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A 19th-century Richard of whom I knew nothing….

Ira Aldridge

Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge emigrated to England at the age of 17. Whilst considered a distinguished Shakespearean actor, Londoners did not take as well to the idea of the world’s first black Othello, with a critic for The Times writing: “Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.” Regardless, Aldridge found fame and acceptance on tour in the UK and around Europe, heralded for his performances in Othello, Macbeth and Richard III – for which he wore pale make-up and a wig.

He was so well respected around Europe at the time of his death, in Poland in 1867, that he was given a state funeral.

Red Velvet, the story of Ira Aldridge, is currently running at the Garrick Theatre.

From What’s On Stage, London, 2nd February 2016


Note: Since this post I have come upon another detailed article about Ira Aldridge. See it at



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14 thoughts on “A 19th-century Richard of whom I knew nothing….

  1. Eva Burian on said:

    Each and every simple mention of Shakespeare’s character named Richard IIi in connection with the real life namesake of the fictitious figure is an outrageous insult,harming Richard’ s memory –and Shakespeare’s too ,for that matter.
    In the book I am going to publish this year,Shakespeare Made Me Love Richard Iii,I try to show that this grotesque outcry against Tudor lies has all the characteristics of a modern grotesque drama,for instance,’The Tots’ of the Hungarian playwright, Orkeny. Tot(h) is a very common surname in Hungarian. But if anyone ever had the idea of linking one of the men named Toth to the character,it would be a scandal,and huge sums of compensation would be paid..A grotesque character is not meant to be the person of the same name.In the case of Shakespeare’s character,it is Tudor,it comes out of Tudor’s,Richmond’s mind,its behaviour inadvertently modelled on himself.
    Shakespeare wasn’t a halfwit to think that Tudor had been ‘virtuous and holy’.This is what the monster thought of himself.Yes,according to Shakespeare, Tudor was the monster.Nothing is more upsetting than to see that even Ricardians insult Richard over and over again connecting him towith the character that was directed against his enemies.As I posted on Matt’s history blog recently,Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre is antiTudor,and it was unbearably misinterpreted.
    I repeat here that I am very grateful to Annette Carson for the help she gave me,hopefully I will be able to publish my book soon and I will set up a new website dedicated to the tragically issues I am interested in.But after that I don’t want to deal with this Shakespeare-Richard issue too much,because it brings me to the brink of tears each time I see all the indignity,all these insults over and over again.A middle-aged,crippled villain and the handsome Richard who died tragically young,and did in every single situation the opposite of what the character does,or the character does what Tudor chronicles wrote about Richard,but obviously mocking it!!!


    • A lot of people, including those without a special interest in history, are aware that Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and the real Richard III have very little in common. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s common knowledge these days, because you’ll always run into those who mistake the fictional Richard III for the real one, but it’s quite widespread, and I was aware of it many years before I started reading up more on Richard and the Wars of the Roses.

      Macbeth, too. “Macbeth” is my favorite by Shakespeare, a really great play. But the real Macbeth was nothing like that, he killed Duncan (who was a young man) in battle, and ruled successfully 17 years.


      • Eva Burian on said:

        Macbeth is an example of the fact that if it wasn’t the interest of the establishment,it was correctly explained in the editions of the plays that it was not true. In the case of Richard III it was not explained for centuries,and the result is that even Ricardians are brainwashed,not noticing that the character is the greatest help to the Ricardian cause,directed against Tudor.


    • Alan White on said:

      Eva Burian on Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Richard III” as an early examlpe of theatre of the grotesque (Posted by “Royal Squire” on the Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website):


      • Alan White on said:

        Correction: Please excuse the misspelling of “example”


      • Eva Burian on said:

        Thank you for making a link to my article published online last year.The misinterpreted Shakespeare is very important, I am sure.


  2. Eva Burian on said:

    Of course,I meant ‘tragically ill-treated issues’ in the post above,but the word ‘ill-treated’ is missing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eva Burian on said:

      I always have problems with WordPress.I wrote a longer reply to the Macbeth problem,but it disappeared without any trace,while at the same time under the correction of my previous post the idiotic comment appeared ‘liked by you’.Why on Earth would I like my correction? I hate the fact that Word Press is like this.What was in the longer post basically meant that I would feel better if Ricardians recognized Shakespeare’s real message and fought against things like the RIII Visitor Centre which puts there Olivier’s film version of the grotesque play as if it were meant to portray Richard.And if Ricardians themselves speak about the character in connection with Richard,they do harm to their own cause.


  3. viscountessw on said:

    This post doesn’t criticise Shakespeare. It has nothing to do with your comment because all it does is briefly relate the story of Ira Aldridge.


  4. Eva Burian on said:

    Yes,it has to do,because it speaks about ‘a Richard’,which automatically links the grotesque character to its real life namesake. To bring here again the example of the men named Tot(h) :if in a group of f,friends someone ever said ‘let’s go to the theatre, because this or that actor plays Tot,and for us it is of special interest of course,hehehe…’,the member of the group would not hesitate for two minutes to call his lawyer and take legal action. Everybody understands the difference between a modern grotesque character and real people.But Shakespeare’s misinterpretation was washed into everybody’s mind for centuries, that even Ricardians don’t notice that the sheer mention of the grotesque figure in connection with the real Richard is an insult.


  5. Eva Burian on said:

    Again,words are missing from my above post.Naturally, I meant that the member of the group named Tot would take legal action.I must also add that posts,articles and sadly even long books written by authors of ‘prestige’,throughout centuries haven’t critised Shakespeare.They misinterpreted him.Even praised their own blatant misinterpretation.Some did it deliberately to serve the estahblishment,others followed them already being brainwashed,not recognizing the truth.Here’s the result Today people don’t even notice that all this insults Shakespeare,but insults Richard more.This points to truths far beyond the concrete case.How power brainwashes. people?How can great artists serve Truth and Justice?Can they?Or they get misinterpreted, and their message turned upside down? Etc.


  6. As to a 19th Century INTERPRETATION of the play by Willie “S” can i opine that Ira Aldridge sight unseen could easily be Richard Mansfield’s EQUAL? Odds are that George Arliss did better at playing CHARLES the SECOND onstage in the Roaring Twenties than have Vincent Price, George Saunders and Sam Neill on film as in more recently.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sara Nur on said:

    I’d never heard of Ira Aldridge either, not until your post. But, in light of all the current films dealing with Black Americans (either slavery or civil rights, take your pick), I would love to see a movie that delved into this man’s life.

    Or other men of color, such as John Blanke, Tutor trumpeter or the poet Pushkin (better yet, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Pushkin’s great-grandfather, who advanced from the status of ‘gift’ to Peter the Great to that of a military engineer and beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I first heard about Ira Aldridge from reading about Shakespearean criticism and history of performances at the university. He was mentioned as the first black actor who played Othello on the London stage, and the negative reactions of some of the distinguished Victorian viewers (for instance, one who was shocked to see Ellen Terry and Aldridge as a couple on the stage) were noted. Oh, the irony, since the theme of racism is integral in the play, although Shakespearean critics used to do their best to ignore that as much as they could. (Which notable 18/19th century critic was it who wrote that Othello being a “Blackamoor” was entirely irrelevant to the play and that he could have been white as well? I can’t remember.) It took having an actual black man play the black character to expose that fully.

      Aldridge is often mentioned as a notable 19th century stage actor and the first black Othello, but I didn’t know that he also played Richard III.


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