In The Great White Bard (Viking, Aug.), Karim-Cooper, director of education at Shakespeare’s Globe, examines the playwright’s portrayals of race and ethnicity.
What motivated you to write about the Bard’s treatment of race?
I have been thinking about Shakespeare and identity for a long time. I work at Shakespeare’s Globe, which is a public-facing organization where people come to worship Shakespeare, and I’m there to problematize that idea. When I created the Shakespeare and Race Festival in 2018, I invited scholars, theater artists, actors, directors, and producers who were people of color to come and talk about what it means to them to work in the Shakespeare performance industry. What became clear was that people had barely been having this conversation. I had the idea for this book back in 2019, but in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, it became almost more imperative that I write it.
How do Shakespeare’s depictions of race compare to those by other playwrights of his era?
Shakespeare reflects or mediates the perceptions of race that were circulating in his time, but sometimes it looks as though Shakespeare is himself indulging in anti-Black racism or antisemitism, when I think it’s actually more complex than that. He’s not the only one who had characters that were raced, as it were. There were Moors or Black Africans as well as Muslim and Jewish characters in the works of other playwrights, but Shakespeare made more of their inclusion than his contemporaries. His characters aren’t one-dimensional or allegorical figures of vice or evil. They have a lot of complexity and depth and challenge audiences to this day.
Did you discover anything new about Shakespeare while writing this book?
It was really fascinating to discover links between taste, culture, and anthropological research into racial classification in the 18th century. Somehow these different disciplines were speaking to each other and they all had something to say about race. This is the point in history when the slave trade is making English people very wealthy, and so they cultivate a sense of cultural selfhood based around nationality and whiteness, and Shakespeare’s work became caught up in that. That was a huge light bulb moment, when I saw that the rise of Shakespeare happened simultaneous to the rise of the slave trade and Britain’s maritime power.
How do we interrogate canonical works in ways that make them relevant for today’s readers?
I would always start from the position of don’t discard a book. Think about why it’s there in the first place. Why has it survived 150 or 200 or 500 years? Then put it into conversation with contemporary works, which is a really important thing to do. If you put pieces of art in conversation with each other, you can keep the conversation alive, whether you’re a teacher in the classroom or a director in rehearsal.