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5 June 2024

James Shapiro Q&A: “I’d like to live in 1600s London – just for a week”

The American academic on finding fulfilment in Shakespeare, structuralism and dry-stone walls.

By New Statesman

James Shapiro was born in Brooklyn in 1955. He is an author and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and his books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

What’s your earliest memory?

My dad took my brother and me to see a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in New York. That stadium was demolished 60 years ago. I don’t remember much about the game, but the memory of first seeing a vast and dazzling green outfield has never left me.

Who are your heroes?

For a lot of Jewish kids growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, myself included, Anne Frank was our hero. As an adult, it’s the all-but-forgotten Hallie Flanagan, a theatre professor chosen to run America’s short-lived Federal Theatre in the late 1930s. She brought plays to millions of Americans (two thirds of whom had never seen one before) in 1,000 productions over a four-year period, before reactionary forces in Congress shut down her programme.

What book last changed your thinking?

Really changed it? Thomas S Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when I was 19. His account of paradigm shifts and how fields of inquiry change remains profound and persuasive.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Sopranos. With its dynastic infighting, codes of honour, sexism and vengeance it’s the closest thing to Shakespeare’s history plays in modern American culture.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Americans don’t follow Mastermind; watching Jeopardy! is our national pastime. What I know best, having taught and written about them for decades, are Shakespeare’s plays, especially the tragedies.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

London in 1600, to watch Richard Burbage play Hamlet at the Globe Theatre. But given what I know about plague in Elizabethan England, I wouldn’t want to linger there for long. A week would do nicely.

What political figure do you look up to?

Abraham Lincoln – the greatest leader in American history. And the most devoted reader of Shakespeare, maybe ever.

Who would paint your portrait?

Rembrandt, even though he would make me look older than I already am – much as the late and much missed Antony Sher did when he sketched my portrait for his book Year of the Mad King.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t complain. Don’t explain.” I’ve done my best to follow it, painful as it’s been.

What’s currently bugging you?

Conspiracy theories. They plague and degrade the political world (and, with the baseless conspiracy theories about his authorship, Shakespeare’s world too).

When were you happiest?

I’m a cheerful guy and have been since my teenage years, so it’s a steady state for me. Having a wonderful spouse, a son I’m extraordinarily proud of, and the most loyal of brothers helps.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Building dry-stone walls. Few things in life are as immersive, beautiful and as satisfying to work at (until the back goes).

Are we all doomed?

If Donald Trump is re-elected, we are for sure.

James Shapiro’s “The Playbook: A Story of Theatre, Democracy and the Making of a Culture War” is published by Faber & Faber

[See also: Craig Foster Q&A: “My theme tune? The sound of a whale’s ear bone”]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024