Gleebooks Bookshop
Free Call

A Divided America

Who would have thought that Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro would be such a page-turner? Shakespeare has always been popular in America, despite unease in some quarters about cross-dressing in the comedies, interracial marriage in Othello, and the subhuman Caliban of The Tempest, sometimes seen as a native American. A production of Julius Caesar in 2017 almost started a riot, with a Trump-like Caesar in a business suit and long red tie, a Calpurnia with a Slavic accent, and a mob wearing Make Rome Great Again baseball caps. There was an actual riot in the 19th century when the audience didn’t like an English actor’s portrayal of Hamlet. Abraham Lincoln could quote Shakespeare by the ream and his actor-assassin’s favourite roles were Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth, which gave him delusions of grandeur. In 1948 The Taming of the Shrew was turned into the hit Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate, with a mixed-race cast and suggestive lyrics by Cole Porter—the film version was much tamer and more conformist. I enjoyed the chapter about Shakespeare in Love and the tussle between producer Harvey Weinstein and his scriptwriters over the ending of the film. Weinstein favoured Shakespeare and Viola uniting in a happy Hollywood ending, while writer Tom Stoppard saw that would be out of the question since (1) Shakespeare was depicted in the film as a married man and (2) though adultery is not unfamiliar to Americans, they don’t like it being glamourised in films. The final chapter covers the alarming polarisation of a society in which, for example, a significant minority refuses to have Covid vaccinations or patronise plays with non-white or gay actors. Shapiro teaches Shakespeare at Columbia University and is not optimistic about his country’s future. This is a terrific book and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

Save Our Sons by Carolyn Collins is a detailed study of the women’s campaign in Australia against conscription during the Vietnam War. The war itself was not largely unpopular with Australians until 18-year-olds began being conscripted by birthdate lotteries. At first there were little groups of a few mothers wearing gloves and hats standing quietly with placards. Then the movement spread all over Australia among women from different social classes and political affiliations. Many were Liberal voters, not particularly against the war but wanting to stop conscription. They showed great resilience against repeated disappointment in elections, were called ‘commie sympathisers’, and had bulging ASIO files. What particularly worried them was when their children met hostility at school from other students and even teachers. Save Our Sons became an important part of the wider anti-Vietnam War movement. They raised money, paid fines, supported draft-resisters and provided an underground service to give them places to stay while on the run. Some turned up at court, handed out pamphlets, and stood in silent protest every time a new lot of conscripts left the country. They were mainly peaceful and law-abiding and the Bolte government made a giant miscalculation when it imprisoned the ‘Fairlea Five’, all middle-class mothers with twenty-five children between them—and at Easter, too! Who’d cook their Easter dinner? This gained them lots of public sympathy, especially when they described the prison conditions for women at Fairlea as ‘appalling’. Congratulations to Carolyn Collins for researching these largely forgotten but very important women, and for writing such an absorbing book.

I greatly enjoyed the new English version of The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated from the Latin by Ellen Finkelpearl and edited by Peter Singer. It has delightful illustrations by Anna and Varvara Kendel, and is published by Text in a neat edition with an attractive cover. The Golden Ass was written towards the end of the second century CE and is the story of a bright lad named Lucius who, while dabbling in witchcraft, is accidentally anointed with the wrong magic salve and is turned into an ass. He then has many unpleasant adventures—the worst being his having to work non-stop on a treadmill for an exploitative miller and his sadistic wife. He’s finally rescued by the Goddess Isis and joins her religious cult. It’s not only a rollicking mature-audience tale but also an early example of empathy with animals. Apuleius claimed to be related to Plutarch, who had urged his readers to be kind to animals. The book has a substantial epilogue in which Peter Singer reflects on the way humans treat animals. He wonders whether people nowadays treat animals any better than they did in the ancient world. Perhaps we treat them much worse, since we now kill and consume them on an industrial scale. Singer published his first book on animal rights in 1975, and though there have been some small improvements since then, there’s still much to be deplored. In her informative essay on the literary and cultural context of The Golden Ass translator Ellen Finkelpearl mentions that she, like Singer, is a vegan. Some of the ‘embedded tales’ in the original Golden Ass, such as the story of Cupid and Psyche, have been omitted in this version but it’s still an excellent read.  Sonia