Shakespeare is woven into the American story in so many ways, including in the lives of the men we think of as Founding Fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. America’s Shakespeare, on exhibit at the Folger through July 24, demonstrates how Shakespeare has been part of America’s conversation from the very beginning.
Like many Virginians of his day, George Washington enjoyed going to plays. As a young man, he probably saw plays by Shakespeare and other playwrights in Williamsburg, and he continued to note “a play” or a ticket purchase in his diary in the years that followed. Records of the specific productions he attended are sketchy, but we know he went to a production of Hamlet during a trip to New York in May 1773 and an opera of The Tempest during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
As president, Washington lived in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital. There he once hosted an amateur Shakespeare production, probably in the winter of 1790. William Duer, assistant to the treasury secretary, wrote that Duer “had the honor of appearing before him as one of the dramatis personae in the tragedy of Julius Caesar… in the garret of the Presidential mansion, wherein before the magnates of the land and the elite of the city, I performed the part of Brutus to the Cassius of my old school-fellow, Washington Custis.”
Washington rarely quoted from the plays. He did so, however, in an October 1778 letter he wrote as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. In the letter, he responded confidently to reports that the British might be planning to seize more towns. “They will know, that it is our Arms, not defenceless Towns, they have to Subdue,” he wrote. “Till this end is accomplished, the Superstructure they have been endeavouring to raise, ‘like the baseless fabric of a vision’ falls to nothing.” Washington’s image of a possible British defeat is from Act 4, scene 1, of The Tempest:
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve…
As a young man, Thomas Jefferson would likely have seen Shakespeare’s plays onstage. One biographer writes that he “haunted the playhouses” of Williamsburg, Virginia, in the spring of 1768, most likely attending (among other plays) the Virginia Company of Comedians’ production of The Merchant of Venice. Later in life, he went to The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth in London.
In a letter to a friend, Jefferson recommends Shakespeare for reading in the evening, explaining that “Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” (See this letter in the America’s Shakespeare exhibition.)
When a friend asked him to recommend books to buy, Jefferson encouraged him to include some works of fiction, like Shakespeare’s plays, as a guide to virtue, arguing that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.”
While in England in 1786, Jefferson went on a trip with John Adams that included Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Although Adams described this tourist site as “small and mean,” Jefferson simply noted the costs of going there, including entry fees to see the birthplace and the tomb. He and Adams also followed the custom of other visitors by cutting a souvenir piece of wood from a chair where Shakespeare had supposedly sat. In 2006, Jefferson’s home at Monticello exhibited this memento, along with a wry note by Jefferson: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true like the relics of the saints it must miraculously reproduce itself.”
Jefferson and Adams’s diaries certainly suggest the visit was disappointing (one biographer pictures Jefferson’s “teeth obviously grating” as he jotted down the fees). Many years later, however, a very different version of these events—perhaps apocryphal—was suggested by Abigail Adams. She wrote in an 1815 letter that when Thomas Jefferson first reached Stratford, he kissed the ground.
John and Abigail Adams
John Adams read and quoted from Shakespeare’s plays throughout his life. From his earliest years as a colonial teacher and a lawyer, Adams filled his diaries with references to Shakespeare’s plays—including King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Timon of Athens—as well as other literary references and accounts of the people he met. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature,” he wrote. “Let me examine how men think.”
Adams and his wife Abigail also often quoted passages from different Shakespeare plays in their letters to each other. Like other patriots during the Revolution, they liked to compare King George III with Shakespeare’s arch-villain, Richard III. “The time is hastening,” she wrote to her husband in 1775, “when George, like Richard, may cry, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’”
After the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, she praised the courage of the militiamen with a quote from Coriolanus: “Extremity is the trier of spirits/ Common chances common men will bear.” (See this letter in the America’s Shakespeare exhibition.)
And during the siege of Boston in March 1776, she quoted the passage from Julius Caesar that begins, “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”
The Broadway musical Hamilton
We couldn’t resist throwing this one in for fun. In the song, “Take a Break,” Alexander Hamilton sings:
“They think me Macbeth, and ambition is my folly…
Madison is Banquo, Jefferson’s Macduff
And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane”
Shakespeare in American Life
Listen to the Folger’s three-part radio documentary, Shakespeare in American Life. The third episode, “Shakespeare Is a Black Woman,” explores how Shakespeare’s work has intertwined itself with American electoral politics, geopolitics, and racial, class, and academic politics. It also explores how Shakespeare has been used for political purposes throughout American history, including by some of the first U.S. presidents.
Editor’s Note: This blog post includes text from the Shakespeare in American Life archived website.