From Avon to America

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Folger Demonstrates Shakespeare's Omnipresence in U.S. Culture

You might see him not so much as master William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan playwright in her majesty’s service, or even as the Bard of Avon. Instead, you might start thinking of him as plain old Bill—or just Mr. Will Shakespeare, all-American cultural hero.

“Shakespeare in American Life” covers a remarkable amount of fertile ground in chronicling the Shakespearean presence in the United States. It ranges from a shipwreck at sea—very much like the one found in “The Tempest”—to the earliest known productions of the Bard’s plays in the Colonies, to Shakespeare’s influence in the political arena, to how his writings have traveled across the country.

The items on display reveal how Shakespeare infiltrated the American populace in ways sundry and folksy—from the sagas of American acting royalty like the Booth family to African American culture. The exhibit illustrates how Shakespeare was consumed, bought and sold in a way that could only happen in America, and how his plays, characters and genius took hold and continue to flower and blossom in the United States.

There’s a conscious serendipity, of course, in this exhibition—more so than in the usual, often more intriguingly esoteric Folger exhibitions. This is after all part of the 75th anniversary of the Folger Shakespeare Library, arguably the most prominent Shakespearean research and museum institution in the country.

Not only that, but Shakespeare’s birthday—he is by all accounts a very young 443 years old—was celebrated on April 29 in high Tudor and Elizabethan dudgeon inside and outside the Folger. Even more so, the city winds up its unparalleled six-month Shakespeare in Washington Festival featuring performances, exhibitions, music, films, readings and special events shared among a host of cultural and performing institutions in the city.

All of this celebrating reiterates what “Shakespeare in American Life” so vividly demonstrates: This Brit, in being transported across the ocean, became someone and something peculiarly American, adopting and adapting to the moral, religious and cultural values of this country.

There are 150 items on display in the form of film clips, old theater programs, letters, illustrations, scripts, advertisements, posters, books, period newspapers and photographs. All of them, in one way or another, show how Shakespeare—the man, his words and plays—inspired us in surprising and never-ending ways, to the point where he became “our Shakespeare.”

It’s also appropriate that in the year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement (see May 2007 issue of The Washington Diplomat), the display includes a pewter candlestick from the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, the ship that was en route to repopulate the Jamestown colony when it wrecked on the Bermuda islands. Shakespeare, who read accounts about the fate of the ship, was inspired by tales of those who miraculously survived the hurricane in Bermuda.

From here it’s only a short jump to the very first productions of Shakespearean plays in the Colonies, where theaters were frowned upon by the more upper-crust New England post-Puritan culture. But on the other hand—as a letter written by John Adams shows—the educated classes cut their intellectual and elocution teeth on reading and speaking Shakespeare.

It’s probably fair to say that over time, for American readers and writers, Shakespeare became the first among equals of Western literature, and an endless source of theatrical entertainment where none had previously existed.

The many playbills in the exhibition are fascinating evidence of young America’s theatrical world in the early and mid-19th century. There’s even one advertising all members of the Booth family in a performance of “Julius Caesar”—as well as memorial posters for Abraham Lincoln filled with Shakespearean lines, which he enjoyed quoting.

There’s a keen sense of energy, history and the evolution of the United States here as well: the minstrel show spoofs of “Othello” and “Hamlet,” the fact that blacks were not allowed to see Shakespeare performances in the post-Reconstruction South, and photographs of the bigger-than-life Paul Robeson as “Othello.”

There is, and always will be, Shakespeare in politics, from cartoons chiding Franklin D. Roosevelt to the political satire “Macbird!”—the scathing anti-war play of the 1960s that depicts Lyndon B. Johnson as a murderer. In fact, it was Shakespeare who wrote the T-shirt phrase: “First, let’s kill all the lawyers,” which resonates loudly amid the lobbying clamor of D.C. culture.

Inevitably, Wall Street and the marketplace also took notice of the enduring popularity of the Bard, as we see with the recently introduced Rosencrunch and Guildenpop candied popcorn, inspired by “Hamlet,” to be found at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s.

What you find at the Folger is a Shakespeare adopted by Americans who continues to speak, sing, spout poetry and explain the world to us. Hard to imagine Oxford this way.

Shakespeare in American Life through Aug. 18 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999