cover image The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race

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

Farah Karim-Cooper. Viking, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-48937-6

In this electrifying study, Karim-Cooper (The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage), a literature professor at King’s College London, analyzes the treatment of race in Shakespeare’s plays, discussing how these depictions have contributed to the development of racial categories and been co-opted for political ends. According to the author, the villainous depiction of Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus equated the character’s Blackness with wickedness, while references to Ethiopians in Romeo and Juliet are meant to contrast them with Juliet’s fair “complexion and virtue.” Karim-Cooper criticizes 18th-century scholars who transformed Shakespeare into a “quasi-religious figure” by holding up his works as exemplars of white “English exceptionalism” to justify Britain’s imperial ambitions. Instead, she argues, the complicated depictions of nonwhite characters in such plays as Antony and Cleopatra and Othello should be seen as opportunities to “interrogate the systems of power” that the characters inhabit. For example, she suggests that The Tempest’s depiction of Prospero as a cruel colonizer and his Indigenous slave Caliban as an attempted rapist “does not allow us to empathise exclusively with either.” The rigorous and nuanced analysis stimulates, and Karim-Cooper’s evenhanded approach refuses to excuse Shakespeare’s racism while insisting that his plays still have much to offer modern audiences. This is a vital contribution to the shelf on Shakespeare. (Aug.)