On November 1, 1604, Master of Revels Edmund Tilney notes that a play titled The Moor of Venice was performed at Whitehall Palace for King James I. In the four hundred-plus years since, Othello has become one of the best-known and regarded of Shakespeare’s plays. It has also presented a number of questions regarding its central character, Othello the Moor.
During the Elizabethan era, the word “Moor” could have meant several things. Scholar Ben Arogundade notes that “[‘Moor’] was first used to describe the natives of Mauretania — the region of North Africa which today corresponds to Morocco and Algeria. It was later applied to people of Berber and Arab origin, who conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula — the area now known as Spain and Portugal — for nearly eight centuries. From the Middle Ages onwards the Moors were commonly regarded as black Africans, and the word was used alongside the terms ‘negro,’ ‘Ethiopian’ and ‘Blackamoor’ as a racial identifier.
At the time of performance, London audiences would have been familiar with a man named Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, who arrived in 1600 as an ambassador of the Sa’adian ruler of Morocco, Mulay Ahmed al-Mansur. England’s various alliances with the countries of North Africa familiarized the Elizabethan world with their traditions. Islamic and Muslim characters appeared in plays as early as Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great in 1587, and in more than sixty plays from the next ten years, characters described with words like “Moors,” “Saracens,” “Turks,” and “Persians” appeared, including several of Shakespeare’s own. So it is not without historical or literary precedent that some critics believe that the character of Othello is intended to be a North African man of Arab descent.
The far more common interpretation, however, is for Othello to be viewed as a sub-Saharan African with black features. It is this portrayal that is most commonly found in modern productions of the play. From Shakespeare’s time until the early 1800s, this meant that the actor tackling the role would have played it in blackface makeup.
It wasn’t until 1826 that Othello was finally played by a black performer: American actor Ira Aldridge. Aldridge emigrated to London at age 17 to pursue his acting career. But his groundbreaking performance wasn’t without criticism. The 1933 performance in Covent Garden was criticized by the paper The Anthenaeum because of the startling new reality of Ellen Tree, the white actress playing Desdemona, being manhandled by Aldridge. And although Aldridge became quite famous in London and abroad, it took nearly a hundred years before another black actor became attached to the role. According to writer Samantha Ellis, “In 1825, the pro-slavery lobby had closed [Aldridge’s] production and the Times‘s critic had written: ‘Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.’ No wonder it took almost a century for another black actor to brave the part.”
Perhaps the best-known Othello in the United States is the renowned actor Paul Robeson. The son of an escaped slave, Robeson had built an international reputation not only from his role in the musical Show Boat, but as an athlete and an attorney. Robeson had a commanding physical presence that suited the role perfectly, but his casting against the young British actress Peggy Ashcroft in 1930 was not without controversy. Technical issues like poor staging and difficult acoustics made performing difficult. But no one argued with the power of Robeson’s performance. Ivor Brown, the critic for The Observer, described Robeson as “… an oak…a superb giant of the woods for the great hurricane of tragedy to whisper through, then rage upon, then break.” Audiences at the premiere gave Robeson twenty curtain calls. But, given the societal segregation of the time, Robeson had detractors as well who criticized everything from his interpretation of the role to how he pronounced the words of Shakespeare’s text. Samantha Ellis writes:
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, WA Darlington felt that Robeson was a “really memorable” Othello precisely because he was black: “By reason of his race Mr Robeson is able to surmount the difficulties which English actors generally find in the part.” While other Othellos had seemed illogically jealous, Robeson’s jealousy seemed real, because: “Mr Robeson…comes of a race whose characteristic is to keep control of its passions only to a point, and after that point to throw control to the winds.” It was a “fine” performance and “the much-debated question whether Shakespeare meant Othello to be a negro or an Arab can be left to the professors.” Baughan, in contrast, stated baldly: “I agree with Coleridge that Othello must not be conceived as a negro, but as a high and chivalrous Moorish chief.”
Only the Express‘s critic seemed to think the casting of a black actor was a historic event. He reported overhearing people saying “Why should a black actor be allowed to kiss a white actress?” and his review, subtitled “Coloured Audience in the Stalls,” concluded that Robeson had “triumphed as a negro Moor, black, swarthy, muscular, a real man of deep colour.”