Published January 12, 2017
National Affairs - Winter 2017 issue
The past year has marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and in the United States aficionados have observed the occasion as though the Master was a most beloved native son. The year-long celebration has demonstrated a distinctively American blend of quality and equality: the greatest writer ever both honored in worthy artistic productions and made palatable to a populace accustomed to cultural fast food.
Chicago rather than London or Stratford-upon-Avon has been the Shakespearean cosmopolis this year. The Shakespeare 400 Chicago commemoration has featured 850 events at 120 locations for an audience of 500,000 people. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the moving force behind the ambitious project, has put on Othello: The Remix and Tug of War, which compresses six history plays into two; local talent has also performed a 75-minute version of Twelfth Night in neighborhood parks throughout the city. The out-of-towners have shown Shakespeare’s worldwide reach and the relentless urge to make him new: Moscow, Shanghai, and Mumbai have been represented, while a Mexico City troupe has put on an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet enhanced with film projections, and Belgium’s Theater Zuidpool has transmogrified Macbeth into a hybrid of underground opera and rock concert.
Outstanding Chicago musical institutions have contributed more conventional fare: the Lyric Opera with Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, the Symphony Orchestra with both Berlioz’s dramatic symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture of the same, as well as Verdi’s sole comic masterpiece, Falstaff. The city’s Joffrey Ballet, for its part, has danced Romeo and Juliet to Prokofiev’s score. The Art Institute has presented an exhibition of the Shakespearean supernatural, loaded with painted witches and sprites. Several series of Shakespeare films have enlivened the multiplexes. Even sociologists have gotten in on the action, with a panel discussion on Shakespeare in the criminal-justice system. The High School Shakespeare Slam, running all year long, has done its part to make Shakespeare entertaining, or at least endurable, for a traditionally restive and captive audience. Then there has been the Culinary Complete Works, in which 38 Chicago chefs served up choice dishes referred to in the canon. And to wash it all down, the North Coast Brewing Company has concocted “PUCK: The Beer.”
America’s Shakespeare makes room for provincial rubberneckers and the crowd that takes its amusement where it finds it. Tulane University in New Orleans held a jazz funeral for Shakespeare, as did the Jambalaya Brass Band in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Also in New York, the Art Directors Club put on a show of Shakespeare posters from productions around the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s premier assemblage of Shakespeareana, conducted a barn-storming tour that brought a 1623 First Folio (the Folger owns 82 of 233 known First Folios, the first editions of the collected plays that are the Shakespeare collector’s crown jewels) in succession to a museum, university, or public library in every state, each volume opened for viewing of the most famous passage in English (and perhaps any other) literature — Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be.” At the Folger Library, the exhibition “America’s Shakespeare” brought high and low cheek-by-jowl, the rarest memorabilia and arcana next to a clip from a 1966 episode of the television show Gilligan’s Island, in which the knucklehead castaways make a ridiculous hash of a scene from Hamlet, as well as a 1980s TV commercial in which Shakespeare sells out by writing a sitcom for the irresistible fee of a Klondike bar.
More recent recordings are easily available thanks to YouTube: Fans of the bard can record and submit their own videos to the website We Are Shakespeare, sponsored by the Shakespeare Theatre Association in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame. There, one can see Hamlet consider the question of suicide while shaving with a straight razor, or the Sonnet Man’s “Hip Hop Hamlet,” in which the famous soliloquy is followed by a paraphrase chanted to a group of young boxers as instruction in danger and exhortation to keep on living: “What am I gonna do, these things I’m goin’ through….Dyin’s sleepin’, that’s all dyin’ is.” This website may sound like an invitation to foolishness, but the razor-edged Hamlet, the Sonnet Man, and some other unlikely sounding performers are actually quite winning.
Shakespeare continues to be the most performed playwright in the United States, but his appeal has a global extension, and it has long been so. Sublimity has ever called to sublimity. The great modern nations boast great writers who depict and define the national life and character: Victor Hugo for the French, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the Germans, Leo Tolstoy the Russians, Herman Melville and Mark Twain the Americans, and Shakespeare the English. Of course their greatness is hardly confined to their parochial impact: They are masters for all time and every place. And even among these titans an order of rank is observed, as a true aristocracy requires, and it is Shakespeare who ranks supreme.
ADMIRING THE BARD
With the exception of Tolstoy, who ripped into Shakespeare with unhinged vehemence as a windbag and nihilist moral trifler, all these masters recognized Shakespeare’s superiority. Hugo composed a 400-page eulogy to Shakespeare as the proto-Romantic, which is to say a worthy precursor to the arch-Romantic Hugo himself. Shakespeare’s work, he pronounced, is “absolute, sovereign, imperious, eminently solitary, unneighborly, sublime in radiance, absurd in reflection, and must remain without a copy.” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, besotted with the idea of a life in the theater, would talk about Shakespeare for days, and, in the role of Hamlet with a fly-by-night dramatic troupe, he believed the elder Hamlet’s ghost to be his own father back from the dead. Goethe told his chronicler of after-dinner conversation, Johann Peter Eckermann, that if he had been born an Englishman the incomparable majesty of Shakespeare looming over his every youthful thought would have left him unable to write a word. And whenever some know-nothing cast aspersions on Shakespeare’s characters, Goethe let him have it with both barrels: “But I cry: Nature! Nature! Nothing is so like Nature as Shakespeare’s figures.”
With Americans of genius, the adulation is more complicated. In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville acknowledged Shakespeare’s excellence, even his pre-eminence, but claimed he is hardly unique or unapproachable, and the mistaken belief in his matchless power presents a hazard for “republican progressiveness”: “Believe me, my friends, that men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” Yet if such Shakespeares ever saw the light of day they must have been dispatched posthaste to the anonymous long silence of a country churchyard, before they could announce themselves to the great world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had to overcome an inbred Puritan antipathy to the wicked stage — he fulminated early in his career about Shakespeare’s “moral turpitude” — but he came around to a passionate though qualified admiration. To the mature Emerson, in the essay “Shakespeare; or, the Poet” published in Representative Men in 1850, to speak of Shakespeare as the best dramatist the world has seen scants his glory, for his true magnificence is as a thinker, a sage: “But it turns out that what he has to say is of that weight as to withdraw some attention from the vehicle….And the importance of this wisdom of life sinks the form, as of Drama or Epic, out of notice.” Yet at the close of the essay Emerson wheels about to chastise Shakespeare for tarnishing and trivializing his incomparable gift with mere confections, entertainments that betray his penetrating force of intellect. The likes of Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are rightful objects of derision beside the Bible or the Iliad. One must await patiently the coming of the “poet-priest” who recognizes the full seriousness of the work at hand, and “who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player.” The solemn Puritanical streak in Emerson shows here like a wound.
In his youth, Walt Whitman hit the beach at Coney Island and would “declaim Homer and Shakespeare to the surf and sea gulls.” Yet in Democratic Vistas (1871), Whitman numbered Shakespeare’s works among the “great poems…poisonous to the idea of the pride and dignity of the common people, the life-blood of Democracy.” Further thought on Shakespeare’s history plays, however, turned Whitman toward vatic adulation for the precursor of honorable democratic sentiment: By demonstrating the violence and all-around inhumanity of the ancient and medieval worlds, Shakespeare tacitly underwrote the need for decent and democratic politics. He composed “the first full exposé…of the political theory and results, or the reason-why and necessity for them which America has come on earth to abnegate and replace.”
The most famous appearance of Shakespeare in American literature comes in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885): A pair of flimflam lowlifes, who style themselves the Dauphin of France and the Duke of Bridgewater, further style themselves David Garrick the younger and Edmund Kean the elder and grace a shoeless, flyblown Arkansas river town with their rendition of choice Shakespearean scenes. Huck Finn memorizes Hamlet’s soliloquy as the Duke rehearses it with hellacious brio: “…all through his speech he howled, and spread around, and swelled up his chest, and just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before.” What the Duke earnestly calls “the most celebrated thing in Shakspeare” begins, “To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,/But that the fear of something after death/Murders the innocent sleep,/Great nature’s second course,/And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune/Than fly to others that we know not of.”
The con men are counting on box-office gold, but only about a dozen people attend the spectacular, and they laugh throughout the performance and most leave before it’s over. “So the duke said these Arkansaw lunkheads couldn’t come up to Shakspeare,” and “The World-Renowned Tragedians” put on another show more suited to the townspeople’s mental caliber: “THE KING’S CAMELOPARD OR THE ROYAL NONESUCH!!!” The handbill warns, “LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED,” so the place is packed. The Duke “rolled up the curtain, and the next minute the king come a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and he was painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow….The people most killed themselves laughing….” Gawking in groundling wonderment, the crowd demands two encores and the actors are only too happy to oblige. In this close encounter between the shifty and the shiftless, Twain sizes up the American heartland’s readiness for high culture, which knows no more sublime representative than Shakespeare. Melville’s democratic genius, the bard’s rightful successor, is nowhere to be seen.
STATESMEN AND SHAKESPEARE
For Americans, Shakespeare has been a figure of particular reverence, yearning, and vexation. He has stood for the time-honored refinements of civilization that Americans, as late starters, have not yet had time to nourish into full flower. But he has also been the paragon whom stout-hearted democrats believe themselves destined to surpass. Americans are proudest of their equality and freedom, and to a lesser degree of the political men and institutions that have established and upheld these virtues; few and ever fewer would envy the English their political and social traditions, which to American eyes are encrusted with unacceptable feudal excrescences. Yet some of our greatest statesmen have regarded Shakespeare as a writer and cultural eminence without peer, whose superiority to any American artist may sting the native pride but cannot be gainsaid.
In the foreword to the invaluable Library of America volume Shakespeare in America (2014), former president Bill Clinton observes that George Washington took a break from the hot-breathing commotion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to take in a production of The Tempest. When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited Shakespeare’s birthplace together, worshipper Jefferson knelt and kissed the floor, while pilgrim Adams took out his whittling knife and sliced himself a relic from a chair said to have been Shakespeare’s own. John Adams exhorted his son John Quincy to study closely Shakespeare’s history plays, which offer the rising American statesman severe and indispensable lessons on “the Treachery Perfidy Treason Murder Cruelty Sedition and Rebellions of rival and unbalanced factions, if he can keep his Gravity and his attention from being diverted by the Gaiety and Drollery of Falstaff….” John Quincy Adams would remark years later that he had been, “man and boy, a reader of Shakespeare at least three score years.” In 1835 he published “The Character of Desdemona,” a long essay in moralizing criticism, unfortunately of the tenor that gives such essays a bad name: The antislavery exemplar Adams found in Othello proof “that the intermarriage of black and white blood is a violation of the law of nature.” One suspects, or at least hopes, that the eminently decent John Quincy found this discovery an unpleasant surprise.
Where Jefferson and the Adamses grew up in cultivated circumstances, Abraham Lincoln’s education was largely catch-as-catch-can, and his great good fortune was that Shakespeare was one of the few books he managed to catch in his goat-milking youth. As Clinton writes, “Shakespeare never stopped speaking to him, and through him.” He was the nearest thing to the backwater Shakespeares whom Melville imagined cropping up in nondescript hamlets and hollows. Lincoln toted Shakespeare along on his rounds of the judicial circuit; his son remembered him with a copy of Shakespeare in hand as he went about his business in the White House; his secretary John Hay listened to the president’s midnight declamations of favorite Shakespearean passages; and Lincoln dipped into Hamlet to fortify the eloquence of his first inaugural address. But his favorite play was — a portentous choice — Macbeth.
With consummate irony, history cast Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in the role of a distinguished Shakespearean actor, most celebrated as Antony in a performance of Julius Caesar with his two more distinguished brothers that was hailed as “the greatest theatrical event in New York history.” The box-office take helped finance the Shakespeare statue that still stands in Central Park; few who see it today have any idea of its benefactor’s infamy, or that Booth had written a letter on the day of the assassination, addressed “To My Countrymen” and intended for newspaper publication, in which his peroration roars with Shakespearean thunder: “When Caesar had conquered the enemies of Rome and the power that was his menaced the liberties of the people, Brutus arose and slew him. The stroke of his dagger was guided by his love for Rome. It was the spirit and ambition of Caesar that Brutus struck at. ‘O then that we could come by Caesar’s spirit,/And not dismember Caesar! But alas!/Caesar must bleed for it!'” Modern political murder has rarely flashed such commanding credentials.
After Lincoln there was a sharp falling off in Shakespearean enthusiasm among American presidents, though Ulysses Grant, at the time a lieutenant serving in the Mexican War of 1846, was dragooned into the role of Desdemona in a military production of Othello; fortunately he was spared gross humiliation when a proper actress supplanted him for the actual performance. And in 1961 John Kennedy hosted a troupe of American players for a White House presentation of Shakespearean gems, and he spoke of Shakespeare as “an American playwright” — a turn all the more witty for being not exactly untrue.
American actors, directors, and even musical-theater composers have made Shakespeare their own, sometimes appropriating him for purposes quite far removed from his original intention. John Barrymore’s innovative 1922 Hamlet rang loudly with overtones of oedipal disturbance. Orson Welles’s 1937 production of Julius Caesar, with the director playing the role of Brutus, warned of fascism on the march; Welles’s notorious voodoo Macbeth (1936), a production of the New Deal-era Federal Theatre Project with the New York Negro Unit in Harlem, was set in 19th-century Haiti with witch doctors where simple witches had gone before and African musicians adept in black magic who sacrificed goats backstage and used the skins for their drums. Welles in due course played Lear and Othello, and directed himself in one of the very finest Shakespeare films, the fat joker’s showpiece of Falstaff’s greatest hits, Chimes at Midnight (1966). In 1943 the leftist firebrand and regal bass-baritone Paul Robeson was the talk of New York as the first black actor to play Othello on Broadway: In one critic’s words, Robeson was “indescribably magnificent,” his very presence skewering Nazi and Jim Crow racism with one fiery stab, his Othello’s dance of death with Iago representing “a gigantic contrast between the world of moral elevation and the world of moral nihilism.” More recently, popular Hollywood actors have famously played Shakespearean heroes and villains in film: Marlon Brando as Antony in Julius Caesar, Al Pacino as Shylock, Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Kevin Kline as Hamlet and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ethan Hawke as Hamlet and Iachimo in Cymbeline, and the very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Romeo and Juliet.
Hollywood directors are known for taking liberties with Shakespeare just as they do with most any play or novel fitted to the screen; they even customarily give themselves screenwriting credit for their works “adapted from Shakespeare.” Michael Almereyda sets the film widely known as Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet in contemporary Manhattan. The hero, who stands to inherit a multinational corporation, prefers the cinematic life, and the precocious film student videotapes his trademark soliloquy while trying on various suicidal poses with a pistol, then reprises the passage while stalking down the “Action” aisle of a Blockbuster Video store. Almereyda also reconceives Cymbeline, which originally featured warfare between ancient Britons and Romans, as a feud between motorcycle-gang drug dealers and shakedown-artist police in New York City’s outer boroughs. The new concept that likely got its start as a moderately interesting brainstorm — here are those few modern Americans prepared to defend their honor and their turf with extreme violence, like those stalwarts of ancient virtue — fizzles out fast into a mediocre action movie.
Julie Taymor, best known for her direction of The Lion King on Broadway, works more successfully with creative anachronism than Almereyda in Titus (1999), her version of Titus Andronicus. Evoking the Roman imperial world of iron brutality side-by-side with the mad pageantry and street violence of 20th-century fascist Italy, Taymor squeezes every last drop of viciousness from the grisliest tragedy of blood. She exploits the full potential of Shakespeare’s cavalcade of the unspeakable for the satisfaction of slasher-movie sensibilities. She has said that Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In fact it has a strong claim to being his worst, but Taymor has given it perhaps the fullest realization of any of his plays on film. She has also done well by one of his greatest plays, The Tempest (2010), which she recasts with Helen Mirren as the mage Prospera in place of the original male Prospero. This not-insignificant reconfiguration is neither a stunt nor an ill-judged political manifesto. Prospera may be angrier than several Prosperos I’ve seen, but there is no trace here of feminist agitprop, and Prospera, just like Prospero, epitomizes humanity at the pinnacle of wisdom and goodness.
However, even the best Hollywood remakes of Shakespeare — and these would include, with Taymor’s two films, Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2013) — remain unfaithful to the originals in a crucial respect. The moviegoer’s — and the moviemaker’s — notorious 119-minute attention span and Hollywood’s sumptuary laws pertaining to Shakespearean language have divested the plays of some of their richest ornament, not to say vital substance, and have frustrated some die-hard devotees inclined to think that what remains is not Shakespeare at all.
Some others are pleased to take Shakespeare however they find him. The American stage has been embellished by Broadway musicals of Shakespeare plays with catchy tunes: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse(1938), after The Comedy of Errors; Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1948), from The Taming of the Shrew; Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (1957), the most clever and triumphant rejiggering ever of Romeo and Juliet. These are products, classic in their own slighter way, of peculiarly American hearts and minds happily responsive to genius they cannot hope to rival.
The English tradition of Shakespeare criticism claimed the high ground for centuries, with such eminences as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Harley Granville-Barker, and A.C. Bradley. But such glory days are long past, and American critics now command the scholarly heights. There is none more renowned or more reviled than Harold Bloom of Yale, a figure of Falstaffian girth and gusto who touts Falstaff as Shakespeare’s greatest creation. But there was also the late Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago, ashamed even to share a surname with his rival; he was outraged by Harold Bloom’s beatification of the drunken, lying, tub-of-lard coward and whoremonger banished from the companionship of Henry V, the king whom Harold Bloom trashed as a warmonger with a serpent’s soul, but whom Allan Bloom saw as a political man of genius and a legitimate hero. Allan Bloom led a squadron of students of Leo Strauss, the extraordinary political philosopher, into the subtlest and most fascinating re-reading of Shakespeare in our time. Never before had it been so clear that Shakespeare was not principally a man of the theater making his living as an entertainer. His profundity and monumental intention demanded close reading as delicate as that accorded Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Bacon. And then there is David Bevington, also of Chicago, who has compiled perhaps the most popular edition of Shakespeare’s collected works ever, and who has also had a hand in the production of Folger Shakespeare Library editions — mass-market paperbacks with left-hand pages of useful glosses facing right-hand pages of text, just the sort of thing to earn a wide academic following.
Andrea Mays, author of The Millionaire and the Bard (2015), a biography of Henry Folger — the Standard Oil executive who was John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man and who founded the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1932 — credits Bevington with helping to instigate her biographical project by sponsoring her application to read in the exceedingly exclusive library, the improbably voluminous archives of which she plundered to write her book. Henry Folger, though not a literary genius or a scholar of indefatigable Sitzfleisch, was one of the most significant Shakespeareans America has produced. He was a Charles Foster Kane — Orson Welles’s notorious lampoon of William Randolph Hearst — who succeeded in getting what he truly desired: As against the swarming, festering futility of Citizen Kane’s warehouse stuffed with useless loot, Folger amassed a matchless gathering of Shakespeareana whose richness fulfilled his deepest needs and permitted him to erect a memorial worthy of the greatest writer ever — and, incidentally, to create an amazingly self-effacing memorial to himself and his wife.
Mays recognizes from her opening page what an oddity Henry Folger was. He had a “hoarder’s impulse…in search of a grand obsession.” The scholar or actor, at his best, wants to belong to the playwright; the collector of Folger’s order of magnitude wants the playwright to belong to him. Where one longs for total immersion, the other lusts for utter possession. Folger’s is an unmistakably American story that runs contrary to the all-too-familiar morality tale of immense riches squandered and prosperous lives ruined. For while pharaonic wealth remains a wish that many Americans know from the inside — one need look no further than the Ivy League’s storming of Goldman Sachs every year after graduation, or the long lines at convenience stores when the Powerball jackpot hits the mid-nine figures — there is nevertheless a well-worn admonition in the atmosphere against letting this desire take over. Money can’t buy happiness? But can any happiness be complete without money enough to fulfill certain urgent wishes? In Folger’s case, money — and a great deal of it — was absolutely essential to his happiness, and his legacy spreads the cultural wealth that his material wealth enabled him to purchase, and spreads it principally within a charmed circle of those whose literary passion or expertise makes them deserving of entry to the hallowed ground.
Mays also emphasizes what money meant to Shakespeare, and she makes this as well a very American story — rather too much of one. In her telling, Shakespeare, son of a small-town glove-maker, was a natural-born entrepreneur hot for the main chance, and he aspired to be a one-man entertainment conglomerate: “In other words, he was an author, actor, producer, co-owner of the acting company, and co-owner of the theater that sold the tickets. Thus Shakespeare prefigured the economic vertical integration that characterizes much of the modern entertainment industry.” To that end, Shakespeare became the hardest-working man in show business. And show business at that time was already a highly competitive affair. As today a person of limited means and eclectic tastes might have to choose between a night at the opera and a Rolling Stones farewell-tour concert, so in Elizabethan and Jacobean England one had to decide whether his disposable income would take him to the theater or to have a look at the bull- and bear-baiting. For a penny or two one could be ravished by high art — by the very highest art, by Hamlet or King Lear — or watch blinded and chained beasts torn to pieces by packs of vicious dogs. Yet Mays prefers to think of Shakespeare as a businessman indifferent to literary greatness; keeping the crowd amused, thereby producing a steady flow of income, was all his concern, as though he considered his work to be on a level with bear-baiting, or perhaps just a cut above. This is a remarkably hyper-democratic way of looking at a supreme artist, and it is perversely misconceived and misjudged. But then even so distinguished an American poet as William Carlos Williams, entranced by the demotic and the egalitarian, could insist that “Shakespeare is misunderstood if he is made a great figure, a bighead, a colossus of learning.” Such underestimation of genius as that which Mays and Williams fall into is a characteristically American way of cutting titanic men down to tolerable size. In the end, it is not the titans who are diminished by this misprision.
Henry Folger made no such mistake. He set out to build a colossus, and he succeeded mightily. Besides the 82 copies of the First Folio, each singular in some respect, Folger’s collection comprised 1,400 copies of the collected works, in 9,700 volumes. The Folger Library outdistanced every other library in the world in the number not only of Shakespeare folios but also of quartos, which had just one play per volume. Nothing remotely dubious got past Folger’s scrutiny. Folger made a specialty of books that had belonged to famous writers, actors, or political figures — King George III, Queen Victoria, David Garrick, Walt Whitman, George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln — but when the prize of another volume touted as having once been Lincoln’s became available, he passed it by: Examining the pages of Macbeth, he found them pristine, and that was the play Folger knew Lincoln read and reread more than any other.
Ancillary sub-specialties fell into several categories. Source materials were indispensable, such as Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and Raphael Holinshed’s English history; but a little-known play such as Pandosto, by a little-known playwright, Robert Greene, was a necessary possession because it served as a source for The Winter’s Tale — and there were plenty such essential obscurities. Over 5,000 volumes proved indispensable for their allusions to Shakespeare or his work, sometimes consisting of a single phrase. Folger also accumulated prompt books that had been owned by renowned actors and whose interleaving pages were festooned with directors’ commands — including 2,500 volumes from the likes of Garrick and Edwin Booth. Playbills, some 250,000, filled to bursting the vaults and warehouses where the collection was held until the completion of the library, and Folger used wooden ten-gallon oil cases to store his treasures. And the literature of disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship received more than its due, though Folger was no disbeliever himself. Perhaps such hypotheses about whether the works were in fact Bacon’s doing or even the Earl of Oxford’s merely served to heighten the drama for Folger and further prove that Shakespeare was a giant among men.
LIFE OF THE NATION
Joseph Quincy Adams, the Shakespeare scholar who was the first director of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library (and who was no relation to his namesake), spoke at the opening of the library on April 23, 1932, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and delivered an oration on “Shakespeare and American Culture.” In the “city of monuments” that Washington, D.C., had become, three stood out “in size, dignity, and beauty, conspicuous above the rest: the memorials to Washington, Lincoln, and Shakespeare.” Adams goes on to cite an American scholar who declared, “Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare, they are the three whom Americans universally worship; and you will not find a fourth, of ours or any other nation to add to this trinity.” And Adams speaks for himself when he says that these men are “the three great personal forces that have molded the political, the spiritual, and the intellectual life of our nation.” He goes on to declare that Americans regard Shakespeare with a reverence that outshines even that of the English for their greatest Englishman. “We may confidently say that today Americans at large are more familiar with the dramatist than are any other people on the globe. From the grammar-school boy with shining morning face, to great captains of industry harassed by responsibilities, they are all lovers of Shakespeare. The beautiful building which we are here gathered to dedicate stands as a product of that love — most beautiful, perhaps, in that point of view.”
These days schoolboys and tycoons have other things to do than be ravished by Shakespeare. How long Shakespeare will stand as American culture continues to crumble is a troubling question. But at least for now he is still ours, and he occupies his rightful place in the esteem of those who concern themselves with literary excellence, towering above the most remarkable native growths.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Churchill’s Military Histories: A Rhetorical Study.