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Understanding America - through Shakespeare

IANS  |  Jaipur 

He is widely recognised as English's most significant writer and it is a measure of William Shakespeare's eternal appeal and legacy that his plays can serve to unforgettably present a prism to view disparate societies widely dispersed in time and space -- even the astonishingly diverse "melting pot" that is America.

Till date, Shakespeare is frequently used to depict various human situations through his works which deal with among others with young, innocent lovers from families which are implacable enemies, of ceaseless ambition advanced by evil counsel, of fatal jealousies that ruins several lives, of twins mistaken for each other, shrewish wives, and so on, which also help in evaluating and re-evaluating him. So what is different about America?

This is the contention of Shakespearean scholar, James Shapiro, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of "Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare", "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" and the "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606", who throws new light on him, using his works as a tool to examine crucial American issues like slavery, revolution, and social justice.

"Shakespeare allows for the possibility of transcending that which divides us," he said at a session titled "Shakespeare in America" at the Jaipur Literature Festival here on Sunday.

Noting it was a "strange experience" to be talking about the "truly global relevance of English Shakespeare in America, whilst sitting in Jaipur", he discussed an America history when homosexuals and coloured people were forbidden from performing in enactments of Shakespeare's plays.

"The first great Black Othello was an American in the 1820s. But it was the age of slavery, so he was not allowed to perform in America, touring Europe for four decades. Such a thing didn't happen there until the 1940s," he said.

Citing other examples of gender and colour-based oppression in American society, he noted its history of sexual and racial discrimination could very simply be understood by looking at who got to play Shakespearean characters.

Shapiro praised the playwright's gift for bringing to the fore "uncomfortable" issues in society, such as racism, homophobia and capitalism, and given their relevance, called for a greater access to Shakespeare's plays.

"Does Shakespeare only belong to those who can afford to buy tickets to the Broadway? Take him to groups of people who have had no access to his work, people like prison inmates," he said, citing a funny experience of about a Shakespearean enactment at an American jail, where most could not grasp the idea of an acting.

"There were scenes where a character would faint, and six guys would jump up to lift him. They couldn't accept it when a character would turn his back on a fight. But they loved the play," he said, noting they were not educated but Shakespeare was still meaningful to them.

He acknowledged the role of cinema as one of the best media for carrying forward Shakespeare's legacy, but was incredulous at the relative "inability" of the English and Americans to produce good adaptations, while the Japanese and Indians had succeeded in doing so.

Shapiro particularly commended Bollywood movies like Vishal Bhardwaj's "Maqbool", "Omkara" and "Haidar", based on Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet, respectively.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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First Published: Sun, January 24 2016. 23:50 IST