Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now edited by James Shapiro, foreword by President Bill Clinton; Library of America, 724 pages ($29.95).
There’s a classic scene in John Ford’s 1941 Western “My Darling Clementine” in which Henry Fonda and Victor Mature – playing, respectively, Wyatt Earp and his tubercular, sharp-shooting friend Doc Holliday – enter the roughest, toughest saloon in Tombstone. At that exact moment, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck actor named Granville Thorndyke (an appropriately hammy Alan Mowbray) is being forced to perform in front of the patrons for his next drink. The saloon pianist begins playing treacly music behind Thorndyke’s recitation of Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy. A philistine slob and killer in the crowd drunkenly pronounces himself sick of the actor’s “poems” and, in archaic Western movie form, is about to force him to “dance” for his refreshment.
With the quiet authority of the fastest gun in the room, Doc attentively insists that Thorndyke finish. When he can’t – when he stops remembering the ubiquitous lines – he asks Doc Holliday to finish the soliloquy for him. And that, Doc quietly begins to do, which means that the unlikely Victor Mature is, however briefly, doing Shakespeare in a John Ford Western – until, that is, the moment when a coughing fit stops him at “conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
This is one of the more brilliantly conceived and edited books in the entire recent history of the indispensable Library of America. It is based on the long-obscured fact that Shakespeare began as a pervasive presence in an America that hadn’t yet discovered the quasi-genteel snobbish pleasures of separating “high” culture from “low.” No less than Tocqueville himself, in his travels across an emergent America, observed that “there is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found. I remember reading the feudal drama “Henry V” for the first time in a log cabin.”
This extraordinary anthology begins in a Revolutionary America and proceeds all the way up to Jane Smiley, Cynthia Ozick and finally, from 2004, Jen Bervin’s “stripped-down” versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 64, 93 and 130. – Jeff Simon