How William Shakespeare shaped America

Why did Shakespeare have such a profound impact on the United States? This was the question at the heart of a recent HistoryExtra podcast with James Shapiro. Read the full interview below

James Shapiro discusses Shakespeare and America. (Images by Getty)

Note: this is an unedited transcript of our podcast Shakespeare and America

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Matt Elton, editor of BBC World Histories Magazine: Is there a moment or a particular staging of a play that inspired you to write this new book on Shakespeare and America?

James Shapiro: There was a moment and there was a production. The moment was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and that November, I woke up, that November morning, I woke up and realised that living in my blue bubble, in New York City, I misunderstood something fundamental about my country and I realised that I had better get to work figuring out what that was. And having spent the past quarter century or so investigating London in Shakespeare’s day, two years really, 1599 and 1606, I had ignored my own nation and turned about face and have spent the last few years trying to grapple with that. And, as far as the production is concerned, about a month after the election, Oskar Eustis, who’s the Artistic Director at the Public Theatre in New York, where I advise Shakespeare productions, called me in and told me that he would be doing a production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, 50,000 New Yorkers line up to see this free every summer. And he told me that it would star a Trump look-a-like as Julius Caesar. And that production, which frames my book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, really was galvanising for me.

ME: I mean, obviously Shakespeare is someone that we usually associate very much with England and with English culture. In what ways is it far more important and pivotal in US culture and politics than we might expect?

JS: In its own day, I have great confidence that Shakespeare’s work spoke to Elizabethan preoccupations. But in many ways, he speaks more clearly and directly to American preoccupations than he does to English ones. And I’m not exactly sure why, that’s one of the mysteries that I wrestle with in investigating this. But America embrace Shakespeare as its national poet even after breaking with England in 1776 and he’s never really had a rival here, as the one writer everyone in America reads. We don’t read him the same way but we all read him. And one of the things that I learned while writing this book is America’s Shakespeare is not England or Britain’s Shakespeare. Certain plays, Othello in particular, take a distinctive political and social meaning here that they don’t in England, and the opposite can be said to be the case for works like Twelfth Night, which matter in terms of class in the UK in the way that they don’t in America.

ME: And how far back through, in American history, can we trace this link?

JS: The link between Shakespeare and America goes back to pre-revolutionary times when Hamlet’s famous lines, “To be or not to be,” were appropriated by both those who wanted to get rid of the British and defenders of the British in America. And by the time the second president of the United States, John Quincy Adams was installed, we had presidents grappling with Shakespeare. Adams rewrote a speech from Henry V to show how a foreign power might use its influence to put a sympathetic president in the White House. And that’s just mind-blowing in light of what’s going on between Russia and Trump today. So Shakespeare becomes a way for Americans to grapple with social and political issues that are not easily spoken about or confronted. Americans are really bad at speaking about the things that divide us, race, immigration, politics, the cultural gulf that is enormous right now. And Shakespeare, time and again in American history, has been a way of speaking to those concerns.

ME: You mentioned Othello there and obviously race. In what way did that play help people frame or view that particular issue, I suppose?

JS: One of the primal sins of America is slavery. Ira Aldridge, in the 1820s, could play Othello on the London stage. But over a century would pass before Paul Robeson could do the same on Broadway. So Othello really is a litmus test of American values and attitudes towards race and miscegenation and has been for our entire history, sometimes in mind-boggling ways. In ante-bellum America, in the south, the slave-holding south, where people named their slaves Othello, it was one of the most popular plays in theatres. And it has been and continues to be a lightning rod for differences about race, about colour-blind casting, about miscegenation in American culture.

ME: Can we trace the ways in which that’s changed across the centuries then?

JS: I’d like to say that it has changed but one of the more surprising discoveries that I made in the book was writing about the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, who was one of the great abolitionists of his day, fiercely opposing slavery to the point that he received death threats for that. And he opposed the expansion of slave states, fought to defend slaves in the Supreme Court, he was really a hero of that movement. None the less, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a black man touching or sleeping with a white woman. Now, he kept the most extensive diaries perhaps in American history and wrote widely on a range of subjects. But he never ever discussed miscegenation or, as it was called at the time, amalgamation. Except for when he turned his attention to Othello. And that occurred after what may be the worst dinner party in recorded history. He was seated next to Fanny Kemble, the superstar English actress who was touring America at the time. And Adams spent the evening mansplaining Shakespeare to her, including an account that Othello, which he called disgusting and he didn’t realise it, but she would publish a book about her American travels that included this conversation, somewhat guardedly. And he retaliated by writing a pair of essays in which he said that Desdemona, for falling in love and marrying a black man, who smothers her to death, got what she deserved. And later, in another account of this conversation, Fanny Kemble writes that in describing this, Adams actually used the N word instead of negro to describe Othello. And it’s extraordinary because he’s one of the liberal heroes. Yet, even he is using the N word and repulsed by miscegenation. So we have not come as far as we might imagine in this country, on the left, or on the right, when it comes to race relations.

ME: It’s so interesting that Shakespeare, right back to its very formative days in America was kind of shaping and being part of political discourse like this, I had no idea.

JS: In truth, I had no idea either. Like most Shakespeare professors, I’m an Anglophile and my attention has always been focussed on Shakespeare’s age. And it is something that we don’t really think a lot about in Shakespeare studies. So a lot of this material was fresh to me and I think will be fresh to a lot of others and will force us not only to grapple with the different ways in which Shakespeare matters, that he’s not so much universal, as read everywhere, which is not the same thing. And it’ll also, I think, force Americans to grapple with the reality that the problems we’re facing in this country do not stem from one political leader but are baked into our nation’s history and Shakespeare makes clear whether you’re talking about attitudes towards manliness or cultural divisions over immigration. These issues have long been with us, even if they are buried beneath the surface, Shakespeare allows us to see them.

ME: On the subject of immigration, what does the Tempest tell us about America’s relationship to that particular issue?

JS: You know, that’s a good example of a play that, in late 19th century, had a lot of productions and performances in Britain but very few in the United States. And the Tempest only came into prominence in the United States, really, in the aftermath of the Second World War. Except for a moment in the early 20th century when we were wrestling with immigration. And Shakespeare was really critical to immigration debates at that time because he was imagined to be Anglo-Saxon, and that very concept or invention if you will, of the category of Anglo-Saxon, itself dates from the first decade of the 17th century. So Shakespeare dates from that story, the Anglo-Saxon origins of the people living in the British Isles. But Shakespeare’s Tempest also became a way in which, and I should follow that up by saying, in so far as America was believed to be an Anglo-Saxon nation, that large numbers of immigrants pouring into the United States, from Eastern Europe, from Italy and Sicily and Bulgaria and Lithuania, all these countries that were not Anglo-Saxon, led those who had been here, who came from England and Ireland, and Scandinavia to a lesser extent, to insist that Shakespeare be used as a stick to beat these new immigrants into line or as a way of excluding non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants into this country. So when Donald Trump speaks of, even as recently as last week, a travel ban that excludes Ireland and the UK, it goes right back to that moment, a century ago, where we drew a line between Anglo-Saxon nations and European ones. The Tempest, to get back to your question, figured in this debate because Caliban was a stand-in for the unwashed immigrant. And even the most progressive readers of Shakespeare at the time, such as those behind this extraordinary 1916 production starring a cast of thousands of immigrants and a handful of professionals actors called Caliban, Caliban by the Yellow Sands, by Percy MacKaye, used that masque-like performance to urge immigrants to be acculturated into, if you will, Anglo-Saxon American ways. So the story of immigration is, in a way, inseparable from Shakespeare and, of course, the efforts in Caliban to show the acculturation of Caliban failed because he’s shown repeatedly to be a potential rapist and a threat to society. So even when people were trying to make the case that immigration was OK, the use of Shakespeare made it clear that if we’re looking at it through the lens of the Tempest, it was not OK and immigrants should be kept out. And in 1924, legislation was passed along race-based lines to end large-scale immigration to the United States.

ME: Oh. Thank you so much, this is amazing. Heading back a bit in time, what was Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Shakespeare like and how was his life story shaped by this character, I guess?

JS: Abraham Lincoln is a representative American figure from the 19th century in many ways, and the greatest president our country has been blessed with. Lincoln had almost no formal education but like tens of thousands, really millions of others in the 19th century, he had access to very few books and one of them was a Shakespeare-infused reader. There were 23 selections from Shakespeare in the volume that his step-mother brought when she moved into their log house on the prairie. And Lincoln memorised these great Shakespearean passages and spent much of the rest of his life reciting Shakespeare to anyone who would listen. He didn’t see a Shakespeare play until the last two years of his life, at which point he was hooked and went almost every week to see something in Washington theatres. But for him, Shakespeare became central to his, not only his intellectual life but his emotional life. So that, while as President of the United States during the Civil War, he read Shakespeare all the time. And he was a melancholic depressive figure and he tended to drift to the darker passages in Shakespeare, to Claudius’s guilt-ridden speech for killing a brother in Hamlet, during this war between brother and brother. Or to Macbeth’s dark musings. So the great, great irony of Lincoln’s obsession with Shakespeare, and he was, without question, the finest reader of Shakespeare in American history bar none, the irony is that his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, son of a great British actor, brother of Edwin Booth, the star [unclear 0:19:57.1] of the American stage, who would act in a production of Julius Caesar months before he assassinated Lincoln, knew just where to find Lincoln on that fateful April night in 1865, where at Ford’s Theater, he shot Lincoln dead, leaped onto the stage and shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis,” thus always with tyrants, imagining himself to be an American Brutus. So the story of American political history is fully woven into the story of Shakespeare.

ME: Something else your book really interestingly explores is how Shakespeare can help us understand gender relationships in American history. What insights does his work offer into that particular issue?

JS: We are really bad in this country about talking about gender. Gender fluidity, manliness, people walk away from those kind of conversations. And my book turns to this issue again and again. First and most markedly in the mid-19th century, at a time of manifest destiny, when a notion of aggressive manliness, think of Donald Trump a swagger, a desire to take over whatever you can grab, supplanted an older model of manliness associated with the Founding Fathers and, if you will, with a kind of subdued, quiet, earnest, hard-working, sober English manliness. And that had implications for how you did Shakespeare. So at this time, no man could really play Romeo very effectively because he had to be, in the words of the play, effeminate at some moments, and then a great swordfighter, killing Tybalt and others. And, as it turned out, the only people who could really play him well were women. So the mid-19th century in America, and to some extent in England as well, was the great age of female Romeos like Charlotte Cushman. Flip it around, and look at men trying to play various roles. The best example I can give is, from the same year that Charlotte Cushman was starring was Romeo in England and then in America, half the United States army was gathered on the Mexican border to precipitate the Mexican-American War, one of the bloodiest in our history. And while the men were waiting, they were drinking, carousing, fighting, brawling. The officers decided to build a theatre and stage Shakespeare, Othello first of all. And there were only men in this encampment, they had to find somebody to play Desdemona. They found an actor named Theodore Porter, and not an actor really but an officer, to play the Moor [unclear 0:22:57.4]. But they couldn’t find the right person to play his Desdemona until they found a slim, girlish officer named Ulysses S. Grant, who as it turned out, they all acknowledged, look great in a dress. And Grant had a chance to rehearse the role of Desdemona and one of the great, for me, moments in American history, is the future hero of the Union forces in the Civil War, that defeated slavery, and the future 18th President of the United States, at this moment, saw the world through the eyes and in the dress of a white woman in love with a black man. So again and again, Shakespeare allows us to see how these complicated issues of gender work. As it turned out, Porter just couldn’t play Othello against Grant and they had to bring in a professional actress from New Orleans, which tells you something about the male anxiety about same-sex desire or relations. So that too figures in that story. And the book goes up through Taming of the Shrew in Kiss Me, Kate, that great American musical of the 1940s, which was written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. All those Rosie the Riveters who had obtained economic independence during the war, now were told to go back and be the submissive housewife. And Bella Spewack wrote a brilliant, brilliant musical script that explores just this tension, pushing it up against Shakespeare’s fairly toxic play, Taming of the Shrew, which ends with female submission to male authority. So it’s not easy talking about these issues and Americans keep turning to Shakespeare to allow them to negotiate and unpack them.

ME: Thank you, that was amazing. Are there any other Shakespeare plays, or stagings of Shakespeare plays that stand out for you particularly, as showing us moments in American history or that we’ve not talked about previously, do you think?

JS: I think one of the most significant is the film version of, again, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love. And that film was created in 1998, by the early months of 1999, maybe one out of ten American adults had seen that film. And it speaks to the Shakespeare Americans wanted to believe in. But there was a problem with that film. Its first script, by a screenwriter named Mark Norman, dealt exclusively with a Shakespeare who was heterosexual, who discovers that he’s fallen in love with another man and is reconciling himself to that. Harvey Weinstein, who is now in prison for rape, didn’t like Norman’s script and brought in the extraordinary Tom Stoppard on rewrite. And Stoppard is the most gifted, living playwright, I think, in the world right now. But he understood that he had to supress what he called that gay theme and move the play in a different direction. And it’s not easy telling the story of Shakespeare in Love because Shakespeare’s married and this is an adulterous affair and Americans don’t really like adultery. None the less, Stoppard figured out a through line to this story. And one of the things that I write about is the pressure he and the director of this film were under, from Harvey Weinstein, to change the ending, so that the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow, so brilliantly in this film, would have been turned into Shakespeare’s mistress, given occasional roles in exchange for being around for sex, had Harvey Weinstein had his way. So again and again, in the course of this book, I try to explore the ways in which Shakespeare, in large and small ways, tells us something that was going on in American history, that was right below the surface, and that Shakespeare helps us see clearly now.

ME: Thank you so much. Two final questions and we are done. If you could somehow travel back in time and witness a moment from your book, or perhaps a particular staging of a Shakespeare play, is there one that you’d particularly like to see?

JS: Wow, that’s a wonderful question. I would probably like to see that production in Corpus Christi, Texas, with Grant rehearsing the role of Desdemona. To me, that’s one of the signal moments in American history, almost impossible to wrap one’s head around. We have no recordings of it, nobody described what that process was like except for 50 years later or so, and that would have been, for me, an extraordinary event. That, perhaps, and seeing Kiss Me, Kate staged for the first time on Broadway.

ME: Amazing, yeah. And finally, how would you like your book to change the way people view Shakespeare’s importance in American history specifically?

JS: I got my understanding of American history through text books in junior-high school and high school. And the story that I was taught is at odds with the story that emerged in the writing of my book. So, yes, this is a book that people interested in Shakespeare will want to read but it’s also an alternative history of the United States. And as we are convulsed, at the time of this pandemic, by so many forces, economic and social and political, we would do well to understand what are the fault lines in this culture, so that we can pull together and move forward. But unless we understand some of the darker forces circulating in American history, that are still with us, we’ll be ill-equipped to do so.

Listen to the full podcast with James Shapiro here

James Shapiro is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University

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Matt Elton is editor of BBC World Histories Magazine