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Blacks in London

A black man, as sketched by Inigo Jones for a Court masque.

  • In 1601, two years before the probable date of the writing of Othello, there were so many blacks in London that an edict was issued that the "Negars and blackamoors" in the city be deported.
  • Shakespeare's first black man, Aaron in Titus Andronicus, is close to the stereotypical villain: murderous, sexually avid, and ruthless. Yet even he is less brutal than some of those around him. In a remarkably bloody play, one of the more attractive scenes is Aaron's defence of his child.
  • Aaron's black baby with the (white) Queen of the Goths, Tamora, echoes the shock experienced by the English a decade before Shakespeare's birth, in the mid 1550s, when a black Guinean married an Englishwoman: the natural assumption of the "superior" civilization was that the child would be of their colour, white--but the child was of course black.
  • In The Merchant of Venice, probably written some years before Othello, the Prince of Morocco fails to win Portia in the lottery of the three caskets of gold, silver, and lead; but his claim that he is the same as white people under the skin may win some sympathy ("let us make incision for your love / To prove whose blood is reddest" [2.1.6-7]). Portia, however, is mightily relieved that he chooses the wrong casket: "Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.79).

 

 

 

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This page last updated on 28 August 2006. © Michael Best, 2002.