Bard Times

SHAKESPEARE IN A DIVIDED AMERICA: WHAT HIS PLAYS TELL US ABOUT OUR PAST AND FUTURE BY JAMES SHAPIRO. NEW YORK: PENGUIN PRESS. 320 PAGES. $27.

The cover of SHAKESPEARE IN A DIVIDED AMERICA: WHAT HIS PLAYS TELL US ABOUT OUR PAST AND FUTURE

The most popular honorary American of all time is unquestionably Jesus of Nazareth. But Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s latest book makes a lively case for Will as the man from Galilee’s perennial runner-up among unwitting citizens of the USA. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future blends Shapiro’s usual zest for unpacking time-capsule moments (e.g., The Year of Lear) with a newfound relish for Trump-era topicality. True, you may be tempted to groan at his fatuous subtitle—our future, really? Say it ain’t so, Weird Sisters. But he’s contrived an ingeniously structured game of historical hopscotch whose nimbleness keeps a reader turning pages without fretting overmuch about his shakier connective leaps, of which there are a few.

Shakespeare in a Divided America isolates eight revealing episodes when America’s Bardolatry has ended up refracting our national tussles with race, class, and sex, along with the ongoing turmoil of new ingredients in ye old melting pot. And let’s not forget violence. The primary impetus for the book, Shapiro’s introduction tells us, was the notorious 2017 Central Park revival of Julius Caesar that featured a Trump stand-in, just months after the real one’s American-carnage inauguration, as the dictator being stabbed to death onstage. At one level, this was nothing new; even eighty years later, Orson Welles’s Nazified 1937 version of the play, besides being “America’s first major modern-dress Shakespeare,” still exerted a powerful “gravitational pull” on any director. But Welles didn’t live in the age of Breitbart and Fox News.

Shapiro served the 2017 company as an adviser on all things Shakespearean, giving him an ideal close-up view of what director Oskar Eustis was aiming at and the ensuing controversy. For what it’s worth, he certainly makes the production sound more interesting and ambiguous than the trashy piece of Kathy Griffin–esque pandering that many of us, Trump-phobes included, guessed it must be at the time. As Eustis well understood, Caesar’s death, far from resolving anything, simply opens up fresh horrors for the conspirators in a play that concludes with a new dictatorship looming, thanks to Octavius. But that didn’t provide much solace to the director, his cast, or pretty much any other innocent repertory troupe unlucky enough to include “Shakespeare” in its moniker once the right-wing outrage machine cranked up and the death threats began rolling in.

Shapiro treats us to one deep-dive vignette after another, most of which center on Shakespearean nuggets from America’s past that have vanished from view even among seasoned fans of this country’s neglected cultural curios. Who knew, for instance, that John Quincy Adams engaged in a spat with British actress Fanny Kemble after she spilled the beans about the former president—and future abolitionist hero—venting his disgust at Othello’s interracial sexuality over the dinner table? (No fool, Kemble tartly observed that American productions of the play should henceforth just cut to the chase by replacing every mention of “the Moor” with the N-word.) How many of us were aware of the transgressive audacity, in its original 1948 stage version, of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate—based, of course, on The Taming of the Shrew? Most likely, latter-day audiences only know its bowdlerized movie adaptation, in which Hollywood tamed Porter too.

George Sidney, Kiss Me, Kate, 1953. Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred Graham (Howard Keel). MGM
George Sidney, Kiss Me, Kate, 1953. Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred Graham (Howard Keel). MGM

Then again, Porter and Kiss Me, Kate have hardly sunk into obscurity. By contrast, few of us will have even heard of Percy MacKaye’s 1916 pageant-play Caliban by the Yellow Sands. Staged with a cast of thousands in both New York and Boston, this faux-Shakespearean hodgepodge reconfigured The Tempest’s subhuman primitive into a representative of the new immigrants then flocking to these shores—optimistically, in MacKaye’s self-deluding view, but nonetheless endorsing the anti-immigrant prejudices the United States would soon codify into law. One of Shapiro’s more trenchant observations is that Shakespeare’s comedies “almost always end with the creation of a new social order defined by who is included and who is kept out,” and The Tempest is no exception.

Shapiro seldom sounds more like a kid in a newly discovered candy store than when he tells us that the Senate’s prime mover in passing racially motivated immigration restrictions, Henry Cabot Lodge—better known today for thwarting US membership in Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations—was steeped in Shakespeare all his life and quarried the plays for makeshift backup to his xenophobic views. Lodge had also acted in them as a Harvard undergraduate, and a photograph apparently survives, sadly not reproduced here, of him playing Lady Macbeth in drag. Perhaps “Out, damned spot” was his motto as a nativist as well.

Among cross-dressing American politicians, Lodge had some unexpected prior company: future general and president Ulysses S. Grant, who was cast as Desdemona in a production of Othello staged by bored West Pointers in Corpus Christi as the Mexican War warmed up. Ron Chernow’s magnificent Grant biography mentions the episode briefly, but minus Shapiro’s exuberant details. Grant’s brother officers agreed that he made an awfully pretty girl. But the lieutenant playing Othello disagreed. He had Grant replaced after complaining that he just couldn’t work up the requisite passion for his petite costar. Grant grew his trademark beard soon afterward.

Othello in Corpus Christi is the curtain-raiser to Shapiro’s chapter on “Manifest Destiny,” which links our budding quest for empire to a newly virile, unreflective ideal of masculinity—one ruggedly embodied on the professional stage by America’s foremost Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest. Romeo was now too effeminate a hero for male stars to be comfortable playing him, which was an opening for actress Charlotte Cushman to make a virtual career out of the role, initially opposite her younger sister’s Juliet to alleviate audience discomfort with their passion for each other. (An increasingly open lesbian in later life, Cushman sounds like a handful even in female garb: Edwin Booth, cast opposite her in Macbeth, claimed he was tempted to cry out, “Why don’t you kill him? You are a great deal bigger than I am.”) Shapiro doesn’t even need to underline the point that issues of gender fluidity and its opposite, hyperbolic manliness, were on public view no less than they are today, even if those unnerved by Cushman’s behavior had to confine themselves to saying that it “led to speculations which it would be indecorous to repeat.”

Edwin Forrest plays a key part in Shapiro’s account of the 1849 Astor Place riots, certainly the only time in New York’s history when its citizens were shot down in droves by the state militia for quarreling over rival interpretations of Macbeth. Of course, Shakespeare wasn’t the real issue; class inequality was, symbolized by Forrest’s robust Thane of Cawdor at the relatively egalitarian Broadway Theatre and his more hifalutin nemesis, English actor William Macready, playing the same role at the much snootier Astor Place Opera House. Spontaneous the fracas wasn’t, and the agitators who provoked it knew what they were doing. As Shapiro says elsewhere, this was when Shakespeare was “secular Scripture” to millions of Americans, including two who became famous not many years later: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

Unlike most of Shakespeare in a Divided America, Shapiro’s account of the murder of America’s ultimate nineteenth-century Bardolater by one of the plays’ best-known interpreters suffers somewhat from everybody’s familiarity with what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Yet his specialized vantage point still pays dividends. Our sixteenth president’s fascination with Macbeth won’t be news to anyone addicted to plumbing Lincoln’s psyche, but his dogged insistence that Claudius’s “O, my offense is rank” soliloquy in Hamlet far outdid “To be or not to be” as poetry is the sort of contrarian hobbyhorse—Shapiro’s term—that marks him out as a born critic, which so often means a long-suffering one. As for his assassin, one contemporary’s suspicion that “Shakespeare was somehow behind it all” is borne out by not only the interesting information that spectacular leaps to the stage were Booth’s crowd-pleasing trademark, but also Shapiro’s guess that Abe might have lived to a ripe old age if all three Booth brothers hadn’t jointly appeared in an 1864 benefit performance of—yes, here we go again—Julius Caesar.

Once the twentieth century rears its protean head, Shapiro shifts from literal Shakespeare productions to pop-culture works inspired by him: MacKaye’s Caliban, Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, and—what an anticlimax!—Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love. It’s a nice touch, but his grip on his material also gets wobblier. As entertaining as his investigation is of Kiss Me, Kate’s transmutations of Taming of the Shrew to reflect (and sometimes push back against) women’s post-WWII place in society, you could live without his Deep Thought that Shakespeare’s understanding of abusive marital dynamics anticipated “our modern-day black sites and their enhanced interrogation techniques.” The chapter on Shakespeare in Love is his weakest by far, tossing in Bill and Monica, Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior, and even 9/11 without convincingly connecting any of these phenomena either to Shakespeare or America’s relationship to him. His primary interest is in the movie’s ginger handling of same-sex attraction when Gwyneth Paltrow is disguised as a man, presumably because American audiences would flinch. But he seems unaware that 1982’s Victor/Victoria treated the same premise with much more effrontery.

Still, Shapiro’s occasional missteps and overreaching don’t mar the originality of his best aperçus, arresting juxtapositions, and vivid thumbnail characterizations of yesteryear’s political and theatrical figures. Nor do yesteryear and now always seem that far apart, as when we’re told that the Starbucks on Astor Place in New York stands on the site of the 1849 riot over Macready’s and Forrest’s dueling Macbeths. In 2012, attendees at a nearby anarchist book fair battled police while trying to smash its windows during a “wild, hours-long” melee. Presumably, neither the cops nor the rioters had any idea of all the Banquo-esque ghosts jostling around them.

Tom Carson is a longtime writer on politics and pop culture.