Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro review the Bard and the culture wars

Interracial marriage, cross-dressing and Trump as Caesar the culture politics of Shakespeare in the U

It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare, the most canonical of dead white males, should feature in America’s culture fights. But why so prominently, both now and in earlier phases of the US’s strives with scoot, class and identity during the course of its 19 th and 20 th centuries? Why should Americans care so much about an Englishman who never called its shores? In this sprightly and enthralling book, James Shapiro says persuasively that 19 th-century American textbooks, such as McGuffey’s Reader ( 1836 ), which had sold more than 120 m imitations 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 pronunciations from Shakespeare’s plays . Reassuringly, it also cured that its own language of Shakespeare resembled the familiar rhythms of the King James Version of the Bible, be made available in 1611.

Regardless of the most obviously transgressive aspects in Shakespeare – interracial matrimony in Othello ; the main theme of incest and suicide in Hamlet ; crossdressing and gender instability in the comedies- the playwright was firmly incorporated as a defining constituent within America’s own legacy. Abraham Lincoln destroyed the plays, at first largely on the page, and could recite them by the ream, as could the president’s assassin, the Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, whose staple characters were Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth. An earlier president, John Quincy Adams, has now become fixated on Desdemona- a grey female with an unseemly lust for a black worker- as the real cause of Othello’s lucks. Making an alternative tack, Mary Preston, a critic with Confederate sympathies, solved the problem by insisting that Othello was, after all, a white man.

In the late 19 th and early 20 th century, when nativists- white Protestant Americans with British, Nordic or Germanic predecessors- obsessed over what the fuck is pictured as a vicious motion of migration of inferior racial inventory, namely Latins from southern Europe and Jews and Slavs from eastern Europe, Shakespeare came to be hoarded as an incarnation of Anglo-Saxon ethics. Charles Mills Gayley publicized Shakespeare and the Founders of Liberty in America, and Henry Cabot Lodge Sr claimed that it was Americans , not the modern-day English nation, who has spoken the genuine word of Shakespeare, which had been displaced to the New World in the early 17 th century. With a view to responding, a fearles try in New York in 1916 to use The Tempest as the basis of a- supposedly- more welcoming pro-immigrant pageant foundered on its condescending depiction of Caliban: an crest of the foreigners to be goaded into assimilation.

Howard
Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson in the 1953 movie of Kiss Me Kate . Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

The identification with Shakespeare continues, albeit without its former racial cadences. Really, as Shapiro greenbacks, there are today roughly 150 summer Shakespeare festivals supported across the US. Up to now his effort has been “common ground” for radicals and conservatives. Under George W Bush, one of the flagship projections of the National Endowment for the Art was ” Shakespeare in American Communities “. Republican can find plenty of red meat in Shakespeare as his political prognosi was, broadly speaking, republican and hierarchical; but radicals are similarly enabled to perceive in Shakespeare- The Merchant of Venice notwithstanding- a non-judgmental openness to the human predicament and warm feeling for a variety of types and conditions. But this common ground is at risk of erosion.

Oskar Eustis’s 2017 modern-dress production of Julius Caesar in Central Park boasted a syndicate wearing” Make Rome Great Again” baseball caps, and a Caesar dressed in a business suit and overlong relationship, who is married to a tall, Slavic-accented Calpurnia. The question, of course, comes with the pivotal panorama of the assassination of this Trump-like Caesar. Although the frolic explores the dark, unexpected consequences of tyrannicide, such ambiguities were lost on populist Fox News pundits and on Steve Bannon- the author, it happens, of a leaden modification of Coriolanus set in a Los Angeles shook by hasten riotings, who surfaces here as a green-eyed Shakespeare-wannabe.

Nevertheless, as Shapiro abundantly reveals, for Americans the politics of Shakespeare are not confined to the public realm, but have gigantic relevant in the sphere of private life. The Taming of the Shrew , a troubling comedy of patriarchal supremacy, provides the starting point for an intriguing chapter focused on the pop Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate . This see was produced in 1948, in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the dislocation of traditional gender characters come about by total battle had not yet been stilled. Shapiro shows how a team of marginal fleshes- the songwriter Cole Porter( a married closeted homosexual ), Bella Spewack( a female dramatist, then a rarity) and the producer Arnold Saint Subber( likewise gay)- collaborated , not without niggling antagonisms, to subvert the fable of Katherina and Petruchio, with a mixed race cast as well as daringly suggest melodics. Yet exclusively five years later, in a more conforming America where traditional gender characters had been reintroduced, the Hollywood film of Kiss Me Kate eliminated various of the destabilising motifs found in the Broadway version.

The gender politics associated with Shakespeare remain an abiding feature of the US’s culture battles. It was Monica Lewinsky’s coded Valentine’s Day personal ad of 1997 in the Washington Post- citing Romeo and Juliet – that reignited her intimacies with the president and produced ultimately to Bill Clinton’s impeachment and Senate trial. The contortions undergo in contriving an acceptable conclude for Shakespeare in Love bring into focus the skewed ethical compass of the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein: a browbeat predator on the molding sofa, but hyper-sensitive to the ways of a centre America leery about adultery. The tinkering operated, and its success yields insight into the scale of American Shakespearophilia. Shapiro estimates from the box office acknowledgments that roughly 10% of the adult population of the US encountered the filmduring its 33 -week run. Nevertheless, after the recent furore circumventing Eustis’s Julius Caesar , Shakespeare’s status within Republican parts of America has now become strangely precarious and uncertain.

* Shakespeare in a Divided America issued by Faber( RRP PS20 ). To line-up a reproduce go to guardianbookshop.com . Free UK p& p over PS15 .

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ books/ 2020/ deface/ 06/ sshakespeare-in-divided-america-james-shapiro-eview

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