In 1824, a young African American actor travelled to England to make his name. Ira Aldridge was just 17 at the time he crossed the Atlantic from his home in New York.
On his arrival in England, he found success and popularity as the first Black Shakespearian actor in Britain, going on to have a successful career touring all around Europe.
But while many admired him, many others felt it was wrong for a Black person to act in Shakespeare’s plays. Growing up in New York, where African American actors were punished for performing Shakespeare, he had struggled to find work. In London, he received negative, racist reviews.
Aldridge fought back. He challenged the way people thought about Shakespeare’s plays. Today, we see characters like Shylock, the miserly Jewish merchant in The Merchant of Venice, as negative racial stereotypes. Back in the 1840s, Aldridge’s portrayals of the merchant were famously sympathetic. He imagined Shylock as a person with feelings rather than simply an evil villain to be hated.
The lessons Ira Aldridge taught European audiences in the 19th Century remain important today: Shakespeare’s work is universal, and his stories and words still resonate with people all over the world.
This Friday (23 April) is Shakespeare Day. How will you celebrate his enduring relevance?
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In this interview, British actor Adrian Lester talks about playing Ira Aldridge in a play about his life, and why Shakespeare continues to be relevant today.