Hidden Histories (Vol 3)

To continue on from the last two segments of ‘Hidden Histories‘ I shall move on to another area of plausible doubt. The next subject centers around one of the greatest British writers of all time, William Shakespeare.

Throughout Shakespeare’s famous career it is suggested that he did not have any self-portraits painted of himself while he was alive. There exist a version of a dramatically darker skinned image of Shakespeare painted in 1610 before he died. It was only when Shakespeare passed away that a famous self-portrait was commissioned and given the green-light by a close friend of his who believed that the portrait represented the true qualities of Shakespeare. This issue led me to question why a man with so much success and celebrity did not choose to keep any records of what he or his family looked like while he was alive.

My inquisitiveness stems from the covering up of miscegenation in Britain which was briefly discussed in the last section of ‘Hidden Histories (Vol 2)‘. The second reason for looking into the real representation of Shakespeare revolves around a sculpture in the church in which he was buried and a curse written upon his gravestone. The third inspiration for questioning Shakespeare’s identity is inspired by a second interpretation of what Shakespeare may have looked like when he was alive compared with the texts that Shakespeare wrote himself.

This article attempts to find out if in reality Shakespeare was a successful black man living in 17th century London? This blog also investigates the question; ‘Is the narrative of ‘Othello’ a metaphor of Shakespeare’s personal experiences of racism?‘ The social and cultural issues of Shakespeare’s time will be analysed to get some concept of reality behind the missing links of Shakespeare and 17th century Black Britain. After questioning if Shakespeare was black I will then take a look at life of the first black man to play Shakespeare’s famous black character Othello.

William Shakespeare

This image is rumored to be painted in 1610 while Shakespeare was Alive.

Above is a portrait of William Shakespeare which was rumored to be painted  while he was still alive but the exact date cannot be established. The mystery around the life of Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that he may have been a social outcast at certain parts of his life. The 17th century was not a time remembered for cultural diversity so people British citizens whom were of African heritage that could pass for white would have had to do this in order to survive the boundaries of class and religion.

Unfortunately Shakespeare’s popularity grew tremendously after his death in 1616. Little is known about Shakespeare’s upbringing, apart from the fact that he was a farmers son from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. It is difficult to trust what historians detail about Shakespeare’s life. The man in question was capable of writing about his own life, yet it seems that he chose not to. Why would someone who had the talent to tell stories, write poems and plays neglect to inform people about his own personal life story?

Maybe Shakespeare was censored about what he could and could not write about. Maybe the only way he could express himself was through the characters in his plays. Although Shakespeare did come from humble beginnings he defiantly rose to fame similarly to an ‘Xfactor‘ contestant in the 21st century. Just like some celebrities today image is always something which is manipulated by the media. When was the last time you saw a real image of a celebrity in a magazine which was not air brushed or lightened up? Maybe there existed creative differences in the way Shakespeare wanted to be presented in public portraits during his lifetime. Below is a much darker skinned interpretation of Shakespeare at the sculpture of Shakespeare at his funeral monument.

Shakespeare Monument

Shakespeare Monument at Stratford-apon-Avon memorial burial ground.

This sculpture led me to believe that Shakespeare may have not been ‘white‘. The sculpture was commissioned after Shakespeare died but before his ‘First Folio‘ of poetry which was published in 1623. The sculpture is mentioned in a poem by Leonard Diggens in the preface of the ‘First Folio’.  To compliment this dark sculpture I discovered an ominous curse on Shakespeare’s grave which reads;

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Not only did if find that this curse shared a paralleled cultural specificity to Africa and the stereotypes of ‘black’ magic, witchcraft and spiritual rituals. It also stunned me that Shakespeare was aware that people may have wanted to examine his bones. If scientist were allowed access to Shakespeare’s bones they would be able to determine if he was of African decent. Not that its important what color Shakespeare was but from his life and death you can see that something about his life was covered up. Only the elite members of society who lived in Shakespeare’s time period were privileged to know what the real Shakespeare was really like.

From the previous volumes of ‘Hidden Histories‘ it is evident that there was a black community living in Britain. This community received minimum publicity then and still floats under the radar today. Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on the 24th July 1807 in New York City and died on 7th August 1867 in Łódź, Congress Poland. Aldridge was an African American stage actor who developed his career largely in London and Europe. Aldridge is the first recorded black actor to have played Othello on a London stage. Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state.

Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge African American actor in 19th Century Britain

Ira Aldridge’s inter-racial relationship with Margaret Gill an English woman caused uproar among the pro-slavery lobby in Parliament. Gill died with no children. Aldridge went on to marry his mistress the Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt they had 4 children. Amanda’s grave is situated in North London, in Highgate Woods. Their daughter Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge became a notable opera singer, teacher and composer. Amanda had a major impact in the British record industry as one of the first black British women to publish music in the early 20th century. Sadly there are no images of Amanda, her mother or Margaret online. In order to see what these women looked like you will have to visit the private estates in which they lived and look for evidence of any self-portraits of these women if they haven’t been hidden of burnt in an attempt to cover up the black connection to their history.

In the next part of hidden histories I will take a deeper look at what life was like for black Victorians.

Thank you for reading feel free to leave a comment below.

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