‘Shakespeare in a Divided America’ considers the tug-of-war over the Bard

James Shapiro’s latest book examines key moments in American history in light of the themes and rhetoric of Shakespeare’s plays. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future” by James Shapiro, Penguin Press, 320 pp.

James Shapiro has made a career of writing books about Shakespeare, including “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” (2011) and the prize-winning “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606” (2015), which were slanted toward the academician. In his latest book, “Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future,” he concentrates on eight “defining moments” of social or political conflict in America’s history and focuses on specific plays.

The narrative flows like a novel with many plot lines, and you don’t need to be a Shakespeare scholar or a historian to enjoy this well-researched book. 

In his introduction, Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, writes that it was the election of Donald Trump as president that led him to write the book. The author wrestles with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and he even visits red states in the South, to talk with audiences about Shakespeare and “grapple with what, from inside my blue state bubble, I had failed to understand about where the country was heading.” He succeeds, however, in presenting an even-handed account of Shakespeare and American politics, though his observations, comments, and conclusions convey an unmistakably liberal viewpoint. 

Throughout American history, politicians of varying stripes have claimed Shakespeare as their own, and cited his words for their own purposes. 

In the late 18th century, Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech was “appropriated both by defenders of British rule and by those seeking to overthrow it.” Later, in 1865, an editorial in the Texas Republican claimed that John Wilkes Booth, like Caesar’s assassin Brutus, slew Lincoln “as a tyrant, and the enemy of his country.”

Shapiro draws clear lines between Shakespeare’s plays and American events and attitudes, whether he’s discussing the nationalism behind the concept of Manifest Destiny in 1845 or immigration restrictions in the early 20th century. The themes in Shakespeare’s plays provide uncanny comparisons with the events and rhetoric of different eras.  

He also discusses the importance of theater performances in shaping public views, and even inciting riots. In 1849, for example, 10,000 people rioted in New York’s Astor Place, ostensibly over competing productions of “MacBeth,” one led by a British actor and the other by an American. The underlying causes of the protests, Shapiro writes, were anti-British sentiment and fear and anger over immigration. There was also an element of class warfare: the American actor, Edwin Forrest, was popular with young, white, working-class men, while the other performer, British actor William Charles Macready, was supported by bankers and the cultural elite. 

“Theaters were imagined as more contentious versions of town hall meetings, democratic spaces where all could speak their minds; to challenge these unspoken rules was un-American and a provocation.”

Certain stagings of Shakespeare can be viewed as a political act. Shapiro discusses the 2017 production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park, which was interrupted briefly one night by two Trump supporters, who objected when the character of Caesar (dressed to look like President Trump) was stabbed onstage. Shapiro reminds us that there has always been a “tug-of-war over Shakespeare in America,” and that the protest over the scene in Central Park suggests “that this rope is now frayed. When one side no longer sees value in staging his plays, only a threat, things can unravel quickly.”

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