Many early writers portrayed African people in their works. However, in many instances, Africans merely served as servants or other “inferiors” that were incidental to the story. One writer broke this mold and daringly created Black characters that were bold, dignified, and strong. For this reason, I am recognizing this writer—poet and playwright—in the month of his birth and death (not in the same year!).
Who is this famous literary visionary?
None other than “The Bard” himself, William Shakespeare!
This April 2014 marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, baptized on April 26, 1564.
William Shakespeare, celebrated writer for the ages, is the most widely known writer on the planet, having all of his plays translated and produced in every major living language. He produced most of his work between 1589 and 1613. Described as the greatest writer in the English language, he wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems. (Other works are attributed to Shakespeare but their authenticity remains in question.)
William Shakespeare lived in what is known as “Elizabethan Era” England. This was the long period when England lived under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. It was also the time when Africans were being kidnapped and sold as slaves in England and, eventually, the American colonies. In London, young Shakespeare had contact with Africans though he did not own any African slaves.
By 1590, a large number of Africans had been brought to England and sold as slaves. In fact, so many African slaves had been brought to England that Queen Elisabeth issued expulsion orders to have them removed. Shakespeare had seen Africans (free and enslaved), talked with them, talked with sea captains who operated slave ships and learned of the wealth and mystery of Africa. Although many people living in England had contact with Africans, there was still a general fear and lack of understanding by the English. Blacks were considered interchangeable with Arabs, Indians, South Asians, and Aboriginal (or pre-Colombian) Americans.
Still, as a writer, William Shakespeare was fascinated and intrigued by the African people and from the stories that he heard about the continent. He was also rumored to have had a long and tumultuous relationship with an African woman between 1580 and 1590. He incorporated this knowledge, fascination, and contact into several of his most interesting and memorable characters.
Othello (from Othello)
Othello is a true character of contradiction of Shakespearean proportions! He is a Moor who holds a high position as a general in the defense forces of Venice. Because of his military successes, he is known for his courage, intelligence, and good judgment. He marries Desdemona, a noble and wealthy Venetian lady whom he truly loves—and she returns his deep love. Yet Iago tricks him into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with his trusted colleague, Cassio. Remember the famous lost handkerchief? In the end, Othello kills Desdemona and then kills himself in despair.
Othello is a combination of greatness and weakness. He exhibits personal and social insecurity (which is exploited by Iago). He is highly respected by his men and society but because of his foreign birth and color, feels that he is not really accepted. Othello is a true example of the color symbolism of Elizabethan morality, which views white as representing honor but black as representing wickedness; white as symbolizing innocence but black as a symbol of guilt. Othello was arguably the most tragic of Shakespeare’s main characters and a true depiction of the racial divide and difficulties in England.
Aaron (from Titus Andronicus)
Aaron was one of the most evil, villainous, and self-interested characters ever devised by Shakespeare—and that says a lot! Aaron is the lover of Tamora, who is Queen of the Goths. He is also a Moor. Through manipulation and pure evil, he encourages Tamora to exact a terrible and violent revenge.
In sharp contrast to Othello (who would be invented much later), Aaron is not as complex or introspective. Indeed, Aaron is one of the more emotion-provoking character created by Shakespeare--again, that is saying a lot! He is a simplistic portrayal of pure, unfettered evil, which drives the audience to contempt and scorn. Shakespeare devises his behavior as another representation of Elizabethan morality, which rejects all wrongdoing without justification. Aaron’s only redeeming quality is his love and protectiveness for his child though this is not enough to elicit any sympathy for him.
Prince of Morocco (from The Merchant of Venice)
The Prince of Morocco has only a small but a significant part in The Merchant of Venice. He is one of Portia’s suitors, seeking her hand in marriage. To win her hand, Portia’s father creates a game in which the suitor must choose among three caskets to find the one that contains her picture. One casket is made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Each has a different and profound (even daunting) quotation on it. Quick-witted, wealthy, and beautiful Portia is highly desired for a wife.
The Prince, unfortunately for him, chooses the wrong casket. But it is his self-dialogue in selecting a casket that gives insight into his character and motives. He chooses the gold casket because it is the most beautiful and, therefore, the only one—he believes--worthy of Portia. However, he learns and remembers the meaning of the words on a scroll inside the gold casket: “All that glitters is not gold.”
This is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays as it delves into racial and religious stereotypes. One could even argue that it encourages these stereotypes. The Prince of Morocco is a somewhat comical character in the play though he is often misunderstood and mislabeled.
Beyond the Black characters in Shakespeare’s plays were the racial issues that were acknowledged by the Bard. With the rising number of Blacks living in England during the Elizabethan era, racial tensions also began to increase. Violence sometimes erupted. And Shakespeare sometimes incorporated these racial frictions into his plays.
He also watched (from the outside, of course) how Africans during the time were faced with two choices:
(1) Assimilation, colonial subjugation, loss of cultural roots and ties as well as relegation to life as a lower class citizen, and
(2) Post-colonial resistance and life outside of the mainstream society, perhaps even criminalization. Africans took different paths.
Othello is characterized by his attempt as assimilation and belief that he was not viewed differently from native Englishmen. Shakespeare shows clearly in the play that, while Othello is accepted in many ways and his (inter-racial) relationship with Desdemona is also accepted, they not acceptable. His friends are quick to turn on him and disparage him on racial grounds. (Of course, Iago was never to be trusted anyway!)
However, other Black characters chose resistance. They might have pretended at attempting to assimilate but secretly resented their lesser status in society. They resisted the loss of their cultural ties and roots, anticipating that they would never be fully accepted by English society, nor did they desire that acceptance. Aaron (from Titus Andronicus) is a clear example of an African who pretended to desire assimilation but clearly felt like a lower-class citizen and resented this position. His resentment is manifested in the evil behavior and lack of morality that he exhibits throughout the play.
Shakespeare was indeed a complicated and complex writer who lived, watched, and was intrigued by societal growth and changes, particularly the racial transformations of Elizabethan England. He can be considered somewhat visionary in his acknowledgement of racial frictions and in his depiction of Blacks in his works. Strong, dignified, and brave with the flaws and failings inherent in human nature, his characters are every man, everywhere. His stories are real and memorable. And they transcend race and gender.
As Nelson Mandela said,
The similarities between Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Zulu history become a glaring reminder that the world is, philosophically, a very small place.
Happy birthday, William!