On this episode of the Baillie Gifford Prize podcast, Read Smart, the prize’s 25th-anniversary “winner of winners,” James Shapiro, talks to host Razia Iqbal about Shakiespeare’s relevance today. Head here to check out more episodes.
On writing 1599 during the early stage of his career
Razia Iqbal: I think the best work of nonfiction, at least, comes at an early point in one’s career.
James Shapiro: It doesn’t mean you’re at the top of your game as a writer, but it affects where you stand in relationship to your field of expertise. In my case, I could see Shakespeare at an oblique enough angle to see what’s wrong with the dominant ways of thinking and writing about that author. So I was very lucky to start this book in my late thirties and finish it around the age of 50. Had I started it now and finished it, say, five or ten years from now, I think I’m too well settled in in the profession to have written as edgy and as insightful a book.
On whether Shakespeare is the ultimate dead white man
Razia Iqbal: What would you say to those people who argue that Shakespeare is the ultimate dead white male in the context of those arguments about the canon?
James Shapiro: After our conversation, I’m going to take the number one train downtown to the public theatre, where I’m working with a mostly African American cast on a production of Hamlet set in the American South in 2021. And that company, those actors, that director Kenny Leon, a major Broadway director, see Shakespeare as a way of expressing the cultural issues that matter most to Black people in America today.
So if you want to get rid of Shakespeare as a dead white man, you know, you’re not only have to argue with conservative politicians who fetishize Shakespeare, but with practicing artists who find his work a tremendous vehicle for expressing issues that might not otherwise be initially expressed.
On Shakespeare’s relevance in contemporary politics
Razia Iqbal: Do you find yourself turning to Shakespeare when you look at contemporary politics, say contemporary American politics, of which quite a large part could be put in the in the kind of realm of both both tragedy and comedy?
James Shapiro: About once a day, I get in my inbox an email from a journalist saying, is politician X King Lear or Hamlet? When I get on the phone with a few of them, and these are really distinguished journalists, I explain that that’s the wrong question. What you really want to do is get deeper into what it means to be Shakespearean. His plays feature failed leaders.
In most of his plays Shakespeare is interested in how leaders fail. He’s not interested in how leaders succeed. And if you begin to look at that, you begin to see that what allows powerful people to gain power doesn’t necessarily allow them to retain that power. Whether it’s Elon Musk or Boris Johnson, the mighty fall. And Shakespeare is quite interested in that process.
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