What makes the words, ideas, and characters of William Shakespeare—an Englishman—so central to American life and thought?
Through a fascinating selection of rare letters, costumes, books, and more, America's Shakespeare reveals how Americans have made Shakespeare our own. The story begins with the Revolutionary War, when America's founders left Britain behind, but took Shakespeare with them. A broad range of items traces Shakespeare's ever-changing role in American culture, from westward expansion and the Civil War to stage, screen, and radio, debates over war, politics, and race, and the latest forms of digital media today.
Part of The Wonder of Will, a Folger celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare
President Abraham Lincoln loved Shakespeare and was an avid theater-goer. In an 1863 letter to actor James Hackett that can be seen in the exhibition, Lincoln remarks that he has frequently read "Lear,' 'Richard Third,' 'Henry Eighth', 'Hamlet,' and especially 'Macbeth.'" "I think none equals 'Macbeth,'" he continues.
On April 15, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the theater was draped in black for mourning. Ironically, as Booth fled into hiding, he also quoted from Macbeth in the last words of his diary: “I must fight the course.’ Tis all that’s left me.”
The lithograph above depicts John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln with a quotation from Macbeth.
"Hath borne his faculties so meek; has been
so clear in his great office; that his virtues
shall plead, tramped-tongued, against
the deep damnation of his taking off."
Whitman found Shakespeare undemocratic in many respects. He wrote preliminary notes for his essay “Shakspere for America,” on the back of two envelopes, the manuscript of which you can see in the exhibition. In the essay, Whitman honors Shakespeare for his influence on modern literature, but he feels that the playwright is too attached to the English aristocratic past and not in tune with America’s democratic future. Yet there is no doubt that Whitman loved what he called Shakespeare's "riches"; he carried around a copy of Shakespeare's Poems and owned Shakespeare's Works, one of which you see above.
Ada Rehan (1857-1916) was the stage name of Ada Crehan, a popular 19th century actor. Rehan played many of Shakespeare's comic heroines including Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Kate in Taming of the Shrew - her signature role.
Rehan had to grow into the more subdued role of Viola, but she eventually excelled in that as well. A critic called it “one of the best Shakespearean interpretations of the time.” Rehan wore the costume shown here when she played Viola disguised as the young male servant, Cesario, in Twelfth Night. You see a printed version of the play with Rehan's signature , as well as a costume design for Cesario, and a photograph of Cesario and Malvolio from the production in the exhibition along with the costume itself.
Julia Marlowe (1866-1950) and E. H. Sothern (1859-1933) were both English actors who made their careers in the United States. Marlowe was a successful actor in her own right, preferring classical plays such as Shakespeare’s to the modern drama of Shaw and Ibsen. She then met E.H. Sothern and toured North America with him from 1904 through 1924, sharing direction of the plays, as well as managing and finances. They married in 1911.
Marlowe premiered as Juliet in New York in 1887, and when she and Sothern later took their production of Romeo and Juliet across the country, it became the standard rendition of the play for a generation. They performed Romeo and Juliet at the Belasco Theatre in Washington, DC in 1912. In the exhibition, you can see one of her Juliet costumes along with two photographs from the 1904 production, including the one above.
Theater - especially comedy and variety shows - was a popular form of entertainment for the thousands of immigrants who arrived from the mid-19th century through the years up to World War I. These Germans, Poles, Russians, Italians and other European immigrants, settled on the East Coast but also traveled westward. Soon they supported Shakespeare in translation or in bi-lingual productions; Antonio Maiori presented an Italian Hamlet in New York's Bowery around 1901.
1916 marked the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Across the country, people remembered Shakespeare in 1916 with local events in theaters, schools, museums, and libraries. They could even purchase a calendar with quotes from Shakespeare or the King James Bible accompanying each day, and longer excerpts and essays on Shakespeare and Christianity at the beginning of each month, like the one seen above.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) began his acting career almost exactly 100 years after Ira Aldridge, another famous black actor who starred as Othello in Britain. In the 1930s, America was not yet ready for a black man to play the role of Othello, which had traditionally been performed by white actors in black face. Robeson therefore went to London where he starred in Othello with Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona. In 1943 Robeson finally appeared as Othello on Broadway, in a much-acclaimed production that ran for 296 performances. Even while touring America in the 1940s, Robeson faced segregation, but his Othello was a triumph. Robeson himself said, "I’m acting, and I'm talking for the Negroes in the way only Shakespeare can."
Shown above is the costume design by Robert Edmund Jones for Paul Robeson’s 1943 American Othello.
Meet the Curator
As the Folger’s Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, Georgianna Ziegler brings an in-depth knowledge of the library's Shakespeare holdings to this quintessentially Shakespearean exhibition. A past president of the Shakespeare Association of America, Ziegler has curated a number of Folger exhibitions, including Shakespeare’s the Thing, Shakespeare's Sisters, Elizabeth I: Then and Now, and Shakespeare's Unruly Women, and has co-curated Marketing Shakespeare and Golden Lads and Lasses, among others. She is the author of numerous journal and reference articles. Before coming to the Folger in 1992, Ziegler taught Shakespeare and was curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Furness Shakespeare Library.