Shakespeare and Race? One second, let me get my copy of The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Have you heard of it? It’s a fantastic play about this black guy named Othello who marries this white woman named Desdemona. This Italian by the name of Iago doesn’t get the promotion he wanted and takes it out on the couple by spreading rumors about Desdemona’s infidelity. Like all good Shakespearean tragedies, it ends in horror: Othello kills his wife then himself in a dramatic display of hopelessness. Totally relatable. So 2019.
Now that race is the hottest topic of discussion, Othello is everywhere, positioned as the Shakespeare on race. This past semester, while we were reading the play, there were no fewer than four different Othello adaptations nearby: Bill Rauch’s production at the American Reparatory Theater, Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s Othello in the Seraglio, Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, and a student-led staging of Toni Morrison’s Desdemona.
But Othello isn’t even about Othello; it’s about Iago. Othello gets around 25% of the lines in his own play, Iago 31%. Contrast this to Hamlet where the title character gets approximately 37%. Beyond Othello,Shakespeare’s drama struggles to reveal important nuances of black culture. Aaron the Moor, The Prince of Morocco, Cleopatra, Caliban. Black characters make up about one quarter of 1% of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. It’s just not enough to capture the black experience or the black imagination.
Shakespeare’s poetry, rather than his drama, is why he matters to black culture. Othello did not convince Maya Angelou that Shakespeare must have been a black woman. That distinction belongs to Sonnet 29. Upon reading the lines, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, / I all alone beweep my outcast state,” Angelou says in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “It was a state in which I found myself most familiar.” How did a sonnet from an Elizabethan Englishman who wore ruffs help her to find a space to articulate her truth through poetry?
In his essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” James Baldwin writes, “The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love – by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.” Black poets, novelists, and artists, in a similar manner, understand that beyond the struggle they face in their daily lives is their responsibility to their people to serve as a witness to what Baldwin calls “that mighty, untameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man.”
But it’s the form of the poetry, whether in sonnet or as song woven into a play, that attracts special attention from black authors, much more than the content of the poem. One of the most important ways of expressing black consciousness in traditional poetic forms has been the sonnet. Consider, for example, the reflections of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 –
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired.
– in Langston Hughes’s poem The Weary Blues:
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead
Shakespearean poetry is much more effective at creating space for black authors to write than Shakespearean drama because it is far more connected to the oral tradition of black poetry than any line in Othello. Every person who inherits the black oral tradition understands the feelings of loneliness, internalized doubt, and envy Shakespeare wrote about in the Sonnets. Black culture extends its hands to Shakespeare through the black oral tradition and Shakespeare extends his hands to black culture through his poetry.
The most poignant example comes not in sonnet form, but embedded within one of the plays. In Much Ado About Nothing, the character Balthasar sings a song known as “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.” Basically, he’s singing the blues:
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe
Of dumps so dull and heavy.
The fraud of men was ever so
Since summer first was leafy.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey, nonny, nonny.
So simple. So devastating. Some of the words aren’t even words, as in Hughes’s “Shakespeare in Harlem” (printed here in full):
Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go?
Hey ninny neigh
With a tra-la-la-la!
They say your sweet mama
Went home to her ma.
Simple. Devastating. Half of the poem is sounds with no English definitions. The first line of sounds sets up a call, the second the response. Hughes uses the form Shakespeare founded in his poetry to build upon Shakespeare’s oral tradition and mold a new poem fitting the consciousness of the black oral tradition Hughes is writing from.
Poetry has the power to make a British playwright in Elizabethan England a black girl afraid to speak in the Jim Crow south. It teachers a gay francophile how to learn from a staunch anglophile with a memorial in Westminster Abbey. It transforms a loyal citizen of the crown into a black communist poet. Black poets turned their attention to Shakespeare’s poetry and found an unlikely companion in their outcast state. Thus, just as David Sterling Brown recently asked us to start thinking about Shakespeare’s other race plays, we must look beyond the drama to the poetry. That’s the closest you get to black subjectivity in Shakespeare.
Seven Richmond is a sophomore at Harvard University concentrating in Economics.