Review by David Starkey
The introduction to James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future recounts the Public Theater’s 2017 staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, with the title character costumed in Trump-like apparel. While many readers might think of the ensuing cause célèbre as peculiar to our own disjointed times, Shapiro’s book makes clear that the Bard has long been a magnet for American contentiousness. Ours is a dysfunctional relationship that only seems to be growing stranger. According to Shapiro, while “no writer’s work is read by more Americans,” Shakespeare’s future “seems as precarious as it’s ever been in this nation’s history.”
The first chapter, “1833: Miscegenation,” sets the tenor for the rest of the book. In it, we learn that John Quincy Adams wrote a long letter about Othello, which appeared in a prominent American magazine, vilifying “Desdemona for desiring and then marrying a black man.” So much for “the Abolitionist.” “1849: Class Warfare” describes the mayhem caused by American fans of dueling thespians: the English actor William Macready and his American counterpart, Edwin Forrest. “1865: Assassination” discusses the influence of Julius Caesar and other Shakespeare tragedies on John Wilkes Booth. “1916: Immigration” explores the failed attempt of Percy MacKaye to recast Caliban as an immigrant hero who could help “break down the boundaries that divided new and old Americans.” And in “1998: Adultery and Same-Sex Love,” Shapiro—quoting the critic Stuart Klawans—sees the film Shakespeare in Love, despite its critical and commercial success, as evidence of Americans’ “‘determination to keep their eyes shut tight against present-day…realities.’”
In the final chapter, Shapiro returns to the Public Theater’s controversial production of Julius Caesar. By this time, however, the visceral response of reactionary Americans to a Shakespeare play that does not reinforce their own values no longer seems like a singularly Trumpian event. In fact, having witnessed the bad behavior of our predecessors across the previous seven chapters, we feel a sense of familiarity about what happened in Central Park: the inaccurate characterizations of what actually occurs onstage, the whispering and rumor-mongering, the sense that Shakespeare—the author most open to varied readings—can only have a single interpretation.
It’s depressing, and yet Shakespeare in a Divided America is a lively and informative read. Shapiro’s prose is precise and often witty. While the book is clearly aimed at general readers, the 45 pages of notes at the end show that Shapiro, a professor at Columbia, has not neglected his scholarly chops. If Shakespeare is the ultimate mirror for humankind, Shakespeare in a Divided America forces us to look hard at ourselves. It’s not a pretty picture.