James Shapiro Edits New Anthology on Shakespeare in America

April 14, 2014Bookmark and Share

James Shapiro

James Shapiro. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

James Shapiro is among the best known Shakespeare scholars in the world. His award-winning books include Shakespeare and the Jews (1995), A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010). He is now at work on The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

His latest book is a departure of sorts. Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, just published to coincide with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth on April 23, 1564, is a 700-page collection that Shapiro edited. It features writings on Shakespeare by novelists, essayists, film critics, politicians and poets, including Mary McCarthy, Isaac Asimov and even social reformer Jane Addams.

“Much of it has changed the way that I, as a scholar, understand the plays,” he says. “It’s also an alternative version of the last 200 years of American history, something I was not aware of when I began this. It was really from teaching this at Columbia, both to undergraduates and graduate students, in English and American studies, that that story line became clear to me.”

For Shapiro, teaching at Columbia has long been a family affair. His brother, Michael, is a professor at the Journalism School; his sister, Jill, is a lecturer in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology; and his wife, Mary Cregan, lectures in Barnard’s English Department. “It’s nice and it’s accidental,” he says. “We all came at different times from different directions—my parents like it.”

Q. How does Shakespeare in America present an alternative version of the last 200 years of American history?

A. This is not the usual story that we learn in high school. American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity. To be honest, there are things that we cannot say to each other as Americans. Or we’re saying something publicly but thinking of another privately. So people used Shakespeare as a vehicle for honesty about American experiences.

Q. Can you give some examples from the book?

A. When you read the words of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, who was celebrated as one of the great opponents of slavery in this country, he comes out and says how uncomfortable, if not frankly disgusted, he is with the idea of Desdemona and Othello together as a white woman and black man. Or Henry Cabot Lodge using Shakespeare as a stick to beat back immigration. Reading that was a shocker.

Voodoo Macbeth

Voodoo Macbeth at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre in 1936.

Q. De Tocqueville wrote of seeing Shakespeare volumes everywhere in 19th century America. What led to Shakespeare’s lasting appeal for Americans?

A. When de Tocqueville—and others—came to America, one of the first things they realized was that along with the Bible, everyone had a copy of Shakespeare, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One was that oratory and public speaking were important in the educational curriculum. Those speeches in Julius Caesar, Macbeth and other plays are wonderful. Another reason is that in the 19th century, Shakespeare was simply popular across the classes, from the highest to the lowest. An unbelievable example of the pervasiveness of Shakespeare in American culture at this time took place on the eve of the Mexican-American War, intended in part to extend the reach of slavery. While the soldiers were waiting for the order to move south, the officers decided to build a theater and stage some plays. All men, of course. They decided to do the racially charged Othello of all plays. The officer first asked to play Desdemona was James Longstreet, later the great general of the South under Robert E. Lee. But he was 6 feet tall, so they got a shorter, slightly bearded, young officer named Ulysses S. Grant to rehearse the part. Just imagine what it’s like for a future general and president to see the world through the eyes of Desdemona. In the end, the officer playing Othello wasn’t really comfortable with Grant in the part, claiming “he could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”

The Booth brothers

John Wilkes Booth, left, with brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr., in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar in 1864.

Q. Many of the productions described in your book take place in New York. Is this love affair with Shakespeare a particularly New York story?

A. Shakespeare has had an incredible history in New York City. Think of the statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, which was the result of a wonderful benefit performance in 1864 by the three Booth brothers, a famous acting family that included John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin. There’s the 1849 Astor Place riots, where New Yorkers were shot and killed protesting a highbrow British production of Macbeth. The story of Shakespeare in New York could have been a separate volume, and maybe one day I’ll go back and write that. But consider Mark Twain reading Shakespeare on the Mississippi; Japanese-Americans writing about what it would mean to play Hamlet in Oakland immediately before the Second World War; and late 19th century Shakespeare women’s groups throughout the country that anticipated the reading groups of today. I don’t think there’s a corner of America that is not touched by Shakespeare.

Q. As you note, there have been countless works written about and adapted from Shakespeare. How did you choose the ones that you include in your book?

A. When I finished researching Shakespeare in America for the Library of America, I went over to their offices with a stack about a foot high, photocopies of all the things I wanted in this anthology. And when I got there, they had a stack half that high with things they wanted me to add. There was a really wonderful give-and-take with some very shrewd editors who said, “Look, this is something you should think about.” Nothing was ever forced on me, but I went back with their stack and I rethought my stack. I’m really happy with the writing that was included. It would have been lovely to have added more, but you had to tell a story.

Q. Shakespeare was once seen as essential education. Is that still true today?

A. I think Shakespeare is increasingly central to education but not in the way he was, say, 50 years ago. In the late ’60s when I was in junior high and high school in Brooklyn, we sat in rows and were force-fed Shakespeare. As a 14-year-old, I was completely turned off to Shakespeare, didn’t get the dirty bits in Romeo and Juliet and felt estranged from this writer. It was only much later when I came back to Shakespeare through bumming around Europe, seeing great Shakespeare by the Royal Shakespeare Company and other brilliant companies, that I became interested. I’ve worked at the School at Columbia bringing Shakespeare to fourth and fifth graders, and outside of Columbia I try to help organizations make Shakespeare in performance as exciting as it can be. Over half the kids in the world in all cultures study Shakespeare in school, not just in America. It’s how they encounter Shakespeare that’s so critical. And performance is key.

Q. Is the study of Shakespeare relevant to other disciplines?

A. It’s hard to imagine a discipline that Shakespeare does not touch on. There are many lawyers who write about law in The Merchant of Venice and other plays, economists turn to Shakespeare, social historians love talking about issues of marriage and family and death, religious scholars are transfixed by doctrinal issues in Shakespeare. The reason is that Shakespeare was interested in everything, and his plays touch upon a transformative moment in early modern culture, around 1600, when we were coming to terms with race, with empire, with new economic and political and social structures. And because of that—and we’re still working out the impact of those changes— his plays are interesting to those in related disciplines.

“Over half the kids in the world in all cultures study Shakespeare in school, not just in America. It’s how they encounter Shakespeare that’s so critical. ”

Q. You were recently dramaturg for a production of Antony and Cleopatra set in the Caribbean and performed at the Public Theater. Is Shakespeare truly universal?

A. This production tried to look at a play like Antony and Cleopatra not as another toga play, but as a play that speaks to one of the things at the heart of it—colonialism. So it was resituated in a kind of French colonial/Haitian context. It was thrilling for me to be connected with this kind of story, and it speaks to the way in which Shakespeare is truly international. There’s a Globe Theater in Japan, they’re building a Globe in Rio. Shakespeare is played around the world because it speaks to so many cultures in so many extraordinary ways.

Q. What was the significance of Paul Robeson (LAW’23) playing Othello in 1945?

A. You cannot underestimate the importance of Paul Robeson playing Othello on the Broadway stage. A century before, Ira Aldridge, a terrific African American actor, tried to make a career playing Shakespeare in New York. No chance. He went to London and was playing Othello a century before that could happen in New York. So the story of race, the story of inclusion, is also part of the story of Shakespeare in this country. And one of the ways through which we can understand that story is by looking at the production history.

Astor Place riots

Troops fire on rioters protesting William Charles Macready’s Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849.

Q.Was there anything you found surprising while researching the book?

A.I found a lot that was surprising in putting this together. One of the things that was most surprising is that we don’t think of writing about Shakespeare as humorous or funny. There might be funny characters, Falstaff included. But a lot of brilliant comic writing has been about Shakespeare. There’s a great Thurber piece in here, a great Woody Allen one. Some of the funniest writers in America are included, and they have figured out how to connect with Shakespeare. Maybe the best piece of all the humor pieces is by the sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov.

Q.Has your work on this book changed the way you teach Shakespeare?

A.When I started this process I knew one thing: that I was going to be reading a lot, and I was going to be teaching what I was going to read. And if you teach something and it’s inert and lifeless and the students hate it, then it cannot make it into an anthology. So I had really wonderful students, and we just covered Shakespeare in America. And I have to say that a lot of these kids knew a lot more about American studies than I did, especially the undergraduates. I live in 1599 or 1606, and they live in contemporary America in ways that I don’t. So I learned a tremendous amount. I thank them collectively in this book; I could not have done it without their feedback and input. One of the great things about having taught Shakespeare at Columbia for the last 30 years is that you meet a lot of great people—not just students but also directors and actors in New York. And I’ve been very lucky to have had a chance to work with directors and actors abroad. Increasingly, my work is taking me into Shakespeare in translation in foreign countries. And I’m very much hoping that through Columbia’s Global Centers I can take what I’ve learned and taught at Columbia and start sharing it with other cultures and start learning about how other cultures engage Shakespeare. I’m excited about being at an institution which has the whole world for its stage.

—Interviewed by Eve Glasberg
—Art by Nicoletta Barolini