Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Review: Shakespeare in a Divided America By James Shapiro

Shakespeare in a Divided America:
What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

By James Shapiro

Reviewed for Cholla Needles by Greg Gilbert

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     Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets offer multifaceted lenses through which we may interpret the world, and “there’s the rub.” In Shakespeare in a Divided America, author and Professor James Shapiro, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who has several award-winning books on Shakespeare to his credit, turns that lens on interpretations of America. While the author’s credentials suggest an informed and scholarly reading experience, which proved true, I was delighted to find that his book is wickedly entertaining as well, even bawdy on occasion, and politically astute.

      Divided opens with John Quincy Adams’s complaint about Othello, chiefly that Desdemona marries a “blackamoor.” Quincy, a leading abolitionist who had opposed slavery since 1783, viewed intermarriage as an “outrage upon the law of nature.” Thus begins Shapiro’s chapter “1833: Miscegenation,” an approach that sets the stage for a chronological examination of successive epochs, each a consideration of how Shakespeare was used by competing interests. Successive chapters (“1845: Manifest Destiny”; “1849: Class Warfare”; “1865: Assassination”; “1916: Immigration”; “1948: Marriage”; “1998: Adultery and Same-Sex Love”; and “2017: Left | Right”) offer scenes of rising action and conflict that culminate in a “to be or not to be?” of America as an unresolved question.

      Shakespeare’s dominant role in shaping America is itself a curiosity. Shapiro speculates that an absence of rivals and a use of language that sounded like the King James Bible may have contributed to “a Bible-obsessed nation” adopting the Bard.  Alexis de Tocqueville observed that volumes of Shakespeare were plentiful among “pioneer’s huts” during his 1831 tour of America. Today, Shakespeare’s works are the most published, performed, and discussed in America, indeed, the globe. Even so, how Shakespeare became so influential in America remains, for Shapiro, an unresolved mystery.  His introduction speculates that at “some deep level Americans intuit that our collective nightmares are connected to the sins of our national past, papered over or repressed in the making of America and its greatness; on occasion, Shakespeare’s plays allow us to recognize if not acknowledge this.” Yet, as Shapiro saw, in November 2018 the parents of students in North Carolina were upset to learn that the “satirical 1987 adaptation The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the school included ‘suicide, alcohol consumption, and ‘bad language.’” As responses to Shakespeare proliferate, so too do the readings and interpretations.

      Indeed, in 1845 debates on America’s Doctrine of Manifest Destiny resonated with soldiers in Corpus Christi, many of whom identified with Iago’s laments in Othello about how rank is conferred, in their circumstance by seniority or by merit: “where each second / Stood heir to the first.” The soldiers built a theatre and performed. Here is where Shapiro is a bit wicked in highlighting one young soldier’s femininity as why he was asked to play the part of Desdemona. The young man, clean shaven, five-seven, and 135 pounds and with that “streak of the feminine in his personality” made the youthful Ulysses S. Grant the perfect candidate. While he spurned that role, he later played a lead, with whiskers, as head of the Union Army and as President, his personal stage craft shaped during an era of American exceptionalism.  

      Shakespeare was invoked by both sides of those who would annex Texas and make manifest “American dominion to the Pacific.” Manifest Destiny was the populist slogan of the day. A futile counter-appeal by abolitionist Robert Charles Winthrop to fellow congressmen in 1845, relied on Shakespeare’s King John:

——Here’s a large mouth, indeed,

That spits forth Death and mountains, rocks and seas

Talks as familiarly of roaring lions

As maids of thirteen do of puppy dogs.

What cannoneer begot this lusty blood?

He speaks plain cannon fire, and smoke and bounce. (2.1.458–63)

      To which Winthrop adds his paraphrase: “And against whom are all these gasconading bravadoes indulged? What nation has been thus bethumpt and bastinadoed with brave words?” The answer, as we now know, arrived in the form of our “sea to shining sea” telegraphs, waterways, rails, and commerce. “Inherent in Manifest Destiny was a belief in manly superiority. Like a headstrong wife, Mexico had to be taught a lesson, roughed up a bit.” And in the forging of a continental dominion we find the sinew that connects young Grant’s femininity to an American exceptionalism that transforms the very norms of manhood, as evidenced by the evolving role of gender in Romeo and Juliet.

      As “norms of manhood began to change, mirroring the split between martial manliness and effeminacy within Romeo himself, male actors found the role increasingly unplayable.” Popular British actress Charlotte Cushman was as masculine as young Grant was effeminate, a woman who could capture Romeo’s inner turmoil. When performing as Romeo in Boston during the 1851-2 season, a man heckled her manly characteristics. She stopped performing and threatened to personally “put that person out,” thereby receiving what she described as the greatest ovation of her illustrious career. Even so, the piling up of dead American soldiers between 1848 and 1865, more than 800,000, spurred an interest in a “less manly acting style—exemplified by the ‘poetic’ Hamlet of Edwin Booth” as well as an end to female Romeos. As introspective and bombastic male personas competed for approval, their performances were viewed also through lenses of class warfare.

      The chapter on class warfare opens with the “massacre” outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York in 1849 when “somewhere between 10,000 and 24,000” protested a performance of Macbeth. “The theater, not for the last time, found itself at the center of a riot, one fueled by a heady mixture of racism, nationalism (spurred by anti-British sentiment), hostility toward abolition, and economic anxiety.” Two actors presented strikingly different interpretations, Forrest and Macready, in a city where nearly “10,000 New Yorkers would see one of these three productions of Macbeth that night.” To some, Macready’s “gentle manliness” was being eclipsed by the coarser Manifest Destiny perspective put forth by Forrest’s interpretation. Was a ruthless Macbeth killed by a gracious Duncan, or was Macbeth a symbol of assassinated greatness? If any of this sounds familiar, it should.

      In the book’s final chapter, we read about how the “Right under Donald Trump—who may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare—now found itself struggling to find anything in the teaching or performance of Shakespeare’s plays that aligned with its political and social agenda.” At stage center is Julius Caesar at New York’s Central Park open-air theater, the Delacorte, in the summer of 2017. But first, a little background is in order. An architect of Trump’s political ascendancy, Steve Bannon, had in an earlier incarnation attempted an adaptation Shakespeare to the screen. After the failure of his sci-fi interpretation of Titus Andronicus, he attempted a screenplay adaption of Coriolanus that relocated the setting at the Rodney King riots, complete with rival street gangs. More about stoking fear and anger than ideas, his treatment failed, but it did set the stage for future events.

      Thus, during the Trump presidency, when the Delacorte’s business suit clad Caesar was felled, a video clip was acquired by Breitbart and the New York Times and featured on Fox & Friends. The headline: “’NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of Trump.’” Among the outraged were Mike Huckabee, Eric and Donald Jr., and a chorus of those who wanted the blood of the performers. So many threatening calls ensued that the theater had to send “people to voice mail.” Steve Bannon declared, “’The establishment started it. . . . You all are gonna finish it.’  . . . the action he was encouraging, in Antony’s words, would ‘let slip the dogs of war,’ unleash chaos that would overturn the established order.”

      Within the order of the book, American history comes full circle, as is fitting. Between the first act and last there is much to recommend. Shapiro’s consideration of The Taming of the Shrew in Chapter 6 considers marriage in post-World War II America and discusses various approaches to Katherine’s final speech calling for women to abase themselves. Shapiro actually applies scholarship to tracing mid-century incidents of men spanking women on stage, in films, and in comic books and magazines, with a visual link in bibliographic essays at the book’s conclusion. Most amusing is his treatment of Kiss Me, Kate, a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, where Cole Porter smokescreens the debasement scene with a bowery rendition of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”


      Cole Porter’s contribution was to infuse  . . . hints of transgressive behavior. The provocative Kinsey Report—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male—had just been published, offering a long-hidden view of American sexual practices. It was so topical that Porter even name-drops “the Kinsey report” in his racy song “Too Darn Hot,” then alludes to Kinsey’s revelations about what American men were really up to: infidelity, masturbation (“pillow, you’ll be my baby tonight”), and homosexual activity (“A marine / For his queen”).

      It’s staggering what Porter got away with in Kiss Me, Kate, especially in the repressive frontstage world. So, for example, when Lois Lane’s Bianca sings about her desire to wed (because she is so eager to have sex), her seemingly clueless language is almost beyond the pale, as her willingness to marry any Tom, Dick, or Harry turns into a desire for what sounds like any “hairy Dick”—and then to a longing for what sounds identical to the words “a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick, a Dick.”

      From his examination of The Tempest where Caliban becomes a lens into America’s treatment of Native-Americans and other non-whites and through his insights into Harvey Weinstein’s campaign to win an Oscar and avoid being killed by Brad Pitt, Shapiro entertains and informs. From the absurd and offensive to the heart wrenching and comical, Shakespeare in a Divided Nation places the lenses of history’s most influential writer over the Lincoln assassination, over our racial, class, and gender divides, and concludes by placing that lens over us, the readers. This is a book for thinkers as well as Shakespeare scholars.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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