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– Suddhaseel Sen

It was many years ago when, as an undergraduate student at Jadavpur University, I made my first presentation for JUSAS, and it is wonderful to be back here once again. But both then and now, I felt and still feel a bit like an impostor, since I am neither an Americanist, nor a specialist on Shakespeare’s reception in North America. So, when Professor Halder recently asked me to present a paper for JUSAS, and suggested that I speak on a theme that brings together Shakespearean scholarship with Shakespeare’s reception in the US, I felt relieved by what, in other circumstances, I would have regarded as a challenge: relieved, because I know a little bit more about Shakespeare than about American literature, and challenged because I have usually found it difficult to find direct connections between historicist approaches to Shakespeare with what we could call a culturalist approach, one that is focused on Shakespeare’s posthumous reception in different parts of the world.

I would like to elaborate a little further on this point here in order to show how, in a strange way, the interpretations of Shakespeare by African-American actor Ira Aldridge in nineteenth-century America and by his slightly younger contemporary Giuseppe Verdi in Italy provide one of those rare instances in which historicist and culturalist interpretations are directly interrelated. If we exclude isolated productions of the plays, we can say that Shakespeare’s global spread really began in the eighteenth century. It happened eastwards with translations of his plays first appearing in France, from where it spread to the rest of Europe. Many of the first editions in European languages were derived from French versions that adapted Shakespeare to suit French neoclassical tenets, reflecting how the channels of transmission left their mark on the adapted products. Another route was that of colonial contact, but here, too, Shakespeare’s plays were much modified by translators, adapters, and theatre personnel before they reached non-English audiences. Even in England, many of Shakespeare’s plays were modified by the likes of Sir William Davenant, Nahum Tate, and others in order to suit contemporary tastes. Since the first recorded production of a Shakespeare play in the US was of Romeo and Juliet in 1730,1 by which time the editorial tinkerings of the Davenants and the Tates had acquired a solid fan base in England, and since in the following century many Americans saw Shakespeare’s plays performed by touring actors from England and Continental Europe, it is quite possible that the adaptive strand of Shakespeare reception was just as significant as the less mutative strand of Shakespeare transmission through print. In other words, any scholar examining the impact of Shakespeare upon generations and cultures far removed from his own needs to focus on how Shakespeare’s works were altered in order to make them fit in with changing tastes.

To understand the changes that took place in the history of the reception and adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, we need a basis for comparison, and this basis is provided by historicist scholarship on Shakespeare, the kind of scholarship that focuses on Shakespeare’s texts and relates them to other writings of the period in order to gain insights into the historical, political, cultural, social, and ideological issues that the plays engaged with. However provisional historicist knowledge might be, without it we do not have any basis for comparing Shakespeare’s work with that of his adapters, of the hoary past with the somewhat clearer present.

Comparisons, by their very nature, reveal both similarities and differences, and depending upon what we want to focus on, we will get very different results. Now, generations of academics specializing in Shakespeare reception have traditionally focused on the similarities, and have often castigated any adaptation that departed from Shakespeare’s original. This is what we could call the discourse of fidelity, in which deviations from Shakespeare were censured ab initio: just as any marital infidelity had to be treated with moral outrage, so was it necessary to condemn any departure from Shakespeare in a translation, a theatrical production, or an adaptation. But those that did stay close to Shakespeare were damned in another way, since they were considered to be not original enough to qualify as significant works of art. In other words, you were damned if you altered Shakespeare, and damned if you didn’t. The fact that all but two of Shakespeare’s plays are themselves based on pre-existing works, and that Shakespeare the adapter made numerous changes that made his versions more interesting than his sources, didn’t matter. This is because the older critical approach had two ideational underpinnings, one rooted in the Romantic valorization of originality over imitatio, and the other in Plato’s theory of the arts, since any translation, theatrical performance, or adaptation had to be understood principally as imitation at different degrees of remove from the Shakespearean “ideal”. A significant book written from such a perspective is Ruby Cohn’s book Modern Shakespeare Offshoots.

This older approach has now made way for a different methodology, one which focuses on the differences between Shakespeare and later adaptations in order to understand how and why these changes came into being. With important caveats, this latter approach could be described as a Darwinian one. If differences between varieties of the same species provide insights into how natural selection favors mutations that are best suited for survival in new environments, so, in a way, does the linking of changes in the adapted product to the new cultural contexts in which they are made throw light on the mechanisms and products of Shakespeare’s global transmission. Needless to say, the Darwinian analogy cannot be pushed too far, but it is clear that a comparative approach that is alive to both the connections and the changes in the history of transmission of a Shakespeare play has much more to say about the varied strands of Shakespeare’s posthumous reception in different parts of the world than one which seeks to find some ineffable “appeal” of Shakespeare universalized across different registers.

One notable case in which the historicist and the culturalist strands, or the synchronic and diachronic strands, are indeed deeply interconnected over time, is provided by Shakespeare’s history plays, and makes it possible for us to link the disparate figures of Ira Aldridge and Giuseppe Verdi. In 1550, fourteen years before Shakespeare’s birth, a book called Delle descrittione dell’Africa was published in Italy. Written originally in Arabic in around 1526 by an Andalusian Moorish diplomat and author turned convert to Christianity, better known by his Christian name Leo Africanus,2 Delle descrittione was embellished further with details that pleased the Christian readers of the Italian version by its translator, Giovanni Battista Ramusio. The book was translated into French and Latin by 1556, and into English by 1600; it was, therefore, widely available in different European vernaculars by the time Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed. In a way, Leo Africanus’s book codified the assumption that racial characteristics are determined by climatic conditions, an assumption that can be described as environmental determinism. Not only was Africanus’s book extremely popular in its own right, it also provided inspiration for other climate-based theories of racial characteristics, such as the one found in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):

Southern men are more hot, lascivious and jealous, than such as live in the North: they can hardly contain themselves in those hotter climes, but are most subject to prodigious lusts. Leo Afer [Africanus] telleth incredible things almost of the lust and jealousy of his Countrymen of Africa . . . and so doth every Geographer of them in Asia, Turkey, Spain, and Italy. Germany hath not so many drunkards, England Tobacconists, France Dancers, Holland Mariners, as Italy alone hath jealous husbands. (qtd. in Loomba 94; emphasis mine)

Note here that, at this stage, jealous husbands are associated not with Moors like Othello but with Italians. The Italian racial stereotype would persist over the next couple of centuries, to be added to another stereotype, a religious one that associated Judaism and Islam with vengeance and with the non-European Other, while Christianity was associated with forgiveness and with the European Self. As the scholar Julia Reinhard Lupton puts it, “In Shakespeare’s Venetian plays, Christian-humanist discourse always operates as a universalism minus the circumcised, a set that excludes not the unconverted pagans of the New World but rather the Jews and the Muslims, strict monotheisms existing not far away but close at hand” (Lupton 78; emphasis in the original).

Shakespeare’s Venetian plays reveal an interesting convergence of racial and religious Othering: from the Northern/Christian point of view adherents of Judaism and Islam, many of whom were located in the Mediterranean and the Maghreb, were violent both on account of their religion and on account of the geographical climate in which they flourished. One only needed to forget for a moment the persecution of Protestants under Mary I, which earned her the well-deserved nickname, Bloody Mary, or of the strong anti-Catholic backlash under her half-sister Elizabeth I, to see how bloody Jews and Muslims, or Italians and Moors were when compared to the peace-loving Christians of northern climes.

It is often said that, as a result of European colonization, notions of race changed during the course of the nineteenth century. This is true to a considerable extent, as can be seen from early nineteenth-century debates on whether Othello was an olive-skinned Arab or a dark-skinned Moor. It can also be seen from the fact that in England there developed a tradition of interpretation under the actor Edmund Kean that took a relatively sympathetic view of Shylock the Jew, in which regard he was emulated by the American actor Henry Irving. But the older stereotypes did not quite die away, so much so that only the role of Othello was deemed suitable for performances by Italian and Black actors, since the character was thought to have a core of dignity and nobility about him, but, unlike the cerebral Dane Hamlet, for instance, was ultimately ruled by passions that went out of control once the desire for revenge took over. Coleridge, for example, stated that “it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated” (qtd. in Bate 483).

Such was the cultural climate when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge, born in 1807 in New York City, started to harbour ambitions as a Shakespearean actor. Educated at an African Free School in Manhattan, the young Aldridge combined menial jobs with small-time acting stints, but fell so much in love with the stage that he decided upon acting as a career choice. Since in this period black actors did not have any career opportunities in the US (Lindfors 347), he emigrated to the UK, where he was described variously as the son of a Christian prince from Senegal, the “African Roscius,” and so on, and received top billing at what is now known as the Old Vic theatre in London in 1825. Aldridge was barely eighteen years old. But early success came with strings attached. As time passed, Aldridge found himself better accepted in Scotland, Ireland, and in the English provinces rather than in London, where his racial identity always proved to be an impediment to his success in Shakespearean roles other than that of Othello. When a black actor played Othello’s jealous outbursts with savagery, he was regarded as merely playing himself, or the stereotype of him that arose from a convergence of religious Othering and climatic determinism; and this was acceptable. But if a black actor attempted more cerebral roles such as that of Hamlet or Lear, then his interpretations had to be denigrated on some grounds or the other. Even as late as in 1857, by which time Aldridge was feted in several countries in Europe, the critic of the Morning Star wrote of his performances of Othello at the City of London theatre that “there is a manifest incongruity in a black Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Shylock, etc., though the swarthy complexion of the negro is not unsuited to the Moor of Venice, in which part we had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Aldridge on Saturday last” (qtd. in Lindfors 351). As we shall see, American critics placed a similar kind of obstacle against Italian actors like Ernesto Rossi, who attempted Shakespearean roles beyond that of Othello, the one marked out by Anglo-American critics as appropriate for the Italian and African racial types.

But back to Aldridge. Even as a young actor, Aldridge was keenly aware of the racist assumptions that ensured that, in the hands of powerful London theatre critics, he will never have anything more than qualified success, and he decided to tackle them by taking a number of extremely insightful steps. Firstly, when playing the role of Othello, Aldridge decided not to play up the savage African stereotype that was expected of him on account of his race; instead, what he offered was a subtle Othello, one whose silences and sighs were as eloquent as his impassioned speeches. Secondly, after performances of Othello in Russia, Aldridge often concluded with a short piece based on a farce called The Padlock, in which he played the quintessentially comic African slave Mungo, dressed very differently from the noble Moor, and replacing Shakespearean English with an African-American dialect. The stark contrast between Othello and Mungo would force audiences to realize that this was a black actor playing different roles and not playing himself, and performances of Mungo in mid-nineteenth century Russia elicited far more varied responses than those expected from a farce, on account of the implied parallels between the plight of black Africans in the US and serfdom in Russia – but more of that in a moment. Finally, Aldridge started playing other Shakespearean roles in whiteface, and while the London critics remained unimpressed, Aldridge got rave reviews from Continental critics for his performances of Lear and especially of Shylock.

One of the important consequences of the imbrications of theories of racial stereotypes based on geography, and of religious stereotypes based on purported differences between Judaism and Islam from Christianity is that in Shakespeare’s plays, Othello and Shylock were figures of strategic importance to the White Christian Venetians, but who also needed to be confined to the margins. Letting Othello and Shylock occupy centrestage was to see their vengeful sides erupt before they were contained, as in the case of Shylock, or allowed to lead to their tragic consequences, as in the case of Othello. Aldridge’s decision to challenge the racial-religious stereotypes at the heart of Othello also led him to offer a more sympathetic interpretation of the role of Shylock. Especially in Russia and Eastern European countries such as Poland, Aldridge’s sympathy for marginalized Shakespearean figures was noted with more sensitivity and appreciated better than anywhere else. In the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, a procession of Jews headed by the Rabbi thanked Aldridge for his sympathetic portrayal of Shylock, while in a Tambov, a small city near Moscow, amateurs were so impressed with Aldridge’s performances of Shylock, Othello, and Lear, that they raised funds in order to perform Macbeth with Aldridge in the title role (Curtiss 287). The editor of the politically liberal Moscow Messenger, Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin, wrote the following of Aldridge’s performances:

[Y]ou pass with this magician through every stage of human passion . . . and deep in the heart of every ecstatic spectator, sacred conscience is heard. Under the dark skin . . . a black body quivers from the same pain as the white. . . . These are thoughts that were awakened in me by the acting of the African Negro in – what do you think –

in the farce, The Padlock. When the cruel master raised his stick above the beaten Negro, I saw only one thing – such a quivering movement of his spine, his shoulders, that my very own body was shaking; in my imagination I saw the history of a whole people (qtd. in Curtiss 284).3

Pogodin was, of course, drawing parallels with serfdom, and these connections are not far-fetched, since it was during Aldridge’s lifetime that both the American Civil war resulting in the abolition of slavery and the Russian emancipation of the serfs took place. The heads of state of both countries, Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II, were personal friends, and the American Civil war started in 1861, the same year serfdom was abolished in Russia, and both Lincoln and Alexander II were eventually assassinated. And, although Aldridge became a naturalized British citizen and died in Poland in 1867, neither did he forget America, nor did Americans forget him. The Ira Aldridge troupe was created in his honour in 1863, some 35 years after Aldridge had left the US for good, and Aldridge’s death made front-page headlines in the Chicago Times. Aldridge, too, keenly followed reports of the Abolitionist movement in the US, and reportedly contributed half his earnings to that cause (Shalom 4).

If Aldridge’s story provides a rare instance of how an artist’s vision could broaden from sympathy for the plight of one’s own people to that for others, a lesser but nevertheless significant parallel can be drawn from the case of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello, an opera that went almost completely against the grain of the race-based readings of the play that had become the norm in Continental Europe. In the nineteenth century, three Italian actors achieved international recognition as Shakespearean actors – Adelaide Ristori, Tomasso Salvini, and Ernesto Rossi. When performing abroad, Ristori only played the role of Lady Macbeth and Salvini Othello; only Rossi attempted other Shakespearean roles. When Rossi and Salvini portrayed a violent Othello in line with their alleged Southern temperament, they were praised, and even as important a writer as Henry James was not free from the prejudices arising out of environmental determinism that we can trace back to the Italian version of Leo Africanus’s book. For instance, James wrote of Salvini’s violent Othello that “Salvini’s rendering of the part is the portrait of an African by an Italian; a fact that should give the judicious spectator, in advance, the pitch of the performance” (The Scenic Art, qtd. in Bassi 38; emphasis mine).

When unlike Salvini, Rossi attempted to perform other Shakespearean roles, he was firmly put in place. For example, the then-highly influential critic William Winter dismissed Rossi’s performance of Hamlet on grounds that he did not look the part, and then stated his prejudice clearly and without irony in the New York Tribune:

Hamlet and the other great Shakespearean works exist in their integrity nowhere outside of the English language – unless, perhaps, in the German. The English ideals of them are the right ideals of them, and the English method of acting them is the right method. The foreign actors who come here ought to deal with what they really understand, and give the great works of their own literature, with companies speaking their own language. (Qtd. in Carlson, Italian Shakespearians 135)

Galled by criticism of this kind, Rossi wrote a letter to The Times, insisting that his interpretations were based on careful readings of the text and that they were as valid as traditional English ones. Responses remained negative in the Anglophone world, but like Aldridge, Rossi had far greater success in Paris and Russia. The simple truth was that the right to determine what qualified as “universal” belonged to Anglo-American critics in large metropolitan cities such as London and New York. Shakespeare’s plays were “timeless” and “universal” in their scope, no doubt, but the moment an Italian or an African actor attempted to perform them, then they were to be dismissed for not being “quintessentially English or at least Nordic” enough to perform them (Carlson, Italian Shakespearians 135). Environmental determinism of the Leo Africanus variety held sway in Anglophone countries, as did anti-Islamic or anti-Jewish sentiments both in the US and especially in Germany, over three centuries, connecting Shakespeare’s times with Verdi’s and Aldirdge’s. One more negative trend was Italy’s spectacular fall from cultural pre-eminence since the fifteenth century.

The one area where Italy was still considered the best was in the field of operatic composition and performance, though, even here, it was being challenged in the latter half of the nineteenth century by the rise of Richard Wagner. Verdi’s opera Otello was, in a way, a response to both the Anglo-American stereotyping of Italian and African actors, and a response to the challenge thrown to Italian traditions by Wagner. For this talk, I will discuss only on the first point, and that too, briefly, since I am going to speak on Verdi and Shakespeare in greater detail on Friday. The two most influential European commentators on Shakespeare were the German August Wilhelm Schlegel and the French François-Victor Hugo, son of the author of Les misérables and the translator of what was the standard complete works of Shakespeare in French for a very long time. According to Schlegel, Othello’s assumption of the civilized ways of Venice was only superfluous and that “the mere physical force of passion [put] to flight in one moment all his acquired and mere habitual virtues, [giving] the upper hand to the savage over the moral man” (qtd. in Bate 479). On the other hand, Hugo fils argued that Othello could not have been black, but had to be an Arab, a member of a race with a glorious past, and thus his marriage to the Caucasian Desdemona was “the sympathetic fusion of these two primordial types of human beauty, the Semitic and the Caucasian type” (qtd. in Hepokoski 170).

Now Verdi knew no English, and his fellow adapter, Arrigo Boito, who prepared the text, was not very comfortable in it, though he was highly proficient in German and French. As a result, Boito prepared his operatic text, or libretto, from French and Italian sources, and consulted his English edition in case of doubt. Since Boito’s and Verdi’s editions of Shakespeare are well preserved, critics have been able to reconstruct the genesis of the Otello libretto. They found that Boito concerned himself particularly with Othello’s race, and discarded Hugo’s suggestion that Othello was a tawny-skinned Arab. Both librettist and composer embraced Othello’s blackness, but instead of falling back on Schlegel, they completely rejected Schlegel’s racist assumptions.

Let me give you one example. In Giraldo Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, from which Shakespeare got his Othello story, Disdemona accuses Othello of being prone to anger and revenge on account of his being a Moor. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s Desdemona dismisses the question of Othello’s jealousy by saying: “I think the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.26-27). Boito goes one step further and emphasizes rather than obscures Otello’s blackness and Desdemona’s acceptance of it: “And at your dark temples I saw/ The ethereal beauty of genius shine” (trans. Weaver 444-45).4Boito’s Desdemona finds beauty not just in Othello’s mind, as she does in Shakespeare, but precisely in his blackness, a feature that alienates others in Shakespeare’s play. Such changes are echoed at the macro level of the libretto, too, and in the music. Boito omits much of the racist language of the play, and his Iago, who is also more misogynistic than other characters in the opera, speaks most of the bits that remain. And although in his previous opera Aida, Verdi had shown his mastery over a quasi-Middle Eastern idiom that served as a shorthand for the non-West, he never employed such an idiom in Otello. For once, Othello was black but not the racial Other, and that too, in an adaptation by a European composer and his European librettist.

I’d like to end here by pushing the analogy with Aldridge a bit further. If Aldridge was able to show through his art his sympathy for marginalized people who were not black, Verdi didn’t get the opportunity to repeat his feat. He wrote only one opera after Otello, the magnificent comedy Falstaff, but the octogenarian composer had to abandon his other operatic projects. In 1896, however, the eighty-three year old Verdi gave an interview with an Italian journalist, in which he condemned Italian colonial ventures in Abyssinia, arguing that it was doubly condemnable since Italians under Austria knew what it meant to suffer under the yolk of foreign rule. Verdi also added that the Indians were a great people and that British colonialism in India was equally unsupportable (Martin 261 n.20). Shakespeare reception and adaptation still holds a marginal place in Shakespearean scholarship, but it is time to give such scholarship greater prominence, especially in non-Anglophone countries like ours. For the Anglo-American cultural dominance under whose yolk Aldridge and Verdi worked is still with us, and neither the uncritical embracing of Western canons of scholarship and analytical methods, nor a kneejerk reaction against them can provide an adequate way out. Instead, the subtle balance between cultural self-assertion and an internationalist outlook that Aldridge and Verdi managed to strike, provide examples that still have much to say to us.

2 Leo Africanus’s pre-conversion name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi (c. 1494-c. 1554)

3 The Ukrainian painter and poet, Taras Shevchenko, a former serf himself, became an admirer of Aldridge and painted a portrait of him. More qualified admiration came from the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier, who found Aldridge’s non-savage portrayal of Othello self-consciously “white” and unnatural, but had the highest praise for Aldridge’s Lear (Oliva 229-231).

4 “Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure/ Splender del genio l’eterea beltà.”

Works Cited

Bassi, Shaul. “Heroes of Two Worlds: Tommaso Salvini, Henry James, and Othello’s Ethnicity.” Shakespeare Yearbook 10 (1999): 38-69.

Bate, Jonathan, ed. The Romantics on Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1992.

Carlson, Marvin. The Italian Shakespearians: Performances by Ristori, Salvini, and Rossi in England and America. Washington, DC: Folger, 1985.

Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Curtiss, Mina. “Some American Negroes in Russia in the Nineteenth Century.” The Massachusetts Review 9.2 (1968): 268-296.

Hepokoski, James A. Giuseppe Verdi: Otello. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Kujawinska-Courtney, Krystyna. “Ira Aldridge, Shakespeare, and Color-Conscious Performances in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. Ayanna Thompson, ed. 103-22.

Lindfors, Bernth. “ ‘Mislike Me Not for My Complexion . . .’: Ira Aldridge in Whiteface.” African-American Review 33.2 (1999): 347-354.

Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Introd. by Errol Hill. Washington, DC: Howard, UP, 1993. Rpt. of book first pubd. in 1958.

Martin, George. Aspects of Verdi. New York: Dodd, 1988.

Oliva, L. Jay. “Ira Aldridge and Théophile Gautier.” The Journal of Negro History 48.3 (1963): 229-231.

Shalom, Jack. “The Ira Aldridge Troupe: Early Black Minstrelsy in Philadelphia.” African- American Review 28.4 (1994): 653-658.

Thompson, Ayanna, ed. Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Weaver, William, trans. and ed. Seven Verdi Librettos. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.