Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About our Past and Future | Mechanics' Institute

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Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About our Past and Future
Cal Shakes Dramaturg Philippa Kelly in conversation with renowned Shakespearean scholar and author, James Shapiro on zoom

This meeting will take place over Zoom.

This event is presented by California Shakespeare Theater

co-sponsored by Mechanics' Institute

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

A New York Times Notable Book

 

“[A] terrific new book . . . If Jill Lepore and the late Tony Judt had collaborated, this taut, swift and insightful tract might have been the offspring . . . Among all the fine words currently being spilled examining the American mess, James Shapiro has outshone many of our best political pundits with this superb contribution to the discourse. He upped the wattage simply by bouncing his spotlight off a playwright 400 years dead who yet again turns out to be, somehow, us.”—David Ives, New York Times Book Review
 
“Shapiro treats us to one deep-dive vignette after another, most of which center on Shakespearean nuggets from America’s past that have vanished from view even among seasoned fans of this country’s neglected cultural curios.” —Bookforum

 

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 valued by 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 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 four-hundred-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’s 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 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.

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. In 2011, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has written several award-winning books on Shakespeare, and his most recent book, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, was awarded the James Tait Black Prize as well as the Sheridan Morley Prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the London Review of Books, among other places. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and The New York Public Library Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he is currently the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City.

Admission $20

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