How to love Shakespeare
Read an extract from Professor Farah Karim-Cooper’s The Great White Bard on falling for Shakespeare – and reading him through race
Can you remember meeting William Shakespeare for the first time? My first encounter was in my English class as a 15-year-old. We read Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy about sex, drugs and the whirligig of adolescence. The language was challenging and yet the story took hold of me because, in many ways, it felt Pakistani: a young girl in a patriarchal society is forced to marry someone she doesn’t know though she’s desperate to follow her own heart. This is the archetypal South Asian teenage experience.
I did not grow up in a terribly religious or patriarchal household; my grandmother, born in pre-partition India, did, however, and her memories stirred my imagination. She described how her father kept her under lock and key and how scared she was on her wedding day because she was marrying a man she didn’t know. But it was my mother’s story of courage and rebellion that provided a direct link with Juliet’s character. At the age of 22 she married my father, a divorced sea captain with four children. This was, of course, against her father’s will, at least at first. But, like Juliet, she knew exactly what she wanted: the love of her life.
I love Shakespeare with a passion. But if my ninth-grade English teacher hadn’t played a VHS cassette of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960s film version, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (with whom I instantly fell in love), I probably wouldn’t be a Shakespeare scholar today. Zeffirelli’s film captured the thrill of teenage rebellion, fury and the passion that was entirely absent from the classroom. I would go on to read a Shakespeare play each year of high school, but no other story packed the same emotional punch as that of ‘Juliet and her Romeo’.
Contemporary society’s knee-jerk reaction when faced with the troublesome and oh-so-white legends of literature and art is to dismiss them. They are dinosaurs – racists, misogynists, classists, ignorant of the ‘lived experience’ of the majority of people today – therefore they have nothing left to teach us. As for Shakespeare, after centuries of reverence and acclaim, perhaps it’s fine to say: time’s up.
I feel this would be a mistake. Cancelling Shakespeare would put me out of work – but more importantly, I love him. I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays. To love Shakespeare means to know him. To love is to get to grips with the qualities in others and crucially in ourselves that need to be challenged. At some point, love demands that we reconcile ourselves with flaws and limitations. Only then can there be a deeper understanding and affinity with another.
I believe there is a far more exciting prospect than cancelling or fossilising the Bard: that is, to read him bravely; to shed the centuries-old elitist constructions of him as the ‘greatest writer in the world’ that only a few are privileged enough to understand. Instead of worshipping his words, we contend with them. Jump inside the plays and dig.
‘I believe there is a far more exciting prospect than cancelling or fossilising the Bard: that is, to read him bravely…’
I don’t wish to sit back and let him wash over me (not always, anyway). Shakespeare’s plays are too immense and powerful; they demand our active participation – they are a conversation, an invitation to imagine and interrogate, not simply to venerate and safeguard. Reading Shakespeare through race allows us to confront crucial questions of our day: What is the history of racism in Britain, in the USA? How are our icons or national treasures complicit with white supremacy and how do we come to terms with and still make space for them in modern times?
If we want to know Shakespeare’s plays and know them intimately, we need to ask: Did ‘race’ exist in his time? Does his work engage with it? Why are Black and ethnic minority performers asked to erase their identities, while whiteness is rendered invisible in modern performance conventions? Shakespeare, on the page and the stage, is a limitless workhorse for such questions and finding ways to answer them is an endlessly thrilling endeavour.
Actors from all backgrounds have been performing Shakespeare for at least 200 years, but in most mainstream venues, white actors are still very much at an advantage, from the parts they get to play, to their makeup and lighting. Yet there are more ethical and inclusive ways to cast Shakespeare productions that might release the multiple meanings of these ever-yielding plays. If Shakespeare is your favourite playwright, reading his plays through race will not threaten that. It may make you uncomfortable at times, but in the end, I believe you’ll know him better, love him more, and all the more enjoy the myriad ways he can be presented by actors of all backgrounds on the 21st-century stage.
This is an edited extract from The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future by Professor Farah Karim-Cooper, published by Oneworld, and available to buy now from Shakespeare’s Globe Shop.