Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro review – how the bard found his greatest stage

The readiness is all. Ever since president John Adams rewrote a passage from Henry V to demonstrate how a foreign power might conspire to place a more pliable president in the White House, Shakespeare’s plays have been at the heart of America’s debate about itself.

Today, with the United States more disrupted than ever, and with a make-or-break election looming, Prof Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year in the life of William Shakespeare, is once again right on the money. He has plunged fearlessly into the enthralling afterlife of the Complete Works to examine the strange and potent dialogue between Shakespeare’s 400-year-old theatre and the drama of contemporary American politics.

We think of Shakespeare as our national poet, but the truth is that, in the words of Kiss Me, Kate, “the bard of Stratford-on-Avon” has for centuries played a pivotal role in the cultural and political life of the US – more pivotal, in fact, than we might realise.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, Shapiro’s timely and resonant new study of this phenomenon, describes how all kinds of Americans – assassins, soldiers, hustlers, demagogues and even a few literati – have turned to Shakespeare “to give voice to what could not readily or otherwise be said”.

It’s a typically American paradox that a nation that staked everything to throw off the hateful yoke of British imperial power should, within a generation of 1776, turn to an Elizabethan English playwright for wisdom and consolation, a secure narrative-line amid the confusion of nation-building.

Shapiro concedes that this is a mystery, possibly connected to the propinquity of Shakespeare’s prose to the colonists’ founding obsession, the Bible. Whatever the explanation, by the mid-19th century, Shakespeare’s plays had become braided into American popular consciousness, in some senses more so than in Britain.

Othello was taken up as a commentary on the intractable race question, widely performed in the antebellum South

Thus it was that Othello was taken up as a commentary on the intractable race question, widely performed in the antebellum south, and even staged by servicemen on garrison duty in the newly annexed state of Texas in 1845. On that occasion, the part of Desdemona was played by a young and gender-fluid Ulysses S Grant, eventually the 18th president of the union.

It was, however, president Abraham Lincoln whose fate would signal the apex of the dialogue between Shakespeare and the states’ divisions. Both Lincoln and his nemesis, John Wilkes Booth, were obsessed with Shakespeare. For the president, it was all about Macbeth; for his assassin, Julius Caesar. In perhaps the finest chapter of this prescient book, Shapiro explores the enthralling backstory to 14 April 1865. This was the night at Ford’s theatre in Washington DC, during a performance of a farce, Our American Cousin, on which the actor Booth fired the fatal shot and fled across the stage quoting Brutus, “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrants”), which also happens to be Virginia’s state motto.

Lincoln’s lifelong hunger for Shakespeare had been extraordinary, and the nation’s grief at his death was expressed in the official slogan of national bereavement, Shakespeare’s epitaph on the murdered Duncan, who:

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.

Shapiro’s message, which reverberates through some sparkling chapters on class, immigration and manifest destiny, is that such Shakespeare lines offered a collective catharsis – the story of an assassination refashioned as a national tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions – that allowed the US to defer, once again, its reckoning with the issue that had inspired Booth: the conviction that America, as he put it, “was formed for the white not the black man”.

History, says Marx, repeats itself as tragedy then farce. After Trump’s inauguration in 2017, it was not long before New York’s Public Theater launched its Shakespeare-in-the-Park season with a provocative and highly transgressive production of Julius Caesar, giving the Roman dictator a white shirt, long red tie, and MAGA baseball cap. Equally vivid was the tyrant’s bloody assassination. New Yorkers grew agog at the nightly enactment of their deepest wish. The media went mad. Fox News denounced the play, at first not recognising that it was a 400-year-old classic by a well-known Elizabethan playwright. And Shapiro was inspired to write this book.

Not all of it is political, however. Shapiro’s chapter on same-sex marriage is cleverly framed around a fascinating description of the making of Shakespeare in Love.

The professor’s final words on the contemporary American disruption offers some bleak cultural pessimism. Having noted that 91% of US high schools teach Shakespeare’s plays, he declares that, nonetheless, “his future seems as precarious as it has ever been. When one side no longer sees value in staging his plays, only a threat, things can unravel quickly.”

We’ve been here before. In 1642, after the outbreak of the civil war, parliament decided that “public stage-plays shall cease”. The Globe and all London’s playhouses were closed, then demolished. More than 100 years would pass before Shakespeare began to attract his lasting American audience. Great literature is a long game.

• Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15