Shakespeare in America
Willa Cather wrote in 1894 that William Shakespeare “belongs” to two nations, America and England, a theme that resonates through “Shakespeare in America,” an anthology that traces Shakespeare and his influences in the United States from 1776 to the present.
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“. . . the selections offer something for everybody.”
Even John F. Kennedy once jested that Shakespeare was an American playwright.
Editor James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University, says he purposely set out to compile a collection that “focused on imaginative works,” some he considered rare discoveries, others that have never before appeared in print, and a range of surprises.
For instance, we learn that Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant in 1846 performed the role of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello before U.S. Army troops in Texas. Also intriguing is John Wilkes Booth’s letter to the National Intelligencer newspaper before he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The letter was never delivered and was later recreated from memories by another actor who read the letter before destroying it. In the letter, Booth, a Shakespearean actor, said he saw Brutus as his kindred spirit.
Most startling is the account of a Shakespeare-related 1849 New York City riot at the Astor Place Opera House when twenty people were killed and hundreds injured. According to witness accounts that appeared in an anonymous pamphlet, two rival actors, one American and the other English, were performing Macbeth at different theaters around the same time. The melee was blamed on “overheated patriotism.”
Shapiro notes that Shakespeare’s works transcended region and class in the nineteenth century because his words were routinely studied in the classroom. Over 122 million copies of Shakespeare-related school readers were sold and 47 million textbooks on him were circulated in the classroom during this time.
The timely release of this anthology during Shakespeare’s 400th birthday is a literary gem for readers, both Shakespearean scholars and causal admirers. The common thread is “Shakespeare in America,” but the selections offer something for everybody, from Woody Allen to a poem from Emily Dickinson along with a parody from Mark Twain.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla