The peak of American theater criticism was achieved in Cincinnati in the 1840s, when a viewer observed the regnant English Shakespearean William Macready playing Hamlet’s madness as a fey “fancy dance” and responded by tossing half a sheep’s carcass on the stage. No subsequent critic has been able to match the wit, pithiness, or puissance of this anonymous theatergoer’s appraisal. By comparison, his successors in this profession speak an infinite deal of nothing.

We learn the tale of the sheep-carcass critique in James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future, a book that doesn’t quite live up to its thesis but is replete with amusing trivia and anecdotes placed in their historical contexts, from the 1830s until today.1 In essence, each chapter is a sparkling dinner-party story, though few of them reverberate much beyond their immediate settings.

The book is apparently one of many accomplishments that can be indirectly credited to the presidency of Donald Trump. When, in the summer of 2017, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, Julius Caesar was portrayed as a buffoonish likeness of Trump surrounded by a retinue of sycophants in make america great again caps, and was duly slain on stage each night, Shapiro, a Columbia University Shakespeare scholar, was often present. Shapiro is the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater, which produced the play, and he consulted on the project with its director, Oskar Eustis, whose ill-advised decision it was to turn Julius Caesar into yet another entry in the overstuffed file of overly excitable anti-Trump commentary. Shapiro thinks the outcry against the decision to portray the murder of the president was misdirected. After all, the events of the Ides of March hardly constitute an unmixed blessing in the play, and hence Trump haters were in effect being told to be careful what to wish for. Nonetheless, if Eustis was surprised by the disgusted reaction by some Trump fans, given the nonstop abuse rained on the President by cultural nabobs, he ought not to have been. Moreover, by the summer of 2017 (indeed much earlier than that), hysteria-born portrayals of Trump as one kind of dictator or another had become cliché, and Eustis should have considered whether the idea was really as novel as he thought it was. Eustis reportedly came up with the idea on the morning after the events of the historically hilarious night of November 8, 2016, and it’s best not to make important decisions while in the grip of outraged disbelief.

In essence, each chapter is a sparkling dinner-party story.

That production inspired Shapiro to ponder other occasions in American history when Shakespeare’s words helped to spark or illuminate angry partisan divides. Shakespeare in a Divided America begins with its most riveting, indeed most shocking and horrifying, chapter, an investigation of John Quincy Adams’s views of Othello. Adams was critical of slavery and opposed to the annexation of Texas (because it would extend slave territory), and he argued passionately and successfully before the Supreme Court on behalf of the slaves in the Amistad case. Yet in the 1830s Adams was unenlightened on the matter of “amalgamation,” the then-current term for what is now called miscegenation. Adams’s analysis of Othello is troubling today, and it’s also awful literary criticism.

The English actress Fanny Kemble, age twenty-three, who was seated next to the sixty-six-year-old Adams at a dinner party, later recalled with horror that when the conversation turned to Desdemona, the former president told her “that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘nigger.’ ” The last word was a verbatim quotation. Shapiro notes that Adams was apparently annoyed by his encounter with Kemble, who said she was rendered speechless by this and other remarks, and he continued to brood on the matter. In a pair of essays published in 1835 and 1836, he expanded on his views: “My objections to the character of Desdemona arise from . . . what she herself does. She absconds from her father’s house, in the dead of night, to marry a blackamoor,” Adams wrote in one piece. In the other, he said, “her fondling with Othello is disgusting. . . . the great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is that, black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature; and that, in such violations, Nature will vindicate her laws.” Adams further held that we should find satisfaction in the play’s climactic act: “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts.” Adams here seems abandoned by both his heart and his senses; what Harvard-educated man would advance such a preposterous reading of the play? It’s disorienting to learn that such a cultivated man could hold such benighted views even as he campaigned against the evils of bondage. Racial prejudice (we learn again) was so pervasive that it could contaminate the thinking of the most brilliant and liberal-minded men, and we have Shakespeare to thank for revealing this sordid reality. An apt comparison (unnoted by Shapiro) might be to consider that the matter of the Central Park production of Julius Caesar similarly reveals how otherwise brilliant people of our own time allow their disgust for Trump to engender conceptual errors, even inanity.

Shapiro uses the occasion of that contretemps to vent a bit about all things Trump, labeling Steve Bannon (without evidence, in a digression on a Bannon-led production of Coriolanus) a “racist white guy” and asserting,“There has always been a tug-of-war over Shakespeare in America; what happened at the Delacorte suggests that this rope is now frayed.” (Wouldn’t a frayed rope that is about to break be a good thing in this metaphor, since it would end an unfortunate tug of war with neither side able to declare victory?) “When one side no longer sees value in staging his plays, only a threat, things can unravel quickly,” Shapiro says. Yet if even one person in America said there was no longer “value in staging [Shakespeare’s] plays” because a play showed a Trump parody getting stabbed, such a person goes unmentioned in Shapiro’s book. Shapiro’s analysis of the Julius Caesar dispute is not only overheated, it’s utterly obtuse: the production “confirmed what was already clear to many; that the Far Right was willing to display a ruthlessness . . . the Left could rarely match.”

As Shapiro is aware (since he mentions this, hurriedly, as if it is of no pertinence), Julius Caesar opened in the Delacorte Theater the same week that a Far Left gunman shot Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and three others on a baseball diamond. In Central Park, the worst that the “Far Right” proved capable of was a one-to-two minute interruption of one performance. Which side sounds more “ruthless” to you? As The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins wrote of pundits who speak of every matter in terms of their Trump hatred, “They banalize our world, empty it of interest and meaning.” Caesar-as-Trump was the most banalizing choice imaginable in the summer of 2017, following month after month of punditry informing us that Trump was a fascist/authoritarian/dictator. The previous September, to choose one example out of an infinitude, the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani turned her entire review of a Hitler biography into a dart aimed at Hitler’s supposed epigone Trump. (Hitler used radio and film. Trump appears on television. Two peas in a pod!) Progressives, even those as cultured and knowledgeable as Shapiro, are evidently blind to this, but cliché is cliché.

The book is a worthy one overall, and useful in reminding us that the Orange Julius affair in the park was a damp squib compared to the fireworks at a Greenwich Village production of Macbeth in 1849. A mob, twenty-five-thousand-strong, appeared at the Astor Place Opera House in a dispute that left roughly two dozen dead and was the worst civic disturbance in the first half of its century. Mainly the clash was about class and nationalism, but Shakespeare was an important inciting influence. Two actors—a manly American, Edwin Forrest, with a strong working-class fan base (I kept thinking of Mel Gibson), and that effete Brit, William Macready, who attracted the nobs (Daniel Day-Lewis?)—were feuding about rival approaches to Shakespeare that overlaid neatly onto the dispute between the middle and working classes on the one hand and the white-glove aristocrats whose haunt was the posh Astor Place Opera House (where a Starbucks stands today) on the other. At the time, Shakespeare’s plays were still mass entertainment, not a hobby for the educated, and actors attracted fierce followings. Forrest was mocking Macready’s refined cosmopolitanism by following his U.S. tour and putting on rival mass-appeal productions of whatever play Macready was starring in.

Mainly the clash was about class and nationalism, but Shakespeare was an important inciting influence.

While Macready played Macbeth at the Astor location, Forrest was putting on the same play a few blocks away on Broadway. A crowd that had been whipped into hysterics by a Tammany Hall pol and a handbill asking “working men: shall americans or english rule in this city!” tried to disrupt the performance (Macready and Co. continued acting silently in the din), then attacked the theater, which provoked a response from the militia that led to running battles in the streets. Police fired into the crowd and killed innocent bystanders. Theater audiences of the day behaved much as they do at today’s sporting events, where crowds are encouraged to perform and demonstrate their allegiances, but that habit fizzled out after the Astor Place riots. “Theatergoing in America would henceforth be a quieter and more passive experience,” Shapiro writes. Today it’s hard not to admire the good taste, if not the brickbat-tossing, of the mid-nineteenth-century working man, whose descendants would reserve such performative passion for professional wrestling matches.

The most fabled murder of one Shakespearean by another inspires a chapter in which Shapiro acknowledges the speculative nature of much of what he offers but nevertheless weaves a fascinating web of all the strands connecting John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts about the Bard, which in both men’s cases bordered on the obsessive. Shapiro notes that Booth—who along with his brothers Junius and Edwin, perhaps the leading actor of the age, comprised one of the most prominent families of Shakespearean actors—performed Hamlet, Richard III, and Macbeth dozens of times, but he had a special fondness for Julius Caesar, in a production of which he played Antony the year before assassinating Lincoln. A friend allowed that Booth once told him, “Of all Shakespeare’s characters, I like Brutus the best, excepting only Lear.” While playing Macbeth, Booth had mastered a bravura piece of stage business, leaping into the witches’ den from a rocky ledge ten or twelve feet above the stage. The maneuver would prove useful during his infamous escape from Ford’s Theater.

Yet though a few Confederate-sympathizing newspapers did indeed laud Booth as the Brutus of his generation after the assassination, the public came to view the murder in terms of Macbeth, with Booth reduced to an ingrate and, more important, Lincoln raised up to the level of Duncan, perhaps the least flawed sovereign Shakespeare ever created. The historian Richard Wightman Fox said a description of Duncan was so widely quoted in the months of mourning Lincoln that it became “virtually the official slogan of the mourning period.” Of the slain king it was said that he

Hath born his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.

At times, Shapiro simply uses his framework as a pretext for sharing stories about the conjunction of history and theater with only the occasional half-hearted effort to tie these to anything the Bard ever wrote or stood for. The chapter on Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate is, for instance, an engrossing discussion that situates the show in the context of a forgotten detail of our cultural history—the widespread collapse of marriages after the war. A surge in the divorce rate was perhaps due to the hastiness with which many wartime marriages were proposed and/or to changing sex roles after the number of women in American workplaces doubled in the 1940s and millions of women had served as heads of households as well as breadwinners for the first time. Shapiro thinks male frustration with women’s increasing independence is the reason scenes of men spanking women became popular (appearing in at least twenty-eight films that decade, he reckons).

Spanking goes unmentioned in the text of The Taming of the Shrew, Porter’s source, but became strongly associated with it because a New York Times review of Kiss Me, Kate was topped by a photo from the spanking scene in the musical. This image, in turn, captured the fancy of the show’s marketing department, which used it so widely in advertising that it became the show’s visual signature. Shapiro’s attempts to link the production history of Kiss Me, Kate to Shakespeare’s words are such a stretch that I worried his arms might pop out of their sockets. No college student—much less a distinguished scholar—should write a passage as desperately presentist as “Long before our modern-day black sites and their enhanced interrogation techniques, Shakespeare understood that the surest way to break people was first to disorient them, then to deprive them of food and sleep.” That’s at the start of the chapter. At its conclusion Shapiro tells us, “In our own day the recent clamor to ‘Make America Great Again’ harkens [sic] back to a fantasy version of this period in the nation’s history,” and that the show provided “a fleeting glimpse of the struggle in postwar America for greater sexual freedom, racial integration, and women’s choice.” Oh, Kiss Me, Kate is about abortion and racism, is it? Sounds like the sort of thing an aging college professor might find himself saying while desperately pandering to bristlingly woke students.

Most of the book falls into one of these two modes: thoughtful digression or contrived linkage. A chapter on the 1998 Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, for instance, sparkles with backstage gossip (Julia Roberts was originally cast to star as Will’s supposed muse Viola but refused to perform beside any actor but Day-Lewis, who declined to take the title role), but almost none of it has anything to do with Shakespearean divisions in America. It’s fun to be reminded, however, that in the year before the film was released, Monica Lewinsky placed a Valentine’s Day classified ad in The Washington Post, addressed to “handsome” and signed “M,” that quoted Romeo and Juliet, with the young lady mischievously framing herself as Romeo because she had managed to “o’er perch these walls.” Both the affair played in the film and the one in the White House were adulterous, which yields one of Shapiro’s grandstanding asides about how the United States was “steadfastly puritanical” on adultery because “in 2001, only 7 percent of Americans thought that having an extramarital affair was morally acceptable.” If ninety-three percent of twenty-first century Americans hold a view, it’s the remaining seven who would appear to be extremists, no? Shapiro also throws in some superfluous pandering to sexual minorities, noting that in an early draft of Shakespeare in Love, Will’s paramour was disguised as a boy for an extended period of time, yet he loved her anyway. Shapiro thinks this version of the story would have evinced a “deeper understanding of love,” although gayer is not necessarily deeper. There can be little doubt that Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer, was more motivated by box-office potential in making the switch, but, again, Shakespeare has nothing to do with this. Shapiro is probably correct to stamp Shakespeare in Love by far the single most popular Shakespeare-related movie in American history, though it’s unfortunate that such a simpering and meretricious take is the one that prospered above all others. “What fates impose, that men must needs abide,” I suppose. But no one ever said the fates have impeccable taste.

1 Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future, by James Shapiro; Penguin Press, 320 pages, $27.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 44
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now