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James Shapiro Urges Us to Reflect Further on Shakespeare (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 21, 2020: James Shapiro (born in 1955) is a distinguished Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University in New York City. His books about William Shakespeare (1564-1616) include A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005), Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015). Shapiro's books about 1599 and 1606 are chock full of circumstantial detail about issues and conflicts in Renaissance England.

One of the most influential byproducts of the English Renaissance in the English-speaking world is the King James Bible (1611). Shakespeare's plays and poetry are also influential byproducts of the English Renaissance.

However, except for learned Shakespeare specialists, most Americans today do not readily understand Shakespeare's carefully packed lines. In live performances of a Shakespeare play, the sheer gusto of the spoken speeches enables audiences to feel like they are following the gist of what is said even if the precision of his carefully packed lines escapes them in the fast pace of the spoken speeches. For the creative precision of Shakespeare's polysemous lines, most American readers would probably need to rely on the annotations provided by the editor(s).

Similarly, most Americans today would probably need to read the annotations in a study Bible edition of the King James Bible (1611) to better understand it early modern English which was remarkable translation into vernacular English in its time, but its English is now dated and needs to be annotated.

In general, Renaissance humanists venerated three ancient languages: (1) Greek, (2) Latin, and (3) Hebrew. Consequently, King James (1566-1625) was able to assemble enough Hebrew experts to English the Hebrew Bible and enough Greek experts to English the New Testament. Latin was a lingua franca in the Renaissance, but Renaissance humanists preferred to emulate the ancient Latin poets and stylists rather than medieval exemplars.

The classic study of Shakespeare's limited formal education is T. W. Baldwin's William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 volumes (1944).

By contrast, the Cambridge University educated English Renaissance poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1608-1674) was fluent not only in Latin and Greek but also in Hebrew.

Now, Shapiro is also the editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (2014), which features a "Foreword" by former President Bill Clinton (born in 1946). Readers will note that Shapiro skips over the American colonies and begins his anthology with the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic as a form of representative democracy.

Certain Founding Fathers were well educated. They were aware of the ancient experiment in limited democracy in Athens and of the Roman Republic, in which Julius Caesar was famously assassinated in 44 BCE by Roman Senators leading ultimately to the emergence of the Roman Empire under Octavian (63 BCE 14 CE; also known as Caesar Augustus). Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar is one of his most famous plays.

In my estimate, the celebration of Shakespeare in America reached a high point when Yale's literary critic Harold Bloom's book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) became a bestseller. In it, Bloom (1930-2019), who styles himself as a free-thinking Jew, advocates bardolatry as the new religion to supplant more widely known religions and their sacred scriptures with Shakespeare as the idol and his plays and poetry as bardolatry's sacred scripture. Perhaps Bloom imagines himself as a founding figure of a new religion the equivalent to Moses and Jesus and Mohammed, eh?

In any event, Shapiro's new 2020 book Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us about Our Past and Future includes an "Introduction" (pages ix-xxx), seven chapters (pages 1-198), each one focused on a single year (1833, 1845, 1849, 1865, 1916, and 1998) and a single topic (Miscegenation, Manifest Destiny, Class Warfare, Assassination, Immigration, Marriage, and, then, Adultery and Same-Sex Marriage, respectively), and a "Conclusion" (pages 202-221). The book includes a very informative "Bibliographic Essay" (pages 225-270) and an "Index" (pages 273-286).

In Shapiro's "Introduction," he discusses the controversial 2017 production of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, orchestrated by Oskar Eustis (born in 1958), in New York City, and in the "Conclusion," Shapiro continues his discussion of that controversial production. He served as a consultant on the production, helping the actors better understand their lines in Shakespeare's play.

In Shapiro's "Introduction," he says, "How Shakespeare won over America in the early nineteenth century is something of a mystery" (page x). According to Shapiro, "the strain of puritanism entrenched in the northern colonies was rabidly anti-theatrical" (page x). He also says, "It helped that in a Bible-obsessed nation, Shakespeare's language sounded so similar to that of the King James Version (1611)" (page x).

Shapiro says, in summary, "Yet much of the mystery of 'Why has America embraced Shakespeare?' remains unsolved. All one can safely say is that Shakespeare took root in the United States [after the American Revolution] because he spoke to what Americans cared about. But his plays were not interpreted by everyone in the same ways" (page xi; my bracketed insertion) as he shows in circumstantial detail in his seven chapters.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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