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Shakespeare & Beyond

Kim Hall: Bringing African American experiences to Shakespeare

Paul Robeson as Othello. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Paul Robeson as Othello. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Kim Hall is the Lucyle Hook Chair and Professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard College. This interview with her was first published in 2007 on the Shakespeare in American Life website

Paul Robeson was the first modern African American to perform Shakespeare—to perform Othello, and he talks in his letters and in his essays about bringing his experiences as a student in a white arena, his experiences with racism, to the performance.

So for him as an actor, he brought his experience as an African American in a racist society to this performance of Othello, a black man in a racist society. Other actors who saw him said it was like seeing Othello for the first time. And the kind of association of Othello with African Americans certainly is because of African American performance and because of people like Paul Robeson. I’ve met people now who saw him originally and they still can’t get it out of their mind. So I always wish I had been able to see such a thing.

⇒ Related: A contract for Othello

And also, African Americans who were not actors have brought Shakespeare into their repertoire. Duke Ellington, who’s always associated with a completely American form, jazz, did a twelve-part suite based on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets called Such Sweet Thunder. I was looking at Maya Angelou’s autobiography and she says that Shakespeare was her first white love, and she says it’s because Shakespeare said, “When in disgrace with fortune in men’s eyes.” And I remembered that when I was required to memorize a sonnet in high school, that was the sonnet I picked—and I hadn’t read Angelou at that point. So somehow she and I both, on our own, kind of saw this as poetry that spoke to being marginal and being outcast. And being able to redeem oneself or to see oneself as part of a community through love.

So, this idea one can bring an individual experience to Shakespeare, and to the performance of Shakespeare, and reshape Shakespeare slightly, I think is a great contribution that African Americans have made to the performance and to the study of Shakespeare.