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Shakespeare Conquers America! Starring Ulysses S. Grant as Desdemona

“1916: Immigration” shows how Caliban got used as a token in arguments about assimilation at a moment when racism was intensified by support from fake “science” and the United States was closing its borders. The chapter details, among other things, wacky efforts to make Shakespeare into an American. Why not? Wasn’t he an “Anglo-Saxon,” like all true Americans? One Charles Mills Gayley of Berkeley published a popular book in 1917 arguing that Shakespeare should “be considered one of the founders of liberty in America” because of his connection to a “liberal faction” of Elizabethan capitalists. In an earlier poem, Gayley had saluted Shakespeare as “Born of the Mayflower, born of Virginia.” Such buffoons litter the book.

In “1948: Marriage,” “Kiss Me, Kate” goes under Shapiro’s lens. The story of how Bella Spewack, the main book writer, wrestled the oft-reviled “Taming of the Shrew” into a musical, how the show shadowed gender-role preoccupations of the time, and how the change from the ’40s to the ’50s caused the politically bold Broadway show to be tamed for the Hollywood movie provides cultural history at its most diverting.

The 1998 chapter is worth the price of the book alone. Examining American anxieties about adultery and same-sex love, it chronicles how “Shakespeare in Love,” originally a progressive script written by Marc Norman, got rewritten by Tom Stoppard so that elements of Shakespearean homosexuality, bisexuality and marital infidelity were fudged. Ironically, Stoppard had been hired to soften such areas by the producer Harvey Weinstein, the moral paragon with decades of alleged sexual assault and now a rape conviction behind him. We watch Weinstein trying to massage the film into a template of his own relationships with women by leaving its heroine as now-successful Will’s piece on the side. (Instead, she goes to America, of course.) As a bonus we’re privy to a “cringe-inducing” Stoppard skit at Miramax’s pre-Oscar party. Juicy? But to the point? Hell, yes.

We meet a character of truly Shakespearean contradictions in John Quincy Adams, who plays the lead in the 1833 chapter on racial mixing. “Recognized as one of the leading abolitionists in the land” and a victim of death threats for his views, Adams nonetheless went into print twice to express at length his horror at the mere idea that a white woman, Desdemona, might fall for a black man. Indeed, he thought she got her just deserts by being murdered for it.

It’s in the final chapter, “2017: Left | Right,” on the Public Theater’s Trump-as-Julius-Caesar production, where Shapiro really soars, analyzing the pitfalls of applying contemporary politics to a famously double-edged play. With “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare strewed ambiguities like tacks on a highway, creating a play designed to multiply and complicate our responses. How are we to take Caesar? Or Brutus, or Cassius? If you don’t like Trump and Caesar is Trump, do you actually approve of seeing him butchered?

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