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From leading Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, a timely and insightful examination of what the world’s greatest dramatist can teach us about life in an America riven by conflict
The United States has always been divided, but Americans from all walks of life have also always shared a deep affinity for the plays William Shakespeare, even if their meaning has been fiercely contested. For well over two centuries now, Americans of all stripes—presidents and activists, writers and soldiers—have turned to his plays to prosecute the most intense and pivotal quarrels in the soul of the nation, a nation defined by its political and social pluralism. That prosecution dates back to pre-Revolutionary times, when Hamlet’s famous soliloquy—“To be or not to be”—was appropriated both by defenders of British rule and those seeking to overthrow it. Shapiro traces Shakespeare’s formative and crucial role in our nation’s history, from the otherwise progressive John Quincy Adams’s sinister opinions on race expressed via (and only via) his views on Othello; to the politically-charged rhetoric that gripped Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; to the resounding American triumph of Shakespeare in Love, produced by Harvey Weinstein’s then fledgling company, Miramax, which exploded a debate about adultery at the time of President Clinton’s Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But Shapiro also reports firsthand on Shakespeare’s undeniable contemporary significance, after a production of Julius Caesar, which depicted the assassination of a President Trump-like Julius Caesar, was exploited calculatedly by Breitbart and Fox News to ignite outrage. With style and unmatched expertise, Shapiro contends brilliantly that few writers or artists can shed as much light on the hot-button issues of American life—such as immigration, same-sex love, political violence, and class warfare—and that by better understanding the role of Shakespeare’s plays in American history we might take steps towards mending our bitterly divided land.
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