Interviews: James Shapiro
Shakespeare scholar JAMES SHAPIRO has been a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University since 1985. He is the author of five scholarly works, including 1599: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, which earned both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Theatre Book Prize, and CONTESTED WILL: WHO WROTE SHAKESPEARE?, which won the Theatre Library Association’s 2011 George Freedley Memorial Award. He is currently working on his next book, SHAKESPEARE IN 1606: THE YEAR OF LEAR. Currently serving on the Board of Governors of the Royal Shakespeare Company and of the Folger Shakespeare Library and as Shakespeare Scholar-in-Residence at New York’s Public Theater, Shapiro was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011.
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Do you read fiction and nonfiction both and can you give us an example of each that you have recently found eye-opening?
Since my twenties I’ve read far more nonfiction than fiction. Nowadays, when I do find a novel that captures my interest, I tend to fall hard for it. I certainly did for John Williams’ STONER, a slim novel first published in 1965 that describes, in spare, quiet prose, the story of a son of hardscrabble Missouri farmers in the early twentieth century who goes on to become an English professor. A half-century after it was first published, STONER has becoming something of a cult classic and international bestseller, deservedly so. It’s a haunting book, rich in insight into both a lonely academic’s life and a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. Coincidentally, the finest work of nonfiction I have read of late covers the same historical period, but from a very different vantage point, Wade Davis’s INTO THE SILENCE: THE GREAT WAR, MALLORY AND THE CONQUEST OF EVEREST. It’s one of those increasingly rare books that required over a decade of painstaking research – and it shows. I’ve long enjoyed books on mountaineering as well as military history; INTO THE SILENCE combines the two, showing how early attempts to conquer Everest were profoundly shaped by the wartime experience of climbers who had survived the horrors of the battlefield.
Is there a book you are currently reading that is captivating?
I finished Ari Shavit’s THE PROMISED LAND right before learning, to my delight, that he will be at Sun Valley as well this summer. It’s not easy to write an original book about Zionism or the history of Israel; I’ve read widely in the field and it is by far the most insightful I’ve encountered on the subject. I also can’t think of another book that has forced me to rethink the story of my own evolving beliefs as THE PROMISED LAND has. I especially recommend it to those who think there is little left to learn about this subject.
Is there an author that reliably makes you laugh? What of his or hers does the trick?
Anything by Gary Shteyngart makes me laugh. SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY may be his best novel. He has a wicked sense of humor coupled with a cold, clinical eye for seeing social folly. It’s a dangerous combination – a gift the gods bestow on very few writers.
Who do you read about Shakespeare? Is there a book or books about him or his work that we should not miss (other than yours, of course).
I end up reading pretty much everything that comes out on Shakespeare, much of it written by friends. Sadly, most scholars still write for other scholars rather than for an informed and curious public, which means that while they may be informative, they are usually pretty dull. One exception is David Kastan, who has just published a great read on Shakespeare and religion: A WILL TO BELIEVE. I have to stick to the few available facts about Shakespeare’s life in my own books, which is one of the reasons I admire (and am a bit jealous of) those who approach Shakespeare through fiction. In that category Arthur Phillips’s THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR tops my list. I’d also urge everyone to keep an eye out next year for Andrea Chapin’s THE TUTOR, a wonderful novel about a love affair that inspired Shakespeare’s best-selling poem, VENUS AND ADONIS.
Is there something you reread with regularity? What and why?
One of the pleasures of teaching Shakespeare for a living is rereading the plays every year before facing a new group of twenty-year-olds, many of whom are experiencing JULIUS CAESAR or KING LEAR for the first time. There are always surprises: a speech that long seemed unremarkable suddenly becomes central; a play that I once loved now seems flat; a minor character I never paid much attention to now seems essential. The more you reread the plays, and the more life experience you acquire, the more they reveal themselves, especially the tragedies. Take Macduff’s four simple words upon learning that his family has been murdered by Macbeth: “He has no children.” It’s a line that only resonated powerfully for me after I became a parent. Rereading that line, you begin to wonder, is Macduff saying those words about himself in the third person? Or is he thinking, ‘I can’t adequately revenge myself on Macbeth because he is childless’? Or is he wondering whether the childless Malcolm, who tells him to bear this terrible news like a man, doesn’t have a clue? Shakespeare’s plays have become a measure of how much I have changed, and how, over the course of a lifetime of rereading them. It’s one of the few consolations I can think of for getting older.
Do you find that people don’t read plays enough? Is there a trick to it?
Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, in their preface to Shakespeare’s collected plays in 1623, urged those who bought the book to “read him…again and again.” But they would have assumed that those buying the book would have already seen the plays staged many times. The trick to reading the plays – and enjoying that experience – is seeing them performed first. The scripts on the page remain fairly lifeless until you begin to see them in your mind’s eye. And that only happens after seeing them staged. The theater, after all, is where Shakespeare intended his plays to live (and we do well to remember that half of his plays weren’t even published in his lifetime). So my advice is to see as many productions – good and bad, and there are plenty of both around – as possible. Nothing ruins a potential lifelong love of Shakespeare as much as being forced to study his plays by rote in class; and nothing is as thrilling and life-transforming for a ten-year old as seeing a magical production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.
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Check back at the beginning of each month for a new interview in which journalist Anne Taylor Fleming asks well-known writers about their favorite books. And if you’ve missed an interview, you can find it here too.