Even though Shakespeare refers to the great Egyptian queen as both “tawny” and “black” and his English contemporaries understood Egyptians to be dark-skinned, why did a major British production of Antony and Cleopatra not cast a Black Cleopatra until Doña Croll in 1991? Because too many of the Bard’s admirers have failed to address, or even notice, race in his plays.
Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani American professor of literature and Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, challenges that willful ignorance in The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race. Karim-Cooper, who also serves as Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, argues that the bad alternatives to an honest conversation about race in Shakespeare are either to dismiss his work or stubbornly cling to the stale tradition of brushing aside race—both of which oppose her desire for the plays to speak to a wider public.
Aiming to include non-academic readers in her audience, Karim-Cooper takes a close look at characters who are clearly people of color: Othello, Aaron the Moor and the Prince of Morocco. She considers more ambiguous cases, like Cleopatra and Caliban, and also ranges farther afield to depictions of otherness such as the witches in Macbeth, noting how Shakespeare routinely relies upon racialized imagery and dehumanizing language: white/fair equals good; dark equals bad and ugly.
Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare employs racist and antisemitic tropes in his characters, yet also writes them as multifaceted individuals. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously,” Karim-Cooper states. Indeed, Othello is brave and forthright as well as lethally jealous; we hear Caliban’s side of the story as well as Prospero’s. The evidence of Black people and interracial marriage in Tudor England introduces the possibility of Shakespeare having actually encountered people of color. And Karim-Cooper’s analysis of The Merchant of Venice might make one wonder whether Shakespeare knew any Jews passing as Christians for safety.
Our perception of Shakespeare’s work is ever-evolving: It wasn’t until the 18th century that he was even glamorized as “the Bard” by theater star David Garrick. Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more nuanced and informed approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help his work endure.