Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Shakespeare in America

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Shakespeare in America

Article excerpt

Shakespeare in America. By Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Oxford University Press. 240pp, Pounds 40.00 and Pounds 14.99. ISBN 9780199566389 and 566372. Published 5 April 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". …

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