David Mikics

The Star-Spangled Bard

Shakespeare in a Divided America

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‘This Shakespeare is really somethin’,’ growled Jerry Lee Lewis after playing Iago in Catch My Soul, a 1968 musical adaptation of Othello. Americans have generally agreed with the Killer (whose performance, by the way, got rave notices: the Toronto Daily Star found him ‘genuinely diabolical’). Shakespeare has been wildly popular in America for a long time. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that there ‘is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare’. In 19th-century America, travelling actors wowed audiences of miners, cattle hands and other common folk with speeches from Richard III and Hamlet. Hollywood comedies of the 1930s and 1940s show men and women battling with an iconoclastic wit and loving contention clearly picked up from Shakespeare. When Rosalind in As You Like It skewers the lovesick Orlando with the line ‘Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love,’ she prefigures the smart-mouthed dames of screwball comedy.

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