Paul Robeson’s Othello and the Question of a Multicultural Shakespeare

  • Peter Erickson


Paul Robeson’s public performance as Othello fulfills the promise of W. E. B. Du Bois’s confident expectation as a private reader: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.”1 The mutually reinforcing iconic status of both Shakespeare and Robeson is memorably crystallized in Robeson’s testimony at the time of the 1930 London production: “‘Othello has taken away from me all kinds of fears, all sense of limitation, and all racial prejudice. Othello has opened me to new and wider fields; in a word, Othello has made me free.’”2 It is almost as though, only three decades into the twentieth century, Du Bois’s “problem of the color-line ” (33) suddenly dissolves. The combination of the Shakespeare effect and the Robeson effect creates a powerfully emotional euphoria that resists critical analysis. it is impossible not to feel moved by the exuberance of Robeson’s claim. Yet it is equally hard to avoid wincing at the quality of overstatement in his declaration. Our dilemma involves the copresence of two stories, one celebratory and the other skeptical: both stories must be told.


Black Reaction Race Prejudice Black Actor Star Power Iconic Status 
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© Peter Erickson 2007

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  • Peter Erickson

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