Interview | James Shapiro on cinematic storytelling and ‘Shakespeare in a Divided America’

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Image credit: Mary Cregan

James Riding


James Shapiro on cinematic storytelling and Shakespeare in a Divided America


James Shapiro is Professor of English at Columbia University in New York and serves on the Board of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize; 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? His latest book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, was published in March by Faber.

I spoke to James about how he turns his research into an engrossing narrative, his working with actors on live performances, and the importance of joint ownership of Shakespeare by both sides of the political divide.

What sparked your love of Shakespeare?

My first exposure to Shakespeare wasn’t until the age of fourteen, at high school in Brooklyn. We were assigned Romeo and Juliet and set off on what felt to me like a ‘death march’ through the play. I hated it, didn’t even get the dirty bits my classmates sniggered at, and swore I’d never study Shakespeare again. I never did at university. What changed everything for me was seeing the plays performed. In my late teens in the 1970s my brother and I backpacked through Europe and ended up in London. The cheapest entertainment we could find was theatre: students could see a play for 50 pence. It was like a drug, and it was addictive. For the next six or seven years I’d hold down some crummy summer job, then quit and fly to London in August and see 25 or so plays in as many days at the Aldwych, the National Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Royal Court. I must have seen close to 200 Shakespeare productions by my early twenties. The quality of acting and directing was exceptional, the tickets cheap, and I was young, so the plays just hit me hard. It feels like yesterday when I saw Jonathan Pryce as Hamlet and Harriet Walter as Ophelia in Richard Eyre’s unforgettable 1980 production.

Your books combine wide-ranging historical scholarship with close reading of Shakespeare’s plays and compelling, cinematic storytelling. How did you develop this multi-layered approach?

I had no master plan when I started writing popular books; I just wanted to tell a story that was accurate, consequential, suspenseful, visually rich, and as close to a page-turner as possible. My style really developed in rebellion against academic writing. In a lot of ways, my books are acts of translation, turning reams of invaluable but dry scholarship into stories that engage an informed and curious reading public.

Tell us more about your writing process. How do you balance the different strands of your work and, in particular, craft such a gripping narrative?

I wouldn’t recommend my writing process to anyone. For one thing, spending a decade or longer researching and writing a book isn’t feasible for anyone who doesn’t have a salaried day job, nor will it work for academics who have to rush out a book every four years or so in order to ensure their departments retain a high national rating. For me, the key to writing well about the past is long and sustained immersion. Since I work on pivotal historical moments, the first stage of research is constructing a chronology, as rich and detailed as possible. When writing about Shakespeare’s world in 1599 and then in 1606 I also read everything published in those years. That takes a long time.

The next and crucial stage in my writing process is finding scenes that are cinematic—such as the one with which 1599 begins: the dismantling of the Theatre in Shoreditch during a freezing Christmas week, to be reassembled as the Globe across the Thames the following spring. To tell that story effectively I needed to know who was there, what the weather was like, what things cost, why oak beams were so expensive, how builders dealt with frost heave, that sort of stuff. That means digging deeply, relying on everything from almanacs to court cases to speaking with masons and carpenters. It takes patience. You can’t make stuff up or your authority quickly drains away.

At that point I try to turn what I’ve learned into 6,000-word chapters—longer than that and I worry that readers begin to lose interest—and that takes perhaps a dozen drafts. Then I’ll ask my wife—a talented writer and very sharp critic—to give it a read-through, before sharing the revised draft with a handful of loyal friends who have been exchanging work since we were in our twenties. After they beat up on it, I then show it to a couple of frenemies who I know will relish the chance to expose every flaw. I ask them to be brutal and they invariably are. One rule I have always followed is to look at my final word count and then cut 10% of what I had written. It’s painful, but there’s a lot of self-indulgence in much non-fiction writing, and I’m not immune to it. At this late stage I share my manuscript with my editors. I’ve been blessed with extraordinary editors at Faber—first Julian Loose and now Alex Bowler. They never line-edited my work, respecting my prose style. But each has a gift for asking crucial questions that have forced me to raise my game in a final draft.

How do you find new ways to write about Shakespeare?

The best answer to that is that I’m only partly writing about Shakespeare—and I never truly know what one of my books is really about until well after it has been published. 1599 turned out to have been as much about Ireland and the roots of its unresolved troubles. 1606 was also about the fault-lines of the British Union. And Contested Will—ostensibly about the so-called authorship controversy—was ultimately about the rise of pernicious conspiracy thinking. So I don’t really find new ways to write about Shakespeare. It’s the other way around: Shakespeare helps me grapple with cultural forces I am only dimly aware of, such those that led to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Writing Shakespeare in a Divided America enabled me to see how he had tapped into darker forces that had been there all along—in American attitudes towards race, immigration, and gender in particular.

Which authors have most directly influenced your writing? Have you taken inspiration from any authors outside the non-fiction section?

In my early twenties I became an avid reader of the London Review of Books, where I encountered the work of such dazzling essayists as Lorna Sage, Jenny Diski, and Colm Tóibín. Their distinctive voices had a profound impact on my writing style. I stole what I could. In terms of historical narrative, Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties—especially his chapters on General Wolfe—was eye-opening, and showed that historians could write like novelists. I care about writing not only on the level of structure and sentence but also on the level of individual words. For that, I’m indebted most of all to the poetry of Paul Muldoon. I could happily have written a book about the word “equivocation”—though kept it to a chapter in 1606.

What were the challenges that came with the change in focus to Shakespeare’s afterlife in your latest book, Shakespeare in a Divided America? Was it easier or harder than writing about his life?

Both easier and harder. It’s a lot less time-consuming doing research on the nineteenth century than it is on the sixteenth, for one thing, since so much archival material is online, including historical newspapers. And much of the groundwork had already been done. Researching how Shakespeare informed the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and of his assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, is a lot easier when you can consult reference books that set out their lives—what they read, where they were, what plays Booth acted in or Lincoln saw—day by day.

Yet my book on Shakespeare in America proved challenging in unexpected ways. After spending a quarter century on Shakespeare’s life in London I had come to know my way around the key archives. Getting a similar grip on the American past was daunting. I had never studied it, and writing what amounted to an alternative history of my own country meant immersing myself in what had been told as well as seeking out what had been overlooked. I still clung to my old habit of focusing on specific years, though this time around it was eight decisive years over the course of two centuries. And soon enough, each of those chapters began to balloon, as each wanted to be a book in its own right. So there was a lot of ruthless cutting.

In the book, you describe the media response to a controversial production of Julius Caesar and write that you ‘began to fear’ some of the more reactionary critics were ‘now willing to abandon Shakespeare as irredeemably elitist.’ Should we be worried about this? Is it wishful thinking to believe that Shakespeare, in Coriolanus’s words, ‘shall be loved when I am lack’d’?

This is more of an American problem than a British one. For one thing, there’s a much healthier reviewing culture in the UK, across the political spectrum, and of course Shakespeare is required in British schools. What I discovered in the right-wing reaction to that production in America was that the days of conservative critics like William F. Buckley, or before him, Henry Cabot Lodge, were all but over; the right was now increasingly dominated by anti-intellectual voices who see little value in the arts. I do think that the pendulum will at some point swing back, but for now it’s the left in America that understands how best to mobilise Shakespeare (whose work, over the centuries, has been weaponised by both conservatives and liberals). Joint ownership of Shakespeare—one of the last sites of common ground in a divided America—is a necessary thing.

As well as writing about and teaching Shakespeare, you are frequently involved in performances of the plays (most recently as the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York). How has your involvement in live productions informed your understanding of the plays—and the man?

If you’ve lectured on Shakespeare for decades, you begin to believe you know what the plays are about. But it’s not until you unpack a play—every line, every silence, every stage direction—with a director and a group of actors in a rehearsal room that you come to understand how much you never grasped. I was very fortunate to have been invited by Michael Boyd to start doing ‘table work’ with the RSC a decade or so ago, and for the past eight years have advised productions at New York’s Public Theater, which stages free Shakespeare in Central Park every summer and takes a pair of 90-minute versions of the plays to prisons and community centres in the New York area. I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything new about Shakespeare the man from all this—he remains mysterious and elusive—but the experience of working with actors has deepened my appreciation for things that you miss or undervalue in the study or classroom: timing, pace, rhythm, silence, conflict, urgency, topicality. It has been a humbling experience; I can’t act, have difficulty memorising lines, and have no desire to direct, but watching talented actors turn a script into a story is a magical experience, one that I hope has made me a better writer and teacher.

You’ve mentioned before that King James gave Shakespeare’s acting company a bailout when plague struck. What help would you like to see being given to the arts community at this time?

Back in March, when Covid-19 closed the theaters, I was often asked about Shakespeare and plague, a topic I had researched extensively. And I pointed out in a number of interviews that Shakespeare’s Company, the King’s Men, received four ‘gifts’ from King James during outbreaks of plague that helped them survive and thrive in difficult times. So I was enormously cheered to learn of late that the British government is going to provide £1.57 billion in gifts and loans to theatres, museums, and other cultural institutions. Shakespeare would have approved, for the first pandemic he experienced as a playwright—when plague closed the playhouses for nearly two years from 1592-1594 and imperiled his playwriting career—had seen London’s theatre crippled, with several leading theatre companies folding. Even with the government’s largesse, the arts in the UK today are still endangered, especially smaller companies. And no such political wisdom is being shown by the US Congress or President Trump on this side of the Atlantic. Unless that changes, the long-term damage to the arts and culture in America, I fear, will be enormous.

Interview by James Riding.

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James Shapiro is Professor of English at Columbia University in New York. His books include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

His latest book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, was published in March. To find out more and buy a copy, visit Faber’s website

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