This engraving shows Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) in the role of Aaron the Moor, a character in Shakespeare’s gruesome revenge drama, Titus Andronicus, which Aldridge revised and adapted. The illustration appeared in J Tallis & Co.’s edition of The Complete Works of Shakspere (1851–53).
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus is the first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, printed in 1594. In the dying days of the empire, Titus saves Rome from the Goths and is offered the role of emperor. But he defers to Saturninus who then marries Tamora, Queen of the Goths, against the advice of Titus. Tamora is attended by Aaron the Moor, her servant, secret lover and the father of their son. In a bloody chain of vengeful acts on either side, 14 people are murdered or executed, hands are severed, tongues cut out and Tamora’s rapist sons are baked in a pie and served to their mother.
Aaron the Moor and Othello
Shakespeare’s Aaron was created some years before Othello (1603–04). In Titus Andronicus, the Moor displays signs of pride and courage, declaring that ‘Coal-black is better than another hue’ (4.2.99) and fiercely protecting his newborn mixed-race son.
But ultimately, he seems defined by links between darkness and evil. Others denounce him as ‘this barbarous Moor, / This ravenous tiger, this accursed devil’ (5.3.4–5). Even the Moor celebrates his own ‘villainy’ in terms of his skin colour: ‘Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face’ (3.1.202–05).
In Othello, Shakespeare is much more subtle in his exploration of how the ‘noble Moor’ (3.4.26) descends to become a murderer. Attempts to dismiss him, in racist terms, as a ‘lascivious Moor’ (1.1.126) are themselves prompted by villainy, and we seem encouraged to view these ideas with caution and suspicion.
Who was Ira Aldridge?
Aldridge was the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain. He was 17 when he made his debut as Othello at the Royalty Theatre in London’s East End in May 1825. He then travelled widely in Europe, making him one of the most widely seen performers of his day.
How did Aldridge adapt Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus?
To provide more scope for his talents, Aldridge commissioned a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which he staged at the Adelphi Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1850. In this version, the Machiavellian Aaron became the hero of the drama, breaking free of chains to leap into a river and save his child. The Theatrical Journal declared it to be an ‘exceedingly clever and effective’ performance, ‘tempered by dignity and discretion’.
- Full title:
- The Complete Works of Shakspere, revised from the original editions. With historical and analytical introductions to each play, also notes explanatory and critical, and a life of the poet. By J. O. Halliwell, and other eminent commentators (The doubtful plays of Shakspere ... revised. Accompanied with ... introductions ... and notes ... by H. Tyrrell.)
- 1851–53, London, New York
- Book / Octavo / Engraving / Illustration
- William Shakespeare, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, Henry Tyrrell
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Hugh Quarshie
- Ethnicity and identity, Power, politics and religion, Tragedies
Hugh Quarshie describes his reservations about Othello, and how he used these to shape the production in which he played the title role.