Monday, 10 December 2012

A Rich Jewel in an Ethiop's Ear

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:
A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw,
It was an Abyssinian maid, and on the dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Abora...
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.

Some sites on the web state (with disturbing confidence) that Shakespeare's image is far from a positive portrayal. For example, this page states,
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.
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.

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 night
As 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.


  1. Hello Gareth. Once again one of your posts that interested me also managed to attach itself to a tiny synchronicity in my life. I've blogged it @ Dripping Noses and Skin Colour - Two Small Fushigis.

    And that got extended tonight when I watched Groundhog Day, again for maybe the 5th time. However, tonight I noticed something I hadn't before, and that is that the ER Nurse, an Afro-American, had pearl or silver earrings.

    Now to your comment about finding images: I went to find an image of this scene on the web, and was unable to find any Groundhog Day images with her or that scene. Nor, as it turns out, in the movie/celebrity web sites. The name of the acrtress is Dianne B. Shaw. I did find a fuzzy image of a Diane Shaw singing Blue Moon on Youtube which has the silver/white on black skin.

    Again, an interesting read.

  2. Thank you for looking for a picture, Guy. I didn't expect that. Also, an interesting point about the blacks in the Bosch all being female. I hadn't noticed that. Great painting, isn't it? Endlessly fascinating.


  3. Yes, endlessly fascinating. I was impressed how the Wikipedia has uploaded it at various resolutions to allow for relatively close inspection of it on our computers.

    And I didn't comment earlier about your Shakespeare reference, but I attended a lecture at Bard-on-the-Beach by SFU's Shakespeare expert, Paul Budras, talking about Othello. In the lecture he talks about the ostensible racism in his time. To the best of his understanding, there wasn't any. They had no experience of black people, and when they showed up they became objects of extreme fascination.

    This observation has been recently confirmed in my reading by anthropologist David Graeber in his fascinating and important book Debt: The First 5000 Years. He has quite a lot to say about racism, and its lack throughout most of human history, until relatively recently in anthropological terms.

  4. Gareth, in another weird kind of fushigi, around 9:30 tonight I come across an interesting image and a brilliant musician for your blog. Have you heard of M'shell Ndegeocello? I added her image and musical link to my blog. You may want to check her out. (I discovered Ndegeocello while listening to CBCR2's 'The Signal' Mountain Time. Details on my blog.)

  5. I just began reading "Out of Africa" and came across Karen Blixen's line about a jewel in an Ethiope's ear. Being lamentably ill-schooled as far as Shakespeare goes, I thought not of him but of Joni Mitchell's "That Song About the Midway" and the "ruby in a black man's ear". Googled and found your site. Thank you for completing the circle of connections. Of course Joni was nodding to "Willie the Shake" as she calls him in "Talk to Me". From Stratford-on-Avon to Saskatchewan to the Ngong Hills in Kenya - lovely links in the literary chain.

    1. Thank you for your visit and your note, Polloplayer. Since I had forgotten the "Willie the Shake" line, you launched me into a pleasant revisit to some old Joni Mitchell lyrics.

      I watched the film "Out of Africa" years ago. I recognized that the line "Once I had a farm in Africa" would resonate with many people, but it didn't with me. Not until recently, when a business project, into which my wife and I had put our hearts and all our other resources, failed. Now I hear the line as a powerful one, but the echo sounds like "Once I had a school in Vancouver."

      I hope you enjoy some of the other posts on the site.

      -Gareth Jones

  6. Fascinating, I love this stuff. A jewel in Ethiope's ear has opened a window. I wish I could paint this.