But by the 19th century, Shakespeare and the theater had regained status, and children read excerpts in their McGuffey Readers, first published in 1839. At least one play a year and many of the sonnets were assigned to junior high and high school students, who could recall a quotation to decorate a term paper to impress the teacher.
Debates about Shakespeare's meanings reflect public differences and prejudices, dictated not by university but personal bias. The North and South interpreted Othello differently because of slavery. Mary Preston, a Shakespeare critic whose Southern sympathies betrayed her judgment, wrote that she found Othello flawless except that he was black. "Othello," she wrote, "was a white man!" Maya Angelou, the contemporary black poet, more than a century later projected her reality: "Shakespeare was a Black Woman."
John Wilkes Booth found justification for assassinating Lincoln in "Julius Caesar," quoting Brutus that "Caesar must bleed for it." Americans skeptical of immigration defended Shakespeare's poetry through successive generations as a standard against foreigners, who would "corrupt" the English language.
Mr. Shapiro unearthed one hilarious approach to Shakespeare from 1846 when the U.S. Army assembled in Corpus Christi, Texas, to prepare for war against Mexico. Congress had annexed Texas as a slave state, and the Army thought that a performance of "Othello" would be a distraction. James Longstreet, who would become Robert E. Lee's "old war horse," and Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander who would become the 18th president, were alternately cast to play Desdemona. When suspension of disbelief failed, a professional actress was recruited. Casting a rough soldier to portray a demure woman was absurd, but it underscored how Shakespeare's popularity transcended class and region.
Throughout history, we've had a "Jewish King Lear," a "Shakespeare in Harlem" and characters created by the Bard performed in outer space. Vaudeville produced Prince Hamlet as a "Danish pastry," and "West Side Story" offers a Puerto Rican Juliet. That's real diversity, but it has to start with actually reading the Bard. Ay, there's the rub.