One of the things I always try to teach my students in my Shakespeare classes is that yes, yes there were black faces in Shakespeare’s England and no, no they weren’t always slaves or servants.
There has been a lot of work in recent years expanding our knowledge of the racial diversity of English history and it is, in my estimation, one of the most fascinating and subversive and rich areas of study. Heck, I’d probably do more of it myself, but the problem is that in order to actually do the research for most of it you need to dig into parish records and pipe rolls and the sort of stuff that you have to actually be IN ENGLAND to access. Being an adjunct, I simply can’t afford to fly to England on expeditions to fish around archives (as delightful a thought as that is).
Nevertheless, what do we know?
Duncan Salkeld and Imtiaz Habib have done extensive work on recovering lost black voices/faces from the period, including the documentary life of John Reason(able), a silkweaver associated with the theatre in the early 1590s. It seems that he (or his family) were not only known to Shakespeare, but that Shakespeare makes subtle references to Reasonable in a few of his plays. Indeed, Salkeld has noted that many of the characters who we today play as white were originally played black. (Whether that meant a black actor was walking the stage… who knows? I doubt it myself, but it is a possibility that should be entertained.)
According to Salkeld and adding in a few of my own, here’s a short list of characters who are coded black in early modern plays
- Obviously Muly Mohamet, Othello, Aaron, etc.
- Sir Thurio from Two Gentlemen of Verona
- Nell from Comedy of Errors
- Jane Nightwork from Henry IV part two
- Marian Hackett (the barmaid) in The Taming of the Shrew
- Barbary in Othello (never seen)
- Titania’s Indian votress in Midsummer Night’s Dream (never seen)
- Yaughan in the Gravediggers Scene in Hamlet
Indeed, in the late Elizabethan period there are a whole bucket-full of references to Africans, those of African descent, blackamoors, and other terms, all of which suggest that there were a lot more black faces in the crowd of a London street than you might suspect. (That is, more than none.)
People of African descent had been living on the island of Britain since at least Roman times, and there is increasing evidence of black men and women living in England – primarily in port cities – throughout the middle ages. But during Shakespeare’s lifetime, archival evidence suggests that there were black men and women working across society.
Most of these men and women appear in the records in the role of servants. Black servants were evidently regarded as exotic, especially in wealthy households. The wedding of Elizabeth Carey, Lord Hunsdon’s daughter, to Thomas Berkeley in 1596 has been suggested as a possible occasion for the earliest performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1600, Berkeley left his wife to run the household affairs and embarked upon a grand tour of Europe (Maclean 1883, 399). It was left to Elizabeth to discipline her truant black serving maid in January 1601: ‘‘Augustina Patra A blackamore servant to the Lady Berkeley sent in by her warrant was ponished for running away diverse tymes’’ (BCB 4.209v, 21 January 1600/1). The name ‘‘Patra’’ was perhaps an abbreviated English moniker a contraction for Cleopatra. Similarly, Lady Anne Clifford talks about having a black laundress in the next century.
In 1596 Queen Bess wrote to the Lord Mayors of major cities saying that there were ‘of late divers [many] blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too manie…’. She ordered that ‘those kinde of people should be sente forth of the land’.
In 1601 she again wrote of the issue. “The Queen is highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which are (living in England); who are fostered (supported) here, to the great annoyance of her own people who are unhappy at the help these people receive, as also most of them are infidels (non-christians) having no understanding of Christ and the Gospel……Casper van Senden should be helped in taking these Negroes and blackamoors to be transported.” Caspar van Senden was a merchant of the time who in 1596 had been given a license by Elizabeth to deport 89 black people to Spain and Portugal in exchange for English prisoners of war. Given the Spanish and Portuguese Empires’ respective slave trades, it seems possible that the English government was simply sending those people to their enslavement in exchange for English soldiers.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing theories about the identity of the Dark Lady of the sonnets is that she was, in fact, Lucy Morgan or “Luce Negro,” a courtesan who showed up in London around 1589, right at the time that the sonnet vogue was really beginning. Around 1595, she was herself the head of a brothel or “house of ill repute” and it seems not only possible, but in my mind likely, that Shakespeare would have known of her. Personally, I like to imagine Pompey and Mistress Overdone from Measure for Measure, the two smartest characters on stage for most of the play, as being barely veiled references to Lucy Morgan and her brothel.
Seriously, we really tend to whitewash Shakespeare and we must stop that.