Andrew H. Miller speaks with author and Columbia Professor James Shapiro

Andrew H. Miller interviews James Shapiro for Columbia Journal. James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985, and his full biography is below. He will speak with Professor Lis Harris for the Nonfiction Dialogues series on November 2nd, 2016. The event is hosted by the graduate writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is open to the public.


Andrew H. Miller:
Who is your favorite author?

James Shapiro:
Shakespeare.

AM:
In your single-spaced biography, the list of your lectures, awards, appointments, publications, affiliations, and fellowships goes on for over seven pages. Have you earned an award outside of your literary profession and outside of academia for which you are very proud?

JS:
While winning is always better than losing, I’ve been on awards committees and I’ve won awards, so know enough about the process to understand that the best and edgiest work is often overlooked or undervalued.  I tend to be most proud of the things that don’t show up on a CV, such as working with elementary school kids on a production of Romeo and Juliet or Antigone. The last time I won an award for something outside of academia was a very long time ago—in the 1970s, when I fenced competitively.

The last time I won an award for something outside of academia was a very long time ago—in the 1970s, when I fenced competitively.

AM:
Shakespeare’s popular and colloquial nicknames include The Bard, The Bard of Avon, the Sweet Swan of Avon, An Upstart Crow, The Immortal Bard, and even “Bill” Shakespeare. Do you have any personal nicknames for him?

JS:
God, I hate it when I read of the “Bard.”  I don’t ever use nicknames, don’t like their false intimacy, their self-satisfied chumminess.  Just use his name: Shakespeare, or William Shakespeare.

I don’t ever use nicknames,

AM:
In The Year of Lear, you show how the writing of three of Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra were influenced by current events in England at the time. As you wrote in Year of Lear, there were no newspapers then. Now we live in a 24-hour (or 12-hour, depending on who you ask) news cycle. Do current events affect the creation of great works of art in the same way as they did in 1606? If so, how?

JS:
Shakespeare wrote of the ‘form and pressure” of the times, and other great playwrights–from Aristophanes to Lin-Manuel Miranda—have understood that as well.  As tough as it is recreating Shakespeare’s world from the few surviving shards of information—at a time when people didn’t keep diaries and there weren’t newspapers—I would imagine that it is far tougher to do so today given the explosion of data and news and gossip. But that is the challenge facing any cultural history: gathering the evidence and trying to get the story of the past (or present) right.

Shakespeare wrote of the ‘form and pressure” of the times, and other great playwrights–from Aristophanes to Lin-Manuel Miranda—have understood that as well.

AM:
Interpretations and judgments of Shakespeare’s work and his identity as an artist have changed over the centuries. Scientific advancements have even facilitated a better understanding of him by examining artifacts from his life. In the future, we might learn even more about his life in the same manner. If you, knowing what you already do, could discover one additional thing about Shakespeare (or ask one question and be assured of the answer’s veracity), what would it be?

JS:
Those who imagine there are no longer discoveries to be made about Shakespeare haven’t been paying attention. Just this year Heather Wolfe, an archivist at the Fogler Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, traced a new trail of allusions to Shakespeare in the College of Arms in Great Britain.  And archeologists are currently at work unearthing the remains of the Curtain Theatre, where Romeo and Juliet was likely first staged. So we are learning fresh things about Shakespeare and his world all the time.   If I could discover one Shakespearean artifact, it would be an early draft of one of his plays—since none of a complete play survive. Did he revise? How often did he change his mind?  It would be fascinating to know more about what his writing process was like.

If I could discover one Shakespearean artifact, it would be an early draft of one of his plays

AM:
How do you believe the comparative aesthetic experiences of reading versus attending a performance differs with Shakespeare’s works compared to other great playwrights and artists? In other words, does the leap from the page to the stage look different for Shakespeare?

JS:
Shakespeare wrote to be performed. Had he been interested in seeing his works read he would—like his rival Ben Jonson—have spent a lot more time and energy seeing his works into print.  Had the First Folio of his works not been published in 1623, seven years after his death, half of his plays might well have been lost to us, including Macbeth and The Tempest.   While the plays are rewarding to read, they are more meaningful in performance, where they come alive before audiences, speaking to a new generation’s aspirations and concerns.  As for comparing Shakespeare’s plays with those of other artists: it is just a shame that we don’t get to see enough of the works of John Webster or Thomas Middleton staged; only then would such a comparison become possible.

AM:
What will your next book be about?

JS:
I don’t know yet.  I try not to chase book ideas, but let them come to me.  The only books worth writing (or reading) are those that possess the writer.  You can’t force that.

 

Book cover, The Year of Lear

James Shapiro’s latest book

AM:
Which neighborhood of New York City do you think Shakespeare prefer to live in today, and why?

JS:
Brooklyn, of course.  If you looked at where Shakespeare lived in London you’ll see that they were places where artists—not just actors and playwrights but musicians and artisans—lived.  Manhattan was like that until the 1980s, but is now prohibitively expensive. Brooklyn may be getting that way too, but it remains a place where, if you throw a rock, you are likely to hit a writer. I suspect that Shakespeare would have found Brooklyn close enough to the kind of community he apparently sought out in Elizabethan London.

AM: Which neighborhood of New York City do you think Shakespeare prefer to live in today, and why?
JS: Brooklyn, of course.

AM:
What is, in your opinion, the most disastrous attempt – at any point in history, or today – to criticize the virtues Shakespeare’s of work or to excise his work from its place in Western literary canon?

JS:
I think the opposite danger is greater: mandating his works.  Every few years some right-wing organization comes out with a report claiming that Shakespeare isn’t required in colleges—but ought to be.   I hated Shakespeare in high school and never took a Shakespeare course in college (I went to Columbia as an undergrad).  I would have resented being forced to study his works.  My own connection to (and love of) his plays came through seeing them in the theater.  Forcing Shakespeare on young people is a foolish idea, especially when done poorly, for it threatens to turn them off to his works for the rest of their lives.

AM:
Can you discuss ways that Shakespeare’s work fails to inform or support our contemporary understanding of gender equality and marriage equality, and ways that it succeeds

JS:
Shakespeare’s plays—especially in performance—illuminate many of the questions about gender and sexuality that continue to preoccupy us today—from cross-dressing and the performance of gender to strained relationships, bed-tricks, and sexual assault.  And, in performance, they raise the question of who gets to speak Shakespeare’s words (not only in gender-blind casting of minor roles, but increasingly, who gets to play King Lear or Prospero).

AM:
If you attempted to draw an arc by plotting the themes and strengths of Shakespeare’s life’s work, where do you imagine that arc would lead if he had lived into his 60’s, 70’s, or 80’s?

JS:
Theater, in Shakespeare’s day, was a young person’s game—in truth, with very few exceptions, a young man’s game.  Actors didn’t play Lear in their 60’s or 70’s or 80’s as they do today (Richard Burbage, who first played Lear, was then in his 40’s).  Playwrights tended to be quite young as well.  So it is hard, if not impossible, for me to imagine Shakespeare at 70.  We do well to remember that though he died at what would be considered young today, at 52, none of his brothers would live that long.

AM:
What is a fact about Shakespeare or his work that, in your opinion, every reader should know — but probably doesn’t?

JS:
That Shakespeare collaborated.  We tend to associate him with a kind of solitary genius: a portrait that he would have found strange, and wrong-headed.  Whether it was his early co-authorship with George Peele in Titus Andronicus, or later collaborations with George Wilkins in Pericles, Thomas Middleton in Timon of Athens, John Fletcher in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the musicians Thomas Morley in As You Like It and Robert Johnson in The Tempest and other late plays, Shakespeare was always on the lookout for how to connect with other creative minds.


James Shapiro’s full biography:

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985.  His books include Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), recently republished in a 20th anniversary edition; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), the anthology Shakespeare in America (2014), and most recently The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015). He has also co-authored and presented two BBC documentaries: Shakespeare: The King’s Man and The Mysterious Mr. Webster. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Board of Governors of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at New York’s Public Theater, and has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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