Two years ago, we published The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here, a contemplation on the part played by William Shakespeare in the history and society of the American West – and more specifically in those original and excellent HBO series Westworld and Deadwood. It quotes Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in Slate Magazine::
“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register … is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.
President Abraham Lincoln used to love reciting, and was particularly enamoured of Macbeth, the play, not the disturbed anti-hero; ‘Nothing equals it’, he confided, “I think it is wonderful: he confided. John Wilkes Booth, his murderous nemesis, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s fiery and treasonous Geordie rebel, Hotspur, and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar.
Whilst Shakespeare and his plays attracted countless aficionados of high and low estate, he also found himself involuntarily conscripted into the young nation’s contentious race and immigration debates. eminent abolitionist and and former president John Adams believed that Desdemona was a “wanton trollop” for falling in love with a blackamoor”. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed immigration and used the Bard as one of his weapons against the ‘Calibans” from Southern or Eastern Europe.
These are just a few examples of how The Bard of Avon popped up in at times in American history like a figurative and literary Doctor Who as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. in his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro informs us that when great (and small) things happened in the United States, someone, somewhere, was brushing up their bard – as the following review from The Times illustrates. These do not include, however, the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or else, as the reviewer remarks, “maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen”.
See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, Rebel Yelland The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,.
The Bard in America’s Uncivil Wars
David Aaronovitch, The Australian, 14th March 2020
On May 10, 1849, outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York, more than 10,000 residents turned out to try to stop the great British Shakespearean actor William Macready giving an interpretation of Macbeth that they didn’t care for. The militia and the hussars were mobilized, artillery was deployed and in the ensuing riot more than a score died and twenty thousand were injured. This was arguably the most extreme event in the history of drama criticism.
This was just one example, according to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, of the way in which the playwright turns up at critical moments in American history as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. When great things happen in the US, someone, somewhere, is brushing up their Shakespeare.
In the case of the 1849 riots, the Bard was largely a pretext. The poor of the city were being roused by populists to attack the wealthy who exploited them, and the blacks and newer immigrants whom they despised. But the bard was a crowd magnet – on one turbulent night, ten thousand New Yorkers saw Macbeth in three separate productions.
As Shapiro explains in his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, the theatre then was cheap and became a place where people of all classes gathered. The public battle about how to play Hamlet between Macready and the much more masculinist American actor Edwin Forrest was taken up by partisans as being a matter of tribal importance.
When demonstrations (including the flinging of animal carcasses on stage) led to Macready being invited to perform more safely in a new, smarter, more expensive venue — the Opera House — the “mob” took it amiss. So Shakespeare became a proxy for the war between the wealthy and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and the poorer and angrier on the other.
Indeed, it was a contention of more sophisticated exponents of American nationalism and nativism that Shakespeare was more like the Americans than like the British. His spirit was more authentically represented by those pioneers who left England for the New World than by the descendants of those who remained.
Certainly it is true that some of our best, most popular Shakespearean scholars have been American, and Shapiro is one of them. Readers who have invested in his two books about seminal years in Shakespeare’s creative life, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, know what a lucid, lively joy he is to read.
And his dissection of the controversy over whether the Elizabethan Mr S wrote his own plays, Contested Will, settles the issue for any sensible reader.
Shapiro is the erudite tip of an American iceberg. He tells us that there are no fewer than 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the US. I looked them up and decided that the Fairbanks Festival in Alaska looked particularly committed.
This enthusiasm is not universal, however, for, as Shapiro points out, the present incumbent “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen.
This was a fate narrowly avoided by Ulysses S Grant, who as a young officer was slated to play opposite Othello in an army production. His Civil War boss, Abraham Lincoln, though never called to act a part on stage, adored Shakespeare, had a particular affection for Macbeth and would recite long and apposite chunks when he felt moved to.
It was ironic, then, that his murderous nemesis, the actor John Wilkes Booth, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s Hotspur and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar. Indeed, he was playing as Mark Antony opposite his brothers to 2000 playgoers in a large theatre on lower Broadway in 1864 when Confederate sympathizers set fire to the building next door, hoping the flames would spread. Had the plot worked, it would have been the biggest death scene in theatre history.
Booth’s murder of Lincoln was animated by Lincoln’s promise to give limited suffrage to American blacks. And Shapiro writes a brilliant chapter on how Othello was interpreted in the first part of the 19th century as America’s original sin of slavery began to dominate the nation’s politics.
He focuses on the writings of the former president John Quincy Adams, who in 1836 published an essay on The Character of Desdemona. In it Adams wrote of Desdemona that “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts”. Why?
As Shapiro tells us, two years earlier Adams had been at a dinner in Boston with the visiting British actress Fanny Kemble. According to her journals, he told her much the same thing, “with a most serious expression of sincere disgust that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘n***er’ ”. Kemble had married a Texan slave owner. And she noted the Southern hypocrisy about “amalgamation”, given that, as she now knew, “throughout the South a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women”. One of those instances in which British bluntness punctures US social hypocrisy.
This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of the movie Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery.
Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the post-war situation of American women. During the war, when Rosie was a Riveter, American women went into occupations previously only held by men. And they liked it.
With those men due back from serving abroad, social psychologists and marriage experts expected trouble. Their answer was clearly that women needed to go back into the home and re-become pliant wives.
That many didn’t meekly accept their lot may be measured in the soaring divorce rate, and possibly in the hugely increased incidence of domestic violence. And it’s at this point that one of America’s most successful Shakespeare-inspired productions, Kiss Me Kate, appears, first on stage and then on film. In the film, one of the most famous scenes is when Petruchio puts Kate over his knee and “spanks” her. It’s even on the poster (see the featured image).
This spanking scene, though it had never occurred in any of the previous productions of The Taming of the Shrew, was by now common in US movies. Shapiro tells us there were five films featuring men spanking grown women in 1945 alone. Now Google the words of that most famous song from the show and you’ll see that Brush Up Your Shakespeare is practically a hymn to wife-beating. Someone really should tell the President.
David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times.
Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber, $39.99