Folger Shakespeare Library names Farah Karim-Cooper its new director

Farah Kareem-Cooper. PHOTO: X @ProfFarahKC

The Folger Shakespeare Library named Farah Karim-Cooper as its next director Monday. When she takes up the role in October, she will be the first person of color to lead the institution in its 92-year history.

Karim-Cooper comes from the leadership team of Shakespeare’s Globe, where she has worked for 20 years and founded its Shakespeare and Race Festival and Antiracist Shakespeare Webinar series. The Globe, with its “huge theater program and a small research and collections program,” could be seen as the flip side of the Folger, she notes. But there is also an obvious kinship between the two institutions: “We’re both seen, I suppose, as the sort of beacons or mother ships of Shakespeare in our locations.”

When she saw the job opening at the Folger, “I couldn’t resist applying. Also,” she added, “as an American, I would quite like to go home now.”

Her first encounter with Shakespeare was via a Franco Zeffirelli film, shown in her high school classroom in Houston. Though she didn’t truly fall in love with the field until college, she was instantly struck by how the plays could “accommodate so many meanings and people and identities.”

“I remember watching that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a 15-year-old and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a bit like my grandmother’s story’ – she was forced to marry somebody she didn’t know. And it’s a bit like my mum’s story, who was also told she couldn’t marry the man she loves, but she married him anyway,” said Karim-Cooper. “I found it really shocking and extraordinary that someone like Shakespeare, who was 400 years old and Elizabethan, knew something about Pakistani women. Of course, he didn’t really – but it just demonstrates the cultural capacity of his works.”

Karim-Cooper, also a professor at King’s College London, is the author most recently of “The Great White Bard,” which places close readings of Shakespeare’s text within the sociopolitical context of the Tudor era. “To love Shakespeare means to know him,” she writes. “At some point love demands that we reconcile ourselves with flaws and limitations. Only then can there be a deeper understanding and affinity with another.”

She succeeds Michael Witmore, who is stepping down on June 30 after leading the Folger through an $80.5 million renovation. (The new spaces are scheduled to open to the public earlier that month; Greg Prickman, the Folger’s director of collections and exhibitions, will serve as interim director until Karim-Cooper’s arrival in the fall.)

Asked to name what she considered Shakespeare’s most underrated play, Karim-Cooper was decisive.

“I always get in trouble for this, because it’s a little controversial, but it is ‘Titus Andronicus.’ It was criticized for years because it’s quite sensationalist, but it does copy classical tragedy in that it’s very, very, very obscenely violent,” she said, later adding, “But what I like about the play is Shakespeare saying something about the past – saying how, when we emulate the past, we have to be careful, because we’re also potentially emulating the violence of the past.”



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