Shakespeare from the American Point of View
A discussion of the book, Shakespeare in a Divided America written by James Shapiro, published by Penguin Press, 2020
Article reprinted by permission from its author, Domenick Danza, from his blog, https://morethantheplay.blogspot.com/
I have not written a blog post since March 7, before the pandemic became our norm. It was a strange day when theatres in New York closed. We all know the bad luck associated with using the work “closed” or “shutdown” when talking about theatre. We say the theatre is “dark.” And it is definitely a dark period. I enjoy writing for my blog because I share my experiences. Live theatre, which I miss terribly, is all about the experience. I usually attend alone, meaning I go by myself, but I have a shared experience with anywhere from two hundred to two thousand people. We commune. Then, when I share that experience here on this blog, I commune again. That is what I most value in about live theatre.
What I’ve been doing these past few weeks, aside from teaching remotely, is reading. I’ve been reading fiction, which is rare for me, as well as plays and non-fiction, which, as a grad student in the Goddard MFA Creative Writing low residency program with a focus on playwriting, is where most of my time is spent. Sharing books and thoughts about what I’ve been reading is much more a personal/intellectual conversation than sharing a communal theatre experience, but I’d like to give it a try. I will keep the topics focused on theatre. Let’s start with Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro. It is a truly fascinating read.
I am a late bloomer to Shakespeare. Reading his works have always been difficult for me. My experience seeing numerous productions of the Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, which I have written about on this blog, opened the door for me to understand and enjoy the world of William Shakespeare. Mr. Shapiro’s many books have provided me a frame for Shakespeare’s work, both historically and socially. His latest book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, focuses this frame directly on our American culture, right up to the present day. He writes about John Quincy Adams’ documented response to the character of Desdemona in Othello, illustrating how this well-known abolitionist harbored a racist perspective. This reinforces what we have come to know about the detrimental effects of implicit bias today. Mr. Shapiro also takes a very close look at how Prospero’s treatment and attempt at educating Caliban in The Tempest heightened the debate around the immigrant experience in the early 20th century, and carries forward to the present. And yes, there are some very steamy chapters about marriage, adultery, and same sex love as reflected in the The Taming of the Shrew and the development of the 1999 Academy Award winning movie, Shakespeare in Love.
My favorite chapter was about Macbeth and the connection between Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s knowledge and understanding of this tragic character. Since I teach this play with my 5th Grades classes, it is the Shakespeare work that is most familiar to me. The complexity of the characters and the subtlety in Shakespeare’s political commentary on England under the reign of King James are brilliant and fascinating. Finding out how these complexities were appreciated and quoted by both Lincoln and Booth illuminate the magnitude and universality in Shakespeare’s writing.
These historic debates become relevant as Mr. Shapiro writes from this personal experience of the political and threatening response to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park 2017 production of Julius Caesar. These stories all link together to reveal how the responses to Shakespeare in this country illustrates how we have been a very divided nation throughout our history. Whether you are a Shakespeare fan or a history buff, this book is an enlightening read.