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Shakespeare in a Divided America Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro, is out now

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How Shakespeare Shaped America

James Shapiro tells us how the British Bard influenced a divided America
Published on March 19, 2020
Shop: Shakespeare in a Divided American, by James Shapiro

Thank you for your time James. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I was born and raised in Flatbush, the part of Brooklyn where both Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Bernie Sanders grew up.

How did the idea for your book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, first come about?

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's victory in 2016, I struggled to understand how badly I - and many others - had misread America. I had wanted to take a bit of a break from writing books, but was driven to find an answer to this, as well as to resolve whether there were deeper currents in American culture and history that I failed to grasp.

Why has Shakespeare and his work become so culturally important to America and to Americans through history?

Americans have never been very good at talking directly about divisive issues. It's a lot easier addressing them indirectly, through Shakespeare. Take, for example, the role of women in the workplace. During World War II, American women - symbolized by 'Rosie the Riveter' - entered the workforce in large numbers, which led to their greater economic and personal independence. When the war ended, the authorities insisted that they give up their jobs to returning veterans, and return to being more or less submissive housewives. Bella Spewack's brilliant Shakespeare musical of 1948, Kiss Me Kate, which reenacts Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (with its notorious ending in which a submissive wife puts her hand beneath her husband's foot) dramatizes this contemporary conflict perfectly. Examples can easily be multiplied, and are in my book, and the story is pretty much the same in each instance: we don't have a lot in common in America, but we all have Shakespeare, and have learned to negotiate our differences through him.

Kiss Me Kate on Stage Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison in Kiss Me Kate, 1948. Spewak Papers, Columbia University Libraries. With kind permission of the Spewack Estate.

What are some of the earliest uses of Shakespeare's work in America?

I can think of two from quite early on in our nation's history: even before the Revolutionary War, those who were both pro- and anti-British were quoting and parodying Hamlet's speech -"To be or not to be" - for propagandistic ends. And our second president, John Adams, who read Shakespeare's history plays closely, to show how vulnerable the fledgling Republic was, even rewrote a speech from Henry V, imagining how a foreign despot might try to place a sympathetic leader in the White House.

Did Shakespeare's work have an impact during the War of Independence?

During the Revolutionary War, Shakespeare was more often staged by British forces than by their colonial adversaries. British officers, performing in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, staged Richard II, King Lear, Henry IV, and Macbeth, all plays rooted in the British past. But there was a striking example of the Revolutionary troops turning to Shakespeare: a production of Coriolanus, by soldiers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which starred a Coriolanus who was a republican hero.

How have US presidents, in particular, invoked the words of Shakespeare to shape their vision of America?

Until the present occupant of the White House, pretty much every US president has turned to and invoked Shakespeare. Truman and Eisenhower acted in his plays as schoolboys. Clinton and Reagan knew how to quote his words effectively. The list goes on and on. In an early chapter I even write about how our 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, rehearsed the part of Desdemona (James Longstreet, the future Confederate hero, recalled after the war that Grant had looked great in a dress).

John Wilkes Booth as Julius Caesar John Wilkes Booth (left), Edwin Thomas Booth and Junius Brutus Booth in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1864. Courtesy of the John Hay Library, Brown University.

The book also focuses on an interesting link between Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth - can you tell us more?

I've written a long chapter - their story could easily have been a book - and I can only gesture at its main points here. Lincoln was arguably the best reader of Shakespeare in American history. He had many great speeches committed to memory, and would recite them to anyone who would listen. In the last two years of his life he also became a devoted theatergoer, seeing all the great Shakespeare stars of his day. That's why his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, knew where to find him, at Ford's Theater, on that fateful day in April 1865. In a way, Shakespeare played a cameo role in that terrible act, for Booth, in a letter he left behind, invoked Shakespeare to justify the murder of Lincoln, and saw himself as an American Brutus. The nation thought otherwise, and mourned Lincoln as a beloved Duncan from Macbeth - a leader 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 book also covers the recent controversy about a staging of Julius Caesar. In the play, parallels between Caesar and Donald Trump are made very clear. What are your views on reinterpreting Shakespeare's plays to make points about modern America?

Shakespeare's plays have always made points about America - whether we are talking about how long it took for an African-American to play Othello on Broadway - Paul Robson did so in 1943, over a century after another African-American, Ira Aldridge played the role in London - or discussing an adaptation of The Tempest in 1916 that portrayed Caliban as an unacculturated immigrant and potential rapist. The landmark production of Julius Caesar you refer to - which Oskar Eustis directed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park - was one that I advised. It was chilling sitting in the audience night after night and watching Right-wing protesters, furious at the depiction of a Trump-like Caesar, rush the stage and threaten the actors and directors with personal violence. The story of this production frames my book.

What does Shakespeare and his work mean to you, personally?

His plays are the lens through which I make sense of my world. I have spent most of my adult life researching, writing about, and teaching his plays, as well as advising theater companies on both sides of the Atlantic. It also means a lot to me personally to serve, as an American, on the board of directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

How do you think Shakespeare's relationship with America may develop in the future?

It's hard to tell. His place seems secure, roughly 90% of American high schools teach his plays, and America boasts more Shakespeare festivals - 150 or so - than any country. He has long been seen as common property, valued by those on the Left as much as by those on the Right. But we do well to remember that London's theaters were pulled down a quarter-century after Shakespeare's death, by order of Parliament. Theater is always precarious.

How do you feel Brits will look at America's invocation of Shakespeare?

I think it useful for the British to realize that their Shakespeare is not America's. Being read and studied around the world - which Shakespeare certainly is - is not the same as being universal.

Finally, our traditional closer - what's the best thing about being James Shapiro?

I get to see, and on occasion work on, a lot of great Shakespeare productions. Watching great actors grapple with these roles in rehearsal is thrilling.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro, is published by Faber in the UK, and is available to buy now from the Faber Website



Vietnam Soldier with Taming of the Shrew An American Soldier in Vietnam with a Folger Shakespeare Taming of the Shrew in his helmet. Uncatalogued photograph, Folger Shakespeare Library.

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