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

Shakespeare in a Divided America


Goodreads: Shakespeare in a Divided America
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

From leading scholar James Shapiro, a timely exploration of what Shakespeare’s plays reveal about our divided land, from Revolutionary times to the present day.

Read at school by almost every student, staged in theaters across the land, and long highly valued by both conservatives and liberals alike, Shakespeare’s plays are rare common ground in the United States. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes–presidents and activists, writers and soldiers–have turned to Shakespeare’s works to address the nation’s political fault lines, such as manifest destiny, race, gender, immigration, and free speech. In a narrative arching across the centuries, James Shapiro traces the unparalleled role of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedies and comedies in making sense of so many of these issues on which American identity has turned. Reflecting on how Shakespeare has been invoked–and at times weaponized–at pivotal moments in our past, Shapiro takes us from President John Quincy Adams’s disgust with Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello, to Abraham Lincoln’s and his assassin John Wilkes Booth’s competing obsessions with the plays, up through the fraught debates over marriage and same-sex love at the heart of the celebrated adaptations Kiss Me Kate and Shakespeare in Love. His narrative culminates in the 2017 controversy over the staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated.

Extraordinarily researched, Shakespeare in a Divided America shows that no writer has been more closely embraced by Americans, or has shed more light on the hot-button issues in our history. Indeed, it is by better understanding Shakespeare’s role in American life, Shapiro argues, that we might begin to mend our bitterly divided land.

Star Divider


In Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro invites readers to a deeper understanding of how Shakespeare has been received in America, and how his plays have been understood, performed, and mobilized for various political, social, and cultural causes throughout the history of the nation. This engaging survey will appeal to both avid Shakespeare fans and more casual readers, demonstrating how and why the Bard and his works continue to be relevant today.

Chapters include:

  • a look at race and miscegenation through the lens of Othello
  • a look at how gender was perceived in 1845 with an emphasis on gender-bending actress Charlotte Cushman and her performances as Romeo
  • class warfare and the Astor Place riots in 1849
  • John Wilkes Boothe’s and Lincoln’s views on Shakespeare and government and leadership
  • immigration and xenophobia in 1916, with the rise of performances of The Tempest
  • marriage and gender roles through the lens of The Taming of the Shrew and the making of Kiss Me, Kate
  • same-sex love and the making of the movie Shakespeare in Love
  • the political divide in 2017 when a production of Shakespeare in the Park infamously depicted the assassination of a Trump-appearing Julius Caesar.

Rooted explicitly in its own historical moment, written during the rise of Trump, the book repeatedly returns to questions of America’s divisiveness, its inability to reconcile many of its high ideals with its own practices. Through a study of Shakespeare, Shapiro illuminates how the nation has grappled with many of the same issues since its inception, always returning to the Bard not only in an attempt to understand itself and its place in the world, but also as a means to justify various social and political agendas. But perhaps this is no surprise. The issues the U.S. faces are the same ones that Shakespeare and his contemporaries faced.

Part of what makes Shakespeare and his works so compelling, and so open to use by competing political agendas, is that the plays give no easy answers. The final chapter on the 2017 performance of Julius Caesar, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated, perhaps most clearly illustrates how open to interpretation the works are. While the producers of Julius Caesar evidently meant for the performance to shock, to make playgoers think through the actual effects of a political assassination, outraged Republicans saw the performance as a straight invitation for the opposition to resort to violence. But the play itself is ambiguous about this. The play both praises and condemns Brutus. The play both praises and condemns Caesar. In other words, the play can be interpreted any way you like–either as a call to violent political action, or as a cautionary tale about enacting political violence. The play could be co-opted by either side of a political movement. How an audience receives the play says more about the audience than it says about the play.

And this is the whole premise of the book: Shakespeare illuminates America and how Americans perceive themselves. One of the most interesting chapters (for me) was the chapter on the 1849 Astor Place riots, rooted in the professional rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready. Their interpretations of Shakespearean roles lead to the working class followers of Forrest rising up against the wealthier supporters of Macready. (Tensions were exacerbated by the construction of a theatre meant clearly only to welcome the rich at a time when theatre was one of the few places open to the masses.) Attempts to disrupt Macready’s performances ultimately erupted into a full-scale riot as Macready performed Macbeth, leading to at least 22 deaths. The riots say less about Shakespeare than they do about Americans’ perception of their country as one where the rich should not get to shut out the poor, as a place where Shakespeare should be open to all. It is probably fair to say that no one that day died for Shakespeare; they died for their ideals, which Shakespeare reflected back to them.

Shakespeare in a Divided America is not a book merely for readers passionate about Shakespeare. Its engaging writing style, combined with gripping history, makes it an excellent choice for readers who enjoy social history or even readers who just enjoy a well-written nonfiction. It certainly makes Shakespeare a lot more exciting than your English class probably did.

4 stars

7 thoughts on “Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future by James Shapiro

  1. Bucky says:

    Such an in-depth review, thank you! Does the book give a sense of how the popularity of Shakespeare ebbed and waned? I wonder if Shapiro might risk over emphasising the importance of Shakespeare to the American psyche.


    • Krysta says:

      The chapters are kind of like case studies focusing each on one issue on one play, so it’s not an overview of Shakespeare in America across time. The book does note things, however, like The Tempest barely being performed in the U.S. before a certain point, so it is implied that Shakespeare’s various works at least ebb and flow in popularity.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It was definitely interesting to see how at certain moments Shakespeare seemed to gain increased prominence. I got the impression, for instance, that he was much more widely read in the 19th century than he is now (when he’s seen as elitist and something you have to endure in school). And theatre seemed to be more equitable in the 19th century, as well, making him more of a popular figure. As the book progresses, his appearances in film become more prominent, I think because more people arguably have access to movies than to a stage theatre.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think the book works well even if the reader isn’t familiar with all the Shakespeare works mentioned. Shapiro pretty much tells readers want they need to know, and then he jumps into the history!


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