The Great White Bard: How To Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race

By Farah Karim-Cooper
328 pp. New York: Viking

Reviewed by Don Rubin*

Point: Whoever was behind the pseudonym William Shakespeare (and I believe it was a well-connected aristocrat and not the barely-educated play broker and occasional actor from Stratford who is usually credited) there is no argument that he, she or they were pridefully white and were writing for an almost exclusively white audience from a supremely white perspective.

This being so, how do theatre companies playing the words of the Great White Bard today – especially when dealing with racial issues — handle contemporary sensitivities? How do those who teach the words of the Great White Bard handle questions pertaining not only to race but also to religion and even gender? Should we be giving the Great White Bard a pass on his metaphors and similes, his jokes and his jibes at the expense of those from — let’s call it — other tribes? And how does one, should one, negotiate all this while still staying true to the texts? Was Shakespeare a racist by 21st-century standards and if he was how can we still like him as much as we do? Or was the Great White Bard actually challenging the tropes of his own time, provoking Elizabethan audiences to think more liberally?

These are the core questions asked and, to some extent, answered in The Great White Bard: How To Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race, a book that has been getting some real attention from Shakespeare companies and Shakespeare teachers particularly in the anglophone world. As well it should. Written sensitively and thoughtfully by Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani-born professor of literature at Kings College, London (she is also the Director of Education at the reconstructed Globe Theatre), it is clear that she certainly loves the Bard and wants to keep his too-white corporate logo flying proudly into the future by utilizing a mix of edgy erudition and ethical ethnicity to make that happen. So both woke and not-so-woke communities may want to dig into this Bardic matter while it boils on the front burner of matters Shakespearean.

Clearly, Karim-Cooper has set for herself a difficult line to walk. She wades in full tilt both identifying ticklish issues and then trying to rationalize and explain them. In some instances, she succeeds, in others not so much. But most admirably throughout this volume, she works very hard to praise the Bard.  At her least convincing, she does it with lengthy plot rehashes (Macbeth, for example) along with what sometimes seems little more than lectures on the history of racism and immorality as it connects to witches. At her best, she shows us a Bard extremely woke for his time.

One of only three UK full professors of colour (she tells us) who focus on the teaching of Shakespeare, (all from South Asian backgrounds), Prof. Karim-Cooper wonders not only whether the whole concept of “race” actually existed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but also about the realities of an actor today performing Shakespeare while black. That is, why “ethnic minority performers [are] asked to erase their identities.” Moving back and forth between the issues and the eras, she focuses on five specific plays– Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. In doing so, she looks at not only the black characters but also the Moors and tawny queens, the Jews and indigenous islanders who people these works. Her goal: to shed light on what it means to be “raced.”

Even asking such a question, of course, puts her in a minority position because, as she says, “Academic orthodoxy alleges that race didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time so racism couldn’t possibly exist.”  She argues against this position because history, she tells us, indicates that privateers such as Sir Francis Drake led early slave-trading expeditions and that members of the Queen’s own privy council (including Sir Robert Dudley, a man as close to the Queen as anyone) found it lucrative to actually back such economic forays. The Queen even granted Sir John Hawkins a coat of arms that illustrated and celebrated his own slave-trading ventures (it showed a Moor in captivity). So race was noticed and clearly did exist.

Indeed, she tells us that

Between 1640 and 1807 Britain was the most dominant of the European slave-trading countries. British ships…transported 3.1 million Africans to the British colonies in the Caribbean and Americas…The East India Company, created in 1600, also ventured into slave-trading, collecting Africans from both the East and West coasts of Africa to support its settlements across Asia and India. (37)

Warming to her historical task, she quotes the 19th century educator and philosopher Thomas Carlyle — “a dedicated white supremacist”– as being a key part of the construction of a white Anglo-Saxon world with Shakespeare as king.  “Yes, this Shakespeare is ours,” he wrote, “we are of one blood and kind with him” (42). That is, “The Shakespeare that we think we know was invented in the eighteenth century by a nation bent on defining itself as an empire, a conqueror of the world and all the atrocities that brought with it” (275).

(For another equally fascinating view of the construction of Shakespeare as God of the British Empire, I heartily recommend a read of Wall Street Journal cultural critic Elizabeth Winkler’s recent Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies published by Simon & Schuster. But I digress.)

In Karim-Cooper’s analysis of Titus Andronicus, she specifically argues that the portrait of Aaron the Moor does not “neatly comply with the fanciful racial stereotypes” of the Elizabethan age. Aaron is allowed to display black pride, she says, “a self-love that no other character in the play exhibits” (72).  

Linking the play’s interest in race to today’s press obsession with the marriage of Prince Harry and Megan Markle, she notes that Titus Andronicus places an interracial couple front and centre which serves as a nucleus of the violence in the play. The same potentially occurs with a black Cleopatra and a white Antony. Othello too “shows us what happens when interracial and clandestine marriage occurs in a world where the continuation of purity and whiteness is de rigeur. The Tempest hints at it too…when Sebastian criticises the nobleman Alonso for letting his daughter get married to an African” (97). Rather than apologising for what can be seen as overt racism, Karim-Cooper says that Shakespeare might well have written these plays with “race as the very motor…”

As she  sees it, “Black and white are unstable notions in Shakespeare, transferable between characters as the meanings become detachable from skin… in both tragedies and comedies not typically linked to race.” She asks intriguingly what might have been in Richard Burbage’s mind when he first stepped onto the Globe stage as Othello wearing blackface, gesturing in ways that felt Moorish to him, with black men and possibly black women in the audience?

Karim-Cooper actually makes us wonder if William Shakespeare had been black, would he have reversed certain images, praising night over day, moon over sun, dark over light? Would he have written not of a white jewel on an Ethiope’s ear but of a black jewel on a European’s ear? She bends over backwards to show that Shakespeare actually intended his black and mixed-race characters to be full human beings with agency. As she sees it, “Whatever Shakespeare’s views, he asks the audience to confront their own attitudes …” (158).

Ultimately, she says it is up to directors of these plays to find their own answers to such questions.

To stop performing, teaching or talking about [these plays] would be…hiding away from the past….We have…to find brave ways of unpacking the difficulty the plays so definitively and unashamedly contain. Ugliness is as much a compelling, attractive and fascinating spectacle as is beauty and a deeper awareness of its presence, of its depth and of its complexity provides directors, actors – and audiences – with an opportunity to see more keenly the subtleties – the interleaving golden threads – of [plays] too easily dismissed as simply ‘a problem.’ (177)

Even in The Tempest Shakespeare is drawing our attention to interracial marriage and issues connected to colonization and slavery. Regarding the former, “Sebastian crudely suggests that Alonso has prostituted his daughter to an African for the benefit of easy trade and that had it not been for that wedding, there’d have been no shipwreck” ( 184). Regarding the latter, she suggests Shakespeare is really asking “how…our attempts to prosper by subjugating the planet and many of its people, suppressing their culture and language, [has] limited and endangered the existence of us all?” (192)

In the end, Karim-Cooper is suggesting — perhaps wishfully — that Shakespeare is really posing questions that we are still grappling with today and suggests that Shakespeare can “help” on our collective journey of dealing with difficult issues.  “Shakespeare cannot remedy the world but his work offers us a medium for exploring it and for harnessing hope from our own human-made catastrophes” and was exploring “different modes of racial formation with compelling poetic virtuosity”  (212-13).

Her point: the Bard’s work “reveals that racial formation like political stability is built on slippery vocabulary and precariously constructed ideas of what constitutes right and wrong.” She underscores her point by saying “His poetic strategy…feels interracial” (232). And yet she still acknowledges that sometimes the strategy feels uncomfortable. Noting that “these tropes…go some way towards colonising the minds of people of colour who also digest these images from an early age ….This means acknowledging that the poetry in some of our favourite plays can be beautiful to some and problematic for those who do not represent the traditional ideal” (235). Yet “Shakespeare can be, with some mediation, for everyone…. I like to imagine that Shakespeare himself saw these ideas as problematic even then. Why else would he stage them other than to be provocative, political, and at times, critical of his own moment?”  (246-47)

That is, the plays are still very much alive and it is they that we all must continue to grapple with. The fact is that “Shakespeare’s England was populated by people from many racial and geographical backgrounds…. No one group [therefore] can claim entitlement over these words or has special access to the gloriously diverse, discomforting and capacious store of words that is Shakespeare….we all have the right to claim the Bard” (280).

Amen that. 


*Don Rubin is both the Books and Managing Editor of Critical Stages. Series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Toronto’s York University, he is the President of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (doubtaboutwill.org).

Copyright © 2024 Don Rubin
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