Note From the Field 3

Farah Karim-Cooper

[Print edition page number: 183]

Bringing Premodern Critical Race Consciousness to Shakespeare’s Globe

I want to begin this essay by declaring that I deployed Premodern Critical Race Studies (PCRS) relatively late in my scholarly practice and career. While studying for my doctorate on cosmetics and early modern drama at the University of London in 1998, I attempted to pursue a critical race interpretation of women, beauty, and ideals of whiteness. Dismayingly, I was actively discouraged from doing so. I was in an academic institution where there were no scholars of color to speak of and no other students of color researching Shakespeare; the methodologies and expertise available were, therefore, limited in this domain. I was emphatically told that if I were to pursue this line of enquiry, I’d fail my Ph.D.; race was not considered a viable topic because it was “anachronistic.” As such, I would be engaging in “projecting” my own identity onto the early modern text and analyzing a “fantasy” of racial construction in the period. I was being told that my observations were not to be trusted, that my lens was skewed by my own ethnicity and lived experience in a brown body.

I had just read Kim F. Hall’s book, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, published two years before I started doing research for my Ph.D. research. She had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the discourse of beauty and whiteness were intersecting and that any discussion of cosmetic beauty had to engage with the linguistic and visual[184] articulation of race. Since then, Margo Hendricks has reminded us of the critical genealogy of PCRS, that the study of racial formation and structures of difference had been a topic of discussion for decades by the early 2000s, and that it was a discipline that had been mostly ignored by much of mainstream Shakespeare scholarship. Yet, she observes, this is still an issue: the “problem of race and periodization continues, largely due to academic gatekeeping.”[1] During my doctoral study, none of my own instructors were alert to this critical legacy, demonstrating the repeated violence enacted upon scholars of color in particular that is the omission, denial, and consequent relegation of Premodern Critical Race Studies to the margins. My status anxiety as a graduate student, my internalized racism, and my experiential impression that I categorically did not belong in British academia made me back down.

By 2017, PCRS and its methodologies finally emerged fully in my scholarship and in my curatorial practice within the public Shakespeare organization where I have worked since 2004. This essay will briefly chart this curatorial process and will remark upon the ways that cultural organizations have the power to integrate scholarly conversations into their programming that can influence and even alter the public discourse in impactful ways.

Shakespeare’s Globe and its White History

Shakespeare’s Globe has a legacy of Anglo-American privilege, although it was founded by immigrants, the American Sam Wanamaker and New Zealander Theo Crosby, who both were left-wing in their politics and had experienced marginalization in their own histories. The Globe nevertheless became associated with Tudor nostalgia, and with Shakespearean universality, which assumes that white, English exceptionalism is the norm and aspiration. It seems odd to make such a judgment, having spent almost twenty years there as its Head of Research and now one of its Directors of the Education department. But despite the intentions of its artists and educators, Shakespeare was nonetheless presented and received gladly as an icon of white, English identity.

It is undeniable that over the Globe’s twenty-five years, it has created a richly varied program of education and artistic work. Casting diversely since the outset, though not consistently, the Globe was an actor’s space and through its outreach and international fellowships, aimed to attract actors of all backgrounds. Meanwhile, the organization’s research strategy revolved around the theatre buildings ​—​ the Globe Theatre and its indoor Jacobean counterpart, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ​—​ their fabric and construction, the craft and legacy of Tudor joinery, early modern theatre company practices, and the staging of early modern drama. This focus informed the creation and content of the Masters in Shakespeare Studies taught jointly between the Globe and King’s College London for twenty years. Analyses of race and racial formation, however, did not figure into this matrix of research inquiries, however.

Despite its celebration of English theater history, the Globe has never been an insular organization. The creation of the Globe-to-Globe projects (international companies performing at the Globe and touring Globe shows into every country in the world), the talks and conferences on Shakespeare and Islam, Shakespeare and the Jews, and intercultural Shakespeare over the years signal that the organization recognized and acknowledged Shakespeare’s global appeal and proved England did not “own” the Bard, nor should it. Moreover, its education department’s quest to reach hundreds of thousands of school children through its many outreach projects, its Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank program (which gives thousands of London and Birmingham schools free tickets to a play produced specifically for them) and its workshop program focusing on active approaches have introduced[185] Shakespeare to diverse audiences of children for over thirty years. But in spite of this rich history of access, global-facing events, and artistic programming, the critical vocabularies that enable us to consider race and racial thinking did not enter rehearsal rooms, studios, or classrooms. The Globe, like most theatres in Britain, practiced colorblind casting in the interest of diversity. Artistic leaders programmed Shakespeare’s “race” plays repeatedly, but without problematizing them, appointing only white directors to direct them. Once in rehearsal, there was no infrastructure enabling actors to unpack the racist and racialized language and characterizations in those plays. Shows continued to be designed, blocked, and lit without consciousness and attention to the effects of staging upon black and brown actors. As film studies academic Richard Dyer has shown, white faces are the norm, the baseline upon which photographic and theatrical technologies have been built, which ultimately have “the effect of privileging the white performer.”[2] Indeed, the Globe’s two historically informed theatres, particularly the indoor, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, has perpetuated unknowingly this “privileging of the white performer.” In the Education wing, there were conferences, seminars and lectures programmed every year that did not engage at all with PCRS, and rarely had a BIPOC scholar spoken on any of our platforms. Shakespeare’s Globe inadvertently reflected other Shakespearean academic and performance spaces in the UK, which were, and largely still are, white spaces.

Shakespeare and Race in the White Space

“As long as whiteness is felt to be the human condition, then it alone both defines normality and fully inhabits it . . . the equation of being white with being human secures a position of power.”[3] This belief in the normativity of whiteness and white experience characterizes the Shakespeare academy and much of the scholarship it produces, as well as performance venues dedicated to the Bard. American sociologist Elijah Anderson notes that a “city’s public spaces, workplaces, and neighborhoods may now be conceptualized essentially as a mosaic of white spaces, black spaces, and cosmopolitan spaces,” the latter defined as “racially diverse islands of civility.”[4] We know that these spaces are not stable; “as demographics change,” Anderson suggests, “public spaces are subject to change as well.” White people who occupy white spaces often do so unawares: what white people perceive to be rather “diverse” environments, Black, Indigenous, People of Color “may see as homogeneously white and privileged.”[5] This misconception characterized Shakespeare’s Globe for many years. With its predominantly white directors, creatives and production teams, its white-only leadership (until now) and its mainly white educators at the time, the Globe had work to do not only to diversify its staff and faculty, but also to commit to developing a sense of belonging. Moreover, the organization would need to ensure that scholars and artists of color felt empowered to effect change and shape the conversation.

In 2017 I proposed a week-long festival on “Shakespeare and Race,” that would focus on Shakespeare studies and theatre performance; it suggested platforming mainly the voices of scholars and theatre artists of color. What felt like an obvious next phase for our research focus, turned out to be much more revolutionary, and I had not grasped the extent of the kind of revolution we could create. None of us anticipated how many people we would be upsetting amongst the community of theatre critics and audiences who had been “fans” of the Globe for many years. I never imagined how many toes we would step on just by asking Black, Asian, and South Asian scholars to take up[186] space and talk about their experience and knowledge of Shakespeare’s world and texts.

Shakespeare and Race was more than a festival; it was an inquiry that would become a permanent focus for the academics and artists based at the Globe. It initially revolved around a set of defining questions:

 How does Shakespeare’s work engage with race, racism and Black people and those hailing from a minority ethnic background?

 What was the early modern experience of race?

 How do modern productions of Shakespeare tackle race?

 How do theatre artists engage or not engage with it?

 Do actors and creatives of color have access to the same opportunities to pursue a career in theatre and to maintain their careers?

 How does unconscious bias enable white actors to have the advantage when it comes to costume, lighting, and set design?

 What does it mean to be from the global majority and study, teach, perform, produce, or read Shakespeare?

 How does antisemitism and anti-Black racism permeate the reception of Shakespeare?

As an international cultural center with iconic theatre spaces and a global presence, we needed to explore the ways Shakespeare’s plays, his theaters, and his moment could be put in dialogue with the present, with our diverse cultures and our diverse bodies. The festival was also a direct response to the 2016 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, edited by Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson, in which they set clear objectives for advancing PCRS, which included the call for deeper, more exploratory conversations about race in performance.[6]

The festival consisted of a Folger Library-sponsored performance of American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb, which dramatizes a Black actor’s experience of and response to Shakespeare, a workshop on unconscious bias in lighting and set design, lectures and interviews with Black and South Asian artists and a two-day conference focused on Anglo-American discussions of Shakespeare and Race, opened by Critical Race theorists and legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Luke Harris, and Devon Carbado. The general public had access to all the events; they read blogs and program notes and listened to an accompanying podcast series, creating the scaffolding necessary to empower them to engage with the conversation in which they were invited to take part. This initiative also enabled participating Black and brown artists in the UK and the US to feel that the Globe was accessible in ways they hadn’t imagined. This is not to say that the Globe’s doors had not been open to BIPOC artists, but did they feel empowered to have high stakes conversations in the rehearsal room? Did they feel like they had somewhere to report or express concerns about microaggressions on site, in the rehearsal rooms or in reviews? Did they feel as if their bodies could ever be brought to bear upon the roles they were playing or were they asked to erase their race and play Shakespeare as if they were white? The festival stimulated conversations and took the lid off a hot pot that had been bubbling for a long time. Subsequently, in 2019, the Globe’s long-standing partnerships and work on drama school training became a subject for an exploration of inclusive practices in actor training and in the industry. That same year, the Globe staged the first all women-of-color production of any Shakespeare play. Richard II, conceived of and directed by its star, Adjoa Andoh and co-directed by Lynette Lynton, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was a response to Brexit and the conversations it provoked about English identity: Who is English? What does it mean to look back on an English past and see that it was not racially homogenous? What better way to explore such questions than[187] with an English history play known for the simultaneous celebration and questioning of “this sceptred Isle” and told entirely by British women of color?

Shakespeare and Race as a method of inquiry explored the many levels of exclusion and white racial privileging that had characterized the Shakespeare industry in the UK and, in large part, the US, but the UK had been leagues behind when it came to having a national conversation about race. The festival left an indelible impression upon the identity of Shakespeare’s Globe and has since led to a larger inquiry about the lack of racial diversity in early modern studies in the UK and in the theatre industry. The fact that, as of 2019, there were still no Black Shakespeare or early modern scholars employed by a UK university led me to host a ‘Diversity forum’ in January of 2020, where I invited early modernists from across the UK to the Globe to discuss this gap and how we could close it as a community of scholars and institutions. It was shocking how many people did not reply to the invitation and how many did not show up. But of those who did, many are now crucial allies and change-makers at their institutions. COVID-19 locked down the country, demonstrating how much more vulnerable ethnically diverse people were to its ravages, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the global rise of Black Lives Matter shone its light upon the theatre industry and the academy in the UK. If anything, our Shakespeare and Race festival, underpinned as it was by Critical Race questions, had launched a journey of change that took on an even more powerful significance and momentum in the face of the brutal reality of systemic racism.

Antiracist Shakespeare and the “Woke” Wars

One of the most disturbing challenges of conducting conversations about race in a public or cultural organization is the racist backlash, fed by the deliberate misunderstanding and willful ignorance of editorialists, conservative, right-wing press and its army of “anti-woke” followers on social media. In 2021, our inquiry developed a new phase, as we partnered with Cambridge University Press to curate free webinars ​—​ Antiracist Shakespeare ​—​ each one featuring a scholar and artist discussing a Shakespeare play in the Globe’s theatre seasons. The webinars are free and easily accessible. Their announcement elicited an ugly response. Letters condemning our scholarship and artistry, editorials undermining the scholars and artists of color participating in the discussions attacked the Globe for its so-called “woke” agenda. Newspapers and social media expressed dismay at the “sideshow,” suggesting that approaching Shakespeare in this way was a response only to the “woke drum” and, like the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020, the greatest canon of works would be next. Clearly, the critical lineage of PCRS so clearly articulated by Margo Hendricks was entirely lost on the critics of Antiracist Shakespeare.[7] It was as if academic conversations about race, , and cultural exchanges had never taken place and were only instigated by the events of 2020. Taking part in a fabricated culture war was those writers’ only agenda. The culture war threatens the social justice endeavors not just of scholars but of public institutions that are trying to become more accessible and inclusive. The Telegraph’s insistence that antiracism work is “nonsense,” for example, is dangerous, not to mention, racist:[188]

The Globe has form for this sort of nonsense. Its website claims there are “harmful, challenging and uncomfortable moments in Shakespeare.” And if you doubt it, you should have paid attention to its “Anti-Racist Shakespeare” project, which ran last summer.[8]

The Telegraph’s sentiment is echoed by The Daily Mail:

“There are things in the plays that are really harmful to contemporary audiences,” explained one participant, Madeline Sayet of Arizona State University. “They do have these violent colonial implications . . . If you’re reading Shakespeare’s plays and you’re not seeing any sexism or racism, then there’s a lot of education that I think, as a human being, you need to be looking at.” That last sentence is wonderfully revealing. You’re not really allowed to disagree with Ms. Sayet, because if you don’t think Shakespeare is sexist and racist, you need a “lot of education.”[9]

The article is attacking the new initiatives of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education department to deliver a Shakespeare that is more “relevant,” but the Globe’s webinars are simultaneously attacked, undermining if not mocking Indigenous scholars/practitioners, like Madeline Sayet for their insights into The Tempest.

The “sideshow” is this unbalanced and ill-informed response, not the action. Crucially, the underpinning principles and methodologies of Premodern Critical Race Studies are sustainable within a performing arts venue brave enough to integrate its ideas not only into its public conversations but also its rehearsal rooms, something we have begun at the Globe. Antiracist webinars are only one small feature of a larger infrastructural project, which will take a few years. The project includes the creation of an antiracist taskforce that examines the systemic nature of racism at the Globe; the introduction of training workshops for teachers on antiracist active approaches to Shakespeare in the classroom; a re-tooled auditioning and rehearsal process as well as support structures for its artists; a more studied racial consciousness in approaches to casting; serious attentiveness to design and its impact on artists of color; an attention to the diversification of the student body and faculty in the higher education program; the gradual diversification of leadership, staff, and faculty and a consistent educational journey for all. A crucial initiative is the creation of the Shakespeare Centre London, a research partnership between King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe: a significant strand of the Shakespeare Centre London’s work is to develop pipeline strategies and to widen access to Shakespeare Studies for students of color in an endeavor to shift the racial demographic of Shakespearean expertise. Premodern Critical Race Studies is sustained by its clarity of methodology, passionate activism, and by the rigor of its practice. When it underpins the antiracist work of a cultural organization, its expression becomes public, accessible, and potentially change-making. The centering of race in conversations at Shakespeare’s Globe upset the status quo and made certain audiences and critics deeply uncomfortable, but it has also opened the doors a bit wider, altered public perception, and brought awareness of the role Shakespeare has played and continues to play in our racial discourse ​—​ which is a good start.


  1. Margo Hendricks, “Coloring the Past, Considerations of our Future: RaceB4Race,” New Literary History 52, no. 3/4 (2021): 366. https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.2021.0018 
  2. Richard Dyer, White (London & New York: Routledge, 1992), 101. 
  3. Dyer, White, 9. 
  4. Elijah Anderson, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, no. 1. (2014): 11, https://doi.org/10.1177/2332649214561306
  5. Anderson, “White Space,” 11. 
  6. Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson, eds. Shakespeare Quarterly, 67, no. 1 (2016), https://doi.org/10.1353/shq.2016.0002
  7. Dominic Cavendish, “The Woke Brigade are Closet to ‘Cancelling” Shakespeare,” The Telegraph, 9 February 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/woke-brigade-close-cancelling-shakespeare
  8. Dominic Cavendish, “Why ‘Problematic’ Shakespeare is in Danger of Being Cancelled,” The Sunday Telegraph, 9 February 2020; Dominic Cavendish, “William Shakespeare Was an Empty Vessel: He Doesn’t Need Decolonising,” The Telegraph, 17 September 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/shakespeare-empty-vessel-doesnt-need-decolonising
  9. Dominic Sandbrook, “The Royal Shakespeare Company Should be Ashamed of Its Campaign to Tarnish Britain’s Greatest Writer with the Woke Obsessions of Our Age,” The Daily Mail, 9 February 2022, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-10491873/DOMINIC-SANDBROOK-Royal-Shakespeare-Company-ashamed-woke-campaign.html 

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Seeing Race Before Race Copyright © 2023 by Farah Karim-Cooper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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https://doi.org/10.54027/MDPO1117

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