Renowned Shakespeare critic James Shapiro came to Hopkins on Thursday, April 11 to deliver an outstanding Turnbull lecture he called “Lincoln, Booth, Shakespeare.” He read for the first time an extract from his latest, yet to be released novel, Shakespeare in a Divided America.
This was the 113th lecture in the historical Turnbull series held by the Writing Seminars. The series that began in 1891 has been graced by lecturers the likes of T.S. Eliot, Richard Wilbur, Robert Frost and more recently, Tracy K. Smith and Terrance Hayes. James Shapiro adds another prestigious name to this list.
Shapiro, who is currently a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, is one of the most well-known contemporary Shakespearean scholars. He is the author of many books on Shakespeare and the Early Modern period, including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (which took him a whopping fifteen years to write), Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. In his lecture, Shapiro said that he hopes his work will be something that helps Shakespeare’s beautiful writing reach everyone, and that he wants to make sure that his writing can be understood by everyone so no one has to “feel stupid” while reading Shakespeare, as he once did.
In his next book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, which will be released in March 2020, Shapiro discusses the universal relevance and people’s love for Shakespeare which transcends identity and political ideology — two of the most divisive forces in America.
As a prelude to his reading, Shapiro discussed how the book rests on the idea that people have always looked to Shakespeare when taking stock of the state of America.
“[The book] presumes that from revolutionary times until today, Americans have turned to Shakespeare’s words to make sense of where we are as a nation, give voice to what we otherwise struggle to articulate and to confront those issues, whether they are race, immigration, marriage, same sex love, that continue to divide us,” he said.
He prepared the audience for a Macbethian tale of assassination, civil strife, horror and guilt. He delivered exactly that in a passage that explored the obsession of the bard that Abraham Lincoln shared with his assassin John Wilkes Booth.
The chapter was undeniably well-researched and began with an account of Booth’s final days after he assassinated Lincoln. When he was caught, there was a scathing letter in his pocket that was addressed to the doctor who refused to treat him because he was on the run.
At the end of the letter, Booth wrote a long passage from Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth admonished Macbeth for his lack of hospitality.
After Shapiro recited the dense passage he said that it was perhaps one of the most difficult passages by Shakespeare and admitted that even as he was reading it now, he still found it perplexing (which made me feel much better about losing track after the first sentence). But the fact the Booth knew this passage, and by heart too, was the first piece of evidence in the large body of proof with regards to his fascination with Shakespeare.
Even more striking, Shapiro explained, was the subconscious guilt that was hidden in how Booth chose a passage that was meant to reprimand Macbeth, another assassin. However, it seems like Booth viewed himself more as Brutus (from Julius Caesar) who rid the country of a tyrant, which is why he yelled his famous line “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”) after killing Lincoln, rather than quoting Macbeth, who killed a king for ambition.
Despite this, Booth, who was a stage actor along with his two brothers Edwin Booth and Junius Brutus Booth, loved playing the role of Macbeth in plays and, apparently was quite a “physical,” aggressive Macbeth. Ironically, Lincoln saw Booth play the part of Macbeth long before Booth killed him.
Shapiro then shifted the spotlight to Lincoln, who, despite his lack of formal schooling, became entranced by Shakespeare through his stepmother’s copy of a Shakespearean anthology whose passages he repeatedly read. One such passage was Claudius’ speech from Hamlet in which he is wracked with guilt, having killed his brother and married his widow. Lincoln believed Claudius’ monologue to be much better than Hamlet’s in the play and was not shy about expressing this opinion to anyone.
Other favorites of his included Julius Caesar, King Lear, Richard III and King John. It seems that stories about leaders who suffered from the tragedies that came with their power, spoke most deeply to the president. Shapiro recounted an emotional incident that showed his deep love of Shakespeare. On his visit to Fort Monroe, Lincoln borrowed a copy of Shakespeare’s works from an officer and read it aloud. He read passages from many plays, but the officer recalled one passage most vividly.
Lincoln, who was mourning the loss of a son, read one of Constance’s monologues from King John, in which she mourns the loss of her son. “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,” the line read.
Shapiro continued to give instances of the love Booth and Lincoln shared for Shakespeare and the theatre and told their stories through this. He described how, because of Booth’s upbringing, he was closely tied to theatre and believed that his character had been influenced by the many plays he had read and performed. He also became obsessed with the delusional idea that he had to be the Brutus to Lincoln’s Caesar.
At the end of the passage from his book, Shapiro spoke about America’s reaction to Lincoln’s death. After his death, the country grieved him with Shakespeare’s words from Macbeth where Duncan, the king murdered by Macbeth was mourned: “His virtues, will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against the deep Damnation of his taking off.” America did not see him as the tyrannical ruler Booth saw him as; instead they remembered him as the kind King Duncan who was lost too soon.
The beautifully written and enlightening chapter from the book held my attention the entire time Shapiro read from it. Keyi Yin, a sophomore international student at Hopkins, commented that the reading helped her understanding of the history of America.
“I found the reading very insightful and valuable, especially since I am only versed in the very basics of American history. Seeing Shakespeare and his influence being seen through it is very fascinating,” she said.