This month we celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday — happy birthday, William! To mark the moment, some of my favorite publishers are bringing out books centered on the great (greatest? I think so) writer. This week, The Library of America published a fascinating anthology that illuminates Shakespeare’s presence in American history.
Passing the foreword by President Bill Clinton and the introduction by the great volume editor James Shapiro, the first selection here comes from the important year 1776: “The Pausing American Loyalist,” written by someone unknown. It was not even published in America but rather in The Middlesex Journal, and Evening Advertiser.
To sign, or not to sign? That is the question,
Whether ’twere better for an honest Man
To sign, and so be safe; or to resolve,
Betide what will, against Associations,
And, by retreating, shun them. To fly — I reck
Not where: And, by that Flight, t’escape
Feathers and Tar, and Thousand other Ills
That Loyalty is Heir to: ‘Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To fly — to want —
To want? Perchance to starve: Ay, there’s the rub!
As is usual, The Library of America volume is supremely edited. Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro not only chose each piece, but he also wrote introductions to each, explaining their history and contextualizing them in the broader story of American history. In this first piece, his introduction explains the publication history, the “association” colonists signed to boycott British goods, and, digging even deeper, shows that this was not the first time this famous soliloquy from Hamlet was used in American politics; in 1770 a colonist wrote one that centered on “Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.”
What we have here, then, is not just a compendium of Shakespeare references written by Americans or, as is the case above, about American politics. This book is a fascinating walk through American history itself, with Shakespeare as our common theme. We begin with the Revolutionary War, seeing how people used Shakespeare to bolster their cause: the second piece in the book is American Jonathan M. Sewall’s “Epilogue to Coriolanus,” an anti-authoritarian, revolutionary play; the third comes from Peter Markoe, who immigrated to America around 1775, in which he says:
Monopolizing Britain! boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin’d;
Shakspeare’s bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen’ral blessing for the world design’d,
And, emulous to form the rising age,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage.
It’s not all propaganda and American politics, though. The next pieces is a nice letter from one President, John Adams, to his son and future President, John Quincy Adams, saying he’s been “uncommonly engaged” reading Shakespeare, in particular the history plays, plays in which Adams must have seen America’s own birth dramatized. As we move on through the volume, we find America’s literary heroes reflecting on Shakespeare, from Washington Irving’s essay on visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace (“I had come to Stratford on a poetical pilgrimage.”) to Henry James’ short story “The Birthplace,” in which a couple is given the opportunity to watch after a famous writer’s birthplace (it is based on Shakespeare’s, though he is not named). Among the other short stories included is Cynthia Ozick’s “Actors” and James Thurber’s The Macbeth Murder Mystery, about a woman at a hotel in the Lake District who buys a copy of Macbeth thinking it was (and reading it as) a murder mystery like all of the other books next to it in the store:
The reason Duncan resembled Lady Macbeth’s father as he slept is that it actually was her father!” “Good God!” breathed my companion, softly. “Lady Macbeth’s father killed the King,” I said, “and, hearing someone coming, thrust the body under the bed and crawled into the bed himself.” “But,” said the lady, “you can’t have a murderer who only appears in the story once. You can’t have that.” “I know that,” I said, and I turned to Act II, Scene 4. “It says here, ‘Enter Ross with an old Man.’ Now, that old man is never identified and it is my contention he was old Mr. Macbeth, whose ambition was to make his daughter Queen. There you have your motive.” “But even then,” cried the American lady, “he’s still a minor character!” “Not,” I said gleefully, “when you realize that he was also one of the weird sisters in disguise!”
The volume also does a good job looking at the less pleasant sides of American history. Toshio Mori’s “Japanese Hamlet” and Langston Hughes’ “Shakespeare in Harlem” each jump out to question who is included in American history and who gets to claim Shakespeare. The piece that follows these too is Samuel Sillen’s “Paul Robeson’s Othello,” Robeson being another remarkable black artist who broke barriers.
The book is also filled with criticism, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Shakespeare; or, the Poet,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Shakespeare’s Heroines as Human Beings,” T.S. Eliot’s “Hamlet and His Problems,” and John Berryman’s “Shakespeare’s Last Word: Justice and Redemption.” There are many pieces about the American theater, such as Stark Young’s “John Barrymore’s Hamlet,” Cole Porter’s song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and a wonderful transcript of the Dramatists Guild Landmark Symposium on West Side Story, from 1985, which has Terrence McNally, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein talking about the musical’s inception. We even get a handful of pieces from the world of American film, from the likes of Pauline Kael and Woody Allen (though Allen’s is a story). There’s just a lot of great stuff here, 71 in all, spreading over 700 pages that also contain 16 illustrations and photographs, like Ira Aldridge as Othello, circa 1854, and John Wilkes Booth and his brothers in costume for an 1864 production of Julius Caesar.
One of the reasons I think Shakespeare is so great is that he is so expansive in his histories while remaining so intimate. With this volume we get a similar — not nearly the same, no — but a similar glimpse at American history.