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Gilbert: Shakespeare in America

2016 is the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death - a milestone being marked in myriad ways, including with copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the 1623 published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, touring the United States. Middlebury College Museum of Art is the only place in Vermont where you can see one of the First Folios, on display through the end of February; you can also see one at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.

This tour inspired Middlebury and the Vermont Humanities Council to partner together to bring Columbia University Professor James Shapiro to speak recently on the topic of Shakespeare in America - also the title of his new book, an anthology of writings that deal with the ways, throughout American history, that Shakespeare’s plays have been “cultural touchstones” for our country.

In four different centuries, when Americans have watched Shakespeare’s plays, looking at the mirrors Shakespeare holds up to nature, as it were, they’ve tended to consider the dramas in light of the issues that the country was wrestling with in their day. For example, the book includes a powerful little-known 1895 essay by social reformist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, who compares the play King Lear to the 1894 Pullman Strike, its president, George Pullman, being “A Modern Lear.” At the time of the strike, Vermont’s own Robert Todd Lincoln was general counsel to the Pullman Company before becoming its president four years later. Shapiro commented that Addams’s essay anticipates feminist literary criticism by nearly a century.

The book also includes a short story about identity, inclusion, and exclusion entitled “Japanese Hamlet” by Toshio Mori. It’s about Tom Fukunaga, who has a disastrous lifelong obsession with Shakespeare’s work and who aspires to be the first Japanese American to play Hamlet. Written shortly before World War II, which Mori spent in a Relocation Center in Utah, this poignant story was only published after the war was over.

Then there’s America’s long and complex relation to Othello, which was surprisingly popular in the antebellum South. Shapiro points us to Langston Hughes’s poem “Shakespeare in Harlem,” to Broadway musicals Kiss Me, Kate and West Side Story, and to Maya Angelou’s bold comment after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, that “Shakespeare was a Black Woman.”

Perhaps President John Kennedy expressed Shapiro’s point most clearly when he had scenes performed at the White House from recent Shakespeare-inspired plays that captured the Cold War mind-set so perfectly that in his introductory remarks he referred to Shakespeare, only partly in jest, as “an American playwright.”

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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