Sandra M. Gustafson
Department of English
University of Notre Dame
Shakespeare entered English-language education for the first time in a significant way through the works of Thomas Sheridan. During the 1750s and 1760s, the Irish actor and educator helped spark an “elocutionary revolution” in Britain and its colonies with his efforts on behalf of vernacular language training. Sheridan believed that young people should be educated in their native tongue, not in dead classical languages. He believed further that oratory was an essential form of language training that was central to both Christianity and republican government, the defining elements of British society at its best.
Shakespeare exemplified English eloquence for Sheridan, and Shakespeare’s plays provided important resources for training in English oratory. Speeches extracted from the plays were ubiquitous in the elocutionary manuals that proliferated in England and America from the late eighteenth century. Schoolbooks routinely employed examples from Shakespeare’s plays to demonstrate forms of eloquence.
The impact of Shakespeare on civic eloquence in the United States is visible in two great “literary” orators of the period: Fisher Ames and Daniel Webster. Speeches such as Webster’s famous Reply to Hayne (1830) incorporated references to Shakespeare. They in turn became entries in schoolbooks, thereby reinforcing the connection between Shakespeare’s plays and political eloquence.
This paper will trace the importance of Shakespeare for Sheridan’s thought, examine the presence of extracts from the plays in numerous school manuals that circulated in the British North American colonies and the early U.S., and conclude with a discussion of Shakespearean allusion in works by Ames and Webster and their role in reproducing Shakespeare’s influence on American education.