As part of its celebration of “400 years of Shakespeare” (it is 400 years since Shakespeare’s death), the Folger Shakespeare Library has mounted the exhibit America’s Shakespeare. Edward Rothstein reviews the exhibit and meditates on the phenomenon it represents in “Our British founding father.”
“[W]ith an extended and fervent embrace,” Rothstein writes, Shakespeare “was adopted, from the beginning, as one of our own.” He observes:
The spirited displays in “America’s Shakespeare,” curated by Georgianna Ziegler at the Folger Shakespeare Library, range from a letter of Abigail Adams to her husband, praising the militiamen at the Battle of Bunker Hill with lines from “Coriolanus,” to an excerpt from television’s “Gilligan’s Island” (1966) in which the shipwrecked crew farcically enacts a scene from “Hamlet.”
The scale of the American connection amazes. George Washington took a break from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to see “The Tempest.” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his American travels: “There’s hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.” For an 1846 U.S. Army production of “Othello” in Corpus Christi, Texas, Desdemona was to be played by Ulysses S. Grant—at least until the officer playing Othello found himself unable to stir much “sentiment” under the circumstances.
Rothstein does not overlook Shakespeare’s appearance in the great America novel either: “[Shakespeare’s] prestige helped spur popular adoration as well—ruthlessly satirized by Mark Twain in ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ when the self-anointed Duke demonstrates his bardic recall: ‘To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin / That makes calamity of so long life . . .’”
Whence our bond with the bard? I think Rothstein comes about as close as one can in a brief review:
Emerson believed Shakespeare “wrote the text of modern life” and was “the father of the man in America.” This is partly because the fate of Shakespeare’s characters—whatever their slots in the Elizabethan cosmos—depends on character and behavior: They are individuals, not placeholders, their fates bounded only by their imaginations, their actions, and their failings.
But something’s happening here. Rothstein concludes:
All the more tragic, then, that English majors at Yale University began circulating a petition to the faculty last month arguing that their being required to study the great English poetic tradition (including Shakespeare) without “the literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk,” “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity” and is “especially hostile to students of color.” The petition demonstrates just the kind of surface judgment Shakespeare was opposing and to which, admittedly, he—and America too—has sometimes succumbed. (Adams thought the main point of “Othello” was an opposition to miscegenation.) But Shakespeare’s vision of the reflective individual at large in a world of mystery and possibility is far grander. It inspired the warmth of the American embrace. May it continue for another four centuries.
As we begin a long holiday weekend, Rothstein’s review makes for great, thought-provoking reading.
On a related note at the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler discusses the discovery of a Shakespearean coat of arms by Folger’s Heather Wolfe. It reads: “Shakespeare the player.” Not the poet. Not the playwright. The player. Schuessler doesn’t even begin to unravel that mystery.