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How Shakespeare shaped America’s culture wars

The United States has always looked to Shakespeare to illuminate its politics – and in the polarised age of Donald Trump his work feels as urgent as ever. 

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Mark Twain devotes several chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to mocking the sham pretentions of the antebellum South in the form of a pair of Arkansas swindlers claiming to be European aristocrats. Posing as the Shakespearean actors David Garrick and Edmund Kean, the duke and dauphin decide to put on a performance for local edification and their enrichment, to include not only the sword fight in Richard III and the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, but also Hamlet’s soliloquy, with the duke promising he will “piece it out from memory”. The speech he gives is pieced out indeed: “To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane/But that the fear of something after death/Murders the innocent sleep…” Twelve people attend the show, laughing heartily at the absurdity. “So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakespeare,” Huck reports: “what they wanted was low comedy.” And the duke and dauphin provide it, offering next a silent naked farce.

It is not an example James Shapiro uses in his excellent new history Shakespeare in a Divided America – comedy is not his theme – but it demonstrates how deeply embedded Shakespeare was by the early decades of the 19th century as a proxy for American cultural hierarchies. This was thanks in no small part to McGuffey’s  Reader, a primer first published in 1836 that drew liberally on Shakespeare’s most  famous speeches and shaped the rhetoric of the country for a century and more.

As Shapiro notes, Shakespeare was always popular in a “Bible-obsessed nation” raised on the language of King James, and his symbolic role in various American culture wars is well-covered terrain. But  Shapiro offers vivid new accounts of key moments when Shakespeare’s plays served as lightning rods in American history, the means by which an often polarised country vicariously played out cultural conflicts.

The book opens and closes with the same powerful example: the controversial 2017 Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in New York, in which a Caesar closely resembling Donald Trump was assassinated not long after the president’s inauguration. Its director, Oskar Eustis, used the production to highlight the troubling, and unresolved, moral questions raised by the play; Shapiro, who consulted on the show, thoughtfully details how it forced its audience to confront the problem of political violence in deeply discomfiting ways. But the production’s ethical complexity was quickly  submerged under waves of conservative media outrage.

Shapiro is by no means the first writer to suggest that Trump’s success has deep roots in the history of a divided nation, but his nuanced readings make a persuasive case that Shakespeare provides an exceptionally rich way to understand those differences. The book is organised around representative instances of cultural upheaval in America, each chapter offering a case study of how the plays helped parse troubling American questions at a given moment.

As Shapiro notes, the 17th-century puritans who founded the first English settler colonies were “rabidly anti-theatrical”, and colonial insurrectionists rejecting the motherland in the 18th century would not necessarily have embraced the quintessential English playwright. “How Shakespeare won over America in the early 19th century is something of a mystery,” he writes, while offering convincing explanations: a dearth of serious rivals, the desire for entertainment on a rapidly expanding frontier, and the instant popularity of McGuffey’s textbooks on those frontiers  from 1836.

Arguments over America’s appropriations and revisions of Shakespeare have continued ever since. But Shakespeare was always part of the American cultural landscape, to a degree that Shapiro’s quick summary of the early history if anything risks understating.

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His story proper begins in 1833, with  pre-war productions of Othello, but earlier examples could easily have been adduced that would only have strengthened his case. On 3 April, 1760, for example, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, advertised a production of Othello to be staged the following week (along with an inevitable farce – shades of the duke and dauphin – entitled A Wonder! An Honest Yorkshireman!). Next to the bill promising audiences the Moor of Venice ran several items offering rewards for the return of escaped “Negroes”, interspersed among notices about stray horses – all just so much missing livestock.

The endless ironies created by staging Shakespeare’s weighty existential questions upon America’s shifting moral sands are precisely what Shapiro examines throughout this book; by 1833, when he starts, James Fenimore Cooper was already declaring Shakespeare “the great author of America” (a famous line Shapiro surprisingly overlooks).

However, Shapiro’s purpose is not comprehensive overview but rather representative histories that help reframe and elucidate cultural conflicts today. His examples are artfully chosen, carefully contextualised and entertainingly told, offering insights and capsule stories of the past that pack an enormous amount of American history into a disarmingly readable account.

Opening with Othello, he uses President John Quincy Adams’s preoccupation with the “problem” of Desdemona’s marriage to a black man to explore enduring questions about American racism. Although Adams was known for his opposition to slavery, he was so horrified by the thought of racial mixing that in the 1830s he wrote at length arguing that Desdemona’s murder was the only possible resolution for her “unnatural passion” for a “sooty-bosomed… thick-lipped wool-headed Moor”. The tragedy of a black man who marries a white woman and then kills her acquired sharply different overtones  in a country where punitive anti-miscegenation laws were used to enforce slavery, while myths of white women’s purity were used to legitimate them. Othello became a Rorschach test for American attitudes to race in general, and to racial “amalgamation” (as miscegenation was known at the time)  in particular.

The chapter entitled “Class Warfare” features the most famous story of Shakespearean conflict in American history, the Astor Place riots of 1849. Audiences fought over two warring interpretations of Macbeth, one starring America’s most famous actor, the other a renowned British tragedian – the riots left around 30 people dead and over 100 injured. Class conflict,  nationalism and nativism were mapped on to the two rival productions, which came to represent enduring enmities between old world and new. One faction claimed to   represent American populist democracy, the other symbolised conservative,  patrician exclusivity.

“Assassination” takes the reader to 1865, as the Shakespearean actor and Southern white supremacist John Wilkes Booth uses Julius Caesar to justify his murder of the “tyrant” Abraham Lincoln. In counterpoint to this familiar tale Shapiro offers a melancholy Lincoln fascinated by Shakespeare and delighted by theatre. His visits were an escape from the burdens of civil war, until a night at Ford’s Theatre ends with the unhinged Booth shooting the president and leaping on to the stage to shout “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”).

Lincoln’s death arrives at the centre of Shapiro’s book, pointing in both directions to the accounts of the 2017 Julius Caesar with which it opens and closes. The production shows an American society continuing to rely on “the universal currency of Shakespeare’s words” to wrestle with questions of tyranny in a divided republic. (It was Benjamin Franklin who famously argued that presidents should be subject to impeachment to avoid the brutal remedies of the past, when “recourse was had to assassination”.) Lincoln’s death was itself turned into an American tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Shapiro writes that it permitted “a blood-soaked nation to defer confronting once again”  the question of white supremacy that had driven it to war.

Celebrations of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916 were centred around an ambitious adaptation of The Tempest called Caliban by the Yellow Sands, which became the locus for heated contemporary debates over immigration restriction and a groundswell of eugenicist nativism. It brought The Tempest back to the attention of a country that, Shapiro reveals, had rarely staged it for the best part of a century.

Be that as it may, The Tempest certainly continued to be read, a point the book underplays. The inherently “brutish” nature of “the slave Caliban” was a common rhetorical device used to normalise racism throughout the 19th century, even in the writings of those opposed to slavery, as in an 1859 description later reprinted in  William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper the Liberator:

The negro of the North is an ideal negro; it is the negro refined by white culture… the negro among negroes is a coarse, grinning, flat-footed, thick-skulled creature, ugly as Caliban, lazy as the laziest of brutes.

Over the following decades racialised arguments against immigration from “inferior” parts of Europe seized on the same trope, using Caliban to denounce the “brutish” people of the world whose entry needed to be restricted in order to safeguard the (entirely mythical) purity of white America. Indeed, the familiar framing of “nature vs nurture” in questions of biological determinism comes from Shakespeare’s description of Caliban as a “born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick”. This was reworked by Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton when he invented the new science he called “eugenics”.

Shapiro turns to changing gender roles in “Marriage”, as the hit 1948 Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate uses The Taming of the Shrew to subvert and manage ideas about patriarchy and feminism, as well as “proper” sexuality (including the closeted sexual lives of some of its creators). It is followed by a history of the triumphantly popular 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, and the cultural anxieties about same-sex attraction it depicted as the country watched a presidential impeachment over adultery. Monica Lewinsky famously placed an anonymous quotation from Romeo and Juliet in the Washington Post’s classified ads to arrange the liaison with Bill Clinton that “resulted in the incriminating stained blue dress”; on 19 December 1998, eight days after Shakespeare in Love opened with its own revision of Romeo and Juliet, impeachment proceedings began against Clinton.

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In closing Shapiro returns the reader to the most recently impeached president, and the way in which the 2017 Julius Caesar  reinforced and amplified the cultural  divisions Trump so successfully exploited en route to the White House:

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, and didn’t much seem to care.

Trump’s supporters quickly reduced the production to a caricature of the putative hatred of New Yorkers for Trump, in which “New York” functioned as its own deeply loaded national symbol. The association with high culture that Twain laughed at over a century ago has now become so toxic that Shapiro ruefully asks whether Shakespeare himself may not soon fall victim to this very divided America.

It’s distinctly possible. As a Shakespearean scholar, Shapiro is primed to see Shakespeare as a “canary in the coal mine”, enabling us to see cultural divisions being played out by proxy. But as he knows perfectly well there are many other cultural channels that may be neither so wide nor so deep as Shakespeare, but will serve those who thrive off discord. Marx may have allowed that history would lurch from tragedy to farce, but it was Shakespeare who knew how to hold them all together. That is a lesson America could usefully learn, as it keeps trying to assemble a nation from the divergent legacies of puritan theocracy, settler colonialism, institutionalised slavery and liberal democracy.

In truth, a country that insists on calling itself the “United States” sounds increasingly like it might be protesting too much – and it is only thanks to Shakespeare that we know how to say so. 

Shakespeare in a Divided America  
James Shapiro
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £20

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down