guahid, hoping that he would leave England soon. Whether Guahid was Shakespeare’s inspiration for Othello, it is worth noting the admiration and anxiety that he put into the hearts of the English courtiers he visited, including probably, Shakespeare.
So when Shakespeare wrote Othello, the black population was growing, a noble moor was getting attention at court, and he might have been living and working around black people in his company, so he might have been trying to present a black character in a positive light based on his experiences. So what does the text of Othello say about black people, and what Shakespeare might have thought about them?
The dilemma anyone reading or performing Othello faces is the fact that he is both a noble general who loves his wife, and also a jealous savage murderer. As I have mentioned, Shakespeare might have known black actors and some claim that he had a mistress of color, but that doesn’t guarantee that he was aware of the oppression and degradation of the African people. So why did he choose to make the character black in the first place?
Part II: What does the play say about race?
Shakespeare’s source for Othello was an Italian short story by Giovanni Battista Giraldi. It has some small differences in plot, but Othello’s character is identical to Shakespeare’s, though he is never referred to by name; instead he is only called “The Moor.” Still, Giraldi mentions The Moor’s bravery, skill in battle, and initial reluctance to believe the devilish ensign who deceived him. Therefore Shakespeare emphasized all the positive qualities of his original source.
Othello is not presented as a savage person; we see him as somebody who comes from somewhere else. It is impossible to pin down exactly where he comes from because his descriptions of his past are very vague and sometimes seemingly contradictory. As they mentioned in the TV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, what we do know is that he definitely assimilated into Venetian culture, presumably converted to Christianity from whatever religion he had, and rose through the ranks by fighting the Ottoman Turks. This means Othello is waging war against Muslims. What I am trying to construct here is to determine based on what we know about black people from Shakespeare’s time and what we know about stereotypes of foreigners and others and the journey of Othello, is his murderous jealous behavior, as a result of nurture, (which is to say Iago‘s devilish manipulation), or by nature. In other words, did Shakespeare write a racist play that condemns interracial marriages due to the barbarous nature of Moors?
Othello is not the only jealous character in the Shakespearean cannon; Claudio in Much Ado, Postumous in Cymbeline, and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale all accuse their wives of infidelity and all of them threatened to kill those unfortunate (and innocent women). This means that Shakespeare is not implying that jealousy is inherently connected to race. Looking at the text of Othello, one interpretation I can offer is that it is less about black people and more about how white people perceive them. Just like in Shakespeare’s source, very few people in the play call Othello by his name, they call him a term that defines him by his race. In addition, though Othello never talks explicitly about his race and is very cryptic about his life, plenty of characters make assumptions about what being a moor means:
[Brabantio speaking to Othello] “To the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou — to fear, not to delight” (1.2.70-71).
One reason Iago is able to manipulate the people close to Othello is because he can manipulate the prejudices that they have about black people. He knows that they will believe anything he says, as long as it falls in line with their preconceptions. In addition, since Othello isn’t a native Venetian, Iago can manipulate Othello’s inexperience with Venetian society:
197 Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
201 I know our country disposition well;
202 In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
203 They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
204 Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
205 Dost thou say so?
206 She did deceive her father, marrying you;
207 And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
208 She loved them most.
208 And so she did.
208. go to: An expression of impatience.
208 Why, go to then;
209. seeming: false appearance.
209 She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
210. seal: blind. (A term from falconry). oak: A close-grained wood.
210 To seel her father’s eyes up close as oak,
211 He thought ’twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
212 I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
213 For too much loving you.
213. bound: indebted.
213 I am bound to thee for ever.
214 I see this hath a little dash’d your spirits. Othello, Act III, Scene iii.
Plenty of actors, scholars, and directors have made the case that Shakespeare’s plays aren’t racist, but they do have racist elements. In Othello’s case, the racism of other people destroys an otherwise honorable man.
The Murder: As a counter argument, though Othello is not the only jealous hero in Shakespeare, he is the only black one, and he is the only one who kills his wife onstage. Therefore, even if Othello is a positive black figure at first, his behavior at the end of the play does give an impression of a man who has become a savage murderer, and it is important for the audience to question how watching a white woman being murdered in her bed by a black man makes them feel, especially when everyone else in the play has said he is a barbaric, lustful, foreign beast.
Part III Production History
Although there’s a decent argument that Othello isn’t a racist play, it’s production history has been harrowed with racism. For 250 years the role wasn’t even played by black actors. Even on film, the first black man to play Othello was Laurence Fishburne in 1995.
Going further back, the first genuine black actor to play Othello was Ira Adrige, an African American who moved to England in the mid 1800s. Above is a copy of the playbill for his celebrated touring performance of Othello in 1851, which inspired very powerful and polarized reactions: https://youtu.be/92Z-4eJj7Wo
Audiences have had incredibly powerful reactions to seeing real black actors in the role. Some have expressed disgust and racist hatred, (especially in the scenes with Desdemona), some have expressed praise, sometimes they have ignored the race issues entirely. Reportedly Joseph Stalin loved the play and participated enjoyed Othello’s strength and stoicism (Wood 254). Ultimately the context of a production often determines more of the audience reaction than the actors’ performances.
To end where I began, I’m well aware that it’s impossible to truly tell whether Shakespeare was racist, and it’s equally futile trying to pin down what he was saying about race when he wrote the part of Othello, but it is worth considering how the part is connected to changing views of race and racial relations. Ultimately it is up to the actors and director to decide whether Othello is a good man, a racist stereotype, or anything else. That is the beauty of Shakespeare’s complicated and compelling characters, they can translate beyond time, and maybe even race.
For an excellent discussion of this complex topic, click the link below: https://youtu.be/puMpPNtYxuw
TV:Shakespeare Uncovered: Othello
BBC News: Britain’s first black community in Elizabethan London. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391
In the spirit of black history month, enjoy this excellent documentary about Shakespeare’s only black hero: www.pbs.org/wnet/shakespeare-uncovered/uncategorized/othello-david-harewood-full-episode/
Here’s a classroom guide that you can use with your students: Othello Classroom Guide