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Shapiro’s writing on Shakespeare remains fascinating and insightful, but Julius Caesar in the age of Trump reveals the weaknesses of a liberal perspective, argues Dominic Alexander

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James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America (Faber and Faber 2020), 310pp.

The widespread admiration for Shakespeare in so many parts of the world remains a surprising phenomenon for a playwright whose language is now difficult even for native speakers. His ubiquity can be partly explained through the inheritance of imperial culture in many countries, but if there is an understandable wish in post-colonial Africa to replace him with African authors in education systems, he was at the same time popular with Mandela and other prisoners in Robben Island. The fact that Shakespeare has been used by those resisting colonial rule just as easily as those imposing it, is not even a recent paradox.

James Shapiro notes that early in the history of the United States, ‘it seemed improbable that Americans would adopt England’s national poet as their own,’ given not just significant anti-British feeling, but the anti-theatrical Puritanism of the north-eastern states (pp.1-2). The lazy answer to this would be to point to the playwright’s genius, but without denying that the term is appropriate, it does not answer the question.

Shapiro has written a number of brilliant and highly readable books on Shakespeare which do go some way to explaining his wide and continuing popularity. In 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), he showed the importance of the writer’s historical context in a decade of crisis, marked by emerging social contradictions that could not be resolved. Part of Shakespeare’s genius lay in his ability to voice competing agendas and visions of the world, treading many fine lines between pleasing and offending the authorities and different layers of the populace alike. It is surely the multiplicity of possible views, and the studied ambiguities in many of the conflicts in his plays, that lend them to being used on different sides of so many serious social and political divisions.

Relatedly, Shapiro has thoroughly disposed of the elitist theories that seek to attribute authorship of Shakespeare’s plays to someone of higher birth in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010). Only an artist from the margins, or outside the elite, is likely to have the socially amphibious kind of insight Shakespeare had for his own society. However, while there is a context of a historical popular radicalism in his works, which is analysed by Chris Fitter in Radical Shakespeare: Politics and Stagecraft in the Early Career (2010), the plays were written, after all, to please the ruling class, and can be easily grist to many conservative and reactionary perspectives.

Common ground?

It is the contradictions and ambiguities of the use of Shakespeare by Americans across the history of the United States that Shapiro has taken as his subject in his most recent book, Shakespeare in a Divided America. Shapiro is a very fine and perceptive writer, and much of this book is therefore as fascinating and fresh as his earlier books, but here the framing of the argument presents some political problems. His opening contention is that the United States has been deeply divided from the beginning, but that ‘Shakespeare’s plays remain common ground, one of the few places where Americas can meet and air their disparate views’ (p.1).

Yet, the conclusion of the book is that in Trump’s America, this is no longer the case, and that a dialogue through Shakespeare’s characters and words is no longer possible in the face of the relentless lies and inflammatory rhetoric of the right-wing media machine. Without disputing the appalling nature of Fox News or Breitbart, or any of the rest, the conclusion seems to beg many questions, and even the very purpose of what is, otherwise, a valuable book. A commentary on the historical use of Shakespeare is one thing, but it is not clear that it bears the political weight Shapiro wants, in the end, to put on it.

To begin with, however, the sheer interest of the material needs some acknowledgment. Shapiro is able to use Americans’ use of and thoughts on Shakespeare to illuminate their thinking. The plays, he argues, help ‘clarify what was happening at this moment’ as they ‘forced to the surface the cultural tensions and shifts that otherwise prove so difficult to identify and might otherwise have remained submerged’ (p.55). Throughout the essays that compose this book, Shapiro seems adept at choosing precisely those episodes for which this holds true.

Racism and sexism

The ex-President, John Quincy Adams, is exposed by his forthright literary outburst about Othello in 1836. This politician, who had taken a ‘moderate’ position on slavery and abolition, turns out to have brooded on the play since his youth, feeling that Desdemona got what she deserved for disobeying her father, and marrying a black man. Adams’s racism and his deeply held horror of ‘amalgamation’ only fully come to light with this article. His private venting about Othello and Desdemona:

‘uncharacteristically elaborated on in print, seems to have allowed Adams to cling to a position short of genuine freedom and equality for former slaves … Shakespeare licensed Adams to say what he otherwise was too inhibited or careful to say – or say so honestly’ (p.44).

The whole context of this apparently minor moment is used skilfully to show much about the ways in which patriarchal and white-supremacist concerns and fears worked so closely together in the minds of leading Americans even outside the slave states themselves.

The intersections of race and sex repeat themselves over and again across these essays, always with illuminating detail, as well as with sometimes surprising uses of Shakespeare in political culture. The growth of a new American imperialism through the Mexican-American war, which brought the huge territory of Texas into the United States, provoked an opponent of annexation to quote from King John, of all plays, in criticism of the easy warmongering of politicians: ‘Here’s a large mouth, indeed / That spits forth Death and mountains, rocks and seas’ (p.52).

The growth of the ideology of ‘manifest destiny’ in the drive to the West, caused a problem for Americans with what was then, and apparently remains, one of the country’s favourite plays, Romeo and Juliet. The aggressive racism of the new imperialism required a brash and brutish masculinity, but Romeo was problematically ‘the most feminine’ of Shakespeare’s male heroes, in one British critic’s worried words. So, in America, ‘male actors found the role unplayable’ (p.57). It was in this context that a woman, Charlotte Cushman, pulled off a career playing Romeo herself, not only to acceptance but to some acclaim. This moment, superficially one of possibility for female actors, becomes a rather more contradictory one. Cushman had to be extremely discrete about her romantic relationships with women.

It was after the Second World War that it seems there was briefly some room for Shakespeare to be used in more progressive ways. The original musical production of Kiss Me Kate, based of course on The Taming of the Shrew, counterposed a ‘backstage’ story with a ‘frontstage’ production of the Shakespeare play. The misogyny of the original text was undermined and questioned by the behind-the-scenes drama, and while the ‘frontstage’ characters were all white, the ‘backstage’ drama was racially mixed. This original production was in 1948, but by the time it became a film in 1953, America was a very different place. The window for some progressive subversion had definitely closed. The film concludes with a very conservative view about women’s proper obedience to their husbands, and, unlike the preceding musical production, had an all-white cast (p.198).

All of this, and much more, is well worth exploring, but nowhere in Shapiro’s analysis is there much of a sense that the right, when making use of Shakespeare, was ever in any way being in a dialogue with any other political point of view about the world. This framing around the idea that Shakespeare has provided a divided America with a common language therefore seems rather to clash with the analysis at work in the rest of the book. There are some signs of a progressive Shakespeare, even occasionally in the nineteenth century, but perhaps most strongly from the era of the civil-rights movement, such that The Tempest could be staged with an anti-colonial spirit (p.148). Otherwise, there is little sense that any of the material is in itself much suited to the expression of a left-wing American politics.

Tyrants and the people

These lacunae cast a worrying shadow over the introduction and conclusion which discuss a 2017 production of Julius Caesar in a New York theatre, where Caesar was portrayed quite clearly as Trump. The production certainly did not deserve the astonishingly vitriolic attacks upon it, as its staging in no way endorsed even a presumptively anti-Trump audience’s wish-fulfilment fantasy about the president’s fate. It was meant to unsettle such an audience, rather than coddle them. Shapiro was connected to the production, and it is not possible to be other than sympathetic to the victims of the media stoked rage.

Yet, for all the production’s measured intentions, there is a problem with this play, and its use in such an outright political context. Julius Caesar is, arguably, in part a play about the deleterious role the crowd can play in politics, and it develops in a way that can easily be taken as quite unsympathetic to the mass of people.1 The people are, after all, the supporters of a tyrant who suppresses not democratic rights, but the freedom of aristocrats and their republic. The tragic hero of the play is Brutus, a virtuous senator who conspires to assassinate Caesar in order to save the republic from this military leader who is seen as a friend of the common people of Rome. The logic of the play would seem to play directly into the hands of the false populism of the right, which, while defending ultra-elite interests, pretends it is defending the people against a liberal establishment. Not that many of Trump’s supporters necessarily would care about this, but the issue lies not so much there, as with the limitations of liberalism.

This whole approach does not seem to be an adequate re-interpretation of the play even if it is ‘about the dangers of fascism with [an] equal insistence on the limits and cluelessness of liberalism,’ in an example of a 1937 production by Orson Welles, which made the rise of fascism an American, not merely a foreign, problem (p.12). It is certainly right, as Welles had it, to say of the mob in Julius Caesar, that it is the same one ‘that hangs and burns negroes in the South, the same mob that maltreats the Jews in Germany’ (p.12). The problem is that in the play, the virtuous side remains the aristocratic republic; there is no other alternative to fascism on offer.

Shapiro certainly highlights the continuity in American history of the racist and nationalist tendency that thinks itself anti-elitist. A particularly interesting essay centres on a major riot in 1849, over an exclusive opera house through which New York’s elite sought to distance itself from unruly, popular theatre goers. The riot took form on the occasion of a rivalry between two Shakespearean actors, one introspective and British, and the other representing a certain sort of robust ‘American’ manliness.

The New York crowd, however, had a range of targets: ‘Amalgamation, abolition [of slavery], and a performance of Macbeth by a British actor were all part of the same elitist worldview that had to be forcefully rejected’ (p.62). Shades of the Trumpism to come are certainly meant to be perceived here, but Shapiro notes a similar constellation of ideas a few decades earlier in the nature of ‘Jacksonian democracy’, which he defines (very helpfully) as ‘anti-elitist, racist, manly, expansionist, nationalist, in favour of limited regulation and a more powerful presidency, and mostly good for white men’ (p.62).

The problem in this manifestation of plebeian discontent is clear enough, but if the solution does not go further than to decry the bigotries of the racist populace, which is so prone to falling for tyrants in the Roman Republic just as in the modern American one, then there is an impasse. The logic here does not favour a progressive alternative. Shapiro does see the underlying issue. He points out that the opera house riot of 1849, ‘brought into sharp relief the growing problem of income inequality in an America that preferred the fiction that it was still a classless society’ (p.104). In Europe, the years 1848-9 saw a revolutionary wave in which fledgling working-class socialist politics exploded into view. At this time, however, the American ruling class was in a confident mood; a conservative (‘Whig’) newspaper commented on the fact that soldiers fired on the rioters in defence of the wealthy opera-house audience, that this occasion was:

‘an excellent advertisement to the capitalists of the old world, that they might send their property to New York and rely upon the certainty that it would be safe from the clutches of red republicanism, or chartists or communionists of any description’ (p.104).

Today’s ruling classes, in the United States and elsewhere, are much less confident, and riven by intractable contradictions. The reactionary and racist base for a Trump is a present danger in many nations. Yet, the liberal response is far too often to perceive as a danger any sort of challenge to the status quo of the last four decades, refusing to recognise that the central issue is the ‘problem of income inequality,’ which has become such a chasm. Either the privilege and power of Brutus and his aristocratic conspirators are fundamentally challenged, or the cruder examples of ruling power will triumph (the historical Julius Caesar’s own literary capacity was quite rudimentary, which is why his self-aggrandising screeds have been introductory level Latin for school children for many centuries).

What is needed, of course, is a revival of a movement of revolutionary communionists, of some description, that can challenge the racist, nationalist solution to the despair of these times. It seems unlikely that the route there can be found in a new interpretation of Julius Caesar. For all his greatness, perhaps sometimes, Shakespeare is just not the answer.

1 See Markku Peltonen, ‘Popularity and the Art of Rhetoric: Julius Caesar in Context,’ in Shakespeare and the Politics of Commoners: Digesting the New Social History, ed. Chris Fitter (OUP 2017), pp.163-79; p.177.

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Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).

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