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Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

af James Shapiro

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2626103,994 (4.11)6
"From leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, a timely and insightful examination of what the world's greatest dramatist can teach us about life in an America riven by conflict. The United States has always been divided, but Americans from all walks of life have also always shared a deep affinity for the plays William Shakespeare, even if their meaning has been fiercely contested. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes--presidents and activists, writers and soldiers--have turned to his plays to prosecute the most intense and pivotal quarrels in the soul of the nation, a nation defined by its political and social pluralism. That prosecution dates back to pre-Revolutionary times, when Hamlet's famous soliloquy--"To be or not to be"--was appropriated both by defenders of British rule and those seeking to overthrow it. Shapiro traces Shakespeare's formative and crucial role in our nation's history, from the otherwise progressive John Quincy Adams's sinister opinions on race expressed via (and only via) his views on Othello; to the politically-charged rhetoric that gripped Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth; to the resounding American triumph of Shakespeare in Love, produced by Harvey Weinstein's then fledgling company, Miramax, which exploded a debate about adultery at the time of President Clinton's Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Shapiro also reports firsthand on Shakespeare's undeniable contemporary significance, after a production of Julius Caesar, which depicted the assassination of a President Trump-like Julius Caesar, was exploited calculatedly by Breitbart and Fox News to ignite outrage. With style and unmatched expertise, Shapiro contends brilliantly that few writers or artists can shed as much light on the hot-button issues of American life--such as immigration, same-sex love, political violence, and class warfare--and that by better understanding the role of Shakespeare's plays in American history we might take steps towards mending our bitterly divided land"--… (mere)
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There is no question this will be one of my top reads of 2021, and I can enthusiastically recommend it to anyone with an interest in both Shakespeare and American history. Actually, those who are interested only in Shakespeare or only in American history would probably each also find plenty to appreciate here.

In this book James Shapiro, a highly regarded Shakespeare scholar, explores the role of the bard's plays at eight points in American history as either a reflection of the then-current culture, or an influencer of that culture. His approach generally involves highlighting a dichotomy in how the plays, and in some cases the actors, are viewed from opposing social or political perspectives.

Shapiro's research is meticulous, whether he is analyzing documents from J. Q. Adams' college years, the 19th century actor Charlotte Cushman playing Romeo, or anecdotes involving Harvey Weinstein. Although I was familiar with the background against which he sets most of his discussions, I was completely unaware of the Astor Place riots in New York which resulted in the largest number of civilian casualties as a result of military action up to that point in the U.S. And it was triggered by competing productions of Macbeth!

Sadly, his concluding chapter, which covers the right-wing reaction to the NYC Public Theater's 2016 production of Julius Caesar, left me completely unnerved. Shapiro's analysis deftly highlights the inability to control fake news in the age of social media, and ends with the observation that it is not impossible that American culture of this century could mirror the English in the 17th century, when a vibrant artistic/theatrical scene was supplanted a few decades later by the beheading of a king and the ascendancy of the puritanical Oliver Cromwell. It would be nice to think it couldn't happen here - but based on this year's politics, I'm not so sure. ( )
  BarbKBooks | Aug 15, 2022 |
Noted Shakespearean writer Shapiro focuses on eight historical events between 1833 and 2017 that have connections to Shakespeares plays as a way to discuss attitudes around elitism, race, immigration, sexuality, media manipulation, and more.

It’s an interesting read from a historical perspective, as well as illuminating how the Bard’s work is often adopted and interpreted by parties on both sides of an argument. But it’s also a sobering read as the obvious conclusion is that we haven’t really learned anything about how to function as a society over the last few centuries. ( )
  gothamajp | Aug 8, 2021 |
Interesting,only heard the abridged radio version, which was good but mostly the modern eras, from the two other excellent reviews already written by others who have read the actual book it's clear that it's more balanced in full. ( )
  SarahKDunsbee | Aug 2, 2021 |
Close readings of specific productions/films, including Shakespeare in Love and the Trump-evoking Julius Caesar that triggered right-wing outrage in recent years. ( )
  rivkat | May 12, 2021 |
Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America. Penguin Press, 2020.
It is unusual for a work of stage history to make the New York Times top ten must read list, but one can see why Shakespeare in a Divided America made the list this year. Shapiro frames this cultural history of Shakespearean productions in America with a discussion of a right-wing protest of a recent production of Julius Caesar in which a Donald Trump lookalike played Caesar. He pairs that with a deadly 1849 riot at the opening of the Astor Opera House in Manhattan in which nativist working men broke up a production of Macbeth by a famous English actor. Throughout our history, Shapiro argues, Americans have used and abused the plays of Shakespeare to highlight all our cultural flashpoints: immigration, slavery and racism, political assassination, and gender roles. Here are some tidbits that I enjoyed. In the 19th century, Romeo was often played by women because macho leading men could not handle the lyricism in the part. Abigail Adams and John Quincey Adams were shocked by Desdemona’s sexual attraction to Othello. In The Tempest, Caliban was often used to reinforce racial stereotypes. John Wilkes Booth saw himself as a modern Brutus assassinating a tyrant Lincoln and could not understand why even Southern papers saw him as a villain rather than a self-sacrificing hero. The Taming of the Shrew had a revival after World War II, when there was pressure on working women to return to their duties as homemakers. Early drafts of Shakespeare in Love show the problems that the screenwriters and producers had with gender performance. Could Shakespeare kiss a cross-dressing Viola? Shapiro concludes that although we are seeing more culturally diverse performances these days, plays like Julius Caesar can still become embroiled in our politics. Recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare or in cultural criticism. ( )
  Tom-e | Nov 26, 2020 |
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"From leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, a timely and insightful examination of what the world's greatest dramatist can teach us about life in an America riven by conflict. The United States has always been divided, but Americans from all walks of life have also always shared a deep affinity for the plays William Shakespeare, even if their meaning has been fiercely contested. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes--presidents and activists, writers and soldiers--have turned to his plays to prosecute the most intense and pivotal quarrels in the soul of the nation, a nation defined by its political and social pluralism. That prosecution dates back to pre-Revolutionary times, when Hamlet's famous soliloquy--"To be or not to be"--was appropriated both by defenders of British rule and those seeking to overthrow it. Shapiro traces Shakespeare's formative and crucial role in our nation's history, from the otherwise progressive John Quincy Adams's sinister opinions on race expressed via (and only via) his views on Othello; to the politically-charged rhetoric that gripped Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth; to the resounding American triumph of Shakespeare in Love, produced by Harvey Weinstein's then fledgling company, Miramax, which exploded a debate about adultery at the time of President Clinton's Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky. But Shapiro also reports firsthand on Shakespeare's undeniable contemporary significance, after a production of Julius Caesar, which depicted the assassination of a President Trump-like Julius Caesar, was exploited calculatedly by Breitbart and Fox News to ignite outrage. With style and unmatched expertise, Shapiro contends brilliantly that few writers or artists can shed as much light on the hot-button issues of American life--such as immigration, same-sex love, political violence, and class warfare--and that by better understanding the role of Shakespeare's plays in American history we might take steps towards mending our bitterly divided land"--

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