cover image Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

James Shapiro. Penguin Press, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-52229-4

Columbia University English professor Shapiro (The Year of Lear) explores how Shakespeare’s plays have provided a framework for confronting America’s “social and political collisions” in this richly detailed episodic history. Starting in the 19th century, Shapiro contends, Shakespeare’s oeuvre helped to shape popular opinion through turbulent periods of growth, war, and political partisanship. He examines John Quincy Adams’s 1836 essay vilifying Othello heroine Desdemona for marrying a black man in light of the former president’s evolving abolitionism, contrasts Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth’s interpretations of Macbeth, details how early-20th-century anti-immigration activists retrofitted The Tempest to their purposes, and places 1998 Academy Award–winner Shakespeare in Love against the backdrop of the Monica Lewinsky affair and contemporaneous attitudes toward same-sex love. Most strikingly, Shapiro relates how a 2017 Shakespeare in the Park staging of Julius Caesar—in which the title character resembled Donald Trump—fanned right-wing outrage and inadvertently revealed “how easily democratic norms could crumble.” Shapiro’s wit (Lewinsky and Bill Clinton are referred to as “Starr-crossed lovers”) and well-sourced anecdotes enliven his incisive analysis of more than a century’s worth of American history. Written with broad appeal and expert insight, this sparkling account deserves to be widely read. (Mar.)