Book Review: Shakespeare in a Divided America (James Shapiro)
James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future (Penguin Press, 2020)
In June 2017, New York City’s Public Theater staged a production in Central Park of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, as part of the series known as Shakespeare in the Park. There was no subtlety in the play’s allusion to contemporary politics: Eustis’ Caesar had strange blond hair, wore overly long red ties, tweeted from a golden bathtub, and had a wife with a Slavic accent.
That Caesar was knifed to death in Act III disturbed some spectators. A protestor interrupted one of the early productions, jumping on stage after the assassination of Caesar to shout, “This is violence against Donald Trump,” according to The New York Times.
Breitbart News picked up on the story with the headline “’Trump’ stabbed to death.” Fox News weighed in, expressing concern that the play encouraged violence against the President. Corporate sponsors pulled out. Threats were levied not only against the Public Theater and its actors, but also against other Shakespeare productions throughout the country. A fierce but unedifying battle was fought on social media, with little regard for the ambiguities underlying Caesar’s assassination in the play.
The polemic engendered by Eustis’ Julius Caesar unsettled Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, one of academia’s foremost Shakespeare experts. Shapiro serves as Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater and in that capacity had advised Eustis’ team on textual issues regarding the play. His most recent work, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future, constitutes his response to the polemic, in which he demonstrates convincingly that the frenzied reaction to the 2017 Julius Caesar performance was not an aberration in American history.
Both starting and finishing with the 2017 performance, Shapiro identifies seven other historical episodes in which a Shakespeare play has been enmeshed in the nation’s most divisive issues: racism, slavery, class conflict, nationalism, immigration, the role of women, adultery and same sex love. Each chapter covers one episode in a separate year. Shapiro dives deeply into the circumstances surrounding all seven episodes. His ability to engagingly recount American history matches his talent as an interpreter of Shakespeare, his plays and his time period. Of the seven episodes, the most gripping is the description of the 1849 riot at New York City’s upscale Astor Place, one of the worst in the city’s history up to that point. By comparison, the 2017 brouhaha over Julius Caesar seems like a slightly heated Columbia graduate school seminar on Shakespeare.
Fueled by raw class conflict, nationalism and anti-British sentiment, the Astor Place riot was described in one newspaper as the “most sanguinary and cruel [massacre] that has ever occurred in this country,” an episode of “wholesale slaughter”—stemming entirely from a disagreement over competing versions of Macbeth, starring rival actors. The Briton William Macready, performing as Macbeth at Astor Place, and the American Edwin Forrest, simultaneously rendering Macbeth at the Bowery Theatre, only a few blocks away but in a decidedly rougher part of town, offered opposing approaches to playing Macbeth that seemed to highlight national differences between the United States and Great Britain: Forrest, the “brash American, Macready the sensitive Englishman.” Macready’s “accent, gentle manliness, and propriety represented a world that was being overtaken by everything that Forrest, guiding spirit of the new and for many coarser age of Manifest Destiny, represented.”
Shapiro’s description of the riot underscores how theatres in a rapidly growing New York City in the 1840s were in some sense democratic meeting points. They were among the “few places in town where classes and races and sexes, if they did not exactly mingle, at least shared a common space.” In practice, this meant that 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 construction of the Astor Place Opera House in 1847 was an explicit response of New York’s upper crust to these democratizing tendencies. It did not admit unaccompanied women—there was no place for prostitutes—and it imposed a dress code. The new rules were seen as fundamentally undemocratic, especially to the city’s large number of recent German and Irish immigrants.
While Forrest opened at the Bowery, Forrest fans somehow obtained tickets to the opening Astor Place performance—who paid for them, Shapiro indicates, remains a mystery—and began heckling Macready, telling him to get off the stage, “you English fool.” Three days later, the heckling recurred. But this time, a crowd of about 10,000 had gathered outside, an unruly mix of Irish immigrants and native-born, groups that had common cause in anti-English and anti-aristocratic sentiment (many of the Irish immigrants were escaping the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s, often attributed to harsh British policies). Incited by political leaders and their cronies, the crowd began to throw bricks and stones. They fought a battle with police that continued for several days, with dozens of deaths on both sides.
There were “no winners in the Astor Place riots,” Shapiro writes. The mayhem “brought into sharp relief the growing problem of income inequality in an America that preferred the fiction that it was still a classless society.” But the riots also spoke to an “intense desire by the middle and lower classes to continue sharing the public space [of the theater], and to oppose, violently if necessary, efforts to exclude them from it. Shakespeare continued to matter and would remain common cultural property in America.” In two other powerful chapters, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays also intertwined with mid-19th century America’s excruciating attempts to come to terms with racism and slavery.
One chapter examines abolitionist former President John Quincy Adams’ public feud in the 1830s over what he considered the abominable inter-racial relationship in Shakespeare’s Othello between Desdemona and the dark-skinned Othello. In the second, Shapiro shows how, in a twist that was itself Shakespearean, fate linked President Abraham Lincoln, a man who loved Shakespeare and identified with Macbeth, to his assassin, second-rate Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, himself obsessed with both Julius Caesar and what he perceived as Lincoln’s efforts to undermine the supremacy of the white race.
John Quincy Adams, who served as president from 1825 to 1829, found Desdemona’s physical intimacy with Othello, known at the time as “amalgamation” (“miscegenation” did not enter the national vocabulary until the 1860s), to be an “unnatural passion” against the laws of nature. Adams’ views might have gone largely unnoticed but for a dinner party in 1833, in which the 66-year old former president was seated next to 23-year old Fanny Kemble, a rising young Shakespearean actress from England. Adams apparently thrust his views of the Othello-Desdemona relationship upon the unsuspecting Kemble.
Two years later, Kemble published a journal about her trip to the United States, in which she described her dinner conversation with the former president. A piqued Adams felt compelled to respond, elaborating in print about how repellent he found the Desdemona-Othello relationship. The dinner conversation of two years earlier between the ex-president and the rising British actress thus became national news and, with it, the Adams’ anxieties about not only the dangers of race-mixing but also the threat posed by disobedient women.
Yet, the former president’s strong opposition to amalgamation also coexisted with a firm belief in the evils of slavery. Adams’ abolitionist convictions, Shapiro writes, “seem to have required a counterweight, and he found it in this repudiation of amalgamation.” By directing his hostility at Desdemona rather than Othello, moreover, Adams astutely sidestepped criticizing black men, and it “proved more convenient to attack a headstrong young fictional woman than a living one.” Although a prolific writer, Adams’ public feud with Kemble represented his sole written attempt to square his disgust for interracial marriage with his abolitionist convictions, and he chose to do so “only through his reflections on Shakespeare.”
From his original encounters with his plays as a humble frontiersman with almost no formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln developed a life-long passion for Shakespeare as a youth. Shapiro notes that the adult Lincoln regularly asked friends, family, government employees, and relative strangers to listen to him recite, sometimes for hours on end—and then discuss—the same few passages from Shakespeare again and again.
John Wilkes Booth similarly grew up with Shakespeare, but in altogether different circumstances. Booth’s father owned a farm in rural Maryland but was also a leading English Shakespearean actor who immigrated to the United States and became a major figure on the American stage. His three sons followed in their father’s footsteps, with older brothers Edwin and Julius attaining genuine star status, one that eluded their younger brother John. Although Maryland was a border state that did not join the Confederacy, John, who had been convinced from his earliest years that whites were superior to blacks, was naturally drawn to the Southern cause.
In 1864, both the year of Lincoln’s re-election and the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Booth was stalking Lincoln and plotting his removal with Confederate operatives. Lincoln, who had less than six months to live when he was re-elected in November, found himself brooding more and more about Macbeth in his final months, and especially about the murdered King Duncan. Through his reflection upon the guilt-ridden Macbeth, Shapiro writes, Lincoln felt the “deep connection between the nation’s own primal sin, slavery, and the terrible cost, both collective and personal, exacted by it.”
After Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington in April 1865, many of Lincoln’s enemies likened the assassin, whose favorite play was Julius Caesar, to Brutus as a man who killed a tyrant. But Macbeth proved to be the play that the nation settled on to “give voice to what happened, and define how Lincoln was to be remembered.” Booth had “failed to anticipate that the man he cold-bloodedly murdered would be revered like Duncan, his faults forgotten.” For a divided America, the universal currency of Shakespeare’s words offered what Shapiro terms a “collective catharsis” which permitted a “blood-soaked nation to defer confronting once again what Booth declared had driven him to action: the conviction that America ‘was formed for the white not for the black man.’”
The year 1916 was the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a year in which one of his least known plays, The Tempest, was used to bolster the case for anti-immigration legislation. The Tempest centers on Caliban, who is left behind, rather than on those who immigrate. But the point is the same, Shapiro argues: a “more hopeful community . . . depends on somebody’s exclusion.” This notion resonated in particular with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an avid Shakespeare reader who led the early 20th century anti-immigration campaign.
The unusual number of performances of The Tempest during that tercentenary year meshed with the fierce debate that Lodge led in Congress over immigration. The legislation that passed the following year curtailed the influx into the United States of immigrants representing “lesser races,” most frequently a reference to Southern and Eastern Europeans. “How Shakespeare and especially The Tempest were conscripted by those opposed to the immigration of those deemed undesirable is a lesser known part of this [immigration] story,” Shapiro writes.
Closer to the present, Shapiro has chapters on the 1948 Broadway musical, play, Kiss Me, Kate, later a film, about the cast of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which raised the issue of the roles of women in a post-war society; and on the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, by far the most successful film to date about Shakespeare or any of his plays, which began as a film about same-sex love but evolved into one about adultery.
Kiss Me, Kate takes place at the backstage of a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. With music and lyrics provided by Cole Porter, the Broadway musical contrasted the modern view of women emerging in the aftermath of World War II with the conventional stereotyped gender roles in the Shakespeare play itself, thereby offering “rival visions of the choices women faced in postwar America.” In Shakespeare’s play, “women are urged to capitulate and their obedience to men is the norm,” while backstage “independence and unconventionality hold sway.” Kiss Me, Kate deftly juxtaposed a “front stage Shakespeare world that mirrored the fantasy of a patriarchal, all-white America” with a backstage one that was “forthright about a woman’s say over her desires and her career.”
In the earliest version of the film Shakespeare in Love in 1992, Will found himself attracted to the idea of same sex attraction (he was actually attracted to a woman dressed as a man, but Will thought she was a he). But same sex love was reduced to a mere trace in the final version, about how the unhappily married Will’s affair with another woman, Viola, helped him overcome his writer’s block, finish Romeo and Juliet, and go on to greatness. Those creating and marketing Shakespeare in Love, Shapiro writes, “clearly felt that a gay or bisexual Shakespeare was not something that enough Americans in the late 1990s were ready to accept.” To achieve box-office success, “Shakespeare could be an adulterer, but he had to be a heterosexual one in a loveless marriage.”
Shakespeare in Love ends with Viola leaving Will and England for America, reinforcing a myth that persisted from the 1860s through the 1990s of a direct American connection to Shakespeare —anti-immigration Senator Lodge was one of its most exuberant proponents. This fantasy, Shapiro writes, speaks to our desire to “forge a physical connection between Shakespeare and America” as the land where his “inspiring legacy came to rest and truly thrived.” While finding no credible evidence for a physical connection, Shapiro sees a legacy in Shakespeare’s plays that should inspire Americans of all hues and stripes.
Pained by the polarization he witnessed at the 2017 Julius Caesar performance, Shapiro expresses the hope that his book might “shed light on how we have arrived at our present moment, and how, in turn, we may better address that which divides and impedes us as a nation.” The hope seems forlorn in light of the examples he so brilliantly details, pointing mostly in the other direction: a Shakespeare on the cutting edge of America’s social and political divisions, with his plays often doing the cutting.