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 Aldridge regularly experienced discrimination. While many revered him, many others felt it was wrong for a black person to act in Shakespeare’s plays. Growing up in New York, he had struggled to find work acting, and seen actors at the African Grove Theatre punished for performing Shakespeare. In London, he received racist reviews.
Despite this, Aldridge was successful. He challenged audiences with sympathetic portrayals of negatively racial stereotypes like Shylock and Othello. He even commissioned his own radical version of Titus Andronicus. In it, Aaron the Moor – usually a hateful villain – survives to become the hero of the story.
The lessons Ira Aldridge taught European audiences in the 19th century remain important today: Shakespeare’s work is universal, and his words 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 he thinks Shakespeare continues to be relevant today.
- Test your knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays with this quiz. How many do you recognise?
- Do some more research about Ira Aldridge. Make a fact file about his life, struggles, and achievements.
- Choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, research it, and write a summary that explains the story clearly to someone who has never heard of it.