When Ira Aldridge Became the First Black Actor to Perform Shakespeare in England (1824)

The ways that Oth­el­lo, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andron­i­cus, and Shy­lock from The Mer­chant of Venice—Shakespeare’s “explic­it­ly racial­ized char­ac­ters,” as George Wash­ing­ton University’s Ayan­na Thomp­son puts it—have been inter­pret­ed over the cen­turies may have less to do with the author’s inten­tions and more with con­tem­po­rary ideas about race, the actors cast in the roles, and the direc­to­r­i­al choic­es made in a pro­duc­tion. To a great degree, these char­ac­ters have been played as though their iden­ti­ties were like the cos­tumes put on by actors who dark­ened their faces or wore stereo­typ­i­cal mark­ers of eth­nic or reli­gious Judaism (includ­ing “an obnox­ious­ly large nose”).

Such por­tray­als risk turn­ing com­plex char­ac­ters into car­i­ca­tures, val­i­dat­ing much of what we might see as overt and implic­it racism in the text. But there are those, Thomp­son says, who think such roles are actu­al­ly “about racial imper­son­ation.” Oth­el­lo, for exam­ple, is “a role writ­ten by a white man, intend­ed for a white actor in black make­up.”

For cen­turies, that is what most audi­ences ful­ly expect­ed to see. The tra­di­tion con­tin­ued in Britain until the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the Shake­speare­an col­or line, so to speak, was first crossed by Ira Aldridge, an Amer­i­can actor born in New York City in 1807.

“Edu­cat­ed at the African Free School,” notes the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library, Aldridge “was able to see Shake­speare plays at the Park The­atre and the African Grove The­atre.” He took on roles like Romeo with the African Com­pa­ny, but “New York was gen­er­al­ly not a wel­com­ing place for black actors… some white the­ater­go­ers even attempt­ed to pre­vent black com­pa­nies from per­form­ing Shake­speare at all.” As Tony Howard, an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of War­wick, tells PRI, “he was beat­en up in the streets.” And so Aldridge left for Eng­land in 1824, where he played Oth­el­lo at the The­atre Roy­al, Covent-Gar­den, at only 17 years old, the first black actor to play a Shake­speare­an role in Britain.

He lat­er began per­form­ing under the name Keene, “a homonym,” notes the site Black His­to­ry 365, “for the then pop­u­lar British actor, Edmund Kean.” Aldridge’s big break came after he met Kean and his son Charles, also an actor, in 1831, and both became sup­port­ers of his career. When the elder Kean col­lapsed onstage in 1833, then died, Aldridge took over his role as Oth­el­lo at Lon­don’s Roy­al­ty The­atre in two per­for­mances. “Crit­ics object­ed,” the Fol­ger writes, “to his race, his youth, and his inex­pe­ri­ence.” As Howard tells it, this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is a gross under­state­ment:

There were those who said this is a very inter­est­ing and extra­or­di­nary young actor. And the fact that he’s a black actor makes it more inter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing. But for many peo­ple, it was an insult because this is still a soci­ety where there is a great deal of slav­ery in the British Empire. And in order to com­bat the idea of increas­ing abo­li­tion, per­form­ers like Ira had to be stopped. And so there was a great deal of vio­lent aggres­sion. Not phys­i­cal vio­lence this time, but vio­lence in the press.

Some of that ver­bal vio­lence includ­ed com­par­ing Aldridge to “per­form­ing hors­es” and “per­form­ing dogs.” Many Lon­don crit­ics saw his entry on the Shake­speare­an stage as an affront to Eng­lish lit­er­ary tra­di­tion. Per­form­ing the bard’s works was “a kind of vio­la­tion,” Howard sum­ma­rizes, “he has no right to do that, not even to play Oth­el­lo.”

Pho­to via the Fol­ger Library

From his begin­nings in Coven­try to his expe­ri­ence in Lon­don, Aldridge made the once-black­face role his own, per­haps increas­ing­ly draw­ing “on his own expe­ri­ence and his own feel­ing.” He also por­trayed Aaron in Titus, and as he per­se­vered through neg­a­tive press and prej­u­dice, he took on oth­er star­ring roles, includ­ing Richard III, Shy­lock, Iago, King Lear, and Mac­beth. He “toured the Eng­lish provinces exten­sive­ly,” the BBC writes, “and stayed in Coven­try for a few months, dur­ing which time he gave a num­ber of speech­es on the evils of slav­ery. When he left, peo­ple inspired by his speech­es went to the coun­ty hall and peti­tioned for its abo­li­tion.”

By the end of the 1840s, how­ev­er, Aldridge felt he had gone as far as he could go in Eng­land and left to tour the Con­ti­nent in what had become his sig­na­ture role, Oth­el­lo. While first tour­ing with an Eng­lish com­pa­ny, he “lat­er began to work with local the­ater troupes,” the Fol­ger writes, “per­form­ing in Eng­lish while the rest of the cast would per­form in Ger­man, Swedish, etc. Despite the lan­guage bar­ri­er, Aldridge’s per­for­mances in Europe were high­ly acclaimed, a tes­ta­ment to his act­ing skills.” (See a play­bill fur­ther up from a Bonn per­for­mance.) After win­ning great fame in Europe and Rus­sia, the actor returned in tri­umph to Lon­don in 1855, and this time was very well-received.

Aldridge died in 1867. And though he was the sub­ject of many por­traits of the period—like that by James North­cote at the top of the post, por­tray­ing the 19-year-old Aldridge as Oth­el­lo, and this 1830 paint­ing by Hen­ry Per­ronet Brig­gs—he was “large­ly for­got­ten by the­ater his­to­ri­ans.” (See him above in an 1858 draw­ing by Ukran­ian artist Taras Shevchenko.) But his lega­cy has been revived in recent years. Aldridge was the sub­ject of two recent plays, Black Oth­el­lo, by Cecil­ia Siden­bladh, and Red Vel­vet by Loli­ta Chakrabar­ti. And last year, he was hon­ored in Coven­try by a plaque on the site of the the­ater where he first achieved fame.

While he suc­ceed­ed in becom­ing an all-around great Shake­speare­an actor, Aldridge’s lega­cy rests espe­cial­ly in the way he helped trans­form roles per­formed as “racial imper­son­ation” for a few hun­dred years into the prove­nance of tal­ent­ed black actors who bring new depth, com­plex­i­ty, and authen­tic­i­ty to char­ac­ters often played as stock eth­nic vil­lains. While white actors like Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivi­er con­tin­ued to play Oth­el­lo well into the 20th cen­tu­ry, these days such cast­ing can be seen as “ridicu­lous,” as Hugh Muir writes at The Guardian, espe­cial­ly if that actor “blacks up” for the role.

via the British Library

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

3,000 Illus­tra­tions of Shakespeare’s Com­plete Works from Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, Neat­ly Pre­sent­ed in a New Dig­i­tal Archive

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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