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Shakespeare in a Divided America

What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

By James Shapiro
15-minute read
Audio available
Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

Shakespeare in a Divided America (2020) offers a new perspective on American history. In looking back at eight instances where Shakespeare’s plays have been politicized by those on both sides of the political spectrum, we can see how the playwright's work has remained highly relevant over the years.

  • Fans of the Bard and his many plays
  • People interested in how art can be politicized
  • History buffs and those curious about America’s political past

James Shapiro is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he’s been teaching for the past 25 years. He’s been awarded numerous fellowships for his writing, which has often focused on analyzing the works of Shakespeare and their lasting influence. His award-winning books include The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606

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Shakespeare in a Divided America

What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future

By James Shapiro
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro
Synopsis

Shakespeare in a Divided America (2020) offers a new perspective on American history. In looking back at eight instances where Shakespeare’s plays have been politicized by those on both sides of the political spectrum, we can see how the playwright's work has remained highly relevant over the years.

Key idea 1 of 9

Shakespeare’s Othello revealed the progressive limitations of even America’s foremost abolitionists.

In 1829, a 19-year-old British woman named Fanny Kemble joined the family business and became an actor. She was an overnight success in her first role, playing the female lead in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Kemble proved to be such a sensation that her American debut became eagerly anticipated.

Upon arriving in the US in 1833, she received a dinner invitation from the wealthy Boston physician, George Parkman, who also invited the former president John Quincy Adams. Kemble and Adams were seated next to each other at the dinner table, and their conversation turned out to be a minor sensation of its own.

The key message here is: Shakespeare’s Othello revealed the progressive limitations of even America’s foremost abolitionists.

Like many well-read Americans at the time, John Quincy Adams admired Shakespeare. But he’d always had issues with the play Othello. In particular, he took issue with the character Desdemona, and her intimate relationship with Othello, who’s described as a dark-skinned Moor. Although it was unpublished at the time of his encounter with Kemble, Adams had written an essay in which he claimed that “the great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is, that black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature . . .”

Two years after Parkman’s dinner party, Kemble published the journals she’d written during her American tour. In them, she described an awkward conversation with an unnamed man who told her that, despite being a “worshipper of Shakespeare,” he found Othello to be disgusting (and Romeo and Juliet to be childish nonsense).

It didn’t take readers long to figure out who Kemble was writing about, and reporters were soon pressuring Adams to elaborate on his remarks. This is what led to his earlier essay finally being published – making his distaste for the relationship between Othello and Desdemona publicly known.

At the time, there was a growing abolitionist movement, despite the efforts of pro-slavery politicians like James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina. Hammond also invoked Othello when he spoke to Congress and described a dreadful future in which someone like Othello would be considered a fellow congressman.

In his final years, Adams made the abolition of slavery his central cause. But this mental divide, of wanting to end slavery yet still being unsettled by the love between people of different skin colors, speaks to just how far America had to go if it were ever to reach its ideals of equality.

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