Welcome to Episode #55 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
For William Shakespeare’s London, multiple races were commonplace on the streets near The Globe theater where plays like Othello and Merchant of Venice boldy portrayed blackness and multiple ethnicities in performance, but what was the 16th century perspective on race when they saw various ethnicities on stage? Othello was first portrayed by Richard Burbage, who was a white man, so did Shakespeare use blackface makeup? Was that costume technique offensive to his audience the way it would be in a modern theater?
Here to help us explore the role of race on stage, and the cultural understanding of ethnicities for people like William Shakespeare is our guest, Andrea Stevens.
Andrea Stevens is Associate Professor of English, Theatre, and Medieval Studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign specializing in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She is the author of Invention of the Skin, which explores costumes, makeup, and representations of race on stage in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the role of blackface makeup in performance on stage for 16th century theater.
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In this episode, I’ll be asking Andrea about :
When discussing the idea of race on stage with Shakespeare, Othello jumps top of mind because the title character, Othello the Moor, was black. However, the first Othello was played by Richard Burbage, who was white. Did Shakespeare use blackface makeup on stage?
According to Michael Leapman, who wrote a book focusing on Inigo Jones, the Masque of Blackness has the title characters “ride in on a great hollow seashell, which seemed to float upon and move with the waves, and was accompanied by six large sea monsters carrying more torchbearers” and, as was Jones’ reputation, “one of the aspects of the show most commented upon by witnesses was the dazzling intensity of light involved” Andrea, If the intention was to showcase the light, and not the actors, was the choice of black skin on the actors more about primary visual effects than portrayal of race?
Why didn’t Shakespeare just hire the right ethnicity for plays featuring characters from foreign countries?
…. and more!
If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.
In England, while the majority of the population was fair skinned, there were several ethnicities present in the city. People from African, Italy, North Africa, and even native Americans from the New World were all walking around in London. The players did not go out of their way to intentionally hire a certain number of actors, and instead took actors where they could be found and added costumes, makeup, and other props to adjust the features that were required by the story’s plot line and stage directions. However, the representations of cultures outside of England was not a completely ignorant portrayal, as there were ample opportunity for Shakespeare to experience mutliple cultures, countries, and ethnicities right within the city.
Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Face paint in theater
Othello was played by Richard Burbage, who was white. The dominant theater history line is that in Shakespeare’s time, every actor was a white man. To show ethnic differences, you fabricated that out of costume and makeup. Cosmetics and paint were very important tools for stage portrayal of character differences. Boy actors representing women, etc. (mark rylance image from The Globe here. White face with red cheeks). Ghostly images painted white as well. Cues for statues, theatrical effect. Understand human body and the humors. Humoral psychology imagines the body as things that can change and respond to environment. The early modern image of body was more vulnerable than we think of our own today. Painted body and medical body were connected.
Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,
Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.
James I and the Masque of Blackness
That play marked the first collaboration between Jonson and Inigo Jones, who is internationally famous his skillful set designs and brilliant artistic mind. This play, the Masque of Blackness, was an absolutely elaborate stage presentation. There were characters riding seahorses, nymphs, oceans, magic, and bright colorful costumes. In the Masque of Blackness The moon goddess, Aethiopia, tells the daughters of Niger to find a country that ends in “tannia” and they will be beautiful once more. England was called Britannia, so is the implication there that England considers dark skin beautiful.
Andrea calls our attention to the fact that the genre of masque is quite different from a play. They are private performances at court, not public. It was performed by women, Queen Anne /James. This was elite women on stage. For the first time in English history. Dudley Carleton, who was actually out of the country when Jonson’s play was staged, is quoted as saying:
…instead of Vizzards, their Faces and Arms up to the Elbows, were painted black, which was a Disguise sufficient, for they were hard to be known…and you cannot imagine a more ugly sight….
The play enacts the beauty myth of the daughters of Niger (god Niger, not the country), and makes a statement of support for black skin.
Such Ethiope words, blacker in their effect
Than in their countenance.
We have been called so of many; not that our heads
are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald,
but that our wits are so diversely coloured: and
truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of
one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south,
and their consent of one direct way should be at
once to all the points o’ the compass.
Skin Color to Dazzle
If you look at Ben Jonson’s annotations, he says the choice was Queen Anna’s decision. She wanted to see a masque of blackness. Sumptuous display of wealth, so part of the spectacle was the dazzle, the reflection of light and the intentional artistry of what happens in a newly lit environment. As a society, they were not concerned with equal representation or diversity. Performers were who they were, and it was a white male industry. Interestingly, while many theater historians have assumed that no black people ever appeared, Matthew Chapman suggests there is an indication that there was a large volume of black characters who may have performed in those roles. Black people are documented performing at court. There is still a lot to learn about Shakespeare theater.
Shakespeare’s Place in History
A timeline showing Shakespeare’s life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.
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