America’s obsession with Shakespeare has taken some odd, odd turns over the past two centuries – pre-General Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an Army production of “Othello”; one of New York’s most notorious riots was sparked by the feud between two popular actors and their differing portrayals of Macbeth; Monica Lewinsky took out an anonymous ad in the Washington Post quoting “Romeo and Juliet” and aimed at Bill Clinton.
But it is the special strength of James Shapiro’s fascinating book, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future (Penguin, 286 pages), that the author employs even these entertaining details as a way into American history, in order to analyze long-standing tensions involving race, class, gender, immigration and other fault-lines in American culture.
A Shakespearean scholar at Columbia University whose best-known books are “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare,” and “The Year of Lear,” Shapiro looks at eight controversial events involving Shakespeare, which he calls “defining moments in American history.” Each chapter focuses on a specific year, a specific play by Shakespeare, and specific issues of the day — most of which continue in some form into the present.
Take that riot over two actors’ interpretations of Macbeth. It forms the core of a chapter entitled “1849: Class Warfare.” Shapiro provides a vivid, moment-by-moment narrative of what has come to be called the Astor Place Riot, which began in the recently-built Astor Opera House, and spiraled out of control, resulting in law enforcement shooting more than 20 civilians, some of them passersby.
The author also gives the background for the feud between British actor William Macready and American actor Edwin Forrest, drilling down to differing philosophies of acting, specific lines of dialogue and bits of business. But Shapiro delves more deeply, taking us layer by layer through the various underlying tensions of that time and place. These included a sudden sharp increase in the city’s population, and a rise in nativist, racist and populist resentments. The first half of 19th century New York theater had been one of the few gathering places for rich and poor alike, although they had their separate tiers: “the inexpensive benches in the pit were filled mostly by the working class, the pricier boxes and galleries were occupied by wealthier patrons, and in the tiers above, space was reserved for African Americans and prostitutes.”
The Astor Opera House was built in 1847 strictly for the wealthy, a reflection of their growing power in the city, and the growing disparity between rich and poor – one cause of the growing resentment. “Income inequality had also increased dramatically. Nowadays, we speak of the One Percent who command more than their fair share of the nation’s wealth; in 1849, their equivalent was called the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ or the ‘codfish aristocracy’ (so named for the vast sums made in the fishing industry).”
“The violence at the Opera House brought into sharp relief the growing problem of income inequality in an America that preferred the fiction that it was still a classless society.”
We also learn that many of New York’s 19th century riots began in theaters – 29 just between 1816 and 1834 – and the reasons why Shapiro thinks that’s so.
I dwell on this chapter only to help illustrate the level of sophistication that’s evident throughout the book, which combines history, politics, theater, psychology, sociology, plus irresistible tidbits of information and anecdote.
Shapiro shows how different Shakespearean plays have gone in and out of favor based on the tenor of the times, and have been used to advance world views or promote positions in specific issues of the day.
Although John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and the son of the second, was one of the foremost abolitionists of his age, he published two essays condemning Desdemona for her attraction to Othello — a narrative focus for Shapiro’s discussion of American attitudes toward race in the year 1833. The peculiar story of Grant’s casting as Desdemona was Shapiro’s lead-in to talking about changing definitions of manliness and how it led to the policy of Manifest Destiny, an American imperialism given ugly expression in the 1840s through the Mexican-American War.
Shapiro offers a devastating account of how in 1916, bigoted scholars and politicians misread “The Tempest” and mischaracterized the character Caliban to advocate for restrictions on immigration.
His narrative of how Broadway turned “The Taming of the Shrew” into the musical “Kiss Me Kate” doubles as a dissection of changing American attitudes toward marriage and the status of women in 1948. The story he tells of the many changes in the making of the film “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998 is intended as a glimpse into American attitudes towards adultery and homosexuality. (This is where Monica Lewinsky makes a cameo, as does Harvey Weinstein.) One of the most compelling chapters, “1865: Assassination,” details how both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth embraced Shakespeare, deriving very different lessons from his words.
“Shakespeare in a Divided America” begins and ends with the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, in which the title character was made to look like Donald Trump. It is the controversy that, the author tells us, inspired his writing of this book in the first place. Shapiro served as a consultant for that production, and personally witnessed some of the disruption, and as a result, I suspect he reads more into this incident than it may warrant, when he concludes that Shakespeare’s place in the U.S. “seems as precarious as it has ever been in this nation’s history.”
Yet, elsewhere in the book, he points out that the U.S. has nearly 150 summer Shakespeare festivals, “dwarfing the number held in Britain or anywhere else in the world,” and that Shakespeare is the only author who is considered required reading by the national U.S. “Common Core” standards for high school. Indeed, I detected a main takeaway from “Shakespeare in A Divided America” that Shapiro may not have intended. Despite how “improbable” and “a mystery” it was that the newly minted Americans took the British Bard as their own, the evidence is abundant that the one thing on which Americans continue to be united, centuries later, seems to be our reverence for William Shakespeare.