(Emma Smith’s article appeared in the Spectator, 3/6; photo: The Spectator.)
Shakespeare’s single explicit reference to America is found in The Comedy of Errors. The two Dromios are anatomizing the unseen ‘kitchen wench’ Nell, who is ‘spherical, like a globe’: ‘I could find out countries in her’, says one Syracusan brother. ‘Where America?’ asks his twin. The reply, ‘O, sir, upon her nose, all o’erembellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires’ embodies early colonial fantasies about the famed riches of El Dorado.
The first record of a Shakespeare text in America comes a century later, and the first known production — an amateur run of Romeo and Juliet in the Revenge Meeting House, New York — three decades after that. But by 1898 a book published in Chicago could claim not only that The Tempest, in particular, ‘has an entirely American basis and character’, but further, that ‘America made possible a Shakespeare’.
Institutions, from Hollywood to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, strengthened this reciprocal bond. Whenthe showman P.T Barnum sent an agent to Stratford-upon-Avon ‘armed with the cash and full powers to buy Shakespeare’s house, if possible, and to have it carefully taken down, packed in boxes and shipped to New York’, America’s possessive embrace of Shakespeare seemed complete.
James Shapiro’s expert and readable intervention in this long history is organized around defining moments and themes in American life. He shows how, for example, apparently literary arguments over Desdemona’s relationship with Othello mediated toxic disputes about interracial marriage in the early 19th century. He explores how Civil War attitudes to Caesar’s assassination influenced John Wilkes Booth to cast himself as an American Brutus murdering the tyrannical Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Kiss Me Kate offers Shapiro a lens to analyze the changing role of women in the workplace and in marriage after World War Two. Harvey Weinstein’s creepy off-screen influence on the plot of Shakespeare in Love places this blockbuster fictional biography of the playwright at the heart of the #MeToo movement.