• Shakespeare in a Divided America

  • What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future
  • By: James Shapiro
  • Narrated by: Fred Sanders
  • Length: 9 hrs and 11 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, Americas
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (287 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

One of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

A New York Times Notable Book

From leading scholar James Shapiro, a timely exploration of what Shakespeare's plays reveal about our divided land, from Revolutionary times to the present day.

The plays of William Shakespeare are rare common ground in the United States. They are read at school by almost every student, staged in theaters across the land, and long highly valued by both conservatives and liberals alike. For well over two centuries, Americans of all stripes - presidents and activists, writers and soldiers - have turned to Shakespeare's works to explore the nation's political fault lines, including such issues as manifest destiny, race, gender, immigration, and free speech. 

In a narrative arching across the centuries, from Revolutionary times to the present day, leading scholar James Shapiro traces the unparalleled role of Shakespeare's 400-year-old tragedies and comedies in illuminating the many concerns on which American identity has turned. Reflecting on how Shakespeare has been invoked - and at times weaponized - at pivotal moments in our past, Shapiro takes us from President John Quincy Adams' disgust with Desdemona's interracial marriage to Othello, to Abraham Lincoln's and his assassin John Wilkes Booth's competing obsessions with the plays, up through the fraught debates over marriage and same-sex love at the heart of the celebrated adaptations Kiss Me, Kate and Shakespeare in Love. His narrative culminates in the 2017 controversy over the staging of Julius Caesar in Central Park, in which a Trump-like leader is assassinated.

Deeply researched, and timely, Shakespeare in a Divided America reveals how no writer has been more closely embraced by Americans or has shed more light on the hot-button issues in our history. Indeed, it is by better understanding Shakespeare's role in American life, Shapiro argues, that we might begin to mend our bitterly divided land.

©2020 James Shapiro (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"Shapiro presents eight cases of Shakespeare's impact in a perpetually culture-clashing U.S.... Filling out each chapter with vivid context, Shapiro could hardly be more engaging." (Booklist)

"Impeccably researched, [Shakespeare in a Divided America] focuses on how key figures in American history have experienced Shakespeare.... A thought-provoking, captivating lesson in how literature and history intermingle." (Kirkus Reviews)

"Fascinating [...] Chock-full of approachable and engaging critical analyses, this work will pique the curiosity of both Shakespeareans and anyone interested in American culture." (Library Journal

What listeners say about Shakespeare in a Divided America

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  • Overall
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An Entertaining History Lesson

“Shakespeare in a Divided America” offers American history from an unusual perspective: the reactions of Americans of different classes to Shakespeare. Some of the vignettes are fascinating, like John Quincy Adams’ deep emotional problem with the interracial marriage in Othello or the rabid response of some right-wingers to a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar too closely resembled Donald Trump. Others were surprising, like the murderous riots in New York that reflected a distaste for a condescending British actor. Two chapters focused on Hollywood's tailoring of Shakespeare for popular audiences, namely "Kiss Me Kate" and "Shakespeare in Love." All the chapters were insightful.

I enjoyed the book and learned a lot about class in America, but less about Shakespeare and his plays. I recommend it for those who like well-written, popular American history.

5 people found this helpful

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Outstanding Book

This is an incredible book, a must read. Professor Shapiro sheds light on our society through the lens of Shakespeare in a fascinating and approachable manner.

The reader is excellent. I’ve already recommended this book to many. It’s up for reprinting. The best way to read this is to listen to it because they publisher needs to print more copies!

3 people found this helpful

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Excellent, Shocking

Full of surprises, this book taught me things I never knew about America’s love affair with Shakespeare, while also exposing more I still just can not understand about what’s happening in America today.

1 person found this helpful

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Brilliant and scary

One of the best things I’ve heard on Audible. Illuminating how the current reign of terror by the stupid, racist and gullible is nothing new. It beautifully shows how art as seemingly enduring as Shakespeare is always dynamic, evolving and fragile, subject to the zeitgeist.

1 person found this helpful

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Mixed: good but not but very satisfying

I think this book would have been better if the author had strictly focused on how the Shakespeare plays pertained to the last 3 years of our US history rather than going way back to earlier centuries.

1 person found this helpful

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And the point is?

Narration is well done.

I’m not sure I get the author’s point. Maybe other reviewers do.

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A wealth of information about Shakespeare

This is a fascinating narrative and covers hundreds of years ending with the recent Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar protested by Trump followers. Has a few modern references with deep back stories - the making of Shakespeare in Love film and Monica Lewinsky’ ad in a newspaper w Shakespeare quote directed to Bill Clinton for Valentines Day. This is a great history lesson.

The book is very dense w facts but well written. The narrator is excellent and has a nice pace.

I recommend this on a long road trip when you really have time to listen and absorb it. Not meant for small doses.

Overall loved it!

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Blows you mind

One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. A must read. Great context for where we’ve been and where we’re going.

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    4 out of 5 stars

Lots of American Shakespeare in search of a theme

First of all, the book provides a bounty of information about productions of Shakespeare in America, which in itself is quite interesting and entertaining. The problem is that the author seemingly felt as if he needed a gimmick to tie everything together, hence the "Divided America" conceit. This is only directly addressed in the introduction and final chapter, bookending a particular production of Julius Caesar, which presents the main character as a very familiar, modern political lightning rod. Even then, the theme of both sides of the American political spectrum adopting Shakespeare for its own agenda, is tenuous at best, as the author essentially acknowledges in the recitation of examples of right wing attempts to cancel the apparently "elitist" Shakespeare.

That being said, the rest of the book is chock full of the history of American Shakespeare productions, actors and reviews. The author tries to keep the theme as a touchstone, but beyond the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Shakespeare, and John Wilkes Booth was an actor who played Shakespearean characters on stage, it never gains much purchase. Similarly, the accounts of Shakespeare in Love were interesting Hollywood history, but really never grapple with anything beyond the mores of the times. Namely, an original Stoppard screenplay attempting to be sexually groundbreaking (though even by today's standards it sounds thoroughly overwrought in the attempt), and the cringe-worthiness of Harvey Weinstein in the midst of the sexual politics inside and out of the production. The only divided America really presented is the decent, open-minded side, and the racist, homophobic, misogynistic side. The latter, which we already kind of knew, never really had any time for Shakespeare to begin with.

I vacillated between 3 and 4 stars for this book, as it is not truly great, and it didn't really fulfill its promise. But, as mentioned above, on its on merit it is quite informative, and frankly, the political bent of the author is fairly aligned with my own, and judgments about opposing opinions are fairly, if not entirely objectively, presented. So, I opted for 4.

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A most engaging history

A fascinating history of how Shakespeare has shaped American views and how Americans adopted Shakespeare as our own