Othello

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

‘Poets are borne not made’

Source: Leonard Digges, untitled poem, in Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent. (London: John Benson, 1640)

Text: Poets are borne not made; when I would prove
This truth, the glad rememberance I must love
Of never dying Shakespeare, who alone,
Is argument enough to make that one.
First, that he was a Poet none would doubt, (if only he knew!)
That hard th’ applause of what he sees set out
Imprinted; where thou hast (I will not say)
Reader his Workes (for to contrive a Play:
To him twas none) the patterne of all wit,
Art without Art unparaleld as yet.
Next Nature onely helpt him, for looke thorow
This whole Booke, thou shalt find he doth not borrow,
One phrase from Greekes, nor Latines imitate,
Nor once from vulgar Languages Translate,
Not Plagiari-like from others gleane,
Not begges he from each witty friend a Scene
To peece his Acts withal; all that he doth write,
Is pure his owne, plot, language exquisite.
But oh! what praise more powerfull can we give
The dead, than that by him the Kings men live,
His Players, which should they but have shar’d the Fate,
All else expir’d within the short Termes date;
How could the Globe have prospered since through want
Of change, the Plaies and Poems had growne scant.
But happy Verse thou shalt be sung and heard,
When hungry quills shall be such honour bard.
Then vanish upstart Writers to each Stage,
You needy Poetasters of this Age,
Where Shakespeare liv’d or spake, Vermine forbeare,
Least with your froth you spot them, come not neere;
But if you needs must write, if poverty
So that otherwise you starve and die,
On Gods name may the Bull or Cockpit have
Your lame blancke Verse, to keepe you from the grave:
Or let new Fortunes younger brethren see,
What they can picke from your leane industry.
I doe not wonder when you offer at
Blacke-Friars, that you suffer: Tis the fate
Of richer veines, prime judgements that have far’d
The worse, with this deceased man compar’d.
So have I scene, when Cesar would appeare,
And on the Stage at halfe-sword parley were,
Brutus and Cassius: oh how the Audience,
were ravish’d, with what wonder they went thence,
Whom some new day they would not brooke a line,
Of tedious (though well laboured) Catiline;
Sejanus too was irkesome, they priz’de more
Honest Iago, or the jealous Moore.
And though the Fox and subtill Alchimist,
Long intermitted could not quite be mist,
Though these have sham’d all the Ancients, and might raise
Their Authours merit with a crowne of Bayes.
Yet these sometimes, even at a friend’s desire
Acted, have scarce defrayd the Seacoale fire
And doore-keepers: when let but Falstaff come,
Hal, Poins, the rest you scarce shall have a roome
All is so pester’d: let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seene, loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To heare Malvolio that crosse garter’d Gull.
Briefe, there is nothing in his wit fraught Booke,
Whose Sound we would not heare, on whose Worth looke
Like old coynd gold, whose lines in every page,
Shall passe true currant to succeeding age.

But why do I dead Shakespeare’s praise recite,
Some second Shakespeare must of Shakespeare write
For me tis needlesse, since an host of men,
Will Pay to clap his praise, to free my Pen.

Comments: Leonard Digges (1588-1635) was a minor poet and translator. It is unclear whether he knew William Shakespeare (his mother’s second husband was named by Shakespeare as one of the overseers of his will) but he certainly saw the plays in performance while Shakespeare was alive. He wrote a tribute poem to Shakespeare for the 1623 First Folio, and this posthumously published, longer poem, from the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, presumably dates from the same period. The poems refers to several of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, comparing them to the works of Ben Jonson, as well as several London theatres: the Globe, Blackfriars, Cockpit and Red Bull.

Links: Digital facsimile at British Library

Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian

Source: Anon. [St. Petersburg correspondent], Le Nord, 5 December 1858, quoted in ‘Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian’, The Anglo-African Magazine, vol. 1 no. 2, February 1859 p. 63

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, St. Petersburg, November? 1858

Text: The success of the negro actor, Ira Aldridge, has been Wonderful. At his debut, people were curious to see an Othello who needed neither crape nor pomade to blacken his face. Many expected tears of laughter rather than tears of emotion, when they learned that Iago and Desdemona would reply to him in German. (The absence of an English troupe forced him to play with German actors.) Those who counted on this were strangely deceived. From his appearance on the stage the African artist completely captivated his audience by his harmonious and resonant voice, and by a style full of simplicity, nature, and dignity. For the first time we had seen a tragic hero talk and walk like common mortals, without declamations and without exaggerated gestures. We forgot that we were in a theater, and followed the drama as if it had been a real transaction.

The scene in the Third Act, when the sentiment of jealousy is roused in the ferocious Moor, is the triumph of Aldridge. At the first word of the wily insinuation you see his eye kindle; you feel the tears in his voice when he questions Iago, then the deep sobs which stifle it; and finally, when he is persuaded that his wretchedness is complete, a cry of rage, or rather a roar like that of a wild beast starts from his abdomen. I still seem to hear that cry; it chilled us with fear and made every spectator shudder. Tears wet his cheeks; his mouth foamed and his eyes flashed fire. I have never seen an artist identify himself so perfectly with the character which he represents. An actor told me he saw him sob for some moments after his exit from the scene. Everybody, men and women, wept. Boileau was right in saying to actors: ‘Weep yourselves, if you would make other weep.’ Rachel, in the fourth act of Les Horace, is the only artist who ever produced so great an effect. At the first representation the poor Desdemona was so horror-stricken at the terrible expression of the Moor, that she sprang from the bed and fled, shrieking with fright.

In spite of his stony nature, Aldridge can contain himself to those scenes which require calmness and subdued passion. In Shylock, to see him trembling with fear and indignation before the tribunal which is endeavoring to force Christianity upon him, makes one of those impressions which are never effaced. The severest critics find but one fault with him — that when speaking to characters at the back of the stage he has the bad habit of turning his back to the public. The director remonstrated with him about this, but it was of no avail.

Comments: Ira Aldridge (1908-1867) was an American stage actor who was the leading black theatrical figure of the nineteenth century. He specialised in Shakespearean roles, and enjoyed success in London and particularly across Europe and Russia. His first appearance in St Petersburg was in Othello on 10 November 1898. The Anglo-American Magazine was a monthly American journal aimed at a black American and abolitionist audience. It included reproductions from articles published in other journals, such as the above piece from the French newspaper Le Nord.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone

Source: William Theobald Wolfe Tone (ed.), Memoirs of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself; comprising a complete journal of his negotiations to procure the aid of the French for the liberation of Ireland, with selections from his diary whilst agent to the Irish Catholics (London: H. Colburn, 1827), vol. 1, pp. 290-291

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, Paris, 21 March 1796

Text: [21 March 1796] Went to see Othello; not translated, but only taken from the English. Poor Shakspeare! I felt for him. The French tragedy is a pitiful performance, filled with false sentiment; the Moor whines most abominably, and Iago is a person of a very pretty morality: the author apologizes for softening the villany of the latter character, as well as for saving the life of Desdemona and substituting a happy termination in place of the sublime and terrible conclusion of the English tragedy, by saying that the humanity of the French nation, and their morality, would be shocked by such exhibitions! “Marry come up, indeed! People’s ears are sometimes the nicest part about them.” I admire a nation that will guillotine sixty people a day for months, (men, women, and children,) and cannot bear the catastrophe of a dramatic exhibition! Yet certainly the author knows best, and I have had occasion repeatedly to observe, that the French are more struck with any little incident of tenderness on the stage, a thousand times, than the English, — which is strange. In short, the French are a humane people when they are not mad, and I like them with all their faults, and the guillotine at the head of them, better, a thousand times, than the English. And I like the Irish better than either; and as no one can doubt my impartiality, I expect my opinion will be received with proper respect and deference by all whom it may concern. I have nothing to add.

Comments: Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) was an Irish republican who led the Irish rebellion of 1798. He went to Paris in February 1796 to persuade the revolutionary government to assist in an invasion of Ireland. The production of Othello that he saw was probably an 1792 adaptation by Jean-François Ducis, which radically altered the plot (hence Desdemona survives and Iago is pardoned by Othello). Ducis’s adaptations were billed under his name rather than Shakespeare‘s. The plays were nevertheless a significant step in the belated appreciation of Shakespeare in France.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust