Illustration by Élise Hibberd

21st-century bard

Many of this year’s multitude of books about Shakespeare—published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the First Folio—grapple with his meaning and relevance now
November 1, 2023
The Great White Bard: Shakespeare, Race and the Future
Farah Harim-Cooper (RRP: £22)
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My Shakespeare: A Director's Journey through the First Folio
Greg Doran (RRP: £25)
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Searching for Juliet: The Lives and Deaths of Shakespeare’s First Tragic Heroine
Sophie Duncan (RRP: £25)
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Shakespeare’s death at the age of 52 does not make things easy for those who would celebrate his life and achievements in public: the 450th anniversary of his birth in 2014 was followed closely by the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016. Of course, neither theatres nor publishers held back any more than they had half a century earlier, but by the end of 2016 not even the jolts of Brexit and Trump were enough to dispel the hint of commemoration fatigue.

It may thus seem fortunate that Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, took seven years after Shakespeare’s death to issue their monumental edition of his collected works—the so-called First Folio, registered for publication on 8th November 1623, and pitched at all readers “from the most able, to him that can but spell”. As far as I can tell, its 350th anniversary in 1973 did not cause much of a stir, but its 400th this year has been and continues to be widely observed: in exhibitions, performances, lectures, broadcasts and more books than one would find in a normal calendar year. And why not? Many—perhaps most—of us won’t still be around in 2064. We should enjoy making a fuss while we can.

The most immediately relevant of the anniversary titles are concerned with the Folio itself. Emma Smith’s Shakespeare’s First Folio—authoritative, lively and accessible—has been reissued; Chris Laoutaris’s Shakespeare’s Book has won lots of favourable attention; and Ben Higgins’s Shakespeare’s Syndicate takes us under the bonnet of the Folio in a wholly new and illuminating manner whose ingenuity compels precisely because Higgins doesn’t strain to make his subject sexier than it is.

But the truth is that, although the publication of the Folio is a landmark in the history of English book production (and although surviving copies command eye-watering sums in auction houses around the world), we care less about the book itself than we do about its contents: it preserves the only surviving texts of 18 plays ranging from the beginning to the end of Shakespeare’s career (including The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest), and offers striking variations in the texts of several others (most notably Hamlet and King Lear). It’s no exaggeration to say that without it, and without the famous engraving of the author on its frontispiece, Shakespeare would never have become Shakespeare: the national and international icon whose writings are a staple of our educational curriculums and theatrical repertories. 

It is this icon that Farah Karim-Cooper, a professor at King’s College London and director of education at Shakespeare’s Globe, takes to task in The Great White Bard. Karim-Cooper tells us that, as an American with Pakistani roots, she did not think that Shakespeare was for her until, as a 15-year-old, she read Romeo and Juliet. In Juliet, she found “the archetypal South Asian teenage experience… 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.”

So, although Karim-Cooper acknowledges the temptation to cancel Shakespeare as pale, male and correspondingly toxic, she urges us to relate to the complexities of his drama: “instead of worshipping his words,” we should “contend with them,” remembering that “they are a conversation, an invitation to imagine and interrogate, not simply to venerate and safeguard”.

The contentions in which she is interested concern race and racism; as they are dramatised in Shakespeare’s plays and as the plays help us to understand their 21st-century dynamics. Although western ideas of race arose in the 18th century as a way in which Europeans could avert their self-regarding eyes from the monstrosity of the Atlantic slave trade (if they’re not people like us, then it can’t be so bad), Karim-Cooper suggests that Shakespeare’s plays allow us to observe “race-making or racial formation, meaning the social process of creation of racial identities”. This runs the danger of making later ideologies of race and racism look inevitable, but opens up territory that she explores with unfailing dexterity. Karim-Cooper thus puts herself in dialogue with much of the excellent work on Shakespeare and race published over the past 30 years. Still, the examination of Shakespearean drama through the lens of race has seldom been achieved with the verve, clarity and attention to textual detail that she displays here. Her love for the plays is everywhere apparent.

We care less about the First Folio itself than we do about its contents

That said, there are some attempts at simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating. Karim-Cooper sets herself to reconstruct the processes of “race-making” and “racial formation” in the early 1600s, but because such reconstructions are no more yielding of hard and fast answers than attempting to identify “the why behind Shakespeare’s resonance”, she contents herself with the ways in which Shakespearean drama was made to do the work of race and racism from the mid-1700s onwards: “perhaps it is better to look at how he has been fashioned through the lens of English exceptionalism and the effects of this fashioning even now.”

This approach works well for those plays in which questions of race are an uncontestably prominent part (Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest—each of which receives chapter-length treatment). But it would have been good to read more on racism as a response to the corrosive effects of colonialism on the humanity of all those involved with, or subject to, its constraints; it is not in the self-consciously serene republic of Venice, but in the Venetian colony of Cyprus, that Iago succeeds in spreading his poison. Similarly, although it’s certainly the case that plays such as Titus and Antony and Cleopatra have much to say about the representation—and stigmatisation—of Africans in the early modern period, I’d have welcomed more on the ways in which they suggest that the civilisational hierarchies asserted by Rome are a kind of anxiously triumphalist make-believe.

The Great White Bard is less convincing when detecting the presence of race and racialised language in plays of which they are not such an obvious part. Just because black was the colour of evil, and because this convention was used to portray Africans as monstrously inhumane, it does not follow that all references to blackness—or all comparisons between black and white, fair and foul, day and night, light and darkness—necessarily connote race or racist attitudes. Just because what the black feminist Moya Bailey calls “misogynoir” is a thing, it does not follow that riffing on the language of Petrarchan convention (or that of, say, the traditions of Persian and Urdu poetry) to associate your beloved with images of light and brightness, as Shakespeare has Romeo and many of his more comedically hapless lovers do, is necessarily to denigrate blackness in general or black women in particular.

Of course, language of this sort might be seen as doing the work of emergent racism within a given dramatic setting, but the point needs to be argued rather than asserted, and that isn’t always the case here. Karim-Cooper’s attempts at persuasion can go little further than the implication that anyone who does not share her readings risks aligning themselves with the Daily Mail or “extremist nationalist groups”. And yet I don’t think anyone could come away from The Great White Bard with the impression that it is a partisan book. Its animating conviction is that “we all have the right to claim the Bard”, and its example shows both why this is possible and why it matters.

Greg Doran’s hugely enjoyable My Shakespeare ranges even more widely than Karim-Cooper’s The Great White Bard. Although my heart sank a little when I first saw its title—was this not another essay in autobiographical criticism, what the critic Christian Lorentzen calls “therapeutic careerism”?—there was no need to worry. Doran offers nothing resembling a waypoint in the further Alain de Bottonification of cultural life.

Doran was for many years the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has the rare distinction of having directed and/or produced every play in the First Folio. He says that his book “is not a manual about how to direct Shakespeare, but rather my own personal experience of working on his plays, and what I have learned on the way”. Just so. 

It is arranged around 34 plays directed by Doran between 1995 and 2022 (with a prefatory account of directing Romeo and Juliet as a student in 1979); because he didn’t direct Cymbeline until April this year, he makes do with an epilogue describing his part in Bill Alexander’s 1989 production of it. Throughout, Doran reflects with intelligence and grace and wit on himself and those with whom he has worked, and on the ways in which they sought to breathe fresh life into a series of plays that, for the most part, audiences think they know well.

The real genius of My Shakespeare is that we are shown something of how a Shakespeare production is made to happen, and of how hard it is to get it right. Vital though casting, staging, set design and music indisputably are, the texts themselves are the key. He is bracingly good on the need to grapple with their language—the economies that govern its metaphors and its metrical rhythms, and the challenges of figuring out what it can be said to mean at even the most basic level. (In my experience, these challenges never go away.) 

Vital though casting, staging, set design and music indisputably are, the texts themselves are the key

I’d not previously known about the “Shakespeare Gym” in which Doran’s casts and crews limber up before they begin rehearsing in earnest, but I’m frankly impressed. He is perceptive on the importance of classical rhetoric within the plays, and shares some intriguing tricks of the trade—one of which I have tested and can recommend. Shortly after finishing My Shakespeare, I had to give a public lecture. I tried imagining a Sicilian lemon in the fashion that Doran describes, and it was astonishingly effective. No spoilers here.

There are, of course, anecdotes galore, featuring an array of notables, from Gordon Brown and Nelson Mandela to Peggy Ashcroft and David Tennant; Doran’s timing and sense of proportion mean that these seldom feel gratuitous. With good reason, one colleague and collaborator receives more space than any other: Doran’s book is a hymn to the greatness of his late husband, the actor Antony Sher—whose Doran-directed 2016 Lear was one of the best two I have seen (the other, very different, was Robert Stephens in 1993). 

I suppose there is a danger that, unless you are a committed aficionado of the British theatre, reading through My Shakespeare consecutively may leave you feeling that the juice has not quite been worth the squeeze; if, on the other hand, you dip into it for a chapter or two at a time, you’ll find it an informative-instructive delight. Doran has now retired from his role at the RSC. He should write more.

If Florida governor—and Republican presidential hopeful (for want of a better term)—Ron DeSantis didn’t exist, would Sophie Duncan have chosen to invent him? In their decision to censor Romeo and Juliet to protect the innocence of Floridean teenagers, his educational culture warriors could hardly have done more to affirm the currency—or to prove the thesis—of Duncan’s Searching for Juliet.

For, as Duncan makes plain, the daughter of the Capulets is far more than a teenager in love. She is, rather, a young woman who, driven by the blinding simplicity of freshly reciprocated sexual desire, connives to disregard all parental—and arguably patriarchal—authority. The further problem is that however sad Romeo’s end might be, he is typical of Shakespeare’s lovestruck males in being something of a fool. Juliet, by contrast, is compelling: a figure of wit, composure, self-conscious intelligence, courage and no little style. Duncan calls her Shakespeare’s first tragic heroine, but for my money she is Shakespeare’s first unqualified triumph of tragic characterisation tout court. Yes, her sexual license sets in train the events that will lead to her death, but this death comes about because a letter goes astray during a plague lockdown—not because death is only right and proper after consummating a secret marriage to the scion of your parents’ sworn enemies. We recall that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, not a melodrama or morality play.

As my American students like to say, this is a lot. The play, and Juliet’s place within it, have as a result regularly been trimmed or reconfigured into less unsettling forms. (Or, as in Florida, censored.) Although this tendency is her subject, Duncan herself is not immune to it, proclaiming over and again that Shakespeare bequeaths us “the greatest love story every told”, “the romance that would define literary love for the next four centuries”, and so on.

Her focus, though, is less on Romeo and Juliet than on a series of moments in which “the Juliet myth and society’s ideas about young women” have been “brought most vividly into relief”. These moments are arranged in broadly chronological order from the Restoration stage to the 2020 Pirelli calendar, via Garrick, British Caribbean slavery, the well-governed Victorian household, West Side Story, Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, the Northern Ireland of the Troubles, Taylor Swift and much else besides. 

In sharing them with us, Duncan is a deft, compelling and thoroughly researched guide. Occasionally, she is an angry one too, noting with dry indignation the pathologies of conflicted arousal that images of Juliet—alive and dead, onstage and off—have given rise to in male directors and critics. She concludes that “the life and death of Juliet Capulet has held up a mirror if not to nature, then to society, and its changing attitudes to young women in love.” After reading her book, few would dissent.

Easy as it is to roll one’s eyes at the headline-seeking inanities of educational doctrine in Maga-land, Duncan provides us with another important reminder: preposterous approaches to Shakespeare are by no means confined to the US. For instance, GCSE students in England are taught that Romeo and Juliet illustrates “the causes and consequences of criminal activity”, and that the play also promotes “democracy” (sic) by illustrating “how civil unrest causes problems”.

Preposterous approaches to Shakespeare are by no means confined to the US

On one level, I don’t think that this sort of thing would have surprised Shakespeare—a playwright whose specialist subject was, in the words of his Cicero in Julius Caesar, the propensity of human beings to “construe things after their own fashion / Clean from the purposes of the things themselves.” On another, I think he would probably have been incredulous at being mistaken for a teacher—even if that incredulity would have quickly transformed into amusement.

In support of this hunch, I return to his friends Heminges and Condell—who in 2023 should, in any case, have the last word. In their preface to the First Folio, they puckishly remind potential readers of their right to pass judgement on the quality of Shakespeare’s writings, and to do so “how odde soever your braines be, or your wisedomes”.

Playing with the image of themselves as plain-dealing artisans, Heminges and Condell go on to insist that, in fact, all they care about is that any potential readers should make a purchase: say what you like about the Folio and its contents, no matter how crackpot, “but buy it first... whatever you do, Buy.” As the quadricentennial year draws to a close, we might reflect that it’s as good a time as any and better than most.