When Farah Karim-Cooper first went to her bosses at Shakespeare’s Globe with the idea of staging a festival about Shakespeare and race, she got the distinct feeling that it was not regarded as urgent subject matter. In the intervening four years, the issue has proved not only urgent but incendiary. Karim-Cooper – and the Globe – have faced vicious social media abuse and trolling for programming events on anti-racism. Further afield, the matter has become even more inflammatory: earlier this month, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare festival received death threats for programming the Bard’s work with references to slavery, and for its casting of women and non-binary actors. The charge of doing sacrilege to Shakespeare’s apparently sacred texts has never been more contested, it seems, and clearly comes with high stakes.
That first Globe festival in 2018 orchestrated by Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, and co-director of education at the Globe, raised so many questions and conversations – from issues around casting to opening up the text to children of diverse backgrounds – that it became an annual fixture.
Now in its fourth year, the Shakespeare and Race festival, launching on Friday, brings together actors, academics, students and artistic directors for discussions on performance alongside poetry readings, workshops and the launch of a research partnership with King’s College London, which aims to investigate the pipeline into Shakespeare studies for scholars of colour.
“We’ve had wonderful white male scholars writing popular books about Shakespeare and they give you that nostalgic bard,” says Karim-Cooper. “But it delivers a Shakespeare that doesn’t feel like it’s for everybody. I don’t need everybody to love Shakespeare but I do think people need to feel entitled to it if they want it. Think about the British classroom and how diverse it is racially. You don’t get the full flesh of Shakespeare if you’re reading him through one lens – and the lens that everybody has been trained to read him through is a white-centric lens.”
This festival strives to widen that lens but its trajectory has been a bumpy one: when Karim-Cooper attempted to put together a panel comprising Shakespeare scholars of colour in Britain four years ago, she found there were virtually none and had to reach to the US. Some people, in the early years of the festival, wrote to her in confusion because “they thought there was no question of race in Shakespeare’s time”.
The response to anti-racist webinars in relation to teaching and performing Shakespeare in 2021 was more aggressive. Both Karim-Cooper and the Globe received horrendous Twitter trolling, with Karim-Cooper made to feel as if she was “somehow assaulting Shakespeare and the good name of the canon”.
There have been gains since, and important questions around the understanding and staging of Shakespeare are on the agenda this year. For Akiya Henry, an actor who has worked with the RSC and recently played Lady Macduff in Yaël Farber’s production of The Tragedy of Macbeth, this festival is “vital in encouraging us to change our relationship with Shakespeare”.
The plays, she says, are for everyone – if we allow it. Her own passion for Shakespeare began at school, when she fell in love with the verse, but she realises this is not the experience for every child, or indeed every actor. “Being cast in a Shakespeare production can be daunting, especially for actors from the global majority,” she says. “We think of Mark Rylance and Judi Dench and all those who speak the text, and feel you have to speak it in a specific way. But I realised it was about engaging with the story. Once you have that, you can unlock the text and find ways to connect.”
Casting and colour-blindness is another issue raised over the years at the festival. Cameron Knight, an actor, associate professor and head of the acting programming at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who is part of this year’s festival, thinks colour-blind casting is no longer viable: “What it does is erases the identity of a person that you’ve hired. To have true diversity you have to make room for the experience of the person that’s doing it.”
For Henry, too, actors bring themselves to characters and that includes their heritage. “At some point [the director] has to identify [people of colour] in the room and acknowledge their experience is different. If I go into a rehearsal room, if it’s predominantly white, I need you to know I’m a black woman and sometimes my relationship to this work will be somewhat different.”
She says casting “has to be part of a bigger vision rather than the idea of diversity for the sake of optics or the idea that it would simply be ‘cool’ to cast a black actor in a certain part. So the question is: ‘How is this diversity serving the truth of this story, and how is this story serving me as an actor in this space?’” For her, a production in its rehearsal stage cannot shy away from the “elephant in the room” when it comes to issues around race, both in casting and in the interpretation of story and character.
We do a lot of colour-blind reading, too, with Shakespeare, adds Karim-Cooper. “There are lines that are racist. I’m not saying Shakespeare is an anti-black racist. But teachers tend to bypass these lines because they don’t even notice them.” One example is the recurring use of the word “Ethiope”, a racial pejorative in Shakespeare’s age that appears in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Lysander uses it to refer to Hermia’s complexion.
Henry does not think the text should necessarily be “cleansed” or edited of such problematic words but subverted so that they expose biases – casual, unconscious or otherwise – in our world today. However, she says, such approaches can only happen if directors and cast have open conversations about race in the rehearsal room.
Iqbal Khan, associate director at the Birmingham Rep, is also taking part in the Globe festival. His early encounters with Shakespeare were positive but he felt gradually distanced when he saw how narrowly they were interpreted by the world around him: “I remember, when I was perhaps eight, recording Shakespeare scenes with my brothers – Macbeth, Othello, Lear. I imagined the characters were all versions of me, whatever their age, race or gender. This changed radically when I first saw the plays on TV and heard them in recordings. So began a lifelong dislocation between what that child owned as his truth and the world imposing hierarchies of authority and exclusion.”
His engagement with Shakespeare as actor and director has been marked by considerations around race, challenges to power and questions of identity: Prospero’s sense of isolation and exile in The Tempest, for example, and the importance of casting a black central actor in Othello who is not playing a self-hating black character but a man marooned in a white world. Henry concurs: telling the story of Othello through a black lens makes us see it as a play about a black man living in a predominantly white society and, she says, “that’s what every black person experiences in western culture”.
Knight directed a production of The Tempest featuring an African American Prospero, and a transgender Trinculo and Ariel, staged at the Utah Shakespeare festival this year. Adjustments were made so that the production still “told the story beautifully but also acknowledged the experience of the people doing the show”. Was it well received by the audience? Yes, he says: it sparked conversation and inspired a lot of young people. But he is painfully aware of serious resistance in other quarters.
The charge against those who dare to reinvent and reinterpret Shakespeare is of gross intervening in and destruction of the original text. But, Karim-Cooper points out, there is no one original text, only folios and quartos. For Khan, it is a case of actively pushing for interpretations that are urgent and radical. We must “allow ourselves to intervene – to use these great, problematic texts to explore the world now. The texts will survive our interventions. They are messy and vital. There is no privileged perspective in these works, no Shakespeare-shaped hole. We all have licence.”