Shakespeare in a Divided America | James Shapiro

Summary of: Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future
By: James Shapiro


Dive into the world of ‘Shakespeare in a Divided America’ by James Shapiro as we explore how the Bard’s plays have been used as a lens to interpret America’s past and future. Delve into the stories of Shakespeare mingling with abolitionists, the dispute over masculinity, the Astor Place Riot, and the ever-changing interpretations of his plays in a changing America. Discover how the works of William Shakespeare continue to play a significant role in the American political and cultural landscape.

Othello and America’s Abolitionists

Fanny Kemble, an actress from Britain, arrived in America to great fanfare. At a dinner party, she was seated next to former President John Quincy Adams, and their conversation revealed his discomfort with interracial marriage, particularly in Shakespeare’s Othello. Adams had written an essay in which he claimed that “black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature.” Kemble later published her journals, and reporters pressured Adams to elaborate on his remarks, leading to the publication of his essay. Despite his later commitment to abolition, Adams’ views highlight America’s struggle to reconcile its ideals with the reality of racial inequality.

Masculinity in Manifest Destiny

In 1845, the US army’s westward expansion was rooted in the idea of Manifest Destiny, which established that masculinity is tied to supremacy. This belief was divided into the frontier ideal- embracing alcohol, physicality, and domination and the moderate belief- a more reserved and morally upright version. The popularity of hyper-masculine actors like Edwin Forrest dismissed plays featuring sensitive male characters like Romeo, which were then more successfully portrayed by women like Charlotte Cushman. The Civil War exposed the dark side of masculine domination, and men began to embrace a milder version of masculinity.

The Astor Place Riot

Shakespeare’s play, public theatre, and an actor’s choice sparked a rivalry between Macready and Forrest, leading to a deadly riot in New York City’s Astor Opera House.

Shakespeare’s works have always been open to interpretation, and Hamlet is no exception. The Danish Prince’s statement, “I must be idle,” has sparked varied opinions among scholars, some believing it meant appearing passive while others believed it meant pacing around aimlessly to feign madness. A British actor, William Macready, opted for the latter approach during his performance in Edinburgh, which set off a deadly chain of events in New York City.

Macready’s performance, which involved tossing his head back, skipping and swinging a handkerchief from shoulder to shoulder, was met with disapproval and hissing from the audience. Fellow actor Edwin Forrest was present at the theater and shouted, “Throw him out!” instigating a rivalry between the two.

Forrest staged competing performances against Macready when the latter visited America, culminating in a violent episode at Astor Opera House in 1849. The theater was new and funded by wealthy patrons with strict policies, including a fancy dress code that excluded the working class. With Macready’s performance, anti-aristocratic and anti-British sentiments arose, leading to a protest.

The protests soon turned into a full-blown riot, with cobblestones thrown, and over 20 casualties recorded. Unable to erase the tragic past, the Astor Opera House was later dismantled. The Astor Place Riot showcases how Shakespeare’s plays and public theater can become critical components of historical events.

Shakespeare and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln found solace in Shakespeare, reciting his lines to others and using them to process personal tragedies and difficult decisions. However, for John Wilkes Booth, Shakespeare’s work was a call to action, especially Julius Caesar. Booth came from a family of actors and became politicized early on, gravitating towards bold and dark Shakespearean roles. He was radicalized following the end of the Civil War and plotted to kidnap Lincoln, which eventually turned into an assassination plot. During a production of Julius Caesar in 1864, Booth interjected the word “sic semper tyrannis” and later shouted the same words after assassinating Lincoln. Shakespeare’s influence on the mind of an actor and political radical like John Wilkes Booth is a testament to the power of literature in shaping our beliefs and actions.

Shakespeare’s New World Inheritance

The Tempest by William Shakespeare, a play set on a magical island, has been interpreted by scholars to represent the New World. The character of Caliban, a supposed “native savage,” was also used to support early twentieth-century nativist attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiments. Percy MacKaye’s adaptation of Caliban by the Yellow Sands in 1916 further reinforced these ideas. The play emphasized Prospero’s desire to educate Caliban and improve his “subhuman” nature, mirroring white American attitudes towards immigrants. MacKaye’s Caliban ultimately fails to achieve enlightenment, reflecting the belief that people from different cultures would never learn to be true Americans. Such attitudes contributed to strict immigration laws soon after.

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