Book World: This scholar is pulling back the curtain on race in Shakespeare

“The Great White Bard” by Farah Karim-Cooper. Photo by: Viking.
Copyright: Handout

LONDON – The green-oak framed indoor theater of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, illuminated by candles at showtime is dark and cavernous, even macabre. It’s only fitting that Shakespeare’s phantoms have haunted the stage: Winter productions of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Cymbeline” and “Richard III” have all been performed there, along with a special one-night summer rendition of “Julius Caesar” in 2014, the year the Jacobean-style theater opened.

But the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as it’s officially known, is sometimes too dark, especially for the actors of color who are increasingly cast in major roles onstage.

“It really places them at a disadvantage because they can’t be seen,” said Farah Karim-Cooper, seated in the playhouse’s pit. It’s empty on a Wednesday morning in May while actors rehearse a summertime production of “The Comedy of Errors” in the Globe’s much larger outdoor theater. Karim-Cooper runs the Globe’s education and research team and is the author of the recently released book “The Great White Bard,” an examination of Shakespeare and race.

A decade ago, she advised the indoor theater’s design based on Jacobean architectural tradition. But during the Globe’s first Shakespeare and Race Festival, which she organized in 2018, she hosted a workshop in the theater with actors of color and learned how they were disadvantaged by some of the set and lighting design decisions.

“What we have proved subsequently is that it does not work for actors of the global majority,” she said, using the Globe’s preferred language to describe actors of color. “It feels like a space of empire.”

With this in mind, the Globe has plans to change the design when it raises the money, repainting the space in a lighter hue and reconsidering the Renaissance-inspired ceiling mural that depicts the white-skinned goddess of the moon surrounded by similarly complexioned cherubs.

It’s one of many ways Karim-Cooper, 52, has centered race in conversations about staging and studying Shakespeare. She is also a professor at King’s College London and supervises students who study the playwright and his work, just as she did while a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London in the late 1990s.

But despite living for nearly 30 years in Britain, where she has worked to advance discussions about Shakespeare and race for almost a decade, Karim-Cooper is a Texas girl at heart. “That’s where my cultural fashioning happened,” she said, recalling donning cowboy hats and boots with her Pakistani American friends as teenagers in Houston. Her accent doesn’t lie: It’s peppered with remnants of a Southern twang, despite her pronouncing some words, like “pro-cess,” with a long vowel like a Briton.

Born in Karachi, Karim-Cooper and her family immigrated to England briefly before settling in Houston. It was within that Pakistani American cultural context that she first caught the Shakespeare bug. “I was absolutely gobsmacked,” Karim-Cooper said of reading “Romeo and Juliet” in the ninth grade, because she was reminded of the South Asian cultural tradition of arranged marriage.

“That moment of not having any agency over who you choose was extraordinary to me, and I really connected with that,” she said, recalling her grandmother’s arranged marriage while reading about Juliet’s. “How else could I possibly connect to a 400-year-old writer?”

For Karim-Cooper, then, understanding and loving Shakespeare has always been intertwined with issues of race, culture and identity. It’s what prompted her, in “The Great White Bard,” to survey depictions of race in five Shakespeare plays while analyzing the trajectory of debates about the Bard’s relationship to the subject.

In her book, Karim-Cooper studies representations of Aaron the Moor in “Titus Andronicus,” Shylock and the Prince of Morocco in “The Merchant of Venice,” Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra,” Caliban in “The Tempest,” and Othello in his eponymous tragedy – all characters who are “othered” by the plays themselves and their subsequent reception. Karim-Cooper also addresses subtle misogynoir – a hatred of Black women – in “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet,” interrogating the plays’ use of language like “Ethiop” to summon up, in her own words, a “Black foil for White virtue.”

Race-conscious Shakespeare scholarship isn’t new. One of the first modern works to explore the topic, said Karim-Cooper, was “Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama,” published in 1965 by Eldred Jones, a Sierra Leonean academic. Two decades later, Trinidadian playwright and historian Errol Hill’s 1984 book, “Shakespeare in Sable,” offered previously unexamined historical context around Black Shakespeare performers.

But the “first real push” for Shakespeare and race scholarship occurred in the 1990s and early 2000s, said Ayanna Thompson, a regents professor of English at Arizona State University. Black American feminist scholars including Thompson, Margo Hendricks and Kim F. Hall took intersectional approaches to addressing these questions. Karim-Cooper, who cited Hall’s 1995 book, “Things of Darkness,” in her own doctoral thesis, calls it the “gold standard” and notes that in subsequent decades, other Shakespeare scholars have built on these scholars’ work – something she aims to do in “The Great White Bard” and her public-engagement work at the Globe.

Although Karim-Cooper’s new book tackles a long-standing scholarly question, it is remarkable for its accessibility, both to nonspecialist readers and to those who find themselves more invested in today’s politics than those of early English modernity. She anchors her claims to current events, bolstering arguments about Shakespeare being hijacked by White nationalists with a reference to a little-known letter sent by American far-right extremists to Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, reassuring the library that the mob had “no intention of damaging, trespassing, or otherwise altering your facility in anyway” during the violent events. And Karim-Cooper compares former president Barack Obama’s perceived proximity to Whiteness – and the ensuing respect he earned from both liberals and conservatives – to Othello’s ability to negotiate White spaces.

For her, these comparisons aren’t ahistoric but necessary if we’re to combat Bardolatry – the uncritical adulation of Shakespeare. “If you are going to hail a writer from 400 years ago as the greatest writer of all time,” she said, “then you need to look at him in relation to the contemporary moment. Because the moment you don’t do that, he can be bracketed from it all and just kept on his pedestal.”

But Karim-Cooper, in “The Great White Bard,” makes it clear she isn’t going to take up the question of whether the Bard himself is to blame.

“I don’t want to think that he was racist,” she said, adding that she wonders whether her mind is “fully decolonized” in admitting this. To be sure, in a play like “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare could be “saying something about medieval antisemitism as opposed to . . . saying something about Jews,” she said, “because he is just as harsh in his representation of Christians who are money-centered. So there’s something going on there that is beyond just the simplicity of racism.”

Her contemporaries – also women of color whose work pushes back against the canonical portrayal of Shakespeare – aren’t interested in playing the blame game, either.

“The man’s dead, for goodness sake,” said Nandini Das, a professor of early modern literature and culture at the University of Oxford who has worked closely with Karim-Cooper. “I’m much more interested in the text itself, and how the text circulates in its own time and in the now, rather than worrying about the ethical and moral and ideological status of a long-dead writer, as good as he might have been.”

Thompson, the Arizona State professor, whom Karim-Cooper considers her “best friend,” agreed that conversations about Shakespeare and race are more productive when they are focused not on Shakespeare’s culpability for racism but on “what we do with his plays moving forward.”

Adaptation has slowly become part of the Globe’s appeal to a wider audience. A decade ago, it organized the Globe to Globe Festival, a series of 37 plays in 37 languages. Karim-Cooper fondly remembers the Urdu-language rendition of “The Taming of the Shrew” staged by a Pakistani theater company – a performance that reminded her why she, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, was first drawn to Shakespeare all those years ago.

As someone who has divided her lifetime almost evenly between the U.K. and the United States (“I still don’t feel British,” she confessed), Karim-Cooper said she sees the British resistance to examining race in Shakespeare’s work as an outgrowth of the Bard’s status as a national icon. “More work is being produced, and it’s causing anxiety among some in the White academic mainstream,” she said.

Like King Lear riding out a storm, advocates of race-conscious Shakespeare scholarship and performance have weathered a torrent of criticism from those who see their work as unconventional at best and heretical at worst. But Lear, exhausted by his surroundings and maddened by injustice, resigns to silence. “No, I will be the pattern of all patience,” he decides mid-tempest. “I will say nothing.”

In the spirit of combating Bardolatry, Karim-Cooper refuses to take a page out of Lear’s playbook and stand by patiently. She has something urgent to say, and in “The Great White Bard,” she isn’t afraid to say it.



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