If a man’s character can be judged by the way he treats his dog, then perhaps it makes sense to examine America’s character by looking at the way it has treated Shakespeare. That, at least, is the idea behind Columbia University professor James Shapiro’s recent book, Shakespeare in a Divided America (Penguin Press 2020).
Shapiro finds points in American history where controversies have arisen over Shakespeare’s plays or their characters. He uses those points to illuminate larger issues in American life.
He has an eye for the arresting detail. He begins in 1835 with the nuances of abolition politics. Former President John Quincy Adams, an advocate of abolition, turned to Shakespeare to illustrate his opposition to interracial marriage. Adams published an article in which he disparaged Desdemona, who he said got what she deserved when her husband Othello, a dark-skinned Moor, killed her in a fit of mistaken jealousy.
Shapiro then picks up in 1845 with actors who played their gender opposites. At an Army camp in Texas, a young Ulysses S. Grant, at 5’7” tall and weighing 135 pounds, was asked to play Juliet. But he was spared when the Army brought in an actress from New Orleans. Grant subsequently grew a beard. In London, Charlotte Cushman became famous by cross-dressing to play Romeo, and by keeping secret the woman in the United States she considered her wife.
The book then turns to an 1849 riot that stopped a production of Macbeth at the exclusive Astor Place Opera House in New York. Thousands participated and more than 20 were killed. The mob leaders sought to stop the play, which featured an English actor, because they saw it as a symbol of economic elitism and pro-British sympathies. Among other things, the theater had imposed a dress code and had replaced the cheap seat benches in the pit, or orchestra, with reserved seating. To incite the mob, the leaders published a false claim about threats from British sailors. One attacker carried a sign, “America Rules England Tonight, by Jesus.” It took deadly fire from the New York militia to disperse the mob.
In 1865, the Shakespearean actor, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Booth was associated with the Know Nothings, a group that thought Lincoln’s election in 1864 was illegitimate. Booth saw himself in the role of Brutus, who killed Julius Caesar, a role Booth had never been chosen to play. But after Lincoln died, the public instead compared Booth to another Shakespearean assassin, Macbeth, and mourned Lincoln with Shakespeare’s eulogy to Duncan, the king Macbeth had killed. That was a fitting tribute to Lincoln, who enjoyed reciting long passages from Shakespeare.
From the plays, Professor Shapiro turns to performances based in some way on Shakespeare’s work. In 1916, the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, The Tempest provided material for a public pageant in a New York stadium. Called “Caliban,” the pageant had Prospero and his ship-wrecked crew attempt to educate Caliban, the brutish and illiterate man found on the island where they landed. The education included music by French, German, Spanish and Italian choruses. Shapiro looks at the pageant in the light of mounting opposition in the United States to immigration, and the passage the following year of federal legislation denying entry to anyone who was not capable of reading and interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
In 1948, Broadway turned the Taming of the Shrew into “Kiss Me Kate,” a musical that showed not only the play onstage but also the antics of the cast backstage. That story of a husband “taming” his headstrong wife appealed to audiences in the aftermath of World War II, when soldiers were returning home, women were leaving the workforce, and divorce rates were climbing. The sanitized movie version in 1953 left out suggestive lyrics and also the famous, or infamous, scene in which the husband spanks his wife – a not uncommon occurrence in movies from the 1940s.
In 1998, Tom Stoppard’s “Shakespeare in Love” used Romeo and Juliet as a vehicle for a fictional account of an adulterous affair between Shakespeare and an actress in one of his plays. Shapiro finds it telling that the authors saw no problem with depicting adultery but thought it was a bridge too far to begin with Shakespeare falling in love with someone he wrongly thought was a young man playing a boy’s role.
Professor Shapiro bookends all of this with the 2017 performance of an updated Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. In 2012 a director had successfully toured the play with a Caesar who resembled President Barack Obama. The Central Park director followed form and fashioned Caesar to resemble President Donald Trump, but, for balance, added actors who sat in the audience and, when Caesar was assassinated, maligned Brutus.
But times had changed and right-wing social media would have none of it. A protestor disrupted the performance and was rewarded with an interview on national television. The director and others even received death threats whose seriousness the FBI underestimated. In that regard, we can correctly say that Professor Shapiro carried out the promise of his book’s subtitle, which was to “tell us about our past and future.”
Luther Munford is a Northsider.