William Shakespeare’s position as England’s national poet is unquestioned. But his plays have also held an essential place in American culture for over 200 years. Americans of all stripes — presidents and activists, writers and soldiers — have turned to Shakespeare to explore the nation’s fault lines and have found the darkest nightmares of its past – tyranny, assassination and battles over same-sex love, cross-dressing and interracial marriage – played out in his most celebrated works.
In this special event James Shapiro, the leading American Shakespeare scholar, was joined by a cast of distinguished actors, Chukwudi Iwuji, Harriet Walter and Samuel West, to bring to life the themes of Shapiro’s recent book, Shakespeare in a Divided America. We encountered John Quincy Adams, the abolitionist president, who nonetheless could not conceal his dismay at Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello; Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth, both obsessed by Shakespeare’s tragic heroes; and most tumultuously of all, we revisited the notorious 2017 production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, when a Donald Trump look-alike in the role of Caesar was assassinated nightly to howls of outrage from the political right.
‘A thrilling book from first page to last. James Shapiro has discovered that Shakespeare is the canary in the coalmine of American history, always the surest guide to the way things are headed.’ – Nicholas Hytner
Speakers are subject to change.