- Shakespeare in America by Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan
Shakespeare in America retells the story of how, since 1776, Americans have appreciated (and appropriated) the writings of Englishman and playwright William Shakespeare. This story has been narrated and well analyzed in several [End Page 256] earlier and similarly entitled books, so perhaps it is reasonable to ask the question, did we need one more? Oxford University Press certainly thought so, and the jacket cover of this small addition to their Oxford Shakespeare Topics series makes the bold claim that the book will be of interest to students and teachers. Sadly, I would be surprised if this particular publication would interest either target group. The book, in the opinion of this reviewer, is perhaps more suitable to students of William McKinley High School rather than any university undergraduate or professional scholar. The important limiting factor of the book is that while the authors in the introduction state as their purpose to "narrate Shakespeare's American history"(1), they seem to fail to explain why "Shakespeare in America differs from Shakespeare in Britain" (1), or in fact anywhere else in the world. One of the book's other limitations is the "economic" use of citations, leaving this reviewer sometimes in doubt as to where to find the source material or originator of some broad ideas. Having not read any other books in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series, I think perhaps this was an editorial decision. Of course, it is possible that someone has assumed that most of the knowledge in the book is now in the so called "public domain" and therefore the original scholar or source does not need to be named. However, while being surprised and disappointed at the academic level and perceived lack of originality of much of the content, the writing is lucid and thankfully very easy to read.
In this book the authors have narrated a simple although engaging story that should perhaps more correctly be referred to as "Americans and Shakespeare"; while doing so, they seem to have chosen not to offer the reader any meaningful or new critical analysis of the seldom explored paradox of the enthusiastic and wide consumption of Shakespeare by Americans. It is a fact that these plays were written by a non-American in a foreign country, and the plays largely concern the lives of kings and aristocrats living at a time long before the United States came to be founded. British-Americans, after rejecting British governance and nationality in 1776, nevertheless, appropriated the English playwright as an American cultural icon and hero. This is a key element for any meaningful study of "Shakespeare in America" but surprisingly absent from this book. I also suggest that a university undergraduate student might find it interesting to note, despite the book title, appropriation and nationalism are two significant topics omitted by the authors.
If there is one section of the book where the publisher's claim on the book jacket is partially warranted it is in the last brief appendix, "Further Reading." Here an undergraduate student or professional scholar is provided with a literature survey offering useful suggestions for reading that ultimately will be necessary for any serious academic study of the topic of America and Shakespeare.
In their introduction the authors have described the book as comprising three sections: "Chapters 1-3 relate chronologically...the history of Shakespearean performance, reading, and criticism from the early seventeenth century to the [End Page 257] late nineteenth." Chapters 4 to 6 present a narrative of the "twentieth century and beyond," while the final chapter "gazes both backward and forward" (6).
With the first chapter, "American Beginnings," covering the period 1607 to 1776, the authors indulge themselves by making the assertion that Shakespeare wrote "about the New World" albeit "sparsely" (7). The desire to link William Shakespeare the man with America is not new (it was common in the nineteenth century), but it has always been unnecessary. Surely the plays...