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Shakespeare & Beyond

America's Shakespeare: Connections between the Bard and the Founding Fathers


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.

George Washington

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.”


The history of Shakespeare, the times of his life and his legacy, his influence is fascinating….. I’m looking forward to more. Thank you, JoEllen

JoEllen Wilson — July 20, 2016

I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s big bio of Pres/Gen George Washington and am impressed with how often Washington quotes Shakespeare. Sometimes Chernow points out the borrowing but other times he may not realize it himself – like one about “the image of Patience on a monument.”

Peter Garland — August 4, 2017