How Shakespeare speaks today to a divided America

by | Jan 26, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

If you need any confirmation that the works of William Shakespeare continue to resonate deeply in American life, just consider the raft of Shakespearean references that writers rolled out in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump drew comparisons to King Lear, to Richard II, to Macbeth, to King Lear, even to Coriolanus, a ruler with contempt for his nation’s lower classes. (That does sound familiar.) It got to the point where the chief theater critic for The New York Times issued a plea to other writers to lay off the Trump-Shakespeare comparisons.

Of course, there are reasons why Shakespeare remains the most-produced playwright in the United States (and the world as well): The plays obviously connect somehow with audiences even now, more than 400 years after his death.

But that’s only part of the argument James Shapiro, a Shakespeare authority and professor at Columbia University, makes in his engrossing book “Shakespeare in a Divided America.” (The book was published early last year; I checked out a copy after it appeared on a number of year-end “best books” lists.)

The paperback edition of “Shakespeare in a Divided America” is due in March 2021.

In “Shakespeare in a Divided America,” Shapiro devotes separate chapters to hot-button issues in America (many of those issues, of course, continue to boil today) and explores how Shakespeare was invoked at those times. The book begins and ends with a discussion of the 2017 staging of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park, in which a Trump-like figure is assassinated; Shapiro had a relatively minor role in preparing the production. (The fact that the production prompted such outrage could only have been a surprise to someone like Shapiro, who confesses that he was somewhat blinded by living in the “blue bubble” of New York City.)

His reflections on “Julius Caesar” are fascinating, but Shapiro pulls out other surprises in each chapter: A chapter on race relations, for example, revolves around John Quincy Adams’ publicly stated revulsion that Desdemona, in “Othello,” marries a Black man — this, despite the fact that Adams was an avowed abolitionist. A chapter on class warfare tells the story of 1849’s riots around New York City’s Astor Place Opera House — a riot fueled in some measure by a feud between an American actor and an English actor who both were appearing in separate productions of “Macbeth” at the time in the city. Another chapter shows how “Macbeth” linked Abraham LIncoln and John Wilkes Booth. A chapter on 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” is filled with juicy details but also links the movie to national questions about adultery and same-sex love that were making news at the time. Every page of “Shakespeare in a Divided America” has something provocative or delightful — I was unaware, for example, that Ulysses S. Grant had been enlisted to play Desdemona in a 1845 production of “Othello” in a military camp; Grant never took the stage in that production after the soldier playing Othello raised objections. (I must have missed that detail while listening to Ron Chernow’s magisterial Grant biography.)

The paperback version of “Shakespeare in a Divided America” is due in early March. You might take issue with some of the leaps that Shapiro takes from time to time, but you’ll see Shakespeare in a different light. The book is a worthy companion for your next trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — whenever we finally get a chance to travel to Ashland again.

Want to dig deeper into Shapiro’s book? Click here to read a fun interview Shapiro did with the BBC.

Photo credit, top: Matt Riches, on Upsplash

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