On my last visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Fall 2019 (a time that seems all too distant now) to conduct research for a new edition of Othello, I set myself the goal of viewing every image and object related to the play in the Folger’s collection. This was an experience that often rocketed between emotional highs and lows because the Folger’s vast collection includes both art objects that delight and those that disturb. The visual record associated with Othello in particular offers endless, relentless iterations of its most painful expressions of misogynist and racist violence. Along with the more straightforward examples of textual illustration and photographs of actors and of the play in performance, Othello has inspired countless pop culture parodies that often rely upon the racist comedic tropes of blackface minstrelsy. Viewing and handling Othello’s visual history is treacherous work, and while the value for research especially into the construction and social function of race is indisputable, many images cannot or should not be shared. Here, however, I would like to share here an image that is notable not only for its rarity but for its significance.
Folger ART Vol. b60 and b61 were donated to the Folger in 1951 by Mrs. Ernest Warren, having been owned by John Glidden (d. not before 1875). In the Folger’s catalog item notes the volumes are described as “extra-illustrated.” The term often describes books that have been professionally expanded with images tipped in or full pages with carefully framed images added and bound with the original pages. The two volumes of ART Vol. b60 and b61 are also illustrated in the more familiar sense; it is an 1875-1876 edition of Charles Knight’s Pictorial Shakespere (first published 1838-1841) issued in 50 parts to subscribers by New York publisher Virtue & Yorston in 1875-1876. Knight’s Pictorial Shakespere features images intended to set the scene rather than illustrate the action, with full page title-panels, atmospheric backgrounds, and small vignettes for each play. Knight’s Othello offers readers gondolas on Venetian canals, exterior views of the ducal palace, and the island fortress at Rhodes, among other vignettes.
So ART Vol. b60 and b61 are both illustrated and “extra-illustrated,” but they are not extra-illustrated professionally. Rather they seem to have been used as a kind of scrapbook with clippings from newspapers and magazines, photo cards, and other ephemera placed or pasted in, overlaid one on top of another, sometimes crowding out and covering completely the text underneath. One enthusiastically engaged former owner has added to the pages of Othello in ART Vol. b61 a clipped newspaper review of the 1935 production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre starring Philip Merivale as Othello and Gladys Cooper as Desdemona with a curt note in pencil: “the worst I ever saw.”
Other pages of Othello in ART Vol b61 are filled with added images of actors in costume and makeup, mostly in the title role. Bronze and burnt cork painted faces, gold hoop earrings, curly wigs, thick mustaches, pointy beards, and angry, jealous scowls of every variety appear, including photos of Paul Kalisch in a feathered turban, and of Walter Huston with a curved, naked blade. A full-length article from 1944 with photos of Paul Robson as Othello has been added with care.
On the final extra-illustrated page of the play is an image that I would describe as unexpected—at least it was for me—a full-color photograph of vocalist Ethel Waters dressed in period costume as Desdemona, clipped from a magazine.
With help from the librarians at the Library of Congress, I was able to identify the source, the image appeared in the November 1935 issue of Stage magazine. The photo (by Valente-Van Steen) is part of a serialized feature called “Parts I’d Like to Play,” in which comedic performers, vaudevillians, and actors of stage, film and radio, appeared dressed for roles they never actually performed. “Parts I’d Like to Play” treated readers to images of vaudevillian Willie Howard as Hamlet (January 1935, photo by Ben Pinchot), comedic film actress Zasu Pitts as Queen Elizabeth (January 1936, photo by Maurice Goldberg), and numerous others whose aspirations to serious performance were incongruous with their job of making audiences laugh.
In the case of Waters’s Desdemona, what was meant to be funny for some audiences, is now easily recognizable as racist humor. The caption beneath the photo hints broadly at the color of her skin and recasts Waters, a hugely successful and fiercely independent woman, a survivor of rape and abuse, famously hot-tempered, and deeply devout, as hapless and helpless. It ventriloquizes Waters as Desdemona using mock dialect: “Presently she will be greeting Othello, ‘Yoo, hoo, big boy! I’se in town!’” Perhaps even the magazine editors recognized the humor as both off-key and off-base; Waters’s “Parts I’d Like to Play” feature is not listed in the table of contents, and is hidden away on the very last page of the magazine. Waters was known for her stage personality which was at once glamorous and comedic; her rise to stardom as a vocalist began with bawdy and funny blues hits like “My Handy Man,” but by 1935, the year the photo appeared, Waters was already moving toward what would be a storied career as a dramatic actress of stage and screen. Waters achieved wide acclaim for her performance as Hagar in Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s play Mamba’s Daughters in 1939, in which Hagar, a Gullah woman reunited with her estranged daughter, later strangles her daughter’s rapist. She would then move to Hollywood and star in films such as Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Pinky (1949).
Looking down at the face and body of Ethel Waters dressed in all the trappings of a campy Renaissance damsel, immersed in Othello but, as the text jokes, playing the wrong part, not the one assigned or imagined for her, somehow felt like looking in a mirror. Like me, the Waters of the photo would have been forty-something, instead of a handkerchief spotted with strawberries, she seems to be holding a very heavy book—also a familiar feeling—and of course sometimes my Shakespearean costume feels ill-fitting, too. “What are we doing here, Ethel?” was the question I asked silently in the reading room when she suddenly appeared between the pages of Knight’s Pictorial Shakespere.
The extra-illustration of ART Vol b61 is a highly personal curation of an individual or series of individual owners’ experiences as recipients of Shakespeare in text, on stage, and on screen. It is also a strangely violent document that reproduces the gestures of the play: exoticism, misogyny, negative stereotype. Divorced from their original contexts, the grimacing heads, torsos torqued with pathos, and jaunty scimitars become homogenized, illustrating the play with same atmospheric, thematic gestures that Knight’s volume put forth in the nineteenth century. Yet this collage imagines a familiar audience as well. Looking down at the pages while standing in the Folger library’s reading room, I wondered whether the curator of these extra-illustrated pages had ever imagined a viewer like me: a Black woman, a scholar, and a Shakespearean.
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