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Friday, April 4, 2014

James Shapiro on how American attitudes toward Shakespeare keep changing

Photograph by Mary Cregan
James Shapiro, best-selling author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, recently edited Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, published this week by The Library of America. Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University.

Why this book? And why now?

An extraordinary range of Americans—including poets, presidents, actors, and novelists—have written compellingly about Shakespeare over the past two hundred years: short stories, essays, musicals, sci-fi, burlesques, parodies, and, as this anthology shows, much else besides. Yet surprisingly little of this rich material has been collected before. Taken together, this writing tells a powerful story of the past two hundred years in our national culture. As attention increasingly turns to “Global Shakespeare,” it’s important to reflect on what has been a distinctly American engagement with Shakespeare.

What was the strangest or most surprising thing that you learned in the course of your research for this book?

Easily the strangest thing I researched in the course of putting together this anthology was the amateur production of Othello in 1846 in Corpus Christi, Texas, staged by American troops on the eve of war with Mexico. A young officer named Ulysses S. Grant was cast to play the role of Desdemona. I’m still wrestling with what it meant for a future Civil War general and president of the United States to see this play about racial division through the eyes of its tragic heroine.

What is your favorite piece in collection?

My absolute favorite (among many) in the collection is Jane Addams’s 1895 essay, “A Modern Lear.” It’s brilliant, passionate, one of the finest things written about the play, and, in choosing to view Shakespeare’s tragedy through the lens of the bloody Pullman Strike, a hundred years ahead of its time. The powerful (and Lear-like) industrialist George Pullman made sure that it wasn’t published at the time, and it didn’t appear in print until 1912. I’m proud that The Library of America has anthologized it and hope that it reaches the wide audience it deserves.

Which plays have been favorites for American readers and theatergoers? Which have been neglected—and why?

Americans have had their own mini-canon of plays taught and staged over the past two hundred years. The great tragedies—Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and especially Othello (not surprisingly, given our long preoccupation with race) top the list. Comedies such as Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream have held their own. But the history plays, with the exception of Richard III, have fared less well; these plays about national identity seem to matter far more to the English, whose past they recount, than to us.

President Bill Clinton, who wrote the foreword to the collection, joins a long line of presidents fascinated with Shakespeare. What is it about presidents and Shakespeare?

Shakespeare had a particular gift for creating plays that put individuals under incredible pressure—in his tragedies, to the breaking point. It’s no surprise to me that those among us who experience the most intense pressure day in, day out—the presidents of the United States—have been drawn to his plays, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln up to the present day. I am deeply grateful to President Clinton, a particularly astute reader of the plays, for sharing his thoughts about Shakespeare.

What American production do you most wish you could have seen?

I’m torn on this one. I really wish that I could have seen Orson Welles’s anti-fascist production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937. But if I could choose only one it would have to be watching Paul Robeson play Othello on Broadway in 1943.

What is your favorite Shakespeare-inspired musical?

It’s strange that the English never managed to create a great Shakespeare musical; Americans did, including The Boys from Syracuse and Kiss Me, Kate. But my favorite, and surely the best, is that exhilarating rewrite of Romeo and Juliet: West Side Story (1957).

Have American attitudes or ideas about Shakespeare changed over the years?

Attitudes toward Shakespeare evolve because America itself keeps on changing—and literary and theatrical responses to Shakespeare are particularly sensitive to these cultural shifts. In anthologizing over two hundred years of that history—by sharing some first-rate writing—I hope to offer an alternative history of America, one that casts light not only on our long struggles with issues like race and immigration, but also on what it means to be an American.

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