The 2016 election: we will eventually be far away from that time, but while we wait to heal we will continue to publish works – everything from tweets to films- about how it shaped our current situation.
In 2017, the Delacorte Theater staged a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park . Shakespeare had been done live in Central Park for years. Julius Caesar had been performed steadily around the world since it debuted in 1599. Caesar has taken on many depictions throughout the years; within the last half a century he has been made to resemble Huey Long, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, and Barack Obama. This time, Caesar was a stand-in for Trump; tall, blonde, and orange.
You can imagine how that went over. Trump’s supporters, unable to differentiate art from life, lost their collective minds over a theater company depicting his brutal death on stage every night- never mind the fact that it was not Trump dying; it was Caesar- who was *spoiler alert* 100% stabbed to death centuries ago. Conservative media exploded, and threats from Trump supporters flooded not just Delacorte’s inboxes but that of theaters all over the United States. Threats of murder, hellfire, and rape- yes, people sent emails to theater companies threatening to rape them over the presentation of Trump as Caesar- filled voicemail boxes across the country. The production went on none the less. Shakespeare always survives American turmoil.
You don’t need me to tell you that our current situation is bad, and James Shapiro is acutely aware of the roiling mess that we currently inhabit. Shapiro is using this moment to focus a lens back on American history in general; Shakespeare has always been a part of the political realm; people on both sides of the aisle have venerated, revered, reviled, and formed his words to their fancy since before America was America.
Shapiro makes a point early on as to why Shakespeare may have been so beloved by early settlers throughout North America: the bible. The King James Bible was written in 1611, and the style of language between Shakespeare and the contemporary gospel was the same; people felt that Shakespeare spoke to them in the same voice that the bible used. Cabins and classrooms across America always held at least two books: the bible and a collection of Shakespeare.
Instead of writing about American history as a whole, Shapiro wisely chooses to highlight the roles of Shakespeare’s work throughout particularly fraught and meaningful moments across our short history. We have been divided for quite some time over quite a few things. Shakespeare in a Divided America focuses specifically on miscegenation, manifest destiny, class warfare, assassination, immigration, marriage, and adultery, and how leaders, firebrands, stalwarts, scholars, and many others found inspiration and permission in Shakespeare’s words to press their own agendas (some noble, some silly, some just plain hateful) onto others.
I was particularly taken by Shapiro’s breakdown of the role of toxic masculinity in Andrew Jackson’s White House that so eerily predicted today’s predicaments. This book provided welcome doses of reason and clarity around the woes of the world at large, and I do hope that we can learn from them and finally, eventually move on to something better. Now, when we look back, we find ourselves gazing at our own reflections.