‘Leaders around the world should read Shakespeare very carefully’

This year is a very special one for Shakespeare enthusiasts, with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death on April 23. Invited by the British Council and Fundación Romeo, US professor and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro held a lecture in BA about his books 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and 1606: the Year of Lear, as part of the BA Shakespeare Festival. He talked to the Herald in an exclusive interview about using theatre as a tool to negotiate a country’s own political and social hurdles.

It’s interesting that you didn’t like the Bard as a child and teenager but years later you became a Shakespeare scholar. What made you change your mind?

I hated it. I didn’t start as a scholar, I wasn’t a good student. When I was in my teens, my big brother and I backpacked through Europe. It was very inexpensive. You could sleep in a church’s basement. In London, you could see a play and pay the equivalent of 50 cents, nothing really. That was what we paid as students. So, we started to see plays. For me, that was a drug. It was cheaper and more powerful than the other drugs. It’s a drug that I’ve been turning to for the last 40 years.

So, how did you become a scholar of Elizabethan theatre?

I’d work some bad jobs, like street messenger, and then I’d quit at the end of the summer, go to London and see 20 plays in 20 days. I did it year after year. And, all of the sudden, I’d seen hundreds of plays, all the greatest actors. So, my approach to this is always theatrical. I started writing books, but not from the perspective of an academic looking down, but from the perspective of a theatregoer, looking around and trying to experience this.

Why do you think Shakespeare is so famous worldwide?

I don’t think Shakespeare is universal; I think Shakespeare is popular round the world but for different reasons in different places. When I’ve seen Shakespeare in Japan or in Israel it’s not the same Shakespeare. Each country makes Shakespeare into their own icon and their own image and it helps negotiate in the theatre their own political, social and married relations. I saw a production of Hamlet in Japan and the husband of the actress who was playing Ophelia pulled her out from the production because he didn’t want her exposed in those ways. Or in Israel, I saw a production in which Shylock in the Merchant of Venice becomes radicalized like a West Bank settler. So, in each place it’s different. We say he’s universal, but he’s not. He is particular. And my job is to try to understand why Shakespeare in America is not the same as in England.

And what are the main differences you see?

I will give you an example. In England, in 1825, a young African-American from New York named Ira Aldridge played Othello on stage in London. Over 100 years passed until Paul Robeson played Othello on Broadway in the 1940s. The reason is that race is such a difficult issue for America that it’s always there, even if we don’t talk about it, it’s always the elephant in the room. A whole century had to pass until a black actor could recite those words. So, I’m interested in what the history of theatrical productions reveals about a culture.

And what have you found?

There are things that always divide a culture: race, immigration, economic inequality, or hostility with neighbours. Nobody likes talking about that in any country I’ve ever been to. Shakespeare is a way in which people can negotiate those differences. If I want to understand anti-Semitism in America, I go to see a production of the Merchant of Venice. If I want to understand race, I would go the see Othello. It’s the only place where we can safely engage our differences. That’s great because I actually want to know how people feel.

Why did you choose the years 1599 and 1606 for your books?

The first book was easy because 1599 was the year when the Globe Theatre was created and I love the building. My only disappointment about coming to BA now is that the Globe’s company isn’t going to pop-up this year. 1599 is about what the Globe theatre means for Shakespeare and how it changes his career. That year he finishes Henry V, he writes As you like it, Julius Caesar and starts Hamlet. There’s a rush of creativity after this building goes up. He’s part owner of the building and he’s nervous that this whole enterprise will not work. That year was easy. But, I felt that I hadn’t paid enough attention to Shakespeare latter in his career, after the regime changed when Queen Elizabeth dies and King James comes to the front. So, I picked a year: 1606, hopefully the best.

How long did it take to write the books?

The first book took me 15 years to finish the research and writing. This one just took me 10 years; Internet made my search faster, which is good. 1606 is a year of epidemic, understanding the new king, what it means to have a new political confederation, and of course, hanging over the whole year was the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, the failed terrorist attack. So, I felt, living in the 21st century, that these were very modern issues so I can begin to understand what happened hundreds of years ago through having lived some of these things myself.

Is there any Shakespeare play to describe the situation in Argentina?

In some ways, no. But in other ways, most of Shakespeare’s plays are about leadership, and how leadership fails people. Shakespeare was very interested in that. There are really no successful leaders in Shakespeare, he puts them under a magnifying glass and even the best of them, like Henry V, died and left their successor in a mess. I think that, in a way, all his plays collectively can illuminate this moment. And if I were a political leader anywhere in the world, I’d spend a lot of time reading Shakespeare. But, surprisingly, very few of them do it.

Why do you think that is?

They think it’s old, but the lessons are there for them if they’d go to see them. Somebody like Bill Clinton who was very successful in most ways, except for his personal issues, understood the values of Shakespeare. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest president of the US and maybe one of the greatest leaders, always carried a couple of Shakespeare works with him.

And Hillary Clinton?

I haven’t asked Obama, I haven’t spoken to Hilary, but I will. I’m very curious about both of them. Trump now, I don’t think he reads Shakespeare, but I could be wrong because he is doing so well; maybe he has read some of those plays, like Richard III when he rises to the top. So, I’d recommend leaders around the world to read Shakespeare very carefully.

Have you read any Argentine authors?

Borges, who was one of the greatest readers of Shakespeare ever. He knew Shakespeare, valued him and I think he was influenced by him in a way.

What book would you recommend to an adult who has never been in touch with Shakespeare?

The truth is, go to see a production, don’t read the plays. They were written to be staged. Don’t read Shakespeare, see Shakespeare. In his lifetime, half of his plays weren’t published; he wanted people to see them.


Born: September 11, 1955, Brooklyn, NY
Studies: Columbia University and the University of Chicago. Currently Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Published works: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakes-peare (1991), Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015)
His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times.
He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011.

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