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Robert F. Fleissner. Shakespeare and Africa: The Dark Lady of His Sonnets Revamped and Other Africa Related Associations.

Robert F. Fleissner. Shakespeare and Africa: The Dark Lady of His Sonnets Revamped and Other Africa Related Associations. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2005. 130 pp. $30.99 cloth/$20.99 paper.

During 10 of the 38 years that Robert Fleissner was an English professor at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, I was the department chair; and I was greatly impressed by his dedication to scholarship. Constantly researching and writing, he has published 14 books to date, as well as many articles. One of the books he dedicated to me, Resolved to Love: The 1592 Edition of Henry Constable" s "Diana" Critically Considered. His publications through the years have revealed his penchant for onomastic and textual criticism and for the Dark Lady motif in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence. That Fleissner has devoted his life to literature is evident in Shakespeare and Africa with its wide-ranging literary allusions, from the Bible to current literature, and in the equally diverse criticism, from Aristotle's Poetics to contemporary publications. These frequent allusions add mental acuity and vitality to the book.

The title seems to be somewhat misleading because the book does not indicate that Shakespeare was knowledgeable about Africa. Possibly Fleissner is using "Africa" in a synecdochic sense: the continent stands for its inhabitants or their descendants who appear in several of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.

While Othello, Caliban, and Cleopatra are each the focus of a chapter--1, 5, and 11, respectively--the Dark Lady provides the focal point in varying degrees to chapters 2 through 10. There is an imbalance resulting from this structure as well as tedious repetition. In the "Foreword," Fleissner implores the reader "to be patient with me because since many of the chapters in early draft form were published separately, a little repetition of data has occurred from time to time" (15). Unfortunately, he not only does not restrict the repetitions to "a little," for the "Foreword" itself consists primarily of a summary of each chapter, thereby adding to the repetitions. But possibly he thought if Shakespeare could be redundant of characters and details, so could he.

Why does the Dark Lady dominate this book? For years, certainly dating as far back as the decade we were colleagues, Fleissner has been obsessed with the idea of the Dark Lady, possibly a black woman, the object of the intense emotions Shakespeare describes in sonnets 127-152, although Fleissner does not allude to all 25. Obviously, he has engaged in copious research on this subject, as attested to by his abundant citations and lengthy bibliography. There is the added mysterious appeal to him of not knowing exactly who she was or whether she was only an abstract idea. If she did exist, what was her name? He posits several possibilities, several times: Lucy Morgan or Lucy Negro or Black Luce or Emilia Lanier or Mistress Davenant (thought to have borne Shakespeare an illegitimate child).

Two other black women appear in two of the chapters featuring the Dark Lady. In Chapter 3, "Herbert's Aethiopissa and the Dark Lady: A Mannerist Parallel Replenished," Fleissner suggests that Herbert's poem, written soon after the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets in 1609, was possibly influenced by them. Likewise Fleissner suggests some similarities between the Dark Lady and Aethiopissa, except that the latter, unlike the former, is rejected by a white man. In Chapter 4, "William Dunbar's Sultry, Pre-Shakespearean, Dark Lass," Fleissner humorously critiques a humorous poem, "My Lady With the Plentiful Lips," about a black woman whose love is fought for by two white knights.

Both the Dark Lady and Cleopatra are mentioned briefly in the short final Chapter 12, "The Ohio Conference, 1996" (a yearly conference Fleissner was instrumental in starting). But Cleopatra, a "lass unparallel'd," as Charmian characterized her, warrants her own chapter--Chapter 11, "Cleopatra's Fall: Tragedy or Triumph?: Re-enter Elizabeth I." In the startling opening sentence, Fleissner avers that Cleopatra was primarily celibate except for "her affairs with Antony and Julius Caesar" (95). There is no small difference between his assessment of her sexuality and Plutarch's. The latter describes her attractions that recommended her to Caesar and Pompey. But Plutarch states: "Their acquaintance was with her when a girl, young and ignorant of the world, but she was to meet Antony in the time of her life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity." Though Plutarch does not state she was not celibate except during these three affairs, his description of her in the quotation cited and his paean to her charms in the next paragraph in which he twice compares her with Venus (a paean that becomes the fictive Enorbarbus's famous speech) both imply that her sexuality was a stronger force in her life than celibacy was. Probably Fleissner emphasized her celibacy because the intent of the chapter is to discuss whether Cleopatra was tragic or triumphant based on the major points of comparison drawn by Keith Rinehart between the Egyptian queen and Britain's Virgin Queen.

To review Fleissner's book and not to discuss his interest in onomastics would be an oversight. The name Othello, in particular, interests him, and he alludes toit several times in this book. Not only is Othello the subject of Chapter 1, "The Magnetic Moor: An Anti-Racist View--Reviewed," but he is mentioned in other chapters. For example, in Chapter 2, Fleissner cites "hell" in the protagonist's name and "demon" in Desdemona's name and concludes, even though the former committed the unforgivable sin of suicide, that a statement about his damnation was not Shakespeare's intent.

In a book teeming with a multitude of allusions to literary works and literary criticism, one ponders these questions: Is this Fleissner's last publication about his beloved Bard in relation to people of African descent? Is he trying to tell us everything he knows about this subject? But the answer to these queries appears in his more recent, but unpublished, essay, "Cleopatra's Complexion Being a Complicated Factor: Other Non-Caucasians Related," in which the same four Shakespearean characters are featured, with some additional information about them, as well as a brief mention of Aaron the Moor (Titus Andronicus) and the Prince of Morocco (The Merchant of Venice). Also the critical citations have been updated. So apparently Fleissner has more to say about this subject.

Reviewed by

Lucy Kelly Hayden

Eastern Michigan University, Retired
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Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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