Commentary Magazine

American Bard

Even as the Bible is America’s bestselling book, year in and year out, so is William Shakespeare, 450 years after his birth in Stratford-upon-Avon, this country’s most frequently performed playwright. The hundreds of American theater companies belonging to the Theatre Communications Group, a national organization of nonprofit professional theaters, report that they have produced plays by Shakespeare 1,948 times since 1998—versus 224 productions of plays by August Wilson, 214 by George Bernard Shaw, 210 by Tennessee Williams, and 172 by Arthur Miller.

The American love of the Bard goes back to America’s earliest days. “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America. What is at least as noteworthy, though, is that this love has endured without evident diminishment into a time when the dismissive stereotype of the “dead white male” increasingly dominates intellectual discourse on literature and the other fine arts. When Dana Gioia sought to rebuild the damaged reputation of the National Endowment for the Arts once he was appointed its chairman in 2003, one of his first initiatives was to launch a national program called “Shakespeare in American Communities.” It eventually presented more than 5,000 Shakespeare performances in all 50 states. Ten years later, five Shakespeare plays were mounted on Broadway, the most to be produced there in a single year since the 1950s. Undeniably true though it is that Shakespeare is a dead white male, he is—at least as far as American theater is concerned—more alive than ever.

The Library of America has chosen to commemorate his 450th birthday by publishing Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, a substantial compilation of essays, articles, reviews, poems, and letters whose title accurately describes its contents. Edited by James Shapiro, of Columbia University, the volume is no more free from flaw than any other book of its kind. In addition to an anodyne two-page preface by one William Jefferson Clinton, whose passion for the fine arts is not widely documented, it contains several pieces whose interest is mainly antiquarian, as well as some other pieces whose presence can be justified only by the desire to be fashionably “inclusive” that explains the existence of Library of America volumes devoted to the poems of Jack Kerouac and the science fiction of Philip K. Dick.

But for the most part, Shakespeare in America is a soundly chosen, thoroughly readable collection. Some of its contents, such as Cole Porter’s lyric for “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” are familiar. Others are real finds, among them a previously uncollected article in Saturday Review by the underrated film critic Hollis Alpert, writing about Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 screen version of Julius Caesar. Taken together, they go a long way toward answering the question implied in Shapiro’s pithy introduction: Why does Shakespeare continue to be more widely read than, say, Mark Twain or Robert Frost—or Arthur Miller? And of all the imaginative writers working in the English language, how did he become the only one in any genre to achieve something close to true ubiquity in a country whose citizens mostly prefer pop culture (or none at all) to high art?

Shapiro points to part of the answer when he observes that

the history of Shakespeare in America is also a history of America itself…expressed through two-and-a-half centuries of essays, parodies, burlesques, poems, speeches, short stories, letters, musicals, novels, reviews, films, and staged performances. These works, by some of the most creative minds in America, explore the cultural fault lines that have always existed just below the surface of our national conversations.

To put it another way, Shakespeare is popular in America because Americans are in the habit of using his plays as vehicles for their own preoccupations, political and otherwise, a practice of long standing facilitated by the “conceptual” stagings of Shakespeare that are now the norm in the English-speaking world. Among the many productions of King Lear that I have reviewed in the past decade are a Mesopotamian Lear, a 17th-century Lear, an uncategorizably silly Lear set in what looked like the stairwell of a modern-art museum, and a hyper-politicized parable of late capitalism whose opening scene unfolded in a men’s room with a flushable urinal.

As Shakespeare in America reminds us, all these stagings, good and bad alike, descend from the 20th century’s two most influential Shakespeare productions, both conceived and directed by Orson Welles. His “voodoo Macbeth” of 1936 relocated the play to 19th-century Haiti, and the modern-dress Julius Caesar he mounted for the Mercury Theatre the following year turned it into a parable of European Fascism. These stagings, which are so historically significant that Shapiro has devoted two selections to them, were controversial in the ’30s, not merely among conservative traditionalists but to such avowed iconoclasts as Mary McCarthy, who wrote testily of them in her Partisan Review drama column: “Mr. Welles has the idea that an Elizabethan play is a liability which only by the most strenuous showmanship, by cutting, doctoring and modernizing, can be converted into an asset. Mr. Welles’s method is to find a modern formula into which a classic can somehow be squeezed.”

What McCarthy could not have foreseen was that Welles’s radically heterodox method of Shakespearean production would become today’s theatrical orthodoxy. Indeed, the Wellesian approach to Shakespeare is now so universally accepted that the Onion published a “news” story in 2007 (not included, alas, in Shakespeare in America) whose ironic stop-the-presses headline was “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Nor is the acceptance of gussied-up Shakespeare a mere display of fashion: Some of the most imaginatively vital Shakespeare stagings of our time have been conceptual productions. An especially noteworthy case in point was Rupert Goole’s 2008 Broadway production of Macbeth, a purposefully prosy updating of Shakespeare’s tragedy in which the action was transplanted from ancient Scotland to the Soviet Union in the darkest days of the Great Terror.

Other such stagings, to be sure, mangle the plays whose texts they purport to illuminate. To use Henry V as a stick with which to beat George W. Bush, as Mark Wing-Davey did in his crudely reductive 2003 Shakespeare in the Park production—a modern-dress slapstick comedy in which Liev Schreiber played King Henry as a media-savvy politician surrounded by manipulative bureaucrats in suits—is to misunderstand the purpose of great art. Still, the fact that such distortions are possible is itself a perverse tribute to Shakespeare’s protean gifts.

What is it about his plays that enables such wildly varied interpretations? Save in certain of the history plays, he avoided explicit didacticism, thus making it all but impossible for his commentators and interpreters to state definitively what his plays “mean.” Hence it was perfectly possible for John Quincy Adams, a politician with an impeccable record of opposition to slavery, to write an essay called “The Character in Desdemona” in which he firmly asserted that the “moral” of Othello is that “the intermarriage of black and white blood is a violation of the law of nature.”

It helps, too, that we know nothing about Shakespeare’s character, and very little about the facts of his day-to-day life. Was he Catholic? Was he homosexual? Was he someone else, someone richer or better educated or higher born than the shadowy man from Stratford? The answer to the last question is incontestably a resounding no, but beyond that lies impenetrable puzzlement.

The paradoxical possibility suggests itself that one reason why Shakespeare is so central to American culture is because we know so little about him. In the absence of biographical data, we are forced to fill in the blanks with speculation—and so the Shakespeare of our imagination can expand to fill the space we need him to fill. Who has not at one time or another heard one of his characters speak lines that sum up our own lives with eerie precision? Might the near-anonymity of the author who wrote those lines make it easier for us to apply them to ourselves?

Perhaps, but it is even more to the point that Shakespeare’s plays consistently engage with the fundamental themes of life on an almost archetypical level, embodying them in sharply drawn yet universalized characters whose distinctive traits provide actors and directors with ample opportunity for interpretative innovation. And in the wake of the revival of Elizabethan open-stage production techniques inspired by the immense popularity of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), which disposed of the trappings of “realistic” drama and was specifically written for performance on an empty stage, his plays can now be mounted both more effectively and less expensively—even outdoors, in the simplest of settings.

Shakespeare’s body of work, moreover, is large and of consistently high literary quality. Other playwrights have been comparably prolific, George Bernard Shaw in particular, but none has written as many plays that are at once so richly poetic and so wide-ranging in subject matter and tone. Hence the emergence of the Shakespearean “brand” common to most of America’s summer theater festivals, a Good Housekeeping–type seal of prospective approval so universally recognized that even year-round companies that long ago diversified their programming to encompass the work of other playwrights, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington D.C., continue to cling faithfully to it.

Whatever the ultimate reasons for the continuing popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no reason to suppose that they will fade from the American cultural landscape any time soon. They suit our temper—never more so than in times of trial.

Among the most prescient pieces in Shakespeare in America is a 1947 essay by the actor-producer Maurice Evans about the abridged “G.I. Hamlet” he mounted and performed for American combat troops in World War II. What struck Evans most forcibly was the way in which his wartime audiences had identified with Hamlet and his existential dilemma:

I was somewhat startled by a G.I. at one performance who could not refrain from commenting on a line in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy: I had reached the point where Hamlet exclaims, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” when a voice, clearly audible to me on the stage, remarked, “Boy, you ain’t kiddin’!”

Evans’s essay reminds us how fully Shakespeare’s plays inhabit the American national character. Just as we are all Gatsbys who endeavor to remake ourselves at will, so do we remake Hamlet and Macbeth in our own images. Thus it is that generation upon generation of Americans can continue to see themselves in the transcendent mirror that Shakespeare held up to nature and to humankind.

About the Author

Terry Teachout,  Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the winner of one of this year’s Bradley Prizes. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, opened off Broadway in March. 

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