Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello$

Lindsey R. Swindall

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781604738247

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604738247.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of
Subscriber: null; date: 20 June 2018

An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Othello

An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Othello

(p.11) Chapter One An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Othello
The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello

Lindsey R. Swindall

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces Shakespeare’s play and offers an overview of important precedents—from Britain, the US, and the African American community—to Robeson’s portrayal of the Moor of Venice. It also provides context for Robeson’s artistry by looking at Shakespeare in the African American community and the importance of the black oratorical tradition to Robeson’s acting methodology.

Keywords:   Paul Robeson, Moor of Venice, African American actors, African American community, black oratorical tradition, acting

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare’s Othello was written between 1603 and 1604, with its first recorded performance being staged in 1604. The King’s Men, the company with which Shakespeare was affiliated, produced Othello on the first of November. King James had recently ascended to the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth the prior year. It was, thus, a time of political transition in Britain. Times were also evolving for Shakespeare, whose company had previously been designated as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.1 As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the plot of Othello was not original. In this case, it was loosely based on a tale in the Hecatommithi, a collection written by the Italian novelist and poet Cinthio (1504–1573) that dated from the mid-1560s. Lois Potter observed in her stage history that when Othello debuted, it was one of several plays on the contemporary stage that explored domestic themes. Also appearing in repertoire at this time were Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, and The Comedy of Errors.2 Perhaps Shakespeare did not feel that political commentary was appropriate during the shift from the stability of Queen Elizabeth’s lengthy reign to a new monarch. Thus, Othello was one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in which the question of governmental leadership was not thematically explicit. In this work, the Venetian Senate was firmly grounded and the authority of the Duke was unquestioned.

It can be argued that Othello was Shakespeare’s chief exploration into the notion of racial difference. He wrote very few characters of African descent, (p.12) the other primary character being Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, although one of the suitors in The Merchant of Venice was also dark skinned. One might quickly characterize Aaron the Moor and Othello as embodying two basic stereotypes: the noble civilized Moor (Othello) and the savage African (Aaron). However, Othello was still a play that relied heavily on the racist assumptions of the day, particularly that Africans were prone to jealousy, gullibility, and inexplicable fits of passion or rage (as in Othello’s epilepsy). At the time Shakespeare was writing, England was on the brink of colonial expansion and involvement with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. For example, the King James translation of the Bible would soon be distributed to many dark-skinned foreigners in an attempt to transform their perceived heathenism. Likewise, Othello had been converted to Christianity prior to commanding the Venetian armed forces. While Shakespeare did manipulate certain racial images, ultimately his work was a product of the protoimperialistic society in which he lived.

The idea of race in Shakespeare has been hotly contested over the centuries. Just as Shakespeare’s writing reflected the perceptions of race in the early 1600s, the commentary on race in Othello necessarily has mirrored the perception of race at the historical moment in which the critic was writing. For example, British author and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge postulated in 1822 that Othello “must not be conceived as a negro” because he displayed too much virtue for such a base characterization.3 Coleridge’s analysis remained influential for some time, for he was cited by a number of the critics who reviewed Robeson’s 1930 performance of Othello in London. John Quincy Adams, writing during the U.S. civil war in 1863, was very critical of Desdemona as a woman who had sinned against nature in her love for the Moor. The idea of interracial marriage was anathema even to a northern opponent of slavery. He argued, “The great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the Law of Nature. …”4 William Winter, an influential American critic at the turn of the twentieth century when segregation laws were proliferating, praised actor Edmund Kean’s decision to play Othello with lighter “tawny” makeup as opposed to black. He posited, “To take a cue from such expressions in the text as ‘thick lips’ and ‘Barbary horse,’ and make Othello a Negro, is, necessarily, to lower the tone of the interpretation.”5 The term “barbary” was an Elizabethan euphemism for barbarous and was used to reference people or places in Africa. In this passage, Winter argued against a dark-skinned Othello on the basis that most of the passages that refer to Othello as black were insults. Thus, they (p.13) should not be taken literally. He did not, however, acknowledge the Duke’s reference to Othello as black at the end of act I, scene 3 when the allusion to Othello’s skin color was not an epithet but a compliment. Overall, Winter seemed to suggest that drama simply was not as tragic if it occurred to someone with dark skin.

On the other hand, more recent criticism offered new analyses. With the advent of postcolonial theory and cultural studies, Shakespeare’s Moor has been reinvestigated. For example, Ania Loomba, in Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism, pointed out that as a dark-skinned character created by a British author and primarily interpreted by white actors “Othello remains trapped within a white view of Moors.”6 In her article “Casting Black Actors: Beyond Othellophilia,” Celia R. Daileader worried that dark-skinned actors, even if given other roles early in their careers, were “being groomed for one role alone.”7 Similarly, Robeson longed to undertake Shakespeare’s other great tragic heroes, but, unfortunately, no one will ever know what power Robeson as King Lear or Robeson as Macbeth might have achieved. These few examples illustrate that perceptions of race have evolved over the centuries according to the sociopolitical context. In the United States, the modern social construction of race has stemmed from the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the implications of subjugating people of African origin as slave laborers for around two hundred and fifty years. The idea of racial inferiority grew out of the development of the early capitalist system and its need for vast quantities of workers in order to turn immense profits from the tobacco and rice plantations of British North America. Still, because colonial expansion was just taking shape during Shakespeare’s time, delineating exactly what he meant by crafting a noble Moorish character can be relentlessly debated. Did he challenge the burgeoning racist stereotypes of the day? Or did Shakespeare simply modify the existing attributes of African foreigners? Was Othello a noble character at all? One question, however, can clearly be addressed: did Shakespeare write Othello as a black character? Without a doubt, he did. In addition to the textual references to Othello’s skin tone, in Shakespeare’s day Othello was portrayed onstage by an actor wearing dark makeup. Nevertheless, the idea of whether Othello was a black character has often been challenged as by critics such as William Winter. This issue was still prominent in the 1930 commentary on Robeson’s first portrayal of the Moor.

How then might Shakespeare have been inspired to create a Moorish hero? There was interaction between Britain and the “dark continent” in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Trade networks were being established by (p.14) British ship captains at this time, and with John Hawkins’s trade of three hundred slaves around 1562 the British officially entered the African slave trade.8 In 1600, a diplomatic envoy from Morocco visited London and stayed for six months to consider a joint venture against Spain.9 A portrait of this Moroccan ambassador was painted for Queen Elizabeth, and it represented what Shakespeare and his contemporaries might have perceived as a Moor of status.10 Moreover, one of the most popular travelogues of Shakespeare’s day was an account of tropical Africa from 1526 written by a man who was converted from Islam to Christianity (as was Othello), had traveled extensively through Africa, and finally settled in Italy.11 This piece, A Geographical Historie of Africa by John Leo Africanus, was translated into English about four years before Othello was written and emphasized the African propensities toward jealousy and fits of passion that also appear in Shakespeare’s text.12

Othello was portrayed with dark makeup from the earliest production when Richard Burbage (a friend of Shakespeare’s for whom he wrote the part) played the Moor of Venice. This was the theatrical tradition until around 1812 when American actor Edmund Kean changed his makeup to a lighter tawny color. Marvin Rosenberg, in his seminal history The Masks of Othello, noted that this change corresponded with the entrenchment of plantation slavery in the United States. He contended that Burbage probably “played Othello black, rather than tawny, for this was the theatre tradition … until widespread Negro slavery. Othello changed to ‘tawny’ in the 1800’s to free the role from the unfortunate connotations borne by that growing social evil. …”13 Actors in the nineteenth century, then, wished to distance noble Othello from the debased characteristics that would be implied were he portrayed as a black man. By this time, ideas of racial inferiority were rooted in the social and political culture of the United States, whose economy was increasingly dependent on slave-grown cotton. Additionally, a study of the artistic renderings of Othello concluded that the Moor was depicted as black from 1760 to 1804.14 This article corroborated the argument that representations of Othello changed from dark to tawny in the early nineteenth century.

A black activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, John Edward Bruce, published a slim volume in 1920, just ten years before Robeson’s first Othello, which commented on the question of Othello’s color. In it, he assailed the racism implicit in the trend toward a tawny Othello: “Modern tragedians in America and Europe who have essayed the role of Othello have bowed to the popular prejudice and portrayed the character as that of a white man or (p.15) a man of tawny complexion.”15 It was Ira Aldridge, on the British stage, and later Robeson, in both Britain and the United States, who ushered a dark-skinned Moor back to the spotlight. Robeson, who was definitely versed in Shakespearean history, was well aware of the stage tradition. He remarked in an interview in 1930 that “in Shakespeare’s own time and through the Restoration, notably by Garrick, the part was played [as] a black man. It is not changed until the time of Edmund Kean. … I feel that had to do with the fact that at that time Africa was the slave center of the world and people had … forgotten the ancient glory of the Ethiopian.”16 “It may finally be said,” scholar Mythili Kaul pronounced, “that if Kean banished the black Othello from the stage, Robeson … succeeded in bringing him right back.”17

It should also be mentioned that Shakespeare clearly alluded to Othello’s skin color in the text. There were several references to Othello’s skin tone, some of which were epithets uttered by Iago against the Moor. Interestingly, the term “black” was also used in Elizabethan English to connote something unholy or sinful (as in “black devil”). Shakespeare was manipulating this stereotype by creating a protagonist who was actually dark skinned but was not the primary villain. Shakespeare’s Moor in Titus Andronicus (written about ten years before Othello), Aaron, illustrated the more common archetype of a black character who was also villainous. Othello’s temperament, on the other hand, was not so clear cut. He had virtuous qualities but fell prey to jealousy, gullibility, and Iago’s machinations. Conversely, the amoral but non-African Iago was a much “blacker” character than Othello as a vision of evil. Yet, it was Othello’s literal blackness that separated him from Desdemona’s Venetian society. It was this sense of foreignness that accentuated Othello’s misgivings which Iago, in turn, ruthlessly exploited. Thus, the color “black” often has a dual meaning in Othello, especially when invoked by Iago, which helped to illuminate Shakespeare’s multilayered exploration of the theme of blackness.

The following quotations are examples of Shakespeare’s references to Othello’s color in the text. The first examples were racist insults. In act I, scene 1, Iago yelled up to Brabantio’s window in the dead of the night, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.” During that same exchange, Iago referred to Othello as a “Barbary horse.” In the following scene, Brabantio accosted Othello concerning his secret marriage to Desdemona and inquired why she would “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou. …” On the other hand, near the close of act I, scene 3, the Duke pointed out to Brabantio that “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far (p.16) more fair than black.” In this instance, Shakespeare revealed that even though Othello was black skinned, he was still honorable. Later, in act III, scene 3, Iago has been poisoning Othello’s mind with thoughts of Desdemona’s infidelity. Othello deprecated his own lack of Venetian social mores: “Haply, for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have. …” Here, Shakespeare again played with the notion of blackness on several levels. For the phrase to be most effective, it would be uttered by a dark Othello who was disdainful of his skin color, which was the most obvious signifier of his cultural foreignness. Othello wondered whether he might have been more adept at maintaining Desdemona’s love had he not been a black foreigner.

The nature of Shakespeare’s fast-paced drama further necessitated a dark-skinned title character. The Bard set up Othello to betray and murder his wife in roughly six scenes. The only way this can be even remotely viable was if a radical effort was made to position Othello as an outsider to Desdemona’s courtly Venetian society. The juxtaposition between the young, chaste, white Desdemona and the older, militaristic, dark-skinned Othello was paramount for the plot to work. Without these elements in place, the play had no hope of capturing the audience. This fact was not lost on several of the critics who wrote about Robeson’s portrayal of Othello on Broadway. For instance, Rudolph Elie, Jr., wrote in Variety, “It was also the first time in modern times that the incredibly powerful tale … ever made sense.”18 The reviewer for The Christian stressed, “The use of a Negro actor … underlines the sense of division between him and the Venetians and lends credibility to the intensity of his passions.”19 Thus, a number of reviewers had an epiphany when they saw Robeson’s dark-skinned Othello, because it was the first time they felt the plot had ever succeeded.

Major Portrayals of Othello Prior to Robeson

After its debut in 1604, Othello became “perhaps the leading tragedy of the early 1600’s.”20 The play was produced in New York as early as the 1750s when Lewis Hallum’s company performed it as part of their repertoire while visiting from London. Moreover, Othello was one of the established Shakespearean pieces produced in America continuously between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.21 Spranger Barry was “the eighteenth century’s most popular Othello” in London and played the Moor in “an upward, triumphal progression through extremes of beautifully expressed (p.17) emotion, rather than a descent into brutality, diseased imagination, and self-loathing.”22

Several of the memorable Othellos from the early nineteenth century included Edmund Kean, William Charles Macready, and Junius Brutus Booth. Edwin Forrest was also a favorite who emphasized Othello’s physical prowess and was said to be a “distinctly American” Othello.23 Charles Macready, though he displayed impeccable Victorian mores in his private life, was Forrest’s “violent and animal-like” British rival. In fact, fans of Forrest actually rioted outside of the Astor Place Opera House in New York when Macready played Othello there in 1849.24 As one could imagine, the Astor Place riot became a landmark event in American theater history. Junius Brutus Booth had several sons who also became actors, including Edwin and John Wilkes. John Wilkes Booth was known for his erratic behavior, and it was said that his Othello would once have actually smothered the actress playing Desdemona had he not been thwarted by concerned actors rushing in from the wings.25 Nevertheless, John Wilkes Booth was probably better remembered in the history books as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, his unsuccessful near-suffocation of a vulnerable Desdemona notwithstanding. Yet, it was Edmund Kean who defied the stage tradition on two important fronts. He was short and known for his incessant movement, whereas Othello had traditionally been portrayed with an imposing physical presence.26 Additionally, Kean altered Othello’s complexion to a lighter tawny rather than a darker black. To assume that all actors followed Kean’s lead would probably be an oversimplification of the complex interplay between race and stagecraft.27 However, according to Lois Potter’s stage history, “his choice influenced many nineteenth century actors.”28 Robeson’s Othello followed the earlier tradition, before Kean, of a dark-skinned Moor who was not inclined to move about the stage a great deal but relied more on the impact of his towering physical frame.

Probably the most notable Othello from the late nineteenth century was Italian Tommaso Salvini. He toured Britain and the United States in the mid-1870s and introduced a new, more brutal Othello to audiences. Salvini was viewed as exotic to the Anglo-Saxon audience for his passionate acting technique and his insistence on playing Shakespeare in Italian.29 Constantin Stanislavsky described Salvini’s performance as vividly depicting Othello’s descent from “the heights of bliss to the depths of destructive passion.”30 Interestingly, Salvini maintained that Desdemona’s murder should be obscured from the audience behind the bed curtain while he juxtaposed Othello’s suicide with “extreme exhibitionism.”31 Salvini’s onstage passion (p.18) was often attributed to his Mediterranean heritage. Thus, he offered a marked contrast to the Anglo-Saxon Victorian tradition of Othello as portrayed by his contemporaries.

In addition, the U.S. minstrel tradition of Othello needs to be acknowledged. Shakespeare was more available to the masses in the early to middle nineteenth century partly because his works were portrayed not only in formal theaters but also in a variety of venues from inns to makeshift stages in the countryside. Furthermore, his plays were frequently satirized in vaudeville and burlesque shows. Lawrence Levine commented on the ubiquity of Shakespeare during this century: “The significance of the national penchant for parodying Shakespeare is clear: Shakespeare and his drama had become by the nineteenth century an integral part of American culture.”32 This is particularly relevant to an examination of the stage history of Othello because of the link between the popularity of this play in the United States and the blackface stage tradition of the nineteenth century. A recent study of Shakespeare in the United States from 1835 to 1875 argued, “A connection between Othello and minstrelsy … suggests strongly that audiences were looking at the two in the same way [for] … a comical, at times even buffoon-like, or crazed Othello seems to mark both types of performances in the period.”33 Because Shakespeare was not relegated solely to refined theaters for the upper classes, Othello was widely interpreted in a variety of forums.

Various incarnations of Othello, such as Desdemonum and O-Thello and Dar’s-de-Money, appeared on the minstrel stage. They featured themes from Othello (jealousy, miscegenation, misogyny) presented in a shortened framework (sometimes just a scene or two) and, occasionally, painted Desdemona in blackface as well as Othello. Presenting Othello’s spouse in blackface might have been a reference to the contemporary fear that a white woman who married a black man would soon appear to be black.34 There was but a fine line between Othello as presented in the formal theater and on the minstrel stage, for many of the great Othellos of the theater (like Macready, Kean, and especially Salvini) emphasized the Moor’s savage characteristics.35 Thus, Robeson’s assumption of the role in the twentieth century, accentuating Othello’s dignity as a dark-skinned actor, defied a multifaceted tradition of racism that spanned not only the formal theater but the minstrel stage as well.

The changing attitude in the United States toward Shakespeare and the theater by the late nineteenth century should also be noted to contextualize Robeson’s impact on the stage history of Othello. As early as the 1880s, (p.19) Shakespeare was becoming entertainment for the elite rather than popular amusement enjoyed by all classes as it had been earlier in the century. Lawrence Levine documented the trajectory of this shift in his book The Unpredictable Past. Levine postulated that during the late nineteenth century “cultural space became more sharply defined, more circumscribed, and less fluid than it had been.”36 He maintained that knowledge of Shakespeare’s texts was widespread in the early 1800s as depicted comically by Mark Twain’s roguish characters, the duke and the king, in Huckleberry Finn. In this novel, two lower-class hucksters misquote a soliloquy of Hamlet’s, and Twain relied on the audience’s intimacy with Shakespeare for the punch line.37 Levine contended this would probably not be possible by the turn of the twentieth century once Shakespeare was increasingly reserved for the upper echelons of society in the “proper” theater. He explained, “If Shakespeare had been an integral part of mainstream culture in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth he had become part of ‘polite’ culture—an essential ingredient in a complex we call, significantly, ‘legitimate’ theater.”38 However, there were efforts to reverse this cultural shift in the twentieth century.

By the Popular Front era of the 1930s and early 1940s, New Deal liberalism sparked a movement which aimed, in part, to make theater more accessible to the masses. For example, numerous productions of Shakespeare were funded through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP), including Orson Welles’s experimental all-black production of Macbeth in 1936. Additionally, one of the aims of the FTP was to “bring the theatre to the people by making the shows free to the public and by introducing theatre to localities outside urban centers.”39 In the spirit of the Popular Front, the Broadway Othello starring Robeson in the early 1940s appealed to and was supported by diverse audiences during its extended run from the summer premiere in 1942 to through the U.S. tour in 1944–45. These shows were often sold out or standing room only. Critics noticed the unique assemblage of people who attended these shows. Because of Robeson’s unique charisma and activism, he was beloved across class lines, and people of all strata and colors flocked to see his Othello. For example, on the West Coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, special showings of Othello were sponsored by trade unions and a black advocacy group, the Council on African Affairs. Margaret Webster’s theory of directing was focused on the idea that Shakespeare should not be relegated to the dusty shelves of a library. Her production was intentionally slimmed down and sped up to be more accessible to wide-ranging audiences. But it was the combination of Robeson’s persona and his activist ties that enabled the (p.20) Broadway Othello to reach an audience far more vast and diverse than the average “legitimate” Shakespearean production.

African Americans, Shakespeare, and Oratory

A mythology of sorts has grown around Paul Robeson’s legacy as the first African American to play Othello on the professional stage. To be sure, he was the first African American to portray Othello on Broadway. Yet, there was a history of African Americans who had played Shakespeare’s Moor prior to Robeson, the most notable of these being Ira Aldridge. Aldridge, the “African Roscius” as he was known, never played the role in the United States but achieved great fame in Britain and Russia. He was dubbed the “African Roscius” after Roscius, who was a Roman actor born into slavery and praised for his stagecraft. There were other predecessors to Robeson’s Othello who are worth mentioning, for they illustrate the prominence of the Bard in the African American community and the tenacity of actors who produced Shakespeare under circumstances when black actors were rarely perceived as serious artists of merit. Thus, while Robeson’s preeminence in the stage history of Othello cannot be disputed, his performance was not completely without precedent.

Errol Hill’s monograph Shakespeare in Sable is an essential text for anyone examining African Americans in Shakespeare. He observed that there was little space for a committed black actor on the American stage, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some actors, such as Samuel Morgan Smith, who was born in the United States in the nineteenth century, followed in the footsteps of Aldridge and eventually migrated to England to pursue an acting career. This was due to the fact that in the United States no black actors were accepted by legitimate white companies in the 1800s.40 Although rare, black companies did exist, such as the short-lived group headed by actor James Hewlett, which performed at William Alexander Brown’s African Theatre in New York. Their opening performance in September 1821 was a revival of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Due to harassment, finding a permanent home for the acting troupe was problematic.

The African Theatre endured for only three season, but they produced at least ten productions. Of those, two were plays by Shakespeare (Richard III and Othello), and two other productions included scenes from Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and possibly Romeo and Juliet. The emphasis on (p.21) Shakespeare in the African Theatre’s repertoire underscored his popularity in the United States during the nineteenth century. Hill further characterized Shakespeare’s status among African Americans: “Indeed, stagestruck youths and adults from the city’s black community would frequent the segregated upper gallery of the Park Theatre [New York’s leading playhouse] to keenly observe the manner in which these admired English stage veterans presented Shakespeare’s heroes.”41 It was no surprise, then, that the African Theatre offered their own interpretations of Shakespeare for the few seasons they were operational.

By the late nineteenth century, following Emancipation and Reconstruction, according to Hill there was a “marked increase in dramatic activity among African Americans.” Shakespeare remained esteemed during this period also. In the 1880s, the decade prior to Robeson’s birth, Hill counted eighty-six recorded productions by African American troupes, and about one-third of those were Shakespearean plays.42 In the early twentieth century, Shakespeare’s plays were being mounted by students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). For example, from 1905 to 1910, with the exception of 1909, students at Atlanta University put on a play by Shakespeare every year under the direction of Adrienne McNeil Herndon.43 The reputation of the students must have been growing, for The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), ran a two-page photo spread of their 1912 revival of Twelfth Night.44

From 1915 to 1932, the Lafayette Players worked out of the Lafayette Theatre in New York City’s predominantly African American Harlem neighborhood. This group has been described as “the first major professional Black dramatic company in America.”45 Even though the Lafayette Players did not produce Shakespeare themselves, the theater hosted The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew in 1923. It was probably the success of the Lafayette Players, moreover, that led Edward Sterling Wright to stage his notable revival of Othello at the Lafayette Theatre.46 This all-black production was mounted in 1916, about three years before Robeson moved to Harlem. Wright’s Othello was performed in both New York and Boston for the tercentenary anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Many theater goers were excited or at least curious to see the cast of black actors, for the New York Times commented that an audience of fifteen hundred packed the house for the first night of this novel Othello.47 When the production went north to Boston, the Herald also lauded Wright, who “shines by comparison with some of [his] predecessors who had to stain their faces to meet (p.22) [the] requirements of [the] part.”48 In addition, this successful production was praised by none other than Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, an eminent British tragedian, who was the guest of honor at an opening performance. He personally praised Wright, who played Othello, and the entire cast: “All the people of every clime, complexion, and degree are taking part in these celebrations and it would be, I am sure, a pride to Shakespeare himself to know that his works were being played by your people.”49 That was no small praise coming from Sir Tree, who helped found the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had played many of Shakespeare’s memorable characters.

It was indisputably Ira Aldridge, however, who achieved the greatest stature of any African American stage actor prior to Robeson. Aldridge was born in the United States in the early nineteenth century. The obstacles for an actor with aspirations of tackling serious stage work were immense at that time. Aldridge decided to pursue his career abroad and departed for Britain in 1824. It was in England and on tour across Europe and Russia that Aldridge established his Shakespearean repertoire. He performed over forty roles, including Othello, the noble Moor, as well as Shakespeare’s villainous Moor, Aaron from Titus Andronicus. The Standard newspaper critic asserted, prior to seeing Aldridge, that, as a contemporary of such renowned actors as Edmund Kean, it was “most hazardous” for him to take on the role of Othello beneath the shadow of these forerunners. Yet, following the 1833 performance, the reporter applauded Aldridge, saying that “the result showed that the African Roscius was fully justified in making the bold attempt.”50 A skeptical Times reviewer in London found his accent “unimpressive” but had to admit that “Mr. Aldridge was extremely well received” by the audience.51

Aldridge, remarkably, accomplished a feat that few black actors, including Robeson, have ever achieved. Despite some notable exceptions, such as Ray Fearon’s Romeo with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1997, black actors today still struggle with typecasting based on skin color. However, Aldridge successfully portrayed Shakespearean characters that were not written specifically as black roles. Aldridge embodied, for example, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, and Shylock. He also received numerous awards and medals for his artistry. Therefore, Aldridge was noteworthy in the stage history of Shakespeare as the first major African American talent. Errol Hill took the praise for Aldridge further, asserting that he was “the most accomplished American actor in nineteenth-century England and Europe and one of the finest Shakespearean interpreters of all time.”52

(p.23) Many reviewers placed Paul Robeson’s Othello firmly within the lineage of Aldridge’s portrayal. Indeed, in 1930, Robeson was the first actor of color to play Othello in London since Aldridge. Robeson was fully cognizant of the torch being passed to his generation. Aldridge’s youngest daughter, Amanda, an accomplished vocalist, was living in London in the 1930s and had given Robeson voice lessons. Just prior to Robeson’s debut, Amanda bestowed on him the gold earrings worn by her father onstage as Othello. Thus, Robeson was a direct descendant of the tradition of Ira Aldridge, who also spent much of his life abroad and was beloved in Russia and throughout Europe. More important, Robeson was fully conscious of this vital lineage.

Robeson was an inheritor of another important cultural legacy in the African American community: the elocutionary tradition. The art of speech making was tied closely to the African American church but was also connected to reciting Shakespeare. Errol Hill and James Hatch have argued that drama was often frowned upon by the black church in the late nineteenth century. Yet, they point out that “future ministers and teachers studied rhetoric and elocution, which included Greek and Roman orators. The art of declamation, with its rhetorical flourishes, led to the recitation of the Bible and Shakespeare aloud.”53 This tradition of oral transmission had deep roots in the African American community. When Africans were forcibly transported to North America for their labor, they brought with them the patterns of expression from their continent. Self-expression was paramount during the slave era, as Roger D. Abrahams explicated in his article “Traditions of Eloquence in Afro-American Communities.” He wrote, “We see here the tremendous importance attached to speech in all its forms: the use of talk to proclaim presence of self, to assert oneself vocally in the most anxious and the most unguarded situations.” He also noted “the importance of a highly formal and decorous approach to language in both the intercultural exchanges and in intra-group activities.”54 Asserting oneself vocally in various forms like preaching, storytelling, or toast making was a vital legacy passed down from African forebears. It was also essential to an enslaved people who were forbidden to learn to read and for whom gaining access to reading material was dangerous, even life threatening. Because of factors such as African traditions and the prohibition on literacy during slavery, there has been historically a “greater emphasis on the oral tradition in black culture.”55

How was Robeson an inheritor of this legacy? First, Robeson’s family was directly linked to oral tradition through the church. His father, William D. Robeson, was a minister, and his older brother, Ben, also became (p.24) a preacher in the A.M.E. Zion church. The church, then, played a central role in Robeson’s childhood as it did in the larger black community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Robeson, who was born in New Jersey in 1898, was only one generation removed from slavery. His father had escaped from North Carolina and settled in the North where he ultimately married, raised a family, and ministered to the black community. Black churches like Reverend Robeson’s provided much-needed support for African Americans who faced poverty and discrimination on a daily basis. The church offered both an emotional outlet and a center for socialization. Music and elocution were essential aspects of the worship services. These influences from Robeson’s early life were manifested in his career. As a concert vocalist, Robeson focused on African American spirituals in addition to other forms of folk music. Oratory was a primary facet of Robeson’s career as a performer.

Robeson proved himself to be a successful orator even at a young age. In his memoir from 1958, Robeson recalled being a “prize debater” in high school as well as a “diligent student of my father’s artistry of speech.” In 1915, he entered a statewide oratorical contest in which he placed third. He was somewhat amazed, in retrospect, at his recitation of a fiery abolitionist’s speech before the mostly white audience. “But there I was,” Robeson recollected, “voicing, with all the fervor and forensic skill I could muster, Wendell Phillips’ searing attack on the concept of white supremacy!”56 One can visualize the teenage Robeson standing erectly on the stage, striving to perfect his diction and all the while probably shocking his audience with the substance of Phillips’s eulogy for the black revolutionary hero Toussaint L’Ouverture! Robeson admitted that, at seventeen, he did not fully comprehend the content of this speech, but it seems altogether appropriate that his entrée into public oratory drew upon the tradition of abolitionism and invoked the struggle for justice for his people.

This trend continued throughout his college years at Rutgers where he seldom lost a major oratorical contest. The years 1915–1919 were turbulent ones in the United States. Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915 signaled the beginning of a new generation of African American leadership. During this time, President Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal buildings in Washington, D. C., which offered a glaring symbol of government sanction to racial discrimination. Perhaps even worse, Wilson hosted the premiere of the film Birth of Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House. Lynching and race riots continued across the country even as the United States sent troops over to the European theater of World War I. (p.25) Meanwhile, young Robeson was using the platform of elocution at Rutgers to speak out about positive social change. Publicly addressing such issues, especially in wartime, was particularly courageous. This was around the time when suffragettes were jailed for silently picketing the White House during the war. Soon Congress passed the infamous Espionage Act which was ultimately used to silence political radicals. Nevertheless, Robeson, when asked to speak at commencement in 1919, composed an address titled “The New Idealism.” In it, he “declared that his generation must struggle for peace, fight against poverty, prejudice, and the demoralization of the human spirit.”57 The notion of “struggling for peace” foreshadowed his activism against going to war with the Soviet Union in the early cold war. Robeson indeed stayed true to the values he articulated as a prescient youth.

By the time of his acting debut in New York the following year, Robeson was not unfamiliar with the idea of standing before an audience. He had already done it many times as an elocutionist. One can conceive of Robeson first as an orator who subsequently sang and performed in dramas. In fact, in his book The Oratory of Negro Leaders, Marcus Boulware characterized Robeson as “probably the only Negro orator who combined singing, acting, and speaking.”58 Just as his early life in the church stimulated his concert repertoire, Robeson’s exposure to his father’s oration coupled with his own forensic activities in high school and college informed his stage persona. Robeson’s vocal presence was a noteworthy theme that recurred in the reviews of his three portrayals of Othello. Based on its prominence in the contemporary notices, Robeson’s baritone and vocal intonation were prominent aspects of his interpretation of Othello. His vocal bearing was fostered by the oral tradition passed down through his father, who personified the elocution mastered by an enslaved people. The seed of oratorical heritage was planted early in his life and remained a prominent aspect of his onstage appearances. His voice was, of course, unmistakable and part of what helped secure his success and widespread appeal. In 1930, however, Robeson faced a new challenge: his first attempt at Shakespeare on the professional stage. His diction would be tested by Elizabethan English. His acting had to hold its own as lead in a classic tragedy. Would Robeson, at thirty-two, be up to this momentous task so early in his career?


(1) . Virginia Mason Vaughan, Othello: A Contextual History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 3–4.

(2) . Lois Potter, Othello, Shakespeare in Performance Series, ed. J. R. Mulryne and J. C. Bulman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 6–8.

(3) . Carl Woodring, Table Talk Volume II, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, vol. 14 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 31.

(4) . John Quincy Adams, “Misconceptions of Shakespeare upon the Stage,” in Notes, Criticism and Correspondence Upon Shakespeare’s Plays and Actors, ed. James Henry Hackett (New York: Carleton, 1863), 224.

(5) . William Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1911), 252.

(6) . Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 111.

(p.196) (7) . Celia R. Daileader, “Casting Black Actors: Beyond Othellophilia,” in Shakespeare and Race, ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 177.

(8) . Ian Smith, “Barbarian Errors: Performing Race in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (Summer 1998): 173.

(9) . Vaughan, 14 and 58; Loomba, 71.

(10) . Bernard Harris, “Portrait of a Moor,” in Shakespeare and Race, ed. Alexander and Wells, 23.

(11) . Vaughan, 56; Smith, 175.

(12) . Loomba, 101.

(13) . Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 200.

(14) . Paul H.D. Kaplan, “The Earliest Images of Othello,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (Summer 1988): 171–86.

(15) . John E. Bruce, Was Othello a Negro? (New York: privately printed, 1920), 10.

(16) . “Robeson Talks in London for Audience Here,” New York Herald Tribune, 9 June 1930.

(17) . Mythili Kaul, Othello: New Essays by Black Writers (Washington DC: Howard University Press, 1997), 18.

(18) . Rudolph Elie, Jr., “Robeson Gives ‘Othello’ Great Power, Starring in Revival with White Troupe,” Variety, 12 August 1942.

(19) . “Paul Robeson as Othello: Large Audience Acclaims His American Debut in Role,” The Christian, 11 August 1942.

(20) . Rosenberg, 1.

(21) . Charles Shattuck, Shakespeare on the American Stage from the Hallums to Edwin Booth (Washington DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976), 3–5, 16.

(22) . Potter, 27; Winter, 246–48.

(23) . Potter, 36–37; Shattuck, 66.

(24) . Potter, 37; Rosenberg, 70. For more on the riot, see chapter seven in Vaughan.

(25) . Shattuck, 45–46.

(26) . Potter, 30–31.

(27) . Charles B. Lower, “Shakespeare as Black on Southern Stages, Then and Now,” in Shakespeare in the South, ed. Philip C. Kolin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983),199–228.

(28) . Potter, 29–30.

(29) . Vaughan, 163.

(30) . Potter, 45.

(31) . Vaughan, 168.

(32) . Lawrence Levine, The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 142.

(33) . Elaine Brousseau, “‘Now Literature, Philosophy, and Thought are Shakespearized’: American Culture and Nineteenth Century Shakespearean Performance 1835–1875,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2003),74.

(34) . Ibid., 84–88.

(35) . Ibid., 91.

(36) . Levine, 171.

(p.197) (37) . Ibid., 140.

(38) . Ibid., 153.

(39) . Rena Fraden, Blueprints for Black Federal Theatre 1935–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 2.

(40) . Errol Hill, Shakespeare in Sable (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 77.

(42) . Ibid., 82.

(43) . Ibid., 257.

(44) . Crisis 3 (March 1912): 198–99.

(45) . Sister M. Francesca Thompson, “The Lafayette Players 1917–1932,” in The Theatre of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Errol Hill (New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1987), 211.

(46) . Ibid., 220.

(47) . “Shakespeare All Over the City,” New York Times, 25 April 1916.

(48) . “Negroes Play Othello First Time Here,” Boston Herald, 9 May 1916.

(49) . “Tree Hears Negro in Part of OTHELLO,” New York Times, 3 April 1916.

(50) . The Standard (London), 14 April 1833.

(51) . The Times (London), 11 April 1833.

(52) . Hill, Shakespeare in Sable, 17.

(53) . James Hatch and Errol Hill, “Educational Theatre,” in A History of African American Theatre, ed. Hill and Hatch, 257.

(54) . Roger D. Abrahams, “Traditions of Eloquence in Afro-American Communities,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 12 (October 1970): 516.

(55) . C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), 277.

(56) . Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 25.

(57) . Lamont H. Yeakey, “A Student Without Peer: The Undergraduate Years of Paul Robeson,” The Journal of Negro Education 42 (Autumn 1973): 502.

(58) . Marcus H. Boulware, The Oratory of Negro Leaders 1900–1968 (Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1969): 68.