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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: March ::
Re: Black Cleopatra
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0578  Monday, 12 March 2001

From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Saturday, 10 Mar 2001 17:16:50 -0800
Subject: 12.0554 Re: Black Cleopatra
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0554 Re: Black Cleopatra

"Given the tawny and "with Phoebus pinches black" references, I believe
she [Cleopatra] was played as dark-skinned in part because she was
thought of as Egyptian but also because blackness was used as a sign of
alterity in the period (hence the references to Jews as black--see the
references in Shapiro's book)."

I don't know about "alterity," but it would seem that Cleopatra was
portrayed by Shakespeare and others as having a Mediterranean complexion
because that's what history said she had. Jews were referred to as
"black" because they had a similar Mediterranean complexion.  This is
not to say that writers did not play metaphorically on the word "black"
as wicked or "fair" as good, they certainly did, but the point is that
the word "black" was used by Shakespeare and many others writing at the
time in a purely descriptive fashion as we would use the term "brunette"
or "dark-complexioned," meaning tan, whether born tan or tanned by the
sun, and not black as we use it today to distinguish persons of central
African descent. "Tawny" was the Elizabethan word for the color "tan."
"Black and tawny" was a favored color combination for livery. I suspect
that it was the original of the British forces of today that are
referred to as the "black and tans." (If anyone has more information on
this I'd appreciate hearing of it.)

I've been asked for a more complete reference to the quote I mentioned
in an earlier post on the Bassanos. This is from page 78 of David
Lasocki's 1995 "The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers
in England, 1531-1665." Sorry, I did not save the source they gave for
the Sheriff's quotation.

"On 22 September 1584, John Spencer, a former Sheriff of London, asked
by the Crown to account for his behavior towards Arthur, Edward I and
Jeronimo II Bassano, 'which were committed to ward [prison] for their
misdemeanor', twice went out of his way to point out that neither he nor
any of his fellow law officers knew the identity of the men they were
arresting." The occasion was a street skirmish caused by the blocking up
of a street by the authorities, which angered the residents who began
dismantling the blockage. "At this point the Bassanos came near to the
site and stayed talking and looking at the work until they too were
ordered to leave. 'They eftsoons very obstinately refused,' saying to
Spencer, "This is the Queen's ground and we will stand here.' When told
that if they would not depart 'by fair means' they would be sent to
ward, 'one of them


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