Shakespeare in History, History through Shakespeare: Caliban by the Yellow Sands
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Percy MacKaye’s community masque, Caliban by the Yellow Sands, was performed in front of thousands of spectators between May 24th and June 5th, 1916 at New York Lewisohn Stadium, as part of American celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The play is a fascinating example of a Shakespearean appropriation intended for a particular historical moment and specific socio-political purposes. Not only does it comment on America’s contemporary situation, but also intervenes in it, proposing solutions to current problems, most notably the huge increase of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. This paper investigates two interconnected methods which Caliban by the Yellow Sands employs to respond to the historical moment: the play’s representations of history and its uses of Shakespeare and the Shakespearean canon. It argues that, while the main thrust of the masque is an attempt to harness Shakespeare’s cultural authority in the service of promoting American cohesion based on the alleged supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage, the text reveals significant ambiguities and contradictions that this operation produces. Shakespeare’s art is shown as a force that can both liberate and subjugate, and Shakespeare as a curiously insubstantial and malleable figure, whose work only fully comes into being with each interpretation and is available for different kinds of appropriation. Despite glorifying the Bard, the masque simultaneously empties him of inherent meaning and transfers his power to those who interpret him.