Category: Shakespeare

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper reflects on International Women’s Day. Dr…

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper reflects on International Women’s Day. 

Dr Farah Karim-Cooper is the Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. In this blog, on International Women’s Day, Farah reflects on her position as a woman of colour, and a Shakespeare scholar and how these facts play a part in her everyday life. 

I’m a mother, a partner, a daughter, a Shakespeare scholar, a woman of colour and as it’s International Women’s Day, I am thinking hard about all of those labels and how I have to negotiate between them all the time.  At the Globe this year we are examining what it means to be a woman; what our relationship to power might be; how women are perceived when they are in leadership positions; and what, if anything, did Shakespeare–that great paragon of white male excellence–have to say about these questions? Given our extraordinary experimental production of Richard II with a cast of women of colour and the West End production of Emilia, a play born here at the Globe, consisting also of mainly women of colour, the subject of this blog will focus on Shakespeare’s notions of women of colour and what it means to me to be one.

Please note: this blog contains offensive language.


Last year I curated a festival about Shakespeare and Race. Coming home from a planning meeting that I happened to bring my 15-year-old daughter to, I was feeling excited and enthused about the important work we were doing to draw attention to race and intersectionality at Shakespeare’s Globe. But while my daughter and I were waiting at the pedestrian crossing, a white man rode by on his bike and told us ‘fucking Pakis to go home’. It was deflating, of course, and I was deeply worried about what my daughter would think. How she might internalise that comment and see herself as something alien in the country where she had been born. She didn’t quite catch what he said–thank goodness–but I did. After living here 22 years, I fear the word ‘Paki’ and always will, I suppose. Would he get off his bike and hit me? Would my daughter be attacked? Questions like this zip into your head until you brush them away quickly. By the time I got home, I felt even more motivated to be proactive in discussions about race and gender at my institution and beyond. I am inspired by the many women of colour who have had to overcome the same horrible effects of our visibility as well as the deflating effects of the invisibility that also come with being a woman of colour. This invisibility, being overlooked, being one of the last on the list make up the daily acts of erasure that gall and hurt.

The scholar Kim F. Hall who was last year’s Sam Wanamaker Fellow wrote a game-changing book about the early modern intersections of race and gender and in so doing unearthed and made visible an entire network of texts, poems and images that comment on, satirise or celebrate women of colour. She reminds us about Shakespeare’s dark women: Hermia ( A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Rosalind (Love’s Labour’s Lost), the dark lady of the Sonnets, for example. While her book shows us how blackness served in early modern England to highlight the superiority of the white European; she tells us that black female beauty was a possibility back then. Many have tried to identify who the dark lady of the sonnets was–perhaps it was Emilia Bassano, perhaps it was nothing more than a fantasy of a woman of colour. Maybe Shakespeare was imagining an alternative to the much-repeated ideal in renaissance poetry of a ‘fair’ or white, wealthy, chaste lady with golden locks, rosy cheeks and glassy bright eyes. Shakespeare in fact, never really describes the perfect beauty the way many other Elizabethan poets did. With his dark lady sonnets, he describes instead the raw, visceral reality of a woman of colour who was the opposite of the conventional ideal, but who his narrator/speaker desired above all else. She is bold, assertive, sexually autonomous and real. I don’t know if Shakespeare knew such a woman, but we do know that Tudor-Stuart London was not a singularly white city. We know that people of colour populated Southwark in fact; that ‘blackamoor’ kitchen maids, servants, metal workers, musicians and more, lived and worked in the metropolis. This is a London we don’t know well enough, a result of centuries of archival research that shows bias towards crafting a purely white history. Women of colour occupied Shakespeare’s imagination and his city; and he offers a beautiful alternative to what he must have felt was the tedious, conventional ideal. Women of colour of Britain must always remember that we have always been here. We belong here too and we aren’t going anywhere.

Further reading 

Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England by Kim F. Hall

Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama by Dr Farah Karim-Cooper

What It’s Really Like To Be A Young Woman Of Color In Tech by Eda Yu 

Hear Farah speak on 15 May as she chairs a panel for  In Conversation: Activism, Women and Power, part of our forthcoming Women & Power festival.

Portrait of Farah Karim-Cooper by Bronwen Sharp 
Richard II production photography by Ingrid Pollard 

Richard II on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage.   Adjoa Andoh…

Ayesha Dharker (Aumerle), Adjoa Andoh (Richard II), Leila Farzad (Queen) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Leila Farzad (Queen) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Shobna Gulati (Duke of York) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Ayesha Dharker (Aumerle) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Sarah Niles (Bolingbroke) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Doña Croll (John of Gaunt) and Sarah Niles (Bolingbroke) in Richard II photographed by Ingrid Pollard

Richard II on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage.  

Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton direct the first ever company of women of colour in a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage, in a post-Empire reflection on what it means to be British in the light of the Windrush anniversary and as we leave the European Union.

Designed by Rajha Shakiry. Co-directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton. 

Richard II is in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April. 

Photography by Ingrid Pollard

Meet #RichardII

Was Shakespeare gay? February is LGBT History month. On 7…

Was Shakespeare gay? 

February is LGBT History month. On 7 February we opened Edward II, Christopher Marlowe’s portrayal of a homosexual relationship between the King Edward and Piers Gaveston. Running alongside this production is Voices in the Dark: Pride, Then and Now; an exciting exploration of sexuality and gender.

Research Fellow Will Tosh often has discussions with students and visitors about Shakespeare’s sexuality. In this blog, he tackles this question and sheds fresh light on how we might perceive Renaissance sexual identity.

Was Shakespeare gay?

It’s a popular question from students and audience members at public talks. Revealingly, it’s often posed in ways that draw attention to the debate: ‘I’ve been told that Shakespeare was gay – is that true?’ ‘I asked my teacher if Shakespeare was gay and he said no – what do you think?’

The answer’s more complicated than you might think.

It’s not that it’s exactly hard to find a homoerotic sensibility in Shakespeare’s works. Think of the ties of romantic friendship and erotic yearning that bind Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, or Antonio to Sebastian in Twelfth Night. That play is a queer fantasia, to be sure: Olivia loves Viola, thinking she’s ‘Cesario’, and ends up with Sebastian – who looks the same as Viola; Orsino falls in love with ‘Cesario’, not realising he’s a she, and seems absolutely delighted that she stays in her men’s clothing after he’s proposed.

We often read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as an account of the poet’s intense relationships with a beautiful young man and a bewitching ‘dark lady’. Lots of people find the poems simply too passionate, too obsessive, to be anything other than poetic autobiography. Oscar Wilde certainly thought the Sonnets contained a secret, suggesting in his essay-masquerading-as-a-story ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ that the fair youth was ‘none other than the boy-actor for whom [Shakespeare] created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself’ (his youthful good looks must have lasted the best part of fifteen years if the same boy created the female lead in Romeo and Juliet in 1594 and Cymbeline’s Imogen in 1609).

Wilde might have veered into fiction with his identification of Shakespeare’s lover, but many readers are still reluctant to discard the notion that the Sonnets offer a glimpse of the ‘real’ Shakespeare. The poet Don Paterson writes in his recent commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets that they are literary proof positive of his bisexual or gay identity.

The complexity arises from the language and terminology we use to describe the sexual identity of historic people. For one thing, our modern words for sexual orientation – gay, straight, homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual – are all nineteenth or twentieth-century coinages. Comparable words used in the past – ganymede, catamite, ingle for men, tribade for women – didn’t carry precisely the same meaning.    

Even more complicatedly, scholarship has insisted since the 1980s that sexual orientation is a modern concept. Most historians are of the view that early modern people didn’t think of themselves as gay or straight (not that those words carried their modern meanings in any case). Sexuality wasn’t so much about the gender of one’s object of desire, but about the degree of license, debauchery and sinful abandonment that an individual permitted oneself. Although we can talk about sexual acts in the past, we probably shouldn’t think about people’s sexual identities.

It might sound odd, but this can actually be a liberating way to think about sexuality. I’ve found it enlightening to think about the ways in which same-sex eroticism and queer emotion were woven into early modern society. What we now specify as homosexuality was infused into the culture at large, in customs, practices and social institutions. Widespread same-sex bed-sharing, the high value placed on single-gender friendship, and a generally un-prudish attitude to bodily functions created an environment in which homosexual acts, while technically illegal, went virtually unreported and unpunished.

Disapproval loomed, of course, as well as hostility from the church, but social history research suggests that the more usual response to same-sex intimacy was a worldly shrug, as long as it didn’t frighten the horses (or challenge society’s rigid gender roles).

But I still feel a bit caught out when someone wants to talk about Shakespeare’s sexuality. And I think it’s because ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ is actually a really apt question. It’s not the ‘wrong’ thing to ask, and I’m beginning to wonder if it really is so anachronistic to think about the sexual orientation of historical people. I’m not sure I’m satisfied any more with our rather convoluted academic discourses about sexual subjectivity. When we queer the whole Renaissance, we obscure genealogy. The LGBTQ woman or man of today who seeks in the past for ancestry instead finds a well-meant dead-end: we are told that one of the things that makes us who we are did not exist four centuries ago.

The words we use to describe emotions, selfhood and sexuality have changed over the centuries, but I’m yet to be convinced that an early modern person with a prevailing sexual interest in their own gender wouldn’t have thought of themselves as distinct from the majority.

For what it’s worth, when I point my literary gaydar at Shakespeare I get a maybe. The dramatist who gave us the playfully queer wooing of Orlando and ‘Ganymede’ in As You Like It also created happy hetero couple Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. As a sonneteer, he was able to imagine a complex and anguished affair with a young man, as well as an obsessive, even controlling, relationship with a woman. Perhaps it’s more interesting to think about Shakespeare as a writer who knew that his audience and readership was sexually diverse: he was catering to the LGBT market long before such a thing had a name.   

But that’s not to say there weren’t other writers of the time for whom homoerotic subject matter and sexual identity seem to our eyes to overlap. The playwright Christopher Marlowe (whose Edward II is on now at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) and pastoral poet Richard Barnfield produced works that explored same-sex love in much more candid ways than Shakespeare. And we know for a fact that Shakespeare read these writers. So he may or may not have been gay, but he definitely read gay literature – and that’s a lesson we can all appreciate during LGBT History Month.

Edward II photograhy by Marc Brenner 

ken-branagh: All is True, dir. Kenneth Branag…


All is True, dir. Kenneth Branagh

When the renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground during a 1613 performance of William Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the 49-year-old playwright, poet and actor returns to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon to face a troubled past and his disregarded family. 


Response to The Stage article, 15 August 2018The Globe’s Head of…

Response to The Stage article, 15 August 2018

The Globe’s Head of Higher Education & Research, Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, responds to an article that appeared in The Stage on 15 August 2018:  

Shakespeare’s Globe sparks new row with lighting designers over claims of racial discrimination

week the Globe is hosting a festival to discuss Shakespeare and race. The
workshops and symposium are being attending by a variety of people across the
theatre industry and academia. The academics and theatre artists attending and
participating in the Shakespeare and Race festival have experience of attending
and performing in plays in many other theatres with lighting design. It is not
just the experience of the Globe that is informing this discussion. The Sam
Wanamaker Playhouse utilises various types of handheld candles and stage
designs, all contributing to ensure an actor’s face is illuminated properly. It
would be wrong to deny that this issue exists in theatre today. There are many
factors that contribute to discrimination of an actor of colour, lighting is
certainly an element, alongside other factors including blocking, costuming and
stage design.

glad discussion and debate have been sparked and would encourage a continued
conversation, and invite people to attend the remainder of our festival,
including a workshop on Women and Theatre in Britain, Playing Othello featuring actors who have all played the role, Hip-hop Shakespeare Unplugged,
and Shakespeare and Race Across Borders: a scholarly symposium.

Having discussed the many issues
facing actors of colour with actors attending our festival, this is certainly
an issue that should not be dismissed. The conversation is, and must remain,
complex and our festival is an attempt to open up conversation in the fight
against discrimination.

Shakespeare & Race Symposium speakers. Our Shakespeare &…

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw

Professor Luke Harris

Ian Smith

Ayanna Thompson

Arthur L. Little and Kim F. Hall

Shakespeare & Race Symposium speakers. 

Our Shakespeare & Race festival culminates in an international symposium – Shakespeare and Race Across Borders: A Scholarly Symposium

This ground-breaking conference brings together scholars from the disciplines of race, Shakespeare, theatre and performance studies to discuss the ways in which race is taught at university, discussed in the critical field and represented in performance.

Keynote speakers for the symposium comprise Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and UCLA, she coined the term “intersectionality” and is a leader in the intellectual movement of Critical Race Theory.

Professor Luke Harris is Associate Professor of American Politics and Constitutional Law at Vassar College and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum.

Ian Smith is a professor of English and teaches at Lafayette College. His current research project, Black Shakespeare, examines Shakespeare’s interest in social and political racial identities.

Professor Ayanna Thompson has written extensively on the subject of Shakespeare and race. Ayanna is the 2018-19 President of the Shakespeare Association of America and Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University.

Arthur L. Little is an Associate Professor of English at UCLA and author of numerous articles on Shakespeare, race and justice.

Kim F. Hall (Barnard College) will also be on the panel. Kim is Lucyle Hook Professor of English and Professor of Africana Studies at Barnard College, University of Colombia

Other keynote speakers:

Devon Carbado teaches at UCLA School of Law and has won numerous teaching awards, including the inaugural Fletcher Foundation Fellowship.

Ania Loomba is the Catherine Byson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania where she researches and teaches early modern literature, race and feminist theory.

Joyce Green MacDonald is the Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky.

See the website for a full list of speakers.

Voices in the Dark in rehearsal. The team behind the Young…

Voices in the Dark in rehearsal. 

The team behind the Young Muslim Voices project believe in the power of sharing and telling peoples stories to challenge perceptions, to promote a community of diversity, and to remind us that we are united by more than divides us.

At The Globe our cause is to “celebrate Shakespeare’s transformative impact on the world…”

Voices In The Dark is our chance to question that cause. Does Shakespeare really have a transformative impact on the world? And if he does, whose world is he impacting on?

This questioning led us to two organisations: Intermission and Voices, organisations who are using the power of language, story and performance to try to transform our world for the better.

Voices is a social start-up which aims to creatively challenge perceptions through the sharing and telling of people’s stories. The stories you will hear tonight are all monologues that have been written anonymously (if they so wish) by young Muslims in the UK and tonight they will be performed by professional actors for the first time.

Intermission Youth Theatre is a charity giving young people the tools to make positive choices, to become the best version of themselves through theatre. Using Shakespeare as inspiration, they reimagine his language to tell stories and create their own contemporary interpretations.
Working with these organisations we partnered their scenes and monologues with some of Shakespeare’s own stories to see if we could get any closer to answering our question.

Voices in the Dark is a night of poetry, personal stories, and performance; a call and response from now to then, spanning 400 years of storytelling.

Michelle Terry is the Artistic Director of the Globe. 

Photography: Pete Le May 

Playing Othello.A look at some of the actors who have played…

André Holland photographed by Simon Annand, 2018

Eamonn Walker photographed by Johan Persson, 2007

Lloyd Everitt photographed by Cesare De Giglio, 2015

Kurt Egyiawan photographed by Marc Brenner, 2017

Q Brothers photographed by Simon Kane, 2012

David Harewood in The Complete Walk film, 2016

Playing Othello.

A look at some of the actors who have played Othello at the Globe or as part of Globe projects. 

Hear from our current Othello, André Holland and Golda Rosheuvel who portrayed Othello as a lesbian at the Liverpool Everyman Playhouse at our forthcoming event Playing Othello, part of the Shakespeare & Race festival