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Shakespeare in a Divided America

James Shapiro

From the author of 1599, a fresh perspective on the history of the United States – and a timely reminder of Shakespeare’s indelible influence.

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From the author of 1599, a fresh perspective on the history of the United States – and a timely reminder of Shakespeare’s indelible influence.


One of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2020

Shakespeare’s position as England’s national poet is established and unquestionable.

But as James Shapiro illuminates in this revelatory new history, Shakespeare has long held an essential place in American culture. Why, though, would a proudly independent republic embrace England’s greatest writer? Especially when his works enact so many of America’s darkest nightmares: interracial marriage, cross-dressing, same-sex love, tyranny, and assassination?

Investigating a selection of defining moments in American history – drilling into issues of race, miscegenation, gender, patriotism and immigration; encountering Presidents, activists, writers and actors – Shapiro leads us to fascinating answers and uncovers rich and startling stories.

But perhaps most pressingly, we learn how, in Trump’s America, the staging of his work has provoked threats of violence and has become a battleground for freedom of speech.

‘With the lightest touch and the most formidable scholarship, James Shapiro, once again, proves himself to be an irresistible storyteller. And what an exhilarating and disturbing tale he has to tell. Here is proof that Shakespeare’s power remains undiminished in our divided world.’
Simon Russell Beale

Critic Reviews

Just when you thought you had read every angle, along comes James Shapiro and mines his deep knowledge of Shakespeare to apply it to Trump's America with devastating effect. A fantastically readable meditation on humanity's eternal verities.

Sue Prideaux
Critic Reviews

A thrilling book from first page to last. James Shapiro has discovered that Shakespeare is the canary in the coalmine of American history, always the surest guide to the way things are headed.

Nicholas Hytner
Critic Reviews

James Shapiro excels at bringing Shakespeare’s works and worlds to life for our time. Now, in this fascinating book, he ingeniously explores how unending disagreements over the plays illuminate our national past as well as the present. Selecting powerful stories where history and literature meet, he spares his readers none of America’s violent passions—or Shakespeare’s.

Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
Critic Reviews

Impeccably researched, the book focuses on how key figures in American history have experienced Shakespeare... A thought-provoking, captivating lesson in how literature and history intermingle.

Critic Reviews

Richly detailed…Shapiro’s wit and well-sourced anecdotes enliven his incisive analysis of more than a century’s worth of American history. Written with broad appeal and expert insight, this sparkling account deserves to be widely read.

Publisher's Weekly (starred)

James Shapiro, who teaches English at Columbia University in New York, is author of several books, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (winner of the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006), as well as Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? He also serves on the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company

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