It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare, the most canonical of dead white males, should feature in America’s culture wars. But why so prominently, both now and in earlier phases of the US’s struggles with race, class and identity during the 19th and 20th centuries? Why should Americans care so much about an Englishman who never visited its shores? In this sprightly and enthralling book, James Shapiro argues persuasively that 19th-century American textbooks, such as McGuffey’s Reader (1836), which had sold more than 120m copies by the first world war, and Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, played a major role in the process of domestication, for they excerpted many of the most celebrated speeches from Shakespeare’s plays.
Shakespeare in a Divided America, Shapiro’s timely and resonant new study of this phenomenon, describes how all kinds of Americans – assassins, soldiers, hustlers, demagogues and even a few literati – have turned to Shakespeare “to give voice to what could not readily or otherwise be said”.
It’s a typically American paradox that a nation that staked everything to throw off the hateful yoke of British imperial power should, within a generation of 1776, turn to an Elizabethan English playwright for wisdom and consolation, a secure narrative-line amid the confusion of nation-building.
Shapiro concedes that this is a mystery, possibly connected to the propinquity of Shakespeare’s prose to the colonists’ founding obsession, the Bible. Whatever the explanation, by the mid-19th century, Shakespeare’s plays had become braided into American popular consciousness, in some senses more so than in Britain.
But Shakespeare in a Divided America is much more than a series of vignettes. Showing how Shakespeare has been deployed by both sides at defining moments of American history, Shapiro reframes specific, closely researched moments into larger cultural questions about politics and nationhood. His method, honed on his revolutionary micro-biographies 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare and 1606: The Year of Lear, is to combine arresting human storytelling with a deft historical sense.
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.
Shapiro’s admirers might feel that the historical sweep of Shakespeare in a Divided America loses the clear focus of his previous Shakespeare books. For all that, it is a profoundly thoughtful study, and reminds us that, although we imagine that we read great literature, it also reads us, and in our interpretation of it we discover ourselves.
If the chapters examining sexual and marital mores through the lens of The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love offer slightly less to chew on, Shapiro’s broader thesis, that Shakespeare is a useful barometer of America’s cultural weather, still convinces, and it allows him to plot a relatively hopeful graph for America’s future, despite the depressing recursiveness of its debates on race, gender, and sexuality. Shapiro’s optimism retreats, however, in a conclusion examining outrage pile-ons in the age of Trump.
Each of these episodes is itself worth the price of admission, but together they form a colourful and dynamic kaleidoscope of American divisions. This is superb theatre history but it is also an outstanding work of history, full stop. Shapiro shows us that Shakespeare is a cracked mirror in which the US continually glimpses its divided selves. It is hard to imagine anyone better able to discern what it reflects.
This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with very well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery. Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me, Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the postwar situation of American women.