Traditional Culture

Our English Cousin: William Shakespeare and the Shaping of America

BY Jeff Minick TIMEMarch 1, 2023 PRINT

Shakespeare. Bring up that name in conversation, and the reactions of your audience are likely to be mixed. To some of your listeners, that most famous name in all of English literature will likely arouse unpleasant memories of a dreary week or two in a high school class lost in a jumble of lords, ladies, jesters, and attendants, all seeming to speak a language only vaguely related to English.

Others will react with enthusiasm, remembering with fondness the production of “As You Like It” at a playhouse or the teacher who brought Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to life in an otherwise unremarkable college classroom.

The plays and poetry of William Shakespeare have long been entwined in American culture. In the 19th century, actors in New York City, Washington D.C., and a dozen other metro areas performed his plays to swank audiences. At the same time, some traveling stage troupe might mount a stage in a California mining town and put on a rustic version of “Romeo and Juliet,” performances that were wildly popular at the time.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet
American actor Edwin Booth (1833–1893) was considered the greatest Shakespearean actor in 19th-century America. Here he is dressed as Hamlet, his most famous role, circa 1870, photographed by J. Guerney. (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Whether or not we’ve watched or read “Hamlet,” nearly all of us are familiar with “To be or not to be.” And popular expressions like “break the ice,” “not slept a wink,” “neither here nor there,” and “too much of a good thing” are all hand-me-downs from the Bard of Avon.

Many Americans, however, may be unaware of just how deeply Shakespeare’s works have penetrated our history and culture.

An Adopted Father of Our Country

Epoch Times Photo
Cover of the 2016 paperback edition of “Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now,” by James Shapiro.

In “Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now,” editor James Shapiro has brought together more than 70 pieces of literature, poems, reviews, essays, letters, humorous pieces, and a bit of fiction and drama, all of them written by Americans about an Englishman who died long before their time.

Here, John Quincy Adams analyzes the character of Desdemona, critical of her marriage to Othello. In a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Mosses From an Old Manse,” Herman Melville imports Shakespeare into his critique, even writing “Believe me, my friends, that Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” No admirer of Shakespeare, Mark Twain parodies the playwright in an early piece of journalism, “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized.’” More modern takes on Shakespeare are delivered by the likes of humorist James Thurber, actor John Houseman, and writer Cynthia Ozick.

Those especially interested in American theater will undoubtedly find much of value in Shapiro’s collection. There are not only varied reflections on the plays but also pieces on acting and stagecraft, such as James Agee’s “Laurence Olivier’s ‘Henry V,’” which Agee calls “one of the great experiences in the history of motion pictures.” At the end of his review, Agee writes of Shakespeare that “one Englishman used language better than anyone has before or since, or ever shall; and that nearly the best that our time can say for itself is that some of us are still capable of paying homage to the fact.”

Henry V
Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film “Henry V.” Two Cities Films. (Public Domain)

Those who love the English language will find yet another reason for reading “Shakespeare in America.” Not only does the book give us new insights into his craftsmanship, but most of the writers featured here bring us praiseworthy prose of their own.

Presidential Devotees

The works of Shakespeare have also heavily influenced some of America’s greatest political figures. Shapiro includes in his study writings by such luminaries as John Adams, his son John Quincy, Abraham Lincoln, and American statesman Henry Cabot Lodge. In his remarks about Lincoln, for example, Shapiro reports that the president “carried a copy of Shakespeare’s works around the White House (even as he had carried it earlier in his career on the judicial circuit).” Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, “reported how Lincoln would read aloud from the plays late at night.”

young Abe Lincoln reading by fire
A young Abraham Lincoln reading by the fire, 1868, by Eastman Johnson. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

Even in his boyhood, Thomas Jefferson was a Shakespeare fan, reading plays in his father’s library and then watching them onstage as a college student in Williamsburg. As an adult, he stocked Monticello not only with Shakespeare’s writings but with pictures and busts of him as well. Later, when he was president, he told one visitor that Shakespeare and Alexander Pope “gave him the perfection of imagination and judgment, both displaying more knowledge of the human heart—the true province of poetry—than he could find elsewhere.”

Theodore Roosevelt disliked Shakespeare, finding his plays crude, yet on his trip to Africa following his presidency, he reexplored some of the works as well as the African plains and hills. He soon became enamored of them, writing to Henry Cabot Lodge and his wife: “You will be both amused to hear that at last, when 50 years old, I have come into my inheritance in Shakespeare.”

W. Shakespeare, Ad Man Extraordinaire

Juliet fine cut chewing tobacco, shakespeare
A tobacco package label showing the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

If we need more evidence of Shakespearean influence on Americans, we need look only to the world of advertising.

In the article “How Shakespeare influenced the American ad industry,” David Smith reports on a 2016 exhibition linking Shakespeare and advertising at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare and his writings, the exhibition points out, have appeared in thousands of ads, from cigars and fishing reels to cough syrup, whiskey, and sewing machines. “I speculate that Shakespeare was a sign of class and elegance,” says curator Georgianna Ziegler. “That is the raison d’être behind most of the adverts using him.”

Of this same exhibition, Sarah Hovde informs us in “Would you buy a used car from Shakespeare? How about mustard?” that one salesman a century ago even wrote a brochure touting the idea that “Marc Antony’s funeral oration in ‘Julius Caesar’ was a prime example of persuasive salesmanship.”

‘Dis Reading Vill Not Stop’

Plays of Shakespeare
Volume 1 of the 1805 edition of “The Plays of William Shakespeare.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

Ordinary Americans have also long regarded as their inheritance the words of Shakespeare. Like Lincoln, for example, many people in the 19th century took their learning from the Bible and from Shakespeare.

We find a classic example of this conjunction in Betty Smith’s novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Here, an 18-year-old married and pregnant Katie Nolan learns from her illiterate immigrant mother that the secret for her children’s success lies “in the reading and the writing.” She tells Francie that she must read to her children from the Bible and from Shakespeare. “And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this so the child will grow up knowing what is great—knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world.”

tree grows in booklyn
A poster for the 1945 film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” (Public Domain)

Directed by Elia Kazan, the film of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” includes this same touching salute to reading and to Shakespeare. “Dis reading vill not stop,” the grandmother at one point commands her daughter and grandchildren. They will continue their nightly visits with “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “King Lear.”

A Tie That Binds

And the reading and performances of Shakespeare have not stopped.

Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival
Shakespeare is still beloved in America today. A scene from a “Twelfth Night” performance at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival at Sand Harbor State Park, Nev. (DimiTalen/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The plays continue to draw audiences across the United States. In addition to the performances by professional companies, schools, and community theaters, America offers an abundance of Shakespearean festivals and celebrations. New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” remains ever popular, and at least 50 Shakespeare festivals occur annually around the country.

Moreover, Shakespeare is still widely taught in our schools. Despite the recommendations by some that we remove Shakespeare in favor of more diverse and relevant literature, that push to eliminate his works from the curriculum has so far largely failed. The reasons for our continuing fascination with Shakespeare may have something to do with tradition but even more to do with his relevance. To declare Shakespeare and his work irrelevant, as some would do, essentially means that human beings—with all their complexities, their tragedies and comedies, their foibles and virtues—are irrelevant as well.

At this point in America’s story, our culture needs greater unification, not more cuts from a dividing blade. Given their ongoing popularity, William Shakespeare’s poetry and plays can continue to serve as one of the threads joining us one to the other.

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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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