The OF Blog: Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..."

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell just as sweet."

"To be, or not to be, that is the question..."

"Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war..."

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun..."

Chances are, if you are a native English speaker (or one even casually familiar with English-language culture), you could identify the composer of these quotes even though the exact source and context might elude you.  Next to the King James translation of the Bible, William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are the lodestone of the English language; so much of this language's idiomatic expressions and metaphors orient themselves to these rich, imaginative text.  It is nigh impossible for me to fathom an English-language culture, much less literature, existing in a form similar to today's without Shakespeare's Olympian influence.  Although there are numerous great writers that have left their own indelible marks on contemporary English-language literature, Shakespeare is that rare talent whose turns of phrase are often quoted, frequently without full awareness of their source, by those who aren't regular readers of literature of any sort.

Part of this is due to Shakespeare's writings being almost chameleon-like in their ability to be adapted for almost every situation and need.  Although composed mostly before the first English settlement in what is now the United States, in the intervening four centuries, Shakespeare's work has become as much a central part of American literature as it is the keystone of English literature.  In James Shapiro's 2014 anthology, Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, there are dozens of selections from writers and politicians, social activists and ministers, from lay people to composers, all of which testify to Shakespeare's influence on them and their course of action.  A fascinating mosaic image emerges when these disparate threads of American social and cultural life are placed in chronological order.

The anthology begins with an anonymous 1776 publication of a Loyalist response to the demands of the First Continental Congress for the colonists to sign an "association" boycotting British goods.  Making use of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, it is also, as Shapiro notes in the introductory header, a retort to a pro-colonist screed that began "Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.":

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! (p. 3)
However, in Peter Markoe's 1787 poem, "The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare," published in the year of the Constitutional Convention, already there are overt moves to claim the Bard as America's own:

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 ase,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage. (p. 12)
And yet as grandiose of a claim as Markoe makes here, the question still remains, over two centuries later:  Just what is an "American" view of Shakespeare?  It is fitting that our national motto, E pluribus unum, come into play when examining the disparate views presented throughout this collection.  For the nineteenth century, with "nation building" (including the horrendous treatment of the various nations that dwelt on contested land and the execrable treatment of African-descended slaves) foremost on their minds, divers writers, poets, and politicians would frequent cite Shakespeare in order to further their ambitions.  In 1849, this nationalist rendition of Shakespeare boiled over into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, as partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest assailed the performance place of British actor William Charles Macready's performance of Macbeth.  Some 15,000 people participated in this riot, leading to the New York State Militia firing into the crowd, killing more than twenty and wounding perhaps over a hundred more.  Here is a brief citation from a lengthy anonymous pamphlet published soon after the riot:

The result was, that the constant rivalry of Forrest, though carried on in the most friendly manner, could not fail to injure the success of Macready.  A certain degree of partizanship was everywhere excited – for Forrest was everywhere placarded as the "American Tragedian," – and the tour of Mr. Macready was comparatively a failure.  A sensitive man could not but feel this; and whether he made any complaint or not, his friends saw what the difficulty was, and felt not a little chagrined about it; and when Mr. Forrest made his next and last professional visit to England, this feeling among the friends of Macready, in the theatrical press and the play-going public, found its vent.  The opposition to him was, from the first, marked and fatal; and, so far as the metropolis was concerned, his tour was a failure.  It was only in the provinces – away from London influence – that he met with any degree of success. (p. 67)
It is hard for a twenty-first century reader to fathom this level of outrage over who performed Shakespeare and with what accent it was performed.  And yet in accounts like this, coupled with lengthy allusions to him throughout the years, there can be seen a sort of metastasis occurring:  Shakespeare's characters, form, and very language were being assimilated into this growing American culture, being transformed by it as much as it imbued this nascent civilization.  Echoes of this can be seen in the mid-19th century literature, especially in the work of Herman Melville.  In his "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville not only pays homage to his mentor, but also to what lurks behind any perceived "work of genius":

In Shakespeare's tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote.  And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do, as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing.  For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only be cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches. (p. 130)
It is interesting to see how observations like this are reflected in subsequent pieces for the remaining 500-plus pages.  Shapiro has placed these selections in a fashion where it is easy to discern certain currents of American thought on Shakespeare and his ability to voice deep-seated fears, hopes, and anxieties.  "The play's the thing", ironically, is where a collision of received cultural understanding of Shakespeare and divergent interpretations of that very same understanding take place.  It is the source of contemporary takes on West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, as well as arguments over just how well (or poorly) Marlon Brando performed in Julius Caesar.  Peppered amongst critical (both senses of the word) theatrical articles are allusions made by recent authors who echo and cast back, perhaps a bit distorted, the views of Melville and others of the first half of American socio-cultural history.  For Shakespeare does not belong to any one class or nation; he is, as what was later associated with St. Thomas More, "a man for all seasons."  This can especially be seen in Langston Hughes' 1942 poem, "Shakespeare in Harlem" (there was also a play of that name by him):

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go? (p. 450)
With pieces like this presented side-by-side with scholarly references and layperson allusions, Shapiro's Shakespeare in America serves as a good introduction to the Bard's influence on American culture.  It is a rich collection of primary source material that does not overwhelm the reader, but instead provides enough of a framework by which readers can draw their own connections to currents of thought regarding Shakespeare.  Certainly it is one of the more enjoyable pieces on Shakespeare that I have read in recent years.

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