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Shakespeare in a Divided America with James Shapiro, Chukwudi Iwuji, Harriet Walter and Samuel West (online)

An exploration of what Shakespeare’s plays reveal about a divided America, from the 1800s to today

William Shakespeare’s position as England’s national poet is unquestioned. But his plays have also held an essential place in American culture for over 200 years. Americans of all stripes — presidents and activists, writers and soldiers — have turned to Shakespeare to explore the nation’s fault lines and have found the darkest nightmares of its past – tyranny, assassination and battles over same-sex love, cross-dressing and interracial marriage – played out in his most celebrated works.

In this special event James Shapiro, the leading American Shakespeare scholar, was joined by a cast of distinguished actors, Chukwudi Iwuji, Harriet Walter and Samuel West, to bring to life the themes of Shapiro’s recent book, Shakespeare in a Divided America. We encountered John Quincy Adams, the abolitionist president, who nonetheless could not conceal his dismay at Desdemona’s interracial marriage to Othello; Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth, both obsessed by Shakespeare’s tragic heroes; and most tumultuously of all, we revisited the notorious 2017 production of Julius Caesar in Central Park, when a Donald Trump look-alike in the role of Caesar was assassinated nightly to howls of outrage from the political right.

Praise for Shakespeare in a Divided America

‘A thrilling book from first page to last. James Shapiro has discovered that Shakespeare is the canary in the coalmine of American history, always the surest guide to the way things are headed.’ – Nicholas Hytner



James Shapiro

Leading American Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare in a Divided America

Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written several books on Shakespeare including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which was awarded the James Tait Black Prize and the Sheridan Morley Prize. His most recent book is Shakespeare in a Divided America. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and The London Review of Books, among other places. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company and he is currently the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City.

Chukwudi Iwuji

Actor who has played lead roles in numerous plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and American theatre companies

Actor who has appeared in numerous plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was one of the first Black actors to star in a major RSC role other than Othello when he played the title role in the Henry VI trilogy. He has appeared in numerous productions at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park, including playing Hamlet in 2016, Othello in 2016, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra in 2014 and Edgar in King Lear in 2014. He can currently be seen the award-winning Netflix series When They See Us and will next be seen in the Amazon series The Underground Railroad, directed by Barry Jenkins. His television appearances include Doctor Who, Dynasty, John Wick: Chapter 2 opposite Keanu Reeves, and the multi-award winning Exam.

Harriet Walter

Acclaimed British actress who has played many Shakespearean characters

Acclaimed British actress who has played many Shakespearean characters including Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra (most of them for the RSC). She has also played Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in all-female productions at the Donmar Warehouse. She also appeared in RSC productions on Broadway. Her television credits include The Crown, Succession, Killing Eve and Belgravia and she has appeared in films including Sense and Sensibility, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and Rocketman.

Samuel West

Actor, director and essayist

Actor and occasional director. He has played Hamlet and Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jeffrey Skilling in Enron in the West End and the voice of Pongo in Disney’s 101 Dalmations II.  On screen he’s been in Mr Selfridge, W1A, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and the films Suffragette, Darkest Hour and Howards End.  He plays Siegfried Farnon in the new TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small. As a narrator, he has appeared with all the major British orchestras.  His production of The Watsons by Laura Wade was due to open in the West End last May. Sam is an Associate Artist of the RSC and Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.

Shahidha Bari

Writer, academic and broadcaster

Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. She is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 3's Arts and Ideas programme, Free Thinking, and an occasional presenter of BBC Radio 4's Front Row and Saturday Review. She contributes to Aeon, The Financial Times, Frieze art magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. She is the author of Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes.


Speakers are subject to change.