Red, White and Blue Shakespeare: Was Othello a White Man? Some Patriotic 19th-Century Americans Thought So

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SHAKESPEARE IN AMERICA: AN ANTHOLOGY FROM THE REVOLUTION TO NOW

Edited by James Shapiro. Library of America, 2014. 672 pp. $29.95.

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"SHAKESPEARE BELONGS TO TWO NATIONS now," Willa Cather declared in 1894, and the Library of America's wonderful anthology supports her assertion in rich detail. "A distinctively American response to Shakespeare" began to emerge during the Revolution, notes editor James Shapiro; as the Bard's plays became embedded in the fabric of national life, they served as vehicles for discussion of the nation's thorniest cultural and political issues.

Some overwrought 18th-century poetry suggests that Americans initially thought the best way to claim Shakespeare as their own was simply to demonstrate that they loved W.S. even more than the English did. Visits to his childhood home in Stratford were de rigueur for 19th-century American tourists; their ambivalent reactions to the "small mean looking edifice" are voiced in a charming 1820 essay by Washington Irving and in a ponderously satirical 1903 story by Henry James that seems to go on forever. Shapiro is commendably willing to include lengthy selections, but not all of them deserve the space they occupy.

A scrupulous, anonymous account of the notorious 1849 Astor Place Riot, however, fully merits 42 pages. It offers the most vivid, and the bloodiest, example of Shakespeare being enlisted in American social conflicts. The press touted the rivalry of Shakespearean actors Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest as a contest between English snobbery and American populism; when some 15,000 Forrest supporters protested outside the Astor Place Opera House where Macready was playing Macbeth, the militia fired into the crowd, killing more than 20 people. The pamphlet reprinted here, while deploring mob violence, closes with a reminder that "this mob is but a symptom ... of a society that has permitted thousands of its members to grow up in poverty and ignorance."

Macbeth itself had nothing to do with the riot, but several distasteful 19th-century essays reveal how discomfiting Othello was to a nation consumed by the issue of race. "The passion of Desdemona for Othello is unnatural, solely and exclusively because of his color," concludes staunch anti-slavery activist John Quincy Adams. Confederate sympathizer Mary Preston rationalizes her love for the play by declaring, "Othello was a white man!" It would be another 75 years before America was ready to see Othello played by a black man; an exultant New Masses review from Samuel Sillen of Paul Robeson's 1943 performance proclaims its historic and artistic significance. …