Shakespeare in a Divided America

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Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber and Faber £20
In two fascinating books, 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare and 1606: William Shakespeare and the year of Lear, Shapiro wrote compelling and highly readable accounts of the political and cultural tensions in the environment in which Shakespeare was writing. In the former he discusses fears around a second Spanish invasion — following the defeat of the Armada in 1589 — as well as the feuding and disruption that led to the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601. Shapiro explores their influence on Hamlet and Shakespeare’s transformation of revenge tragedy. Shakespeare in a Divided America looks at the writer’s place in the US. Shapiro insists that Shakespeare, like any writer or artist, has to be understood in the context of the time. He is not alone in this of course. Many critics have accounted for Shakespeare’s place in his particular time and culture. Also, his plays can be interpreted in different ways, for example, through the lens of post-colonialism, early capitalism or feminism.
Others, such as Tory education ministers, continue to insist on Shakespeare’s status as a cultural icon to be reverenced. As we celebrate the end of Trump’s presidency, what can a book about Shakespeare tell us about the US and the so-called culture wars of the new right? Shapiro has consciously involved himself with the staging of Shakespeare in settings such as prisons and community centres. He rightly celebrates the rise in colour-blind casting and the greater visibility of black actors generally as well as of women and transgender and disabled people. In contrast, the final chapter of Shakespeare in a Divided America gives a fascinating account of right-wing protests against a 2017 performance of Julius Caesar in New York City’s Central Park in which the production played on parallels between Trump and the Roman dictator.
The focus on individual episodes of the staging of Shakespeare in the US, however, gives the book a slightly episodic character. This made it less satisfying than the earlier works, though it is still thought provoking. Shapiro drills down on what he regards as eight key episodes or debates around Shakespeare since the founding of the republic. Inevitably, the question of racism and slavery is one that recurs. The book starts with the controversies provoked by Othello and its mixed-race marriage, in the early 19th century. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is that on John Wilkes Booth: actor, Confederate and assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
Obsessed with Julius Caesar, and in particular with Brutus, Wilkes moved from racism to active support of the Confederacy and fantasizing about killing Lincoln. Booth of course killed him in a theatre. Other chapters explore debates about marriage, gender and homosexuality, and their portrayal in Shakespeare. The overall impact can be disjointed but the book is engaging and well worth a read for anyone interested not only in Shakespeare but in how literature and drama are implicated in what we now call the culture wars.
Jane Bassett