Shakespeare’s Contentious Conversation With America

Shakespeare’s Contentious Conversation With America

Shakespeare’s Contentious Conversation With America

James Shapiro’s recent book looks at why Shakespeare has been a mainstay of the cultural and political conflicts of the country since its founding.


Before Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton asserted that slavery had been a “necessary evil” and urged that the US military be deployed in American cities “in an overwhelming show of force,” he made a quieter but equally extreme proposal during an appearance on the Fox News show Sunday Morning Futures. While railing against allowing STEM students from China to study at US universities, he staked a claim for what counts as our foundational national texts. “If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that’s what they need to learn from America,” he said.

Using Shakespeare as an ideological cudgel is rooted in the country’s history of conflict, and Cotton’s screed confirms what literary scholar James Shapiro shows in his latest book, Shakespeare in a Divided America: For a couple of centuries—at least since Tocqueville noticed that in America “there is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare”—reactionaries and radicals alike have fired from the same canon. While Cotton may be wielding Shakespeare for another volley in the conservative culture wars, progressives have used the plays for their own ends, too. Just this July, for instance, New York’s Public Theater teamed up with the city’s public radio station, WNYC, to transform its canceled Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard II into a superb podcast, the action framed by discussions with actors and with scholars like Shapiro. With a predominantly BIPOC cast and a woman playing Bolingbroke, director Saheem Ali’s production boldly invited us to hear race and gender in a story, as Shaprio points out, that begins with a politically charged killing that the authorities refuse to take responsibility for and that sets off an uprising. Describing how such bipartisan utility requires a shared idea of the work’s value, Shapiro notes, “Shakespeare’s plays remain common ground, one of the few places where Americans can meet and air their disparate views.”

Shapiro surveys the battlefield by looking at what he calls “eight defining moments in American history” when disputes over Shakespeare revealed deep and abiding sociopolitical rifts. Other Shakespeareans have responded to our times by seeking lessons in the plays for how we might comprehend, cope with, and maybe climb our way out of the current political abyss. Stephen Greenblatt’s polemical Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, for instance (expanded from an op-ed he published on the eve of the 2016 election), never names Donald Trump, but it evokes him on every page as Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare “grappled again and again with an unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” Jeffrey R. Wilson’s Shakespeare and Trump more bluntly examines the uses of the plays in a MAGA world, probing, for example, the Shakespeare-quoting political punditry of the 2016 election cycle.

Shapiro, in contrast, mostly looks back to Shakespearean disputes that predate our current crisis, not so much mining the plays for nuggets of contemporary insight as assessing them as cultural artifacts that have acquired layers of meaning by dint of their bipartisan utility over time. Most of all, he argues, they have been used as a means for Americans to engage race, class, gender, sexuality, and immigration, issues they otherwise don’t know how to talk to one another about.

For decades, Marxism, feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory have been opening up the voluminous field of Shakespeare studies to reveal how the plays and their performance traditions have grappled with these very matters. Shapiro is certainly informed by such work—the bibliography for each of his eight chapters mentions his indebtedness to some of the scholars focusing such lenses—but it is not where he turns to make his case. Rather, as in his previous books, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, he entwines cultural analysis with character-driven narrative. In A Year in the Life he wrote, “It is no more possible to talk about Shakespeare’s plays independently of his age than it is to grasp what his society went through without the benefit of Shakespeare’s insights.” Apparently, the same is true of the United States in any age.

The seeds for Shapiro’s new book were planted in a 2014 anthology he edited for Library of America: Shakespeare in America, a nearly 800-page collection of essays, parodies, diatribes, comedy routines, letters, and poems from the American Revolution to the 21st century that expound upon the plays in one way or another. Some of these primary materials animate Shapiro’s latest project, among them John Quincy Adams’s essay objecting to Desdemona’s marriage to Othello as “a violation of the law of nature”; John Wilkes Booth’s letter quoting Julius Caesar to justify his plan to assassinate Abraham Lincoln; and “A School Boy Hamlet,” a 1946 short story—by a Japanese American, Toshio Mori, incarcerated in an internment camp—that criticized how racism shaped both the country and the way Shakespeare was staged.

In Shakespeare in a Divided America, Shapiro narrates around such texts to bring their authors into scenes of conflict with contemporaries who expressed opposing views about Shakespeare, which is to say, about politics. We see, for example, the emergence of “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 as an aggressive, masculinist vision of America competing with a gentler image of manhood through the contrast between a production of Othello and another of Romeo and Juliet. The former took place at a US Army camp on the Mexican border, where soldiers sought to expand the territory for slavery; a young, lithe Ulysses S. Grant had been cast as Desdemona but was replaced by an imported actress before he could go on. In contrast, the butch lesbian Charlotte Cushman was enjoying international success playing Romeo, more capable than any man at the time of conveying both his tender heart and his derring-do.

Class conflict and anti-abolitionism were at the core of the infamous Astor Place Riots of 1849, in which proletarian New Yorkers fought the upper crust’s restricted new opera house as well as its presumed support for abolition, by violently disrupting a production of Macbeth and then breaking up a nearby meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Protests escalated three nights later; scores were killed and hundreds wounded. In 1916, as part of celebrations marking the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, an adaptation of The Tempest, called Caliban by the Yellow Sands, cast hundreds of diverse New Yorkers (and locals in other cities where it was performed) in an outdoor pageant celebrating the “civilizing” power of moral education—even as lawmakers were hatching national quotas for immigration, promoting eugenics, and holding up Shakespeare as a banner of the Anglo-Saxon character of the United States. Over time, Shapiro notes, “It turns out that who gets to perform in Shakespeare’s plays is a fairly accurate index of who is considered fully American.”

An eye-opening analysis of Kiss Me Kate shows how the daring 1948 musical based on The Taming of the Shrew—cowritten by a woman and a closeted gay man—was tweaked and twisted for the movie version into a back-to-the-kitchen fable of suburban whiteness only five years later, scrubbed clean of its Black characters and queer innuendo. Shapiro’s discussion of the blockbuster 1998 film Shakespeare in Love—which he juxtaposes against the concurrent Bill Clinton sex scandal—details how debates over the film’s ending hinged on attitudes toward women. Producer Harvey Weinstein unsuccessfully pressed for a conclusion in which a heterosexualized Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) could keep his mistress (Gwyneth Paltrow) on the side by offering her parts in his plays from time to time.

Still, it’s the actor John Wilkes Booth who is the book’s most appalling figure. In a gripping middle chapter, Shapiro traces Booth’s and Lincoln’s parallel passions for Shakespeare up to their violent intersection at the Ford Theater in April 1865, by which point Booth had been thoroughly radicalized by white supremacists. Booth likened himself to Julius Caesar’s Brutus, imagining that he was saving America from a tyrant and would be remembered as a hero; instead, Lincoln was mourned as Macbeth’s Duncan, a rightful leader felled by a cruel assassin.

As a play that addresses how a republic should respond to threats of autocracy, Julius Caesar makes a fitting bookend to the volume as well. Shapiro begins by recounting the uproar over the 2017 New York production at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park and returns to it at the end to draw a pessimistic conclusion. Featuring a blustery, orange-tinted Caesar in a blue suit and long red necktie, whose high-fashion wife spoke with a distinctly Eastern European accent, the performance drew immediate denunciations from right-wing media, which alleged that it advocated the assassination of the president. An Obama stand-in would never have been tolerated as Caesar, conservative pundits huffed, ignoring an unperturbed 2012 coproduction by the Acting Company and Guthrie Theater that was set in contemporary Washington, D.C., cast a lanky African American in the title role, and gave him fist-bumping counselors.

Shapiro served as an adviser to the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar, so he can offer an inside view of how the controversy intensified over the show’s nearly four-week run: fulminations on Breitbart and Fox News; performance interruptions, death threats against cast members, and menacing phone calls to the wife and daughter of director Oskar Eustis; the pulling of corporate sponsorship by Delta Airlines and Bank of America; and a disavowal from the National Endowment for the Arts, which announced that none of its funds had supported the play. Even theaters in other cities that had nothing to do with the production but simply had “Shakespeare” in their names (there are some 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the United States) were attacked by Trump supporters.

This sort of lashing out by a rabble too amped up to consider the facts—not least that the play shows political violence to be counterproductive and morally indefensible—leads Shapiro to despair. After all, he reasons, those raging against the production weren’t simply disagreeing with its interpretation; they were refusing to acknowledge what actually happens in the plot. And by proudly disdaining any need to engage the work itself, he notes, they were abandoning the two-century-long fight over the shifting meanings of the plays. That’s a sign that Americans’ common ground has collapsed into a sinkhole of political muck, Shapiro warns, going so far as to suggest that we may be facing the kind of civil war that, in 1642, closed England’s theaters altogether for nearly two decades.

I hope this prediction is too dire. The right has not actually abandoned Shakespeare to the extent Shapiro fears. Not all of it, anyway. Republicans are divided between those who decry art (and science) as a tool of a liberal conspiracy and those who still hold tight to the conservative end of the rope in what Shapiro calls the ongoing “tug-of-war over Shakespeare in America.” So Shapiro can take heart: Shakespeare is not likely to be canceled anytime soon. The National Endowment for the Arts keeps funding its Shakespeare in American Communities program (begun in 2002 under George W. Bush), and his work is so frequently staged in this country that when American Theatre magazine publishes its annual list of most produced plays, it eliminates Shakespeare from the count so as not to skew the results. With our own theaters closed amid the Covid-19 pandemic and much of the country sheltered at home, Shakespeare has been the go-to playwright for bringing back as well as for rebuke—after all, he wrote King Lear while quarantined during an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Well, actually, as Shapiro’s earlier work clarifies, Lear was written during a respite from the periodic eruptions of plague that closed the theaters for various stretches during Shakespeare’s lifetime. He turned toward writing tragedies then, sometimes conjuring up images of pestilence, cankers, and “potent and infectious fevers.” In this period, Shapiro has noted, his work was subject to rejectionists every bit as vituperative as the disruptors trying to shut down Caesar in the Park. Anti-theatrical Puritans railed against the theaters constantly; one, Shapiro recounts in The Year of Lear, reasoned that since “the cause of plagues is sin” and “the cause of sin are plays,” then “the cause of plagues are plays.”

One reason the Puritans protested the theater had to do with how it made a mockery of their beliefs. It flouted Levitical proscriptions against cross-dressing (especially in the convention of adolescent boys playing female characters), while acting itself ran counter to the idea of identity as a God-given immutability. More than any of his contemporaries, Shakespeare called attention to these representational fissures of the genre, winking at the contradictions between what one sees and hears—that a bare wooden platform stage is a battlefield or a forest or the cliffs of Dover, that a boy is Cleopatra or Juliet or, for that matter, that an Elizabethan man the ruler of ancient Rome or prince of late medieval Denmark. So while a tangled plot might seem to be straightened out in the end, with order restored by, say, a marriage, the means of its telling injects doubt into that resolution: The bride is still a boy. There’s spectatorial pleasure—which riled the Puritans—in holding two things in the mind at the same time.

It is this capacious incitement of the imagination, more than an Enlightenment idea of the plays’ “universality,” that has kept them so vital and volatile for centuries. And that, along with Shakespeare’s tendency to use stories of the past to address issues of his present, have left them open to radical possibilities today. Both of these expansive factors scale up the simple but all-important fact that these are plays: a dialectical form in which characters with a range of conflicting views gain our empathy, even our identification.

If conservatives are losing the tug-of-war that Shapiro chronicles so nimbly, it’s because the plays—especially in production—resist the constricting closure the right insists on, while more diverse Americans are laying claim to them. Senator Cotton may be trying to deny federal funding to any school that teaches the 1619 Project, but he blithely misses the progressive potential of the one author named as part of the common core: Shakespeare.

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