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What Country, Friends, Is This?

Where's the minstrel-show "Othello" or the scurrilous "MacBird!" in this Shakespeare in America?

Book review, April 12, 2014

"The history of Shakespeare in America," James Shapiro writes in the introduction to his anthology tracing the literary fate of Britain's Top Bard in the New World, "is the history of America itself." Of course, the editors of the Library of America's theme anthologies invariably say this about their subjects; whether it's a NASA moonshot or Midwestern baked goods, sooner or later that old American pageant theme starts trumpeting away. But in Shakespeare's case the claim isn't wholly meaningless. He might not be central to the American experience in the same way that the King James Bible has been (doubtless that anthology is in the works), but he's somehow always there, century after century, the go-to guy for any current cultural mood.

In the years before the Civil War, for instance, "Othello" was practically a national obsession. There was even a scabrous minstrel-show version called "Otello," where Othello and Desdemona produced a child black on one side and white on the other. In the 1950s, the era of Freudian analysis and sci-fi, the big camp Hollywood epic "Forbidden Planet" restaged "The Tempest" in outer space, with Ariel a clanking, whirring robot named Robby and Caliban a weird cartoon "Monster from the Id." In the 1960s, the Kennedy assassination was travestied in a gross vaudeville titled "MacBird!," with LBJ and Lady Bird as Lord and Lady Macbeth. The 1990s zeitgeist, such as it was, was perfectly caught by the movie "Last Action Hero," which offered a horrifyingly plausible spoof trailer for Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hamlet: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark . . . and Hamlet is taking out the trash!"

Americans are constantly quoting, paraphrasing and reimagining Shakespeare. You could do a thick anthology just on the Modernist poets' appropriations and misappropriations – "The Tempest" inspired T.S. Eliot's beautiful and sinister "Marina"; one of Wallace Stevens's most exquisite lyrics, "The Planet on the Table" ("Ariel was glad he had written his poems"); and the poem that W.H. Auden considered his masterpiece. When Auden moved to New York, he was so haunted by the echoes of the New World in "The Tempest" that he wrote a book-length "verse commentary" exploring them, "The Sea and the Mirror" (1944).

Shakespeare has also provoked some of the deepest ruminations of the great American humanist scholars. It would be hard to find a more searching study of any writer than Harold Goddard's magnificent "The Meaning of Shakespeare" (1951) or a more personal and impassioned testimony to the value of the Western canon than Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" (1998). And while Shakespeare is performed all over the world, there's been a specifically tense and fruitful conflict between our actors' native naturalism and the tradition of Shakespearean performance – something explored in classics like William Redfield's 1966 "Letters From an Actor," about a production of "Hamlet" on Broadway, and in Al Pacino's charming 1996 film essay about imagining and playing Richard III, "Looking for Richard."

And then, of course, there's that other American tradition: the insatiable hunger for the big takedown. It's no accident that the silly "Bacon wrote Shakespeare" conspiracy theory was an American invention. We love proclaiming that the hero is a fake and that we alone know the inside story. It's much the same impulse that led the postmodern cultural-relativist literary critics on their quixotic campaign to demonize Shakespeare as the deadest and whitest of dead white males, whose reputation is an evil fraud perpetuated by patriarchal culture.

Often we don't need a reason to disdain Shakespeare, other than our perpetual need to blow raspberries and throw stones. Call Shakespeare the World's Greatest Writer often enough, and some American – Mark Twain, in fact – will respond with "1601," a juvenile squib about the varieties of Elizabethan flatulence. Twain also concocted, in "Huckleberry Finn," a parody of Hamlet's soliloquy that the characters praise to the skies even though it's gibberish: "To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin / That makes calamity of so long life / For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do to come to Dunsinane." "The most celebrated thing in Shakespeare," the Duke cries. "Ah, it's sublime, sublime!"

No one book could survey how endlessly malleable Shakespeare has proved in the American imagination, and James Shapiro deserves praise even for trying. A distinguished literary historian and the author of a justly acclaimed book on the numerous Shakespeare-didn't-write-Shakespeare conspiracy theorists ("Contested Will"), he unearths some interesting stuff from the archives: Nathaniel Hawthorne on Delia Bacon, for instance, the original Baconian conspiracy nut, and an unforgettable rant from John Quincy Adams about Othello – the thought of Othello and Desdemona in bed together provokes our sixth president to a near-psychotic rage. ("She breaks a father's heart, and covers his noble house with shame, to gratify – what? Pure love, like that of Juliet or Miranda? No! Unnatural passion.") On a calmer note, it's fascinating to hear about 19th-century performance, particularly the tradition (which it might be nice to see revived) of actresses playing Hamlet in male drag. And there's some hilariously bad 19th-century verse: "Then Shakspere rose! / Across the trembling strings / His daring hand he flings / And lo! A new creation glows!" Charles Sprague reminds me how much I have missed poets who cried "Lo!"

But there's no denying that the selection of material feels pretty meager. Where's the minstrel-show "Othello" or the scurrilous "MacBird!"? Where are Robby the Robot and Harold Goddard? No "Marina," no Wallace Stevens, no "1601" – well, maybe that one's a blessing. Mr. Shapiro includes good pieces about Orson Welles's famous 1930s productions (the "voodoo Macbeth" set in Haiti, the Italian fascist " Julius Caesar ") but nothing about the countless avant-garde re-imaginings since then. And there's nothing about the way Shakespeare keeps popping up unexpectedly in junk culture: how, for instance, Hamlet's ineffably creepy lines "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" are quoted with shocking aptness in the middle of "A Nightmare on Elm Street."

Part of the problem is that, when it comes to popular culture, Mr. Shapiro seems out of his comfort zone. He writes that after the middling box office of the (unfortunately rather dull) 1953 movie of "Julius Caesar," "almost four decades would pass before Hollywood invested in Shakespeare again." What on earth can this mean? Is it unfair to expect a literary man to be au courant with 1960s Hollywood extravaganzas like the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor "Taming of the Shrew" or Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet," a box-office smash that had American teenagers swooning?

But other blank spots seem the result of deliberate policy. It's scarcely believable, but Mr. Shapiro leaves out Twain's "Hamlet" parody, even though he calls it "brilliant" in the introduction. Why? Because, he says, he has "misgivings about excerpting." In other words, since he can't reprint all of "Huckleberry Finn," he won't put in any of it. If he's serious, he needs a refresher course in the concept of "an anthology." He might have profitably studied John Gross's "After Shakespeare" (2002), an eccentric and wide-ranging survey, which, through rigorous weeding and pruning, finds room for hundreds more selections in half the number of pages as the Library of America book. If Gross had any doubts about excerpting, he managed triumphantly to overcome them.

Still, this rule about excerpts, deranged as it might be, explains why Shakespeare so often feels tangential or marginally relevant to "Shakespeare in America." When Mr. Shapiro reprints all of Melville's essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" for the sake of the one passage in the middle about Shakespeare, that necessarily makes for a lot of pages where Shakespeare doesn't show up. But then, Shakespeare isn't Mr. Shapiro's real subject anyway – at least not the writer who dreamed up Falstaff at Gadshill and Rosalind in the Forest of Arden. The book is about Shakespeare the American cultural icon, and as such it does succeed, if inadvertently.

After all, even when so many necessary American versions of Shakespeare have been excluded – the high culture and the low, the exalted and the insolent – a residue does remain. This is the blandly respectable Shakespeare of our most innocuous upmarket culture. It's a version of Shakespeare caught perfectly by an interminable 1985 "symposium" that Mr. Shapiro reprints on "West Side Story," that classic of the middlebrow: Arthur Laurents, one of its creators, claims that it's "better than the original" because it makes a powerful statement against "prejudice." Presumably Mr. Shapiro would disagree, but a lot of American culture-consumers wouldn't: the ones who make obeisance to Shakespeare but prefer Broadway musicals and the New Yorker.

These are, I'm afraid, the target market for this book: that is, anybody who'd find Cole Porter's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" a delightfully irreverent inclusion; anybody who'd be impressed by the back-cover endorsement from Meryl Streep or the preface by that well-known literary critic William Jefferson Clinton. Such readers are the modern-day equivalents of the unthinking Shakespeare worshipers that Mark Twain was mocking in "Huckleberry Finn."

The Library of America can do better. Last year's theme anthology devoted to the Beat Generation and its descendants, "The Cool School: Writings From America's Hip Underground," was a model of its kind: an unlikely subject given a surprisingly fresh, imaginative and substantial treatment. "Shakespeare in America" doesn't feel like it was intended for anybody to read. It seems to have been made instead as a graduation gift for the theater-arts major, who will keep it unopened on a shelf for a year or two before banishing it to a resale store.

Does it matter? Last summer I happened to see, in a secluded corner of a Chicago park, two young men with wooden swords rehearsing the fight scene from "Romeo and Juliet." They were discovering, with surprise and delight, that they could exchange their blows in time to the rhythm of the blank verse. It was more than 400 years since the play had been written, in a city that back then wasn't even a dream. Shakespeare is doing just fine in America.

This article appeared April 12, 2014, in the The Wall Street Journal in print and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Shakespeare in America edited by James Shapiro (Library of America, 724 pages, $29.95)