Heather S. Nathans
Department of Theatre
University of Maryland
After his dramatic falling out with abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the late 1840s, Boston’s William Cooper Nell, African American activist, abolitionist, and playwright wrote to a friend in New York, asking her to send on a box of books that he particularly wanted, but had left behind upon his rapid departure from the state. He specifically mentioned that he needed his collection of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Indeed, Nell’s letters throughout his life were peppered with quotations from Shakespeare and he was an avid theatre-goer (one who successfully sued Boston’s Howard Athenaeum for racial discrimination). He also founded the city’s first black amateur theatrical troupe, known as the Histrionic Club.
Nell was largely self-educated. Although he had attended Boston’s African American school and had won recognition for his studies there, the discrimination and segregation in Boston’s schools meant that he could not pursue his education beyond his teen years, nor did he have ready access to the cultural advantages of his white peers. Nell spent much of his life campaigning for integration in the Boston schools, Boston theatres, and other cultural institutions – and remarkably he won many of his battles even before the Civil War transformed the American racial landscape.
How does the story of William Cooper Nell intersect with that of Shakespeare in American education? Nell’s unshakeable conviction that theatre formed a critical component of an American citizen’s education (whether black or white), and his determination to acquire that knowledge under even the most challenging circumstances, emblematize the effort to incorporate Shakespeare’s work into the American school system. Nell’s struggles also point to the fluid notion of “education” in antebellum American culture. Did it consist merely of what one learned in the classroom, or might an individual who studied outside a schoolhouse be considered properly educated as well? What educational structures had the power to confer authority on the interpretation of texts and knowledge? Could the theatre itself be considered a proper “school” for manners, elocution, and textual exploration?
In this paper, I explore how different nineteenth century communities defined education, theatre, and Shakespeare’s relationship to both. Using Nell as a starting point, I trace the ways in which different, traditionally marginalized groups in the new nation embraced Shakespeare’s texts and the theatre as tools for civil and cultural reform. I suggest that for some of these communities, a Shakespearean education became a weapon with which to combat racism or oppression.