The obligatory Wikipedia visit tells me that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet about 1597 when he was still quite a young man, about 33 years old. The most beautiful lines in that play, to me, are
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear-
The image of a bright diamond or ruby against black skin is gorgeous. However, my search for a painting or photograph to illustrate the image came up with little. Here's the closest so far:
Coincidentally, I came up empty-handed in a search for a painting or photograph to illustrate these equally lovely lines from Kubla Khan by Coleridge:
Since there aren't that many positive portrayals of blacks in older English drama or verse, I would have thought that many painters would have been inspired by the ones that exist.A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw,It was an Abyssinian maid, and on the dulcimer she playedSinging of Mount Abora...
Some sites on the web state (with disturbing confidence) that Shakespeare's image is far from a positive portrayal. For example, this page states,
Or Shakespeare may simply have found the contrast of light and dark beautiful, much as Hieronymus Bosch did in The Garden of Earthly Delights, dating from about 1500.In this speech, Ethiope is an allusion for Ethiopia. Shakespeare alludes [sic] the Ethiopian slaves who often dwelt in Moorish harems, decking themselves with expensive jewelry in their ears to impress upon all who saw them the wealth of their masters.
We certainly cannot assume that Shakespeare immediately associated black skin with slavery. He knew of blacks who were not slaves. In fact, he wrote a play about one, Othello, a self-made man with heroic qualities, albeit one brought down by racism and jealousy
Other sites wonder if Shakespeare's words were entirely original. The Folger Shakespeare Library website has a page pointing to a 1639 work called The Academy of Complements by John Gough. It contains these words:
It seems she hangs upon the cheeks of nightAs a rich Jewel in the Ethiop's ear
Did Gough copy Shakespeare, or both copy some previous source? Shakespeare wouldn't be above a bit of swiping, any more than Gough was. Does that make him a talentless plagiarist? Oh, I don't think so. There's the small matter of all the other lines in the play to argue against that.
The meme of the bright jewel in a dark woman's (or man's) ear eventually took hold in the mind of a Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell. In "That Song About the Midway," she wrote,
I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear
Was she thinking of Shakespeare at the time? Oh, yes. Does that lessen her work? Oh, no. In fact, a little jerk of joy passed through me when I caught the allusion. As I've written before, the word "allusion" comes from the Latin word meaning "to play." Allusions are creative play.