Shakespeare in America

June 28, 2012

At the time of writing, Shakespeare's Globe is staging his oeuvre in a variety of languages including King John in Armenian, Hamlet in Lithuanian and Troilus and Cressida in Maori. There is also a Love's Labour's Lost in British Sign Language and an adaptation of Venus and Adonis in no fewer than six African languages. The season culminates in that quintessentially English play, Henry V - in English. The US offering, from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a hip-hop "reinterpretation" of Othello entitled Othello: The Remix - way to go, bro!

In their account of the origins, dissemination and current condition of Shakespeare in America, Alden Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan show how, across the Atlantic, the playwright represented an awkward mixture of residual Englishness and cultural capital. On the one hand, his ties to colonial England polluted his influence on a brave new world eager to fashion itself as an independent nation. On the other, familiarity with the works of history's greatest writer was thought to confer educational and cultural benefits: as the authors observe, "Americans still believe that reading Shakespeare is good for you." Othello: The Remix typifies the two strategies by which the US attempts to appropriate the Bard - through parody, and by explicitly addressing "America's most problematic conflict, race".

Vaughan and Vaughan discuss a number of Shakespearean travesties: a scornful quip current in 1770, for instance, predates the War of Independence and concisely articulates the tensions between incipient America and its colonial master: "Old Shakespeare, a poet who should not be spit on,/Although he was born in an island called Britain". The authors show how iconoclastic Shakespeare animates the works' semi-detached incarnations. The 20th century gave us the musicals The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and West Side Story (1957), while a series of cinematic and television offshoots include Forbidden Planet (1956) and a version of Hamlet (1990) specifically designed to knock "the Prince off his British pedestal".

But the hip-hop Othello also exemplifies the manner in which transatlantic Shakespeare is inseparable from the playwright's "participation in America's ongoing interrogation of its racial heritage". Vaughan and Vaughan detail the rise of multicultural Shakespeare, from the opening in 1821 of the first black-owned theatre through to the emergence of a distinguished group of black actors including Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne. While Joseph Papp's Central Park productions championed so-called "colorblind casting", this has not always been met with equanimity. August Wilson labelled it "an aberrant idea (and) a tool of the Cultural Imperialists".

Alongside these engaging accounts of Uncle Sam's Bard, Vaughan and Vaughan chart the professionalisation of Shakespearean scholarship in the US. Given the industrial scale of US academic work on Shakespeare, it is extraordinary to find its origins in amateurism. Horace Howard Furness was an autodidact "who quit his law practice to edit Shakespeare as a full-time occupation". In the 1890s, Furness met Henry Clay Folger, a New York-based executive of Standard Oil, who, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, had developed an enthusiasm for the plays that led to his endowment of a world centre for Shakespeare scholarship, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, which opened in 1932. The concentration of so many early modern books in one place facilitated the work that led to such milestones as Charlton K. Hinman's magisterial The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963) and S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives (1970).

As the longevity of the Shakespeare Association of America (whose roots go back to 1932) illustrates, there is nothing marginal about contemporary US Shakespeare. The British Shakespeare Association, by embarrassing contrast, has just celebrated its 10th birthday - we've got some catching up to do.

Shakespeare in America

By Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Oxford University Press. 240pp, £40.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780199566389 and 566372. Published 5 April 2012

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