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The Great White Bard

Farah Karim-Cooper

Oneworld Publications, April 2023


Review by Delon Jessop 


Farah Karim-Cooper presents a challenging deep dive into Shakespeare, race and legacy in her new book The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future.

Having fallen in love with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at fifteen, Karim-Cooper now holds the post of Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London, and also Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe. By her own admission, she acknowledges this is not a book written to condemn Shakespeare, but rather to see him in his totality: 

‘Cancelling Shakespeare would put me out of work, so my campaign to protect him is profoundly pragmatic. But, more importantly, I love him. I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays. But to love Shakespeare means to know him.’

We’re first made to unpack our beliefs of Shakespeare through Cooper’s analysis of portraits and sculptures from the period, and the ideas they were intended to uphold:

‘The Shakespeare of Westminster Abbey is depicted in seventeenth century dress, with his elbow resting upon a pile of books, the bust of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V and Richard III carved into the plinth to demonstrate the playwright’s connection to British monarchical power through his stories and patronage.’

Alongside this, we are provided with political and religious commentaries which further inform her findings. Karim-Cooper argues that only in understanding how we have exalted Shakespeare, can we begin to understand why we may have chosen to look past the darker corners of his work. 

‘The perception of Shakespeare as universal genius and the ‘god of all our idolatry’ was born during this period of oppression. As the nation began to view itself as the epitome of civilisation, Shakespeare took on this symbolic burden too. He was and is still considered universal, because humanity, reason, creativity and civilisation were qualities strictly attributed to whiteness in the periods writing on race.’

Despite his actuate awareness of the human condition, some modern critics maintain that texts such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello continue to perpetuate racial stereotypes. However, Karim-Cooper argues that Shakespeare’s work is not as polarising as many believe.

‘Why do some view Shylock as a horribly antisemitic portrayal and others view him as sympathetic, emotionally evocative, a hero even? Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously. Contradiction and dichotomy often underpin questions of identity in his work’

Karim-Cooper also reminds us that there was a time when painting one’s face black went uncontested; and she adds further context on the challenges that actors of colour confront today when performing.  For instance, actors may be eager for work but are reluctant  to accept roles depicting enslaved people if the writing doesn’t convey their humanity and dignity. 

If the book has a central message, it is that Shakespeare is meant for all. That his stories can resonate with you irrespective of creed or colour, geography or gender. But also that we all have a duty to understand and relay his works in an honest and unbiased way, confronting the language of the day without fear. 

To frame her arguments, Karim-Cooper carefully intertwines passages from texts such as Othello, Love Labour’s Lost, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet and uses them as integral reference points.

The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future is an extensively researched and provocative look at the impact Shakespeare has had on audiences, and challenges us to interrogate ourselves about the way we continue to interpret one of our most cherished playwrights.