Washington’s Folger Museum should stop making Shakespeare ‘woke’

Washington’s Folger Museum should stop making Shakespeare ‘woke’

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Shakespeare is the great wordsmith of the English language, creator of “To be or not to be and “Kiss me, Kate.” He’s the most performed playwright in American history.  We call him “the Bard.”

But, we are told, we shouldn’t use that term.  “Bard” has racial undertones, explains  Prof. Farah Karim-Cooper explains in her 2022 essay “Shakespeare through Decolonization.”  To raise Shakespeare so highly, she says, is to make him “an icon of white heritage and excellence: the conception of the man as Bard is, I argue, endemic to coloniality.”

William Shakespeare may be British, but he’s the most-performed playwright in US history. CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

If these allegations of supposed white guilt came from a professor of no distinction, we might ignore it.  But Karim-Cooper has been made head of the most renowned Shakespeare center in the world, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  Opened in 1932, the Folger contains 200,000 items from the Renaissance period, including the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in existence.  

The Folger’s announcement praises Karim-Cooper as “a field leader in examining Shakespearean plays through the lens of social justice.”  She leads the Antiracist Shakespeare Webinar, too — a set of videos showing scholars finding race matters in every play in the corpus.  She has labored to stop the Renaissance field from suppressing racial topics and ghettoizing scholars of color.

It’s a bizarre situation, but one we see often across academia.  Individuals take the reins of cultural institutions with the intent of denigrating their prized mission.  Karim-Cooper likes Shakespeare, but wants to pull him down a few pegs. We must “Interrogate the canon and Shakespeare’s primacy within it,” she insists.  She also insists “the Bard has a race problem,” as a Washington Post profile of her put it.  Teach Othello, she says, but set it alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play American Moor.  Stop making Shakespeare so special.

Prof. Farah Karim-Cooper, the new Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library wants to center the institution’s mission around race and identity. The Washington Post via Getty Images

The founder of the Folger Library had other intentions.  Henry Folger idolized Shakespeare and believed America had a marvelous relationship with him.  His wife Emily stated that Henry saw Shakespeare as “one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.”  That’s why he located the library just behind the U.S. Capitol.  The Library was not to be an Ivory Tower only.  It was to bring Hamlet and Caesar to Americans of all kinds.

The race obsessions of the new director, however, are an elite matter.  People who saw Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth in DC this year aren’t interested in anti-racist catechisms.  They want electric acting and eloquence for the ages.  Kids in DC schools who read Romeo and Juliet in 9th Grade and Hamlet in 10th won’t necessarily appreciate those masterpieces more if their teachers apply a “lens of social justice.”  That the stewards of Henry Folger’s creation believe antiracist Shakespeare will excite the public only shows how clueless they are about common tastes.  They want a scholar-activist who will propel the Folger into the multicultural 21st century, but their action illustrates something else: the divorce of elite institutions from the American people.

The Folger Museum in Washington, DC located just behind the US Capitol building. Getty Images

This withdrawal is especially regrettable at the present time.  In 1970, 1-in-13 bachelor’s degrees were in English.  Today, it’s less than 1-in-60.  The field is marginal, and with good reason.  Will an undergrad who enjoyed Henry IV in high school want to take a class with a teacher who trades in white guilt?  A few years ago, a pack of angry students at Penn pulled down a portrait of Shakespeare in the English department and replaced it with one of contemporary poet Audre Lorde.  Faculty didn’t stop them.  Why select a field that its own practitioners don’t respect? 

An image of Audre Lorde was placed over a portrait of Shakespeare at the University of Pennsylvania a few years back.

Leisure habits are declining as well. Twenty years ago the National Endowment for the Arts reported that 43% of 18-24-year-olds had not read a single poem, play, novel, or short story in the preceding 12 months.  Since then, with every successive iPhone, literary reading has diminished ever more.  This is a terrible loss.  We need the Folger and other institutions to maintain Shakespeare, Whitman etc. in the lives of ordinary Americans.  Make it fun and illuminating, not troubling and culpable.  The director of the Folger regrets that people consider Shakespeare a unique “source of wisdom and humanity,” but that faith is what keeps the legacy going.

Henry Folger idolized Shakespeare and believed America had a marvelous relationship with him.  Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

People like Karim-Cooper who traffic in identity politics are righteous scolds.  They dislike our laughter at Falstaff’s raillery and fascination with Iago’s deviltry.  These leaders will pass away, just as the Puritans who closed the theaters did in the 17th century.  Unfortunately, the damage they do will outlive them.


Mark Bauerlein

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