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

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future. James Shapiro. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. Pp. 221.

James Shapiro is a prolific Shakespeare scholar and award-winning author of The Year of Lear: Shakespeare 1606 (2015), A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2006) and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare (2010), among other groundbreaking works. In this latest book, hailed by the New York Times as one of “The 10 Best Books of 2020,” Shapiro turns the tables on Shakespeare theatre history analysis. Rather than asking how America plays into the history of Shakespeare, he’s asking how Shakespeare plays into the history of America. Indeed, Shapiro identifies the reception of Shakespeare and the performance of his works as a vital vein running through controversial moments in American history. The titles of each chapter specify an exact year and topic that consumed that era, presented chronologically, including: “1833: Miscegenation;” “1845: Manifest Destiny;” “1849 Class Warfare;” “1916: Immigration;” “1948: Marriage;” “1998: Adultery and Same-Sex Love;” and, lastly, “2017: Left/Right.” This volume is accessible to theatre practitioners and historians alike, without requiring prior knowledge of either discipline to enjoy and engage with the crucial analysis woven throughout. Expertly-written, Shapiro’s lens feels at the same time historic and timely—as he uses the past to examine the path we took to our present.

Several chapters focus on one major instance of Shakespearean performance in a pivotal time in America, before zooming out to provide context leading up to the focal event. In Chapter 3, “1849: Class Warfare,” Shapiro uses the Astor Place Riots and William Macready’s performance of Macbeth that night, for instance, to show Shakespeare at the center of an explosion of American nationalism, a topic also featured throughout newspaper headlines in 2020, the year of publication. This emblematic chapter opens the evening of the Astor Place Riots, placing the reader in the middle of the action; then Shapiro takes a step back to analyze the ways that everyone there— performers, audience, and mob—arrived at that volatile clash between the working-class, the elites, and the government. This chapter highlights the rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready, a rivalry that culminated in the disaster at the Astor Place Opera House and which exposed growing divisions along class and cultural lines. Shapiro takes a different view than other historians, such as Nigel Cliff, arguing that the riots were not the result of Americans rejecting theatre or Shakespeare more broadly, but rather “an intense desire by the middle and lower classes to continue sharing that space, and to oppose, violently if necessary, efforts to exclude them from it” (78). Shapiro beautifully paints a picture of an America struggling through movements grown beyond the control of their leadership, as whole cultural groups experienced exclusion from common spaces and marked divides grew between socio-economic classes. By this chapter’s conclusion, readers can’t help but see unspoken parallels to currents today. Perhaps the book’s greatest wake-up call for American readers comes here, when Shapiro writes, “The Opera House may be long gone, but the divisions remain” (80).

Other chapters showcase a perspective on American history that textbooks overlook, revealed by significant encounters with Shakespeare. In Chapter 1, “1833: Miscegenation,” Shapiro looks into the deep-seated racism of former President John Quincy Adams, who on the surface fought for abolition, but whose readings of Shakespeare revealed his anti-blackness when he said, “My objections to the character of Desdemona arise… from what she herself does. She absconds from her father’s house, in the dead of night, to marry a blackamoor” (8). Throughout the chapter, Shapiro presents the two sides of Adams: one in public pre-Civil War leadership positions, arguing for abolition against John C. Calhoun, and the other in his private life, where he is quoted by his mother, Abigail, and famed Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble, to show disgust for the intermarrying of races, using Othello as a whetstone for his rage. Of Adams, Shapiro writes, “His tentative steps towards becoming an abolitionist seem to have required a counterweight, and he found it in his repudiation of amalgamation. Shakespeare gave him much to work with. By directing his hostility at Desdemona rather than Othello, he was able to sidestep criticizing black men” (20). Shapiro’s analysis underscores that Shakespeare during the abolitionist movement was a scapegoat and incitement for many, most notably a President.

The last two chapters catapult the reader into present day, a transition that should feel jarring, as there is a 50-year gap from the previous chapter’s case study. Ironically, the historical jump feels all too natural, as the subject matter of previous chapters has felt so modern. In the final chapter, “2017: Left/Right,” Shapiro expertly ties together all his carefully-chosen examples from earlier chapters, highlighting his premise that in order to critically examine the present, you must first dissect the past. This chapter analyzes the hotly debated production of Julius Caesar, featuring Caesar dressed to vaguely mimic Donald Trump, produced by the Public Theater in 2017. Shapiro synopsizes the controversy surrounding the highly publicized production, consistently reminding the reader that Shakespeare and the Public Theater’s production itself were never the problem, nor its artistic value, but rather the cultural divisions exposed by conversations surrounding the production. Shapiro’s groundwork in prior chapters deftly paves the way for this contemporary case study—culminating in the confusion that the production did not result in ideological arguments, but rather partisan anger concerning optics and perceived personal attacks.

Shakespeare in a Divided America ends with this chapter, highlighting America’s evolving cultural schisms through Shakespeare. There’s no epilogue, only Shapiro’s brief Bibliographical Essay, in which he describes his sources and recommends further reading. His spare one-paragraph denouement eloquently meditates on what’s to come, as polarization heightens: “The future of Shakespeare in America, like the future of the nation itself, would appear secure… Yet his future also seems as precarious as it has ever been in this nation’s history” (220). The reader is left here, encouraged to make the same connections Shapiro has given the tools to use Shakespeare as a litmus test for American divisions, using moments of unrest in our past to analyze our present and fathom our future.

Kaitlin Nabors
University of Colorado, Boulder

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 2 (Spring 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center