Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future


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One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

A New York Times Notable Book

From leading scholar James Shapiro, a timely exploration of what Shakespeare’s plays reveal about our divided land, from Revolutionary times to the present day.

The plays of William Shakespeare are rare common ground in the United States. They are read at school by almost every student, staged in theaters across the land, and long highly valued by both conservatives and liberals alike. For well over two centuries, Americans of all stripes – presidents and activists, writers and soldiers – have turned to Shakespeare’s works to explore the nation’s political fault lines, including such issues as manifest destiny, race, gender, immigration, and free speech. 

In a narrative arching across the centuries, from Revolutionary times to the present day, leading scholar James Shapiro traces the unparalleled role of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedies and comedies in illuminating the many concerns on which American identity has turned. Reflecting on how Shakespeare has been invoked – and at times weaponized – at pivotal moments in our past, Shapiro takes us from President John Quincy Adams’ disgust with Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello, to Abraham Lincoln’s and his assassin John Wilkes Booth’s competing obsessions with the plays, up through the fraught debates over marriage and same-sex love at the heart of the celebrated adaptations Kiss Me, Kate and Shakespeare in Love. His narrative culminates in the 2017 controversy over the staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated.

Deeply researched, and timely, Shakespeare in a Divided America reveals how no writer has been more closely embraced by Americans or has shed more light on the hot-button issues in our history. Indeed, it is by better understanding Shakespeare’s role in American life, Shapiro argues, that we might begin to mend our bitterly divided land.


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