How the Works of William Shakespeare Have Illuminated American History

Interview   How the Works of William Shakespeare Have Illuminated American History
 
From John Quincy Adams to today, scholar James Shapiro looks at the ways in which the Bard's works reveal truths about our politics in new book Shakespeare in a Divided America.
Shakespeare in a Divided America Book Cover

“The 2016 election showed me that I understood very little about America,” the eminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro says. “Having focused for the past quarter century on Shakespeare’s England, I decided to face the other way and look at Shakespeare’s impact on America.”

And so he set out to see what he could learn about his own country through America’s relationship with the Bard. “What I wanted to understand,” Shapiro says, “was whether the problem, as Stephen Greenblatt had argued in his book Tyrant [Shakespeare on Politics], was one man, Donald Trump, or the problem was more systemic — something that had gone off course in America over the past 200 or so years. And my book was my way of trying to understand that American past.”

The book Shapiro is talking about is his Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future, published earlier this year by the Penguin Press. Critics have called it “timely and resonant,” “compulsively readable” and “little short of miraculous.”

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future Book Cover

What he learned, he says, is “that on the issues that still divide us — issues of the relationship between white culture and Black culture, the relationship between men and women, the relationship between recent and older immigrants, these fault lines ran deep and the divisions extended back to the founding of this nation.”

One surprising example Shapiro gives in the book’s first chapter, which deals with the year 1833, is that the very liberal John Quincy Adams, by then a former president of the United States, wrote in a published essay that he was appalled that in Othello, Desdemona could have an “unnatural passion” for a Black man.

“I’ve always idolized our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, as one of the great abolitionists and fierce opponents of slavery,” Shapiro says. “And it was very painful learning that as great an opponent of slavery as he was, he still couldn’t accept the idea of a white woman falling in love with and marrying a Black man. And Adams would never say this or in his diary acknowledge it. But when he turned to writing about Shakespeare and Othello, it all spilled out. And that to me was representative of the ways in which it’s very hard for many of us to admit to ourselves, even the most liberal among us, that we still harbor deep discomfort when it comes to issues of race.”

Shapiro’s book is divided into eight chapters, each set in a specific year; each, as he writes in his Introduction, “revolves around a significant social or political conflict in the nation’s history.”

The chapters range from 1833 to 2017 and deal with Othello and miscegenation; manifest destiny; class warfare; the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth; The Tempest and immigration; The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate and marriage; the movie Shakespeare in Love, adultery and same-sex love; and the Public Theater’s 2017 Julius Caesar in Central Park and the liberal-conservative divide.

Shapiro is the Larry Miller professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City. His critically hailed books on the life of Shakespeare include Contested Will; Who Wrote Shakespeare?, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.

Shakespeare was immensely popular in 19th-century America, Shapiro says. “The familiarity of almost every American by the mid-19th-century with Shakespeare is extraordinary,” he says. He writes in the book that the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the 1835-40 Democracy in America, noted that there “is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.”

“You can read letters written by soldiers in the Civil War,” Shapiro says, “both in the North and the South, and they’re filled with allusions to Shakespeare. So I was really struck, in the same way I suppose in the 1830s de Tocqueville was struck, by the extent to which Shakespeare had penetrated every home in the nation, including the log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln grew up.”

Shapiro isn’t precisely sure why. “That remains something of a mystery to me,” he says. He thinks it’s in part that “we had not yet developed a group of national poets and novelists and playwrights that were as compelling as Shakespeare. In part because as a nation we decided even though we broke with Britain and their form of government we still embraced their national poet.” Shakespeare was also widely taught in schools and available in inexpensive volumes. “But on a certain level it’s an impossible question to answer and one that I still wrestle with.”

Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, “were both deep lovers of Shakespeare,” Shapiro says, “but the Shakespeare that they loved was radically different. If you look at Booth’s Macbeth, Macbeth for him was a violent, heroic, martial figure who had no introspective qualities. If you look at Abraham Lincoln’s Macbeth, he is a man of sorrow, deeply pained, deeply sensitive to what has transpired. Yet both men loved Shakespeare.”

After the assassination, when the appalled country went into mourning, it turned to Shakespeare. “A nation needed to mourn,” Shapiro says, “and it needed to find a kind of slogan that gave voice to what it felt. And in this case it was the famous words about Duncan, the king that Macbeth had assassinated” — Duncan who “Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/The deep damnation of his taking-off.”

The final chapter is set in the summer of 2017 and deals with the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which Caesar was made to resemble President Donald Trump. The production infuriated the right and led to protests and multiple threats of violence.

“That took place just a few months after Trump took office,” Shapiro says. “And it’s easy to look back now and see things like the rise of right-wing violence, or how deep the divisions had become between left and right. But back then there was still great hope that the nation would come together. And what that production showed me, before we all gradually came to see it, and newspapers and TV journalism underscored the point, was that the rift was deep and that the right was devoted to Donald Trump in a way that had nothing to do with reason but that had everything to do with deeper passions.

“And when right-wing activists disrupted that production I began to understand more deeply that we were in for a very difficult four years or possibly longer in this country.”

And the future of Shakespeare in America? Shapiro says he has deep concerns.

“One conclusion that I reached that has been intensified by the pandemic,” which began after the book was written, “is despite the fact that 90 percent of American students still are taught Shakespeare and that there are over 150 Shakespeare festivals in this country, Shakespeare is imperiled.”

His “great fear is that the universal appreciation of Shakespeare in 19th-century America and the widespread love and appreciation of Shakespeare today may not persist into the future.”

“As I say at the very end of the book, England’s theatres were shuttered in 1642, the Globe Theatre pulled down. It can happen here.”

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