CHOSEN AS ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: TIME, NPR, The New Yorker, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly
As we witness monuments of white Western history fall, many are asking how is Shakespeare still relevant?
Professor Farah Karim-Cooper has dedicated her career to the Bard, which is why she wants to take the playwright down from his pedestal to unveil a Shakespeare for the twenty-first century. If we persist in reading Shakespeare as representative of only one group, as the very pinnacle of the white Western canon, then he will truly be in peril.
Combining piercing analysis of race, gender and otherness in famous plays from Antony and Cleopatra to The Tempest with a radical reappraisal of Elizabethan London, The Great White Bard asks us neither to idealize nor bury Shakespeare but instead to look him in the eye and reckon with the discomforts of his plays, playhouses and society. In inviting new perspectives and interpretations, we may yet prolong and enrich his extraordinary legacy.
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.
But sometimes leaves the reader confused as to interpretation and personal naïveté. I enjoyed learning more about many plays and historical context - then and now.