Shakespeare in America: A Tale of Two Stratfords on Paul Robeson’s Birthday
[Read full article here] In his introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (Library of America $29.95), James Shapiro writes of the “steady stream of American tourists” visiting the Bard’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, among them “a pair of future presidents,” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. According to Abigail Adams, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it” while her husband cut “a relic” from a chair said to have belonged to the poet himself.
Although legions of tour busses may never be a fact of life the way they are in Shakespeare’s home town, Princeton is something of an American Stratford for people coming to pay their respects to Albert Einstein, who lived the last half of his life here, and Paul Robeson, who was born here on this day, April 9, in 1898, and spent the first nine years of his life in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, Jackson having been at one time the street now known as Paul Robeson Place.
A Realm Unto Himself
The many facets of Paul Robeson’s genius — as a speaker, athlete, singer, actor, and world figure like his friend Einstein — led the PBS series, American Masters, to refer to him as “the epitome of the 20th-century Renaissance man.” Shakespeare, who wrote the signature role of Robeson’s acting life. is beyond terminology. There’s no end to him, or to it, if you believe that no single human being could have created what he created, a vast, complexly intelligible realm that will always be there to be discovered, explored, inhabited. “Reading Shakespeare continues to bless us, long past the first encounter,” says another former president, Bill Clinton, in his foreword to Shakespeare in America. Clinton entered the realm when an English teacher in Hot Springs, Arkansas had him memorize a hundred lines from Macbeth (“I was not overjoyed”) from which he learned an early lesson about “the perils of blind ambition and the emptiness of power.”
Paul Robeson was introduced to Shakespeare in 1915 by an English teacher at nearby Somerville High School. According to Martin Duberman’s 1988 biography, the 17-year-old senior, one of 12 African American students, played the Moor in a burlesque version of Othello. His teacher “later recalled her hesitation in asking him to take on the parodic role of Othello as a hotel waiter, since the performance was designed to raise money for a class outing to Washington, D.C.,” which Paul could not have attended “because no hotel in the capital would accept a black guest.” Even so, he played the part and “proved a huge hit with the audience.”
Although he seems to have been popular with his white classmates, Robeson was aware of a more subtle version of prejudice in high school society that, as Duberman points out, “allowed him through practice and forewarning, to keep his temper under wraps.” A teacher who called him “the most remarkable boy I have ever taught, a perfect prince” still “can’t forget that he is a Negro.” It was Robeson’s understanding of the social reality, of always knowing his “place,” that sustained his popularity. The situation suggests a microcosm of his later career. Even when turning in superior performances, whether as speaker, athlete, singer, or actor, he had to “exhibit maximum affability and minimal arrogance.” Whenever whites were “surpassed” by him, his attitude could “never smack of triumph.” Duberman quotes Robeson repeating “a litany drummed into him by his father, ‘do nothing to give them cause to fear you.’”
Consider how it must have been for a man conditioned to downplay his power finding himself in a realm of language as rich as Othello, peering into the mirror Shakespeare held up to him as he assumes the character of a black general, a leader of men. Othello’s first great speech (Act 1, scene iii) is one that Robeson must have been thrilled to perform, the way it brings the actor and the character together as Othello discourses on his success as a performer disarming Desdemona with stories like those he dazzled her father with, moving her to tears “when I did speak of some distressful stroke/That my youth suffer’d,” recalling how she “gave me for my pains a world of sighs:/She swore, in faith, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange;/’Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful.” Describing how Desdemona “wish’d/That heaven had made her such a man,” and if the Moor could but teach a friend how to tell his tale, it “would woo her,” he shows that the “witchcraft” he used to seduce her was simply a matter of stepping forth as the hero of his own story: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d/And I loved her that she did pity them.”