How Shakespeare Became an American Hero
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone on this unusual Thanksgiving weekend.
Today, the global pandemic leaves us with little to imagine, but plague. On the less dark side, we hear how Isaac Newton waiting out London's plague year of 1665 and forced isolation on his family farm, made stunning scientific breakthroughs in the name of William Shakespeare trended because we were reminded that he wrote King Lear while quarantined. But writing in The New York Times in March, Emma Smith argued that much of his life was marred by plague, and self isolating while writing Lear wouldn't have been a unique experience. In fact, Smith suggests, Shakespeare probably wrote most of his plays amid the threat of infectious disease. And yet the theme of plague pops up relatively rarely in his work. So taking a page out of the Bard's playbook, we at the show are going to interrupt our regularly scheduled doom and gloom to talk about Shakespeare, namely how he became a staple of American cultural and political life. James Shapiro is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Shakespeare in a Divided America What His Plays Tell US About Our Past and Future. James, welcome back to OTM.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So who owns Shakespeare? That's a big question you raise early and often in your book. It's a tension you trace back to the very beginning of American history.
JAMES SHAPIRO Everybody stakes a claim in Shakespeare. Going back to 1776 and even a few years before then, those on both sides of the cultural divide, whatever the cultural divide at that moment was, reached out to Shakespeare. Enlisted him in their casue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Adams said that the history plays were a roadmap to where we were heading. The treachery perfidy, treason, murder, cruelty, sedition and rebellions of rival and unbalanced factions.
JAMES SHAPIRO Could you imagine writing that in a letter to your son, the future sixth president of the United States? But he did. John Adams was looking around and he saw an America that was divided, that was factionalized, that was at risk. And he imagined one day and he even did a riff on Henry the Fifth in this imagining, one day we would have a president of the United States put in power by a foreign despot or dictator who had some kind of economic control over him. The divisions that splinter us today have been there from the founding of our republic, as has Shakespeare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1877, a columnist in the New York Herald declared that Shakespeare was an American hero.
JAMES SHAPIRO You would think that having broken from Britain in 1776 and then went on to fight another war with them, that we would not adopt as our national poet, England's national poet, but in fact, we have. There's not an American writer, not Hemingway, not Emily Dickinson, not Faulkner, who is named as required reading by American high school and junior high school students. Shakespeare is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think that is?
JAMES SHAPIRO We want to believe that what started in England ended in America. We keep wanting to rip or rest Shakespeare away from the English, who don't appreciate him, who don't value him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do they make that argument?
JAMES SHAPIRO We have a lot more Globe theaters or imitation Globe theaters in our country than they do in Britain. We have far more Shakespeare summer festivals here. There's really a determined effort to make Shakespeare fully American, sometimes in really disturbing ways, sometimes in just plain humorous ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So let's talk about immigration and race and difference generally, because in Shakespeare's comedies, which are actually any of the plays that have a happy ending, sort of you note that the marginalized are always the losers.
JAMES SHAPIRO One of the ways in which Shakespeare has made himself really useful to those who want to weaponize him is through the structure of his comedy. I mean, we all love the way they end in marriage and communal celebration. But that community at the end of all these joyous plays, is premised on somebody being kept out. You define yourself by who you don't admit. So whether it's Shylock at the end of the Merchant of Venice or Jaques in As You Like It, or Caliban is not allowed to go back with everybody to Italy at the end of The Tempest or Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. You define who's in by determining who's kept out, mocking them and excluding them. What better way to define who's an American than along this model that is time tested through Shakespearean comedy?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Pause for a moment at Caliban, in The Tempest. This beastly figure who in a 1916 production is a stand in for the unwashed immigrants.
JAMES SHAPIRO Yeah, those are my grandparents, I suppose, on both sides. Living on the Lower East Side who are called by sociologists of the day, kind of Caliban figures. Just look at their faces, look at their shoulders as they go to and from the sweatshops.
CALIBAN Sometimes am I all, wound with adders with cloven tongues do they hiss me into madness. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO Caliban is in the late 19th century, increasingly seen as a Darwinian missing link, half man, half beast. And he became a kind of metaphor, or stand-in for those who were not fully accepted into white Anglo-Saxon American culture. A very talented playwright named Percy McKaye wrote this great mask of Caliban, Caliban by the Yellow Sand and the Caliban figure was supposed to be somebody who was educated successfully into American culture, if you will. Except every 15 or 20 minutes he tries to assault or rape Maranda. He's incorrigible. Even as this was being staged, it undermined its message of acceptance and only underscored that America could not absorb the Caliban of this world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Othello is no comedy, but he reverberates through history. You recall that John Quincy Adams, who was well known as an abolitionist, had a surprisingly visceral distaste for Othello.
JAMES SHAPIRO It's the saddest chapter in my book. Othello is a fundamental American play. Its history here is completely different from its history in England. In England in 1825, an African-American was actually performing the role of Othello on the London stage. But it would be over 100 years before Paul Robeson could do the same on Broadway.
OTHELLO My wife? What wife? I have no idea wife. Oh, insupporter, oh heavy heart. Me thinks it should be a huge eclipse of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe should yawn at alteration. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO The story of John Quincy Adams is the story of my book, which has as its argument, Americans are really not good at talking with each other about things they disagree vehemently about or things they don't want to admit about themselves. John Quincy Adams, as you say, great abolitionist, fought the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court after he served as America's sixth president, joined the House of Representatives to fight slavery. And yet he could not wrap his head around the idea of a white woman sleeping with a black guy. Just could not do it. He was invited to what turned out to be the worst dinner party in history. He was seated next to the superstar British actress Fanny Campbell, and he spent the evening mansplaining Shakespeare to her, including saying that Bella was disgusting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And the person most to blame in the play is Desdemona.
JAMES SHAPIRO Absolutely. She she doesn't respect male authority. And she she marries a black guy. And John Quincy Adams says in getting kind of strangled and smothered to death again, she got what she deserved. What do you think when one of the great opponents of slavery is actually thinking this stuff? And of course, many people think this stuff, but they don't say it or write it. And after that terrible dinner party, she went home, wrote up her notes, and two years later published the conversation. He mortified, writes this essay on the character of Desdemona, trashing her for falling in love and marrying a black guy. He just couldn't understand why everybody didn't kind of go along and accept his view. And it appeared in major periodicals. And he wrote essays saying this. In fact, the real shocker was Fannie Campbell wrote a letter that was later published to a friend in which she quotes Adams using the N-word to describe Othello. I just can't believe it. You want to imagine a kind of more pristine American past? One of the ways of learning what we weren't taught about American history in high school is through how we talk about Shakespeare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your chapter on Manifest Destiny, when the nation embarked on exploiting or exterminating nonwhite people coast to coast, you observed an interesting evolution in the notion of masculinity. One that played out both in that policy and in the productions of Romeo and Juliet.
JAMES SHAPIRO If you look at the American stage at this time, the model of what a man should be, which is sober and serious, hard working, is replaced by a blustery, aggressive, heavily sexualized, violent type. The upshot of this was, when it came to casting Romeo, every guy who was trying to play that role - failed in it. Because at some points in the play has to be, as Shakespeare calls him, effeminate. And at other times you have to pick up a sword and kill people and be really kind of masculine. So women began taking over the part. 20 women played Romeo at this time, and the greatest of them was Charlotte Cushman. It tells you something about changing roles of masculinity when only a lesbian can play Romeo successfully in America. The most amazing thing I stumbled on in writing and researching this book was on the eve of the Mexican-American War when 4000 American troops are gathered on the border to cross the Rio Grande and the officers decided to build a theater and put on plays with all male casts. And one of the first plays they did was Othello. And they couldn't find somebody to play Desdemona.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then they found this rather slight, pretty young officer...
JAMES SHAPIRO ...Who looked great in a dress, Ulysses S. Grant. This is kind of pre 50 dollar bill Grizzled Grant. He was girlish in those days. The guy playing Othello couldn't get up enough emotional excitement they sent to New Orleans for a professional actress to sub for Grant who went on to bigger and better things. But it was great to think of a future American president playing a woman in love with a black man. I mean, that tells you something about where this country has been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE British portrayals of Shakespeare protagonists, especially Macbeth and Hamlet, were very different from the American portrayals.
MACBETH Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends. I have a strange infirmity. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO True. In part because the lead American actor at this time, a guy named Forrest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Edwin Forrest.
JAMES SHAPIRO When they found him finally at the end of his career, dead in bed, they found a pair of hand weights at the foot of his bed. He was one of the early advocates of the pumped up actor. His first great homegrown male Shakespearian actor, and he defined it in opposition to that kind of thoughtful, brooding, reflective English Shakespearean.
HAMLET Am I a Coward? Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face? Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie of the throat? As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Macbeth and Hamlet, who we just heard were portrayed as warriors in America. They even cut the parts where they looked weak out of the plays. And that brings us to Lincoln's assassination.
JAMES SHAPIRO John Wilkes Booth is notorious as the man who assassinated Lincoln at Ford's Theater in April 1865. But he was also one of the great Shakespeare actors of his day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Wilkes Booth played Macbeth. What, about a hundred times? But it was the character of Brutus in Julius Caesar that seems to have been the true inspiration for what he did.
JAMES SHAPIRO He loved the character of Brutus, as many in 19th century America did. This is a man who opposed tyranny. And the South saw Lincoln as a tyrant. Booth only acted once in this play, but he recited the speeches all the time. After assassinating Lincoln, he leaped onto the stage, a little leaping trick he stole from his Macbeth productions, and he shouted sic semper tyrannis, thus always with tyrants, playing momentarily the part of an American Brutus right after his assassination of Lincoln. .
BROOKE GLADSTONE Talk about the very controversial production of Julius Caesar you are involved in a few years back, put on by the Public Theater in Central Park, it roiled the political right.
NEWS REPORT Conservative protesters disrupt the controversial performance of Julius Caesar in New York City. [END CLIP].
TUCKER CARLSON Are you a sad progressive who dreams about President Trump being knifed to death? Well, you're you're in luck. A new production of Julius Caesar in New York let you live out your fantasy. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Caesar was dressed like Trump had certain of his mannerisms. Plus, a wife, Calpurnia, who sported a Slavic accent. And, of course, he's murdered in cold blood. Can you blame the right for being upset?
JAMES SHAPIRO I don't blame the right for being upset any more than I would blame the left for being upset with a year or so earlier, Rob Melrose's production of Julius Caesar that had an Obama lookalike assassinated on stage. The tradition of Julius Caesar in this country changed permanently when Orson Welles staged this play in 1937 at the Mercury Theater.
ORSON WELLES If there be any and this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's to him, I say that Brutus does love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar. This is my answer. Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO His Caesar was just like Mussolini, and he completely politicized how this play was done. It became a template for how we did Caesar after that. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of Public Theater, he wanted to show that saving democracy by undemocratic means, like killing a Trump like Caesar, was a greater disaster than anything else. I think he wanted to create a sense of whiplash in that liberal audience at the Delacorte Theater. And one of the ways he did that was to have fifty actors hidden throughout the audience so that when Brutus and the conspirators kill the Trump like Caesar, they're screaming, they're yelling, they're castigating him for doing that. They're calling him out. The problem was when real protesters followed the fake protesters. Audience members didn't know where the protests were coming from or who was protesting what. So that invasion, if you will, of the Delacourt by protesters who were paid to disrupt the show, ruined the possibility of conversation and dialog. Or maybe we're just not ready yet for conversation and dialog in this country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Shakespeare does seem to be used like the Bible in the sense that anyone can find a defense for whatever they believe in his text. Do you think his message, his intentions, his morals were more explicit in Elizabethan times and the times they were written?
JAMES SHAPIRO I don't think so. And I think that's why we still turn to Shakespeare. Shakespeare presents America's worst nightmares, the assassination of a ruler, a black man sleeping with a white woman, a Jew cutting the pound of flesh from a Christian. This is not the stuff in the Bible, and when we stage these things, we're forced to confront the stuff we don't really like confronting as Americans. It's right in our face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America, coming up on the relatively lighter side, the Bard's use and abuse in American sexual politics. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. There's a fair amount of hankie panky in Shakespeare's plays, cross-dressing, animal attraction, but very little sex. Maybe Romeo and Juliet. There's passionate but platonic same sex love. In his day, same-sex sex was a capital offense. The sexuality of Shakespeare himself is a matter of speculation. There's plenty of sexual politics in his play's, though. We see women sometimes defending, sometimes demeaning themselves. We see men sometimes punished for their greed or vanity or cruelty, sometimes not. In The Taming of the Shrew, fortune-hunting Petruchio is prone to all three, yet he succeeds in starving and bullying, unwilling Ill-Tempered Kate into a parent submission. And the musical take off Kiss me Kate, two divorced actors find themselves playing Kate and Petruchio, and once again, the rascal has his way. On stage and back stage change. James Shapiro is one of our leading Bards of the Bard. Let's start with the original boy.
JAMES SHAPIRO That's a radioactive story. I mean, it ends with a woman putting her hand beneath her husband's foot
KATHARINA My reason haply more, to bandy word for word and frown for frown. But now I see our lances are but straws. Come and place your hands below your husband's foot, and token of which duty, if he please. My hand is ready, may it do him ease. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Could you describe the evolution of Kiss Me, Kate, from Taming of the Shrew?
JAMES SHAPIRO From 1941 to 45 American women are told, become Rosie the Riveter. Enter the workforce, become independent financially and personally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observe that at some point it's really common in film and movies and on stage to depict a woman being spanked. And it changed practically over the course of a few months.
JAMES SHAPIRO Women are told by the government, get out of the way, become the happy housewife and your it's going to be to just grin and bear it. And I'm really not exaggerating. Kiss Me, Kate is written at that moment, and at the center of it is something I was never in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Being spanked on stage. And spanking a woman is not only domestic violence, but it turns her into a child in a very explicit way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was on all the posters.
JAMES SHAPIRO And it was in The New York Times when they reviewed it. That's the image from this play that stuck.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now there is a warring couple playing the two leads, Kate, in Shakespeare's play. She's too much of a shrew for anyone to actually want to marry, so she's auctioned off to this guy passing through named Petruchio. The backstage story seems to follow, similarly, at least the woman decides it is the better part of valor to simply bow to her husband's will wink, wink, nod, nod, or maybe not. You tell a very interesting story about Cole Porter, who found himself with an almost intractable conundrum.
JAMES SHAPIRO You know that two great collaborative geniuses behind this musical. One is Bella Spewack, one of the two women writing Broadway plays at this time, and the other is the great lyricist Cole Porter. This is a hard story to tell. Front stage, you have this restaging of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. Backstage, have gang members collecting debts, divorce. There are white people. There are black people. It's kind of like real life, backstage and front stage is this artificial Shakespearian world. And they couldn't figure out how to end the play. And they bring out a couple of gangsters to sing a rousing song, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which people love, and at the finale of the whole musical as well. And it's a song about basically justifying domestic violence.
You know, five years after this brilliant stage version Kiss Me, Kate became a movie that was completely sanitized and all the African-American stuff is removed. And the story in which a woman has real choices is by the early 1950s, a story in which women no longer have choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So now take us through these strange and perilous journey that was the multiple Oscar winning film Shakespeare in Love.
THOMAS And I leave to be if I be -
WILL Take off your hat.
THOMAS My hat?
WILL Where'd you learn how to do that?
THOMAS I -.
WILL Let me see you, take off your hat!
THOMAS Are you Ma- Master Shakespeare?
WILL Wait, there! Wait there! [END CLIP]
JAMES SHAPIRO The first script of Shakespeare in Love was written by a screenwriter named Mark Norman and he building upon what we know about Shakespeare from the sonnets and much else imagined a Shakespeare who's married to Anne Hathaway, but who discovers himself falling in love with another man and comes to terms with that. It was way too far ahead of what Hollywood thought Americans were ready for, so they brought in Tom Stoppard, the greatest English playwright, Czech born, but he's British. Then he gets rid of the gay stuff. And the infamous Harvey Weinstein is the producer trying to bring this thing to the point where it's going to win a gazillion Academy Awards. He's leaning on the director and he's leaning on Stoppard to fix the ending because Americans don't like adultery. And Harvey Weinstein ideas turn the female lead, the Gwyneth Paltrow character, into a woman you keep on the side and throw parts to in exchange for sex. Or in other words, turn into the Harvey Weinstein story. And Stoppard luckily resisted that. And the final film version gave Americans just what they wanted.
WILL If I could write the beauty of our eyes. I was born to look at them myself.
THOMAS A-and her lips?
WILL Her lips, the early morning rose with wither on the branch, if it could feel envy.
THOMAS And her voice like lark dong.
WILL Deeper, softer. None of your twittering that's nightingales from my garden before they interrupt her song.
THOMAS Oh she sings too?
WILL Constantly. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also talk about who gets to perform Shakespeare. What does color-blind gender-blind casting mean in the current American context?
JAMES SHAPIRO To be fully American is to be able to be in a Shakespeare play. And one of the most poignant stories I came across while researching this book was a short story by Toshio Mori, a Japanese American who was born in the Bay Area and was moved at the beginning of the Second World War. Like many Japanese Americans to the Topaz relocation camp in Utah and he writes a story called Japanese Hamlet about a young Japanese man whose only desire in life is to play Hamlet and nobody can bring themselves to tell him it ain't going to happen. It's another way of getting at who we really think is fully American.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there any one way that Shakespeare's texts can serve as a framework for historical memory?
JAMES SHAPIRO I think they help us see what has been airbrushed out of the story we like to tell ourselves, and I actually think Shakespeare is a terrific force for good. I speak with a lot of people who are conservatives, who love Shakespeare. I speak with a lot of people who are liberals, who love Shakespeare. There's not a lot we actually can talk about and share in this country. I like to think that if we are going to do some healing in a post coronavirus world. Theaters, as the were for Shakespeare, who lived through an age of plague. They're are places where people flock to after trauma. And I'm hoping that they are going to provide some kind of clarity and solace as we put our nation back together again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's funny you said, you know, people on the right love Shakespeare and people on the left love Shakespeare. And you'd expect that of something that was blandly, broadly appealing. And yet it's quite the reverse. His body of work is almost combustible.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is. And that's the great secret of Shakespeare. It is explosive. It is potentially toxic, but that's why it speaks to us. We get it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
JAMES SHAPIRO It is always so much fun speaking with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Shapiro is the author of Shakespeare in a Divided America when his plays tell us about our past and Future.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Alana Cassanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Xandra Ellin wrote our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineers this week were Adrianne Lilly and Josh Hahn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone and have a happy Thanksgiving.
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