Shakespeare Among the Cowboys

Review: James Shapiro (editor), 'Shakespeare in America'

George McLellan, depicted as Hamlet, stands near an open grave holding the head of Abraham Lincoln / Library of Congress
April 24, 2016

I believe that the American love for Shakespeare can be summed up in the words of an anonymous cowboy.

The historian Philip Ashton Rollins, in his post-Civil War work about life on the range, visited a ranch where the cowboys who could read would sometimes perform speeches for those who could not. After a rousing rendition of Mark Antony's "Dogs of War" speech from Julius Caesar, Rollins heard a young cowboy cry out: "Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what fed on raw meat."

I found this quote in an article about the history of Shakespeare in Texas, but the cowboy’s enthusiasm for Shakespeare is a national passion. And so it is wonderful that James Shapiro's anthology Shakespeare in America has been reissued in paperback just in time for the 400th anniversary of the poet's death. The Library of America's collection of Americans writing about Shakespeare is truly a pleasure to read, offering insights not only about the plays themselves, but about how Americans have used his work to help shape their national identity.

Shakespeare has been dead longer than America has been alive, and we cannot seem to get enough of him. He is read in (nearly) every American classroom. Replicas of Shakespeare’s Globe and his Blackfriar’s Theater dot the country from San Diego, California, to Staunton, Virginia (some even built before Shakespeare’s Globe was rededicated in London). Lin-Manuel Miranda quotes him in Hamilton. Our language is colored by words and phrases Shakespeare invented.

Shakespeare’s influence on the American mind and heart runs deeper than mere affection spawned by a common language. The American soul has been distinctly shaped by Shakespeare. In his cheerful vulgarity, his upstart vitality, his hatred of tyranny, and his love of freedom, we can see that he is ours and we are his.

Shapiro has opted to choose many, shorter works rather than longer essays, and so, although the book is dense, it makes a quick read. The selections hurtle us through American history, encompassing our fascination, appropriation, rejection, and embrace of Shakespeare’s works along the way.

We start with a parody of "To Be or Not To Be" written by a British Loyalist rejecting the Continental Congress’s proposed boycott of British goods. We then get a letter from John Adams to his son wherein Adams describes his fears of a tyrannical Hamilton-Burr presidency, written in the style of a speech about traitors from Henry V.

We hear about how both British and American soldiers performed Shakespeare’s plays in the camps during the Revolutionary War. The British favored tragedies and histories, while the rebels preferred the Roman plays. Later, the same phenomenon would occur on both sides during the Civil War.

We have a stomach-churning essay by John Quincy Adams arguing that Desdemona is not virtuous and deserves no pity because she is complicit in miscegenation. We get a glowing review of Ira Aldridge’s Othello, which debuted in London in 1825. Aldridge was a black American actor who was never permitted to perform on the American stage. The review was written by William Welles Brown, an activist-writer who was himself an escaped slave.

Something we notice, as we make our way through the book, is that Shakespeare was never considered a particularly highbrow poet, someone who was only read by an educated and elitist few. Certainly, he was revered and adored—but by the mob as much as anyone else.

One of the most surprising sections in this anthology concerns the riot at the New York Astor Playhouse in 1849. Two Shakespearean actors, one English and one American, developed such a ferocious rivalry that a crowd attempted to storm the stage at a performance of Macbeth, and a riot broke out.

The feud began when the American actor hissed during a performance of the British actor’s Hamlet—the British Hamlet played madness by doing a "fancy dance" across the stage, and it was so offensive that all hell broke loose.

Twenty-two people, mostly teenage boys (and some innocent bystanders), were killed—an astonishing revelation from a time when Shakespeare was more of a man of the people with all of the vices that title can imply.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare’s poetry inspired evil as well as good since, at that time, his work was so universal and ubiquitous. Alexis de Tocqueville noted as he travelled around the United States that "There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log house."

Indeed, it is likely that Lincoln began his lifelong affection for Shakespeare in such a house. Scholars believe that Lincoln’s early education consisted of only four books: the Bible, Blackstone’s Laws, Euclid’s Elements, and the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

In Shapiro’s book, we learn that Lincoln would recite passages from Richard III when he was bored, that his favorite Shakespeare play was Macbeth, and that he thought Claudius’s prayer in Hamlet was superior to "To Be or Not to be." There are even echoes of the Bard to be found in some of Lincoln's most famous speeches. For example, we can see the roots of Lincoln's appeal to "the better angels of our nature," in the terrible last scene of Othello.

In this bloody scene, one of the Venetians sees Desdemona's broken body and says he is glad her father is already dead:

[For] did he live now,
This sight would make him do a desperate turn,
Yea, curse his better angel from his side,
And fall to reprobation.

Lincoln took a comment about a man on the brink of suicide and turned it into an exhortation to a nation on the verge of civil war. He used a tragedy to try and stave off tragedy. It is just one of many ways that Americans have, since the Founding, transformed Shakespeare's words for their own purposes, our own "rough magic" against his.

In this collection, one sees a push and pull between authors embracing Shakespeare’s supremacy and struggling to shrug off his yoke. A polemic from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge defends American English from its snotty British detractors by pointing out that many of the "Americanisms" sneered at by the British (like using "I guess" to mean, "I think") have their origin not in the American backwoods, but in the works of Shakespeare.

Poets, on the other hand, tended to push back against the author. In Emily Dickinson’s "Drama’s Vitallest Expression Is the Common Day," she suggests that ordinary, personal experience is more deep and meaningful than the written works of some dead tragedian: "Hamlet to himself were Hamlet—had not Shakespeare wrote … infinite enacted In the Human Heart—only Theatre recorded—Owner cannot shut."

We also get a defiant essay from Herman Melville that declares "if Shakespeare has not been equaled he is sure to be surpassed, and surpassed by an American born or yet to be born." We also get an obnoxious essay by a young T.S. Eliot where he tries to prove that Hamlet is, in fact, a very bad play (OK, kid).

These essays are less interesting in substance than they are in watching not-yet-great writers test the boundaries of the accepted literary canon, trying to stake out a claim for the American author and what it would mean to be such a person.

There are so many delightful things in this book it is impossible to touch on them all (in the modern section, James Thurber’s "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" and Pauline Kael’s review of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight are standouts).

One notices, however, that as we move closer to the modern day, the pieces get less and less political, and Shakespeare becomes more and more the sole province of art and culture. Yes, Bill Clinton writes the introduction to this collection, but he’s just saying Shakespeare’s nice, not engaging with any text.

When the anthology reaches the present day, the number of statesmen who passionately and publicly debate Shakespeare hits zero. This is a shame, for Shakespeare’s powers have never been more needful.

I can think of no modern writer who has more talent for routing and destroying liars, cowards, hypocrites, and empty-headed braggarts than Shakespeare, who was also peerless at lifting up the discouraged, and persuading the broken, mad, and angry to "feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just."

Shakespeare knew how fragile and terrible democracy could be. He also pushed back hard against all forms of tyranny

As we write this next chapter of the American drama, we could sorely use more statesmen—and more citizens—who know and love him well.

Published under: Book reviews