Shakespeare in America

James Shapiro begins his fine introduction to Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now with a little-known episode in American military history: Just before the beginning of the Mexican-American War, at an army camp in Corpus Christi, Texas, Lt. Ulysses S. Grant was called in to replace James Longstreet, later a Confederate general, in the role of Desdemona in Othello. Youthful, trim, well rehearsed (and bearded) though Grant was at the time, the officer playing Othello found that, in the end, he could not kindle adequate feeling for the future Hero of Appomattox, and an actress was substituted.

After presenting that immensely pleasing image, Shapiro goes on more substantively. He notes that, thanks to the legacy of Puritan disapproval of the theater, an aversion that endured even when the doctrinal underpinnings dissolved, Shakespeare’s plays were not especially popular here before the Revolution, nor were they given an American character in their interpretation. This changed with the break from Britain and the redefinition of American identity: Defiantly independent of the mother country, that identity was nonetheless forged from the same literary heritage, one in which Shakespeare was understood to be fundamental. Insistence on the American claim to Shakespeare and his relevance to the nation’s culture appears throughout this collection, in varying degrees and to different ends. In “The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare: An Ode” (1787), for instance, Peter Markoe makes it clear to whom Shakespeare now truly belongs: “Monopolizing Britain! boast no more / his genius to your narrow bounds confin’d; / …The noblest Bard demands the noblest stage.” As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the pugnacious note disappeared and Shakespeare — “Mage of the opaline phrase,” as Charles Mills Gayley addresses him in “Heart of the Race” (1916) — is presented as uniting the two nations, not least in wartime.

Shapiro says he has selected works that, in considering Shakespeare, reflect their cultural moment, represent the important critics of the day, and also speak to each other. Just how they make up a national discourse is furthered by Shapiro’s short, incisive introductions to each of the seventy-one contributions. These essays, reviews, poems, lyrics, letters, stories, satires, and miscellanea all engage with Shakespeare to express American concerns, illustrating throughout that, as Shapiro puts it, “the history of Shakespeare in America is also a history of America itself.”

Given the unhappy place of race in our history, it is not surprising that Othello has received special scrutiny. Three pieces address it specifically, beginning here with John Quincy Adams writing in 1836. Passionate abolitionist though he was, he is nonetheless scandalized by Desdemona’s “unnatural passion” for a “blackamoor,” a passion which “cannot be named with delicacy.” But, believing Shakespeare to be a “moral operator,” he can assure us that not only is Desdemona in her willfulness is to be condemned, but that the lesson of the play is “that the intermarriage of black and white blood is a violation of the law of nature.”  

A little over three decades later, in 1869, Mary Preston, a Marylander with Confederate sympathies, is kinder to Desdemona, but at the expense of Othello’s identity. Shakespeare, she tells us, “was too correct a delineator of human nature to have colored Othello black, if he had personally acquainted himself with the idiosyncrasies of the African race.” Othello’s color, she explains, was “one of the few erroneous strokes of the master’s brush, the single blemish on a faultless work.” She concludes her essay with a ringing correction of the Bard’s unwitting error: “Othello was a white man!”

It is a relief to get to one of the great watersheds in the interpretation of Shakespeare in America: Paul Robeson’s 1943 performance as Othello on Broadway — the first time a black man played the part there. Here it is captured in a review of the production by Samuel Sillen, who wrote that Robeson is “the authentic Moor of Shakespeare’s towering vision, a colossus among men, a figure of epic grandeur and of transcendent nobility and force.” Revealing, in his performance, that the play is about race, not sexual jealousy, Robeson “bursts through the petty dimensions of the contemporary stage, exalting the imagination, sending a profound shock of discovery through the mind.”

Race enters again in discussions of the putative Anglo-Saxon character of the United States. In addition to Gayley’s “Heart of the Race,” mentioned above, and a couple of others, we have “Shakespeare and American Culture” (1932) by the first research director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Joseph Quincy Adams (no relation to the presidents of that name). He exults in the American idolization of Shakespeare, which, he says, not only preserved a homogenous English culture during territorial expansion, but also sustained it later as immigrants “swarmed into the land like the locust of Egypt.”

Among those who have found political inspiration in Shakespeare are John Adams, present here in a hitherto unpublished letter of 1805, telling his son, John Quincy Adams, how apposite Shakespeare’s historical plays are to the nation’s present state, being especially instructive of the perils of factionalism. Also included is John Wilkes Booth, in a letter, likening himself to Brutus in Julius Caesar.   

Both Washington Irving and Henry James consider Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon: Mesmerized by the accumulation of time and tradition — as is his way — Irving saturates himself in an imagined past in “Stratford-on-Avon” (1820). He is as taken with the legends which have been spun from the place as he is by its actual historicity. In “The Birthplace” (1903) James writes, scrupulously, minutely, and re-framingly — as is his way — of the agonies of conscience suffered by a caretaker of the cottage where Shakespeare was (presumably) born, a shrine he is expected to present as the vulgar public expects it to be: genuine and unaltered since 1564.

Shakespeare’s place in Middle America and popular culture shows up in a number of pieces, most amusingly in Willa Cather’s review in the Lincoln Courier of a touring production of Antony and Cleopatra (1895) starring a certain Lillian Lewis “as the Egyptian Rosebud.” “I shall see her in my dreams, that coy, kittenish matron, bunched up on a moth-eaten tiger stroking Mark Anthony’s [sic] double chin.” Elsewhere and later, in 1989, Frank Rich and Joseph Papp face off in “The Shakespeare Marathon,” an attack on and a defense of Papp’s project of producing all of Shakespeare’s plays in six years.

It is impossible to describe or even list all the approaches and subjects of these pieces, which range from the most serious to the most whimsical, from Lincoln to Thurber; and which draw on the works of such key figures in American culture as Poe, Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Eliot, Gilman, on through the decades to Mary McCarthy, Jane Smiley, BJ Ward, and Jen Bevin.

Oddly — or otherwise — nowhere in these pages do we find outright naysayers of the likes of Mae West, who once snapped, “Let Shakespeare do it his way. I’ll do it mine. We’ll see who comes out better.” But we do find those who claim that Shakespeare’s works are those of Another Hand, a fixation which, reaching as high as the Supreme Court, is as American as it is British. Nathaniel Hawthorne writes compassionately of one Delia Bacon, an Englishwoman whose enormous, unreadable tome “proved” that Francis Bacon is the true author of the works attributed to the man she dismisses as “Lord Leicester’s groom.” Mark Twain shares this opinion — wittily, but loonily. No advocates for the seventeenth Earl of Oxford are represented here, but the supporters of Christopher Marlowe’s claim are handed a poser by Woody Allen — with which I shall leave you: “If Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s works, who wrote Marlowe’s?”