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Modern Shakespeare Studies or Shakespeare and the sleuths: An interview with Professor James Shapiro

by Jean-Martin Büttner

Professor James Shapiro is an authority on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, and author of the recently published The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (Simon & Schuster, 2015). At a lecture given at the British Museum on 29 July 2016 and in the following interview, Shapiro elaborated on his approach to understanding Shakespeare in the context of his time, showing how Shakespeare’s extraordinary plays responded to the tumultuous events he experienced, which in 1606 included the Plague, a new king’s desires to unite England and Scotland, and the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.

The interview also discusses the relevance and the problems of staging Shakespeare’s plays today, with particular reference to The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Macbeth, and Richard III. In the context of 2016's Shakespeare 400th anniversary celebration of the life and work of the Bard, the interview contributes to the dialogue of how best to approach Shakespeare’s plays to make them relevant to today's audiences.

Some of the information was incorporated into the article ‘William und die Detektive’, published in the Tages-Anzeiger, 3 September 2016. The following interview is reproduced with the kind permission of Jean-Martin Büttner.

Helena Lustenberger

London Review Bookshop Café, 29 July 2016

You will attend the International Shakespeare Conference being held in London and Stratford. Are some of these people mad in their obsessions?

Not the people at this conference. There will be hundreds of scholars from all over the world. Because Erdogan prevents academics from leaving Turkey, I'm hoping that the scholars from Turkey will be allowed to attend. These are scholars – men and women, old and young – who have committed their lives to working on Shakespeare. Unless you think that is mad, and it may well be. The people who tend to be a bit mad are those not part of this scholarly community, but let's just say in the periphery or outside of it. It's exciting every four years to get together with scholars from around the world, and because Shakespeare is increasingly global, it's going to be interesting for me to see whether the talk of global is equal to the reality of global.

What an opening! While reading your books I came to the conclusion that one of the attractions about Shakespeare is you have to become a sleuth. Can you elaborate on that?

Sure. All literary scholarship is, in a way, detective work. And that makes literary scholars detectives, although they might not think of themselves in that way. Anyone working on the late 16th century, whether you would be working in England, Germany, in Iceland, or in Africa, has to deal with the fact that the traces of life and of cities are almost gone. And you have to work hard finding the scattered clues to the lives, to the work, to the theatres, to the culture in order to recreate not a crime scene, but a literary scene – a cultural scene that might explain that culture a little better. That might in turn explain how we are who we are as a culture today. So I'm very conscious that I am constantly picking up clues.

Unlike most scholars, the clues that I attend to are not only books, but are physical clues to the extent that those clues survive, whether it is an archaeological dig or coins from the period, something that puts me physically in touch with that age. I'm about to give a talk at the British Museum Library, and I'm going to share with the people in the front row this coin, which is a hammered sixpence from 1606. It has King James's partly obliterated face on one side.

Extraordinarily precise and detailed.

It is. And it's a connection to that world. It was hammered out by some workmen, and in that year Shakespeare may have held this, he might have paid for a drink, not a latte, but an alcoholic drink – they didn't have coffee in England in Shakespeare's times. But this is the way that I do my detective work. And I think that's an astute observation.

Since you're talking about it, do you see magic in some places? I'm asking this because I went to Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday and was deeply disappointed. Two days before, I went to the Globe to see The Taming of the Shrew and was enthralled.

I love that Taming of the Shrew. I love going to the Globe. My only complaint about it is that its dimensions are slightly larger than they should have been. It's a hundred feet across, and it should be 75 feet across. They didn't know that when they built it. They knew it only later. It means that more people get to see the plays, but it's slightly more difficult for the actors.

But I share the same sense that Stratford is a tourist destination. Even the house where Shakespeare was born loses its charm after repeated viewing. People have been disappointed by this house for hundreds of years. Henry James wrote a brilliant story called The Birthplace about the people who keep the house and tell tourists about Shakespeare's life. Essentially, they are fiction writers, and they're creating stories. If they only told the truth – because so little that is known about Shakespeare's life in that house survives – there would be nothing to say. So I find Stratford-upon-Avon a charmless town. I love the theatre there, and I was there yesterday. There's a wonderful Hamlet, there's an extraordinary Alchemist, and rehearsals are going on right now for what will be a brilliant King Lear. It's just the stuff that survives, I mean Shakespeare's words. But the physical remains of Shakespeare's life, the traces of it, are not enough to excite me much.

Let me come back to the production of The Shrew we saw at the Globe. Kate's famous speech at the end when she completely surrenders to her husband was given in a deeply ironic manner, thereby turning what she was saying into the opposite of what it meant. Do you think Shakespeare had this reading in mind when he wrote what was to be his second play?

That's a great, great question. And the answer to that is: We don't know. All we have are the words on the page. And of course, the speech would have been delivered by a young teenage boy speaking and being dressed as a woman. But that having been said, it's a very hard play to figure out. The ending would either be sarcastic and ironic, or it will be dutiful and obedient. And it's a very difficult play to get right. I was involved in a small way in a production in New York in which it was performed by women only. So that was another way of undermining the premise.

Of the fact that this woman is called a ‘shrew’ – she's not. She's just a lively, young, particularly headstrong individual, and she is somehow tamed by this man. But there are so many ways to attack this play. Is it that they discover something in each other that we don't see that throws them together? Is she playing a game at the end to entertain the others? We don't know! What I liked about this particular production at the Globe is that it was set a hundred years ago in Ireland where Irish men could beat their wives and it wasn't even exceptional. So by putting the play at that time and place, the director was trying to say something about how much has changed in a hundred years. I'm not quite sure that much has changed.

Also the play includes a lot of violent scenes. He's basically a rapist, and the bed she's lying on looks like a rack. There is an implication of rape.

Absolutely. Domestic violence I would say.

It also occurred to me how physical the Globe production looked. You can’t miss the energy that interprets the play.

Last Summer I saw a production of The Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce at the Globe. It was extraordinary. I've spoken with the very talented director before, Jonathan Mundy. I had written a book called Shakespeare and the Jews (1996). And I saw the same play two weeks ago in New York City, the same production. And it was a completely different theatrical experience. At the Globe the audience, as in Shakespeare's day, didn't know how the play was going to end. There was suspense; they were jeering Shylock in the beginning, but feeling remorse for that by the end. In New York City, everybody knows the story, half the audience was mouthing the words along as the actors were reciting them. So much of the excitement of the performance was lost. At the Globe the clown pulled people onstage from the audience and made them part of the play. They tried it again in New York, but the audience were so resistant, they wanted that fourth wall. So I love the Globe, I love the exuberance of the crowd, and I even like the naiveté of the crowd as well. I'm struck always knowing how they are going to do the last speech. But they don't know the last speech is coming. So it's very different.

It was a real 3D experience. There was this moment when the main character was saying "kiss me Kate" and added "kiss, kiss, kiss", indicating to the crowd to say it with him, and the people did it.

Oh, this is great.

And it sounded like a mob.

Yes it did.

And it suddenly turned into something sinister.

It did, and I think a lot of Shakespeare is sinister in that way. And depends upon whipping a crowd up – either to be for or against somebody. And he writes about it. There is a wonderful passage in Richard II where he talks about a crowd who turns against an actor who fouls a better actor on stage. He's assuming his audience is fully engaged and excited. And the Globe does that exceedingly well.

Reading your books, I am struck how intensely Shakespeare takes in the things happening around him. He is a man for all ages, as Ben Jonson famously wrote, but he also was a man of his time. He writes in codes and allusions, dates back persons from his time, but the present is densely interwoven with his plays. I was not aware how much that is, can you expand on that?

Sure. There was no newspaper in Shakespeare's day. No radio, no mass media. The only way that ideas circulated was through gossip or through sermons that people attended or through plays. So the theatre became a place where a culture turned to understand itself. To understand, for example, in the first half of Shakespeare's career how people wrestled with their anxiety about political succession. Queen Elizabeth had no children and no designated heir to succeed her. So, in play after play after play, Shakespeare writes about political succession.

When King James came to the throne, it's a different story. Succession was no longer the issue because James had a wife and children. What became an issue was the Union of Scotland and England because King James was both King of Scotland and England. And that in plays like Macbeth and King Lear this issue is becoming increasingly significant. I do believe the plays are for all time, but they are only for all time because we are heirs to the problems of immigration, race, globalism, and family that are created or recreated in Shakespeare's day. Right now, we speak in a post-Brexit moment when Britain is separating itself from Europe. And soon, I suspect, Scotland will separate itself from England. The issues that are woven into plays like Macbeth and King Lear will remain in the present time as urgent as they were 400 years ago.

You had an interesting approach to Shakespeare yourself because first he was alien to you.

I hated him!

Then you became enthralled. Can you remember the process? I am asking because a colleague of yours is wondering how we can explain to kids today why Shakespeare is important and wonderful.

People often say, Shakespeare should be mandatory in classrooms, and I just say that is a really bad idea. In my case, I had to study Shakespeare in school but I did not have a good teacher and his plays were not done in a theatrical way. I didn't understand them, hated them, and was alienated from them. For these reasons, I never took a university course in Shakespeare. So my Shakespeare education took place in this city, which was, in the 1970s, a place where you could see for less than a Euro a play with your student card. And for the first time you could fly here through discount airlines inexpensively. I would fly over and see 20 plays in 20 days, quitting whatever summer job I held down, come over and sleep in church basements and youth hostels. And I did it every year when I was 17 till 22. After so many years I had seen hundreds of brilliant productions of Shakespeare. And it turned out that I had understood them fairly well. So it became something that I pursued and continue to pursue decades later. It was thrilling. The Shakespeare you are exposed to when you are young and open to the world and experience, is often the most powerful you will ever see. I saw Jonathan Pryce in 1981...

... as Hamlet. It was my first play.

It was the first great play I had ever seen.

He looked like a punk.

He did. And when he had the ghost of his father come out of him, the audience levitated – they all lifted out of their seat. So you know what I'm saying then. And it was like a very powerful drug with different side-effects that are as long-lasting.

At the same time the language remains extraordinarily complex. I'm sure even people at that time didn't understand everything.

Shakespeare was constantly inventing and altering words or compounds so even his earliest audiences could not have known them. In Macbeth, Macbeth speaks of assassination. Since nobody knew the word then, I imagine the playgoers were turning towards each other and ask themselves: "What did Macbeth say? What's that word?" And no one then or now gets every word or all the nuances. All we can do is try to absorb as much as we can. You could probably say the same thing about a Rembrandt painting or a Beethoven symphony. No one is going to get all that was intended in the act of creation. Most of us are fortunate enough to get enough to find it a transformative experience.

I'd like to talk about equivocation, a term which played an important role in some of Shakespeare's later plays – and plays an important role in 1606, your latest book. Was the use of equivocation a way for Shakespeare to create heroes that were ambiguous, or having a sort of pretext to do so?

That is a good question. I thought about that word in a concept a lot. You know, what it means to think one thing or say something else or, in a most unambiguous way, to speak in a double fashion. And I think that Shakespeare, when he was in his early 20s, had come up to London and was acting, had to recognise that he was always thinking one thing as an actor and saying someone else's words. And that the very act of being a professional actor is to equivocate. In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, 20 or so Catholic gentry tried to blow up Parliament and kill the royal family, but they were discovered in time and a treatise of equivocation was found in one of the conspirator’s lodgings. The nation became transfixed by what they were experiencing in the theatre all the time.

Which is to say the doubleness of language, of performance here was transformed from the world of imagination and make-believe to the political world. And if you could take an oath in court but withhold your true intention, you could not have, they felt, no genuine civil discourse. You could not have a society. So this is something that is both necessary to create but also dangerous in the political and social world. So that word equivocation became a very significant one this year.

As you write in your book, one of the reasons that plays like Lear or Macbeth became so dark is that a whole society had realised what could have been ten times 9/11.

Yes. And we are in a kind of slow-moving version of that now every week for the last month in Munich, in Nice – everywhere there are terrifying terrorist attacks. The Gunpowder Plot was the first failed terrorist attack. But nobody thought of it. How do you respond to terrorism? Do you expel all the Catholics in England? Do you, as some in Parliament suggested, say that none can live within 10 miles of the city? Do you take away their children and raise them under different rules? Do you take in Syrian refugees? Do you enforce rules against wearing the hijab in France? We are still wrestling with so many of the same questions, and it's viable for me to see how four centuries ago, when these issues were emerging for the first time, how Shakespeare and his world made sense of that. I don't study Shakespeare because I want to live in the past. I study him because I want to understand those things in my culture that television, journalism, papers, even the best ones, cannot reach down in explaining well enough.

So Shakespeare's language is a way of dealing with violence?

I think the plays are filled with violence. Even the lightest plays are violent plays like Taming of the Shrew or As You Like It. It begins with a wrestling match in which people are badly injured. Shakespeare lived in a violent culture, and I think he understood that culture pretty well. Very often when we do Shakespeare poorly we try to suppress that element, and that is a mistake.

I agree. What I meant before is that the expressions of violent and fearful acts through language in a theatre are some kind of sublimation - even though that is a dangerous word. Since the language itself is dealing with these acts, it can also be cathartic.

It does, but it also can unnerve. Shakespeare understood the raw power of language extremely well. He understood that words could destroy or heal. And his plays, early and late, are filled with both.

Ralph Fiennes putting his film of Coriolanus in the Balkan war makes the same point, though. And he’s English.

He’s great, and I love that film. It’s an American story right now, more than a Bosnian or Serbian story, although it was back then. And I think it is a brilliant production. It took that play and made it feel contemporary.

All of Shakespeare’s war tragedies are about civil wars, but the language he uses makes us understand these wars.

But we are not as good as he was at telling that story. And with a work like Troilus and Cressida, dealing with the effect of a war-torn society on love, how corrosive it is, how love is just destroyed by what war does to peoples’ personalities and sensibilities. . . . I’m very lucky that I not only get to work on these productions but get to see them made. I probably understand better now than 10 years ago when I was not doing this how difficult it is to do Shakespeare well in a theatre. I will never review something critically again because I have seen how much blood and sweat and intelligence goes into even unsuccessful productions. The magic that goes into great ones is extraordinary and couldn’t be explained.

Reading your books, I realize time and time again in what unsafe times Shakespeare lived. He rarely mentions the Plague, though. Why do you think that is?

The Plague was the great terror of the age. When Shakespeare first came to London in the early 1590s, the Plague struck and took away one out of seven people. When it struck again in 1603, it took about the same percentage and it would have destroyed Shakespeare’s livelihood because the theatres were closed every time there were 30 or 40 deaths registered from plague in the town. It’s like yelling “fire!” in a theatre today. It’s not ok. You don’t want to remind people congregating in a densely filled place that it could cost them their lives. I think it was so scary that it couldn’t be spoken of – except indirectly. And when he does speak of it indirectly, it carries a special horror.

Thank you, Jim.

My pleasure – it was great talking to you. Terrific questions.

This is why I have the greatest job in the world.

Me, too.


Byrne, C. (Dir). (2016, 13 May – 6 August). The taming of the shrew by William Shakespeare, Globe Theater, London.

Goethe, J.W. (1795-96). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (German: Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre). Berlin, Germany: Johann Friedrich Unger.

Günther, F. (2014).  Unser Shakespeare: Einblicke in Shakespeares fremd-verwandte Zeiten. Munich, Germany: dtv Verlagsgesschellschaft.

Tages-Anzeiger. (2016, 3 September). William und die detektive. Retrieved from


Professor James S. Shapiro was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and studied at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. He is currently Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has been teaching since 1985. His publications include 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), Contested Will (2010), The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015), all of which have won prizes. Check out his 3-hour documentary The King and the Playwright first aired on BBC4 in 2012 For more details see


Born in Basel, Dr Jean-Martin Büttner studied Clinical Psychology and English and Psychopathology, and wrote his dissertation on Rock Music as narrative. Since 1985, Jean-Martin has been working for the Tages-Anzeiger, Zürich as a journalist, political analyst, and correspondent for various special features including literature and culture.