America's Shakespeare

New Exhibition

April 7 – July 24, 2016

Washington, DC 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, film, and more, America's Shakespeare reveals how Americans have made Shakespeare our own.

Shakespeare has been part of America's conversation from the very beginning. When America's founders left Britain behind, they took Shakespeare with them. A broad range of items in this exhibition, curated by Georgianna Ziegler, 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. Shakespeare's words have always been a common language for Americans in a diverse society.

This exhibition draws on voices from the past and present who call on Shakespeare as they interpret the world around them: Abigail Adams writing about the Battle of Bunker Hill; Abraham Lincoln moved by Macbeth; Mark Twain celebrating amateur actors along the Mississippi; and Rita Dove remembering her childhood reading Shakespeare. 

Whenever Americans have developed a new form of media, they have included Shakespeare because his plots and words are so widely known and admired. Accordingly, this exhibition tells America’s Shakespeare story in a variety of media, from print to photography; stage to film and television; radio to YouTube. 

Clips from Shakespeare silent films, West Side Story, and television shows that reference Shakespeare will be shown on large projection screens in the exhibition hall.

This exhibition is part of The Wonder of Will. Visit for more details.

America’s Shakespeare will be on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles: Nov 17, 2016–Feb 26, 2017.

Exhibition Highlights

  • The earliest documented ownership of a Shakespeare folio in the New World
  • Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
  • Herman Melville’s annotated copy of Shakespeare
  • Walt Whitman’s draft for the beginning of his essay on Shakespeare in America
  • Letter from Abraham Lincoln about the Shakespeare plays he has read
  • Manuscript for “Little Pyramus and Thisbe,”a children’s story by Louisa May Alcott
  • Theatrical costumes from great American Shakespearean actresses, including a golden snake girdle worn by Polish immigrant actress Helena Modjeska as Cleopatra, Julia Marlowe’s ethereal Juliet costume, and Ada Rehan’s male disguise from As You Like It
  • Promptbook from the 1930 production of Othello with African-American actor Paul Robeson, and photograph of Yiddish actor  Jacob Adler who performed Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway
  • Copy of the Armed Services edition of Henry V published at the time of the Iraq War
  • Revolutionary War and Cold War-era political cartoons


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 ThingShakespeare's SistersElizabeth 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.


Shakespeare in American Life

The Folger’s three-part documentary Shakespeare in American Life — currently being heard on public radio stations around the world — explores the English language’s most important playwright and his influence on American performance, politics, and popular culture. Each hour-long episode, narrated by Sam Waterston and created by Richard Paul, deepens our understanding of Shakespeare and the American identity. Learn more at

Shakespeare Unlimited

These episodes from the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, explore different aspects of Shakespeare in America, from the traditions of outdoor festivals to the creative choices of costume and set designers.

More Shakespeare Unlimited episodes:


The New Sonneteers: Malachi Black, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and A. Van Jordan

April 11, 2016, 7:30pm; $15

These three diverse and talented poets have one thing in common—each tackle the sonnet in their most recent collections and, in doing so, breathe new life into a centuries-old form. Co-sponsored with Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies.

Reduced Shakespeare Company

William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged)

April 21 - May 8, 2016; $35-75

The wonderfully inventive and wildly hilarious Reduced Shakespeare Company® returns to Folger Theatre in this eagerly anticipated World Premiere. Discovered in a treasure-filled parking lot in Leicester, England, an ancient manuscript proves to be the long-lost first play by none other than the young William Shakespeare from Stratford. Using questionable scholarship and street-performer smarts, the trio of comic actors throw themselves into a fast, funny, and frenzied festival of physical finesse, witty wordplay, and plentiful punning.

District Merchants

A variation on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

May 31 – July 03, 2016; Tickets $35-75

This new adaptation by four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Aaron Posner, commissioned by Folger Theater for this anniversary year, sets the characters of Merchant among the Black and Jewish populations of an imagined time and place—simultaneously Shakespearean, post-Civil War Washington, DC, and today. Directed by Michael John Garcés.

Curator’s Gallery Talk for America’s Shakespeare

May 12, 2016, 6:30pm; members only

Members of the Folger Shakespeare Library are invited to a gallery talk with exhibition curator Georgianna Ziegler. For more information on how to become a member, visit

CrossTalk: DC Reflects on Identity and Difference

This community engagement initiative uses Shakespeare—The Merchant of Venice and the Shakespeare-inspired District Merchants—as a focal point for considering race and religion thoughtfully and deeply, through the lens of literature and history. Highlights include a public forum at the Folger with scholars, educators, community and religious leaders, and members of the public; a special student matinee performance of District Merchants followed by a post-show discussion with scholars and cast members; and five Folger Friday lectures with a wide range of topics and speakers suggested by the community. Educational materials for teachers and students will be developed in partnership with the National Museum for African American History and Culture. CrossTalk is part of a nationwide initiative, Humanities in the Public Square, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and aimed at fostering meaningful dialogue in communities about the most pressing issues of the day. CrossTalk partners include Anacostia Community Museum, DC Public Library, DC Public Schools, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Metropolitan AME Church, and Trinity Washington University.   

Curator Talk: Daniel De Simone

June 21, 2016, 6:30pm; $20

Join Daniel De Simone, Eric Weinmann Librarian, as he provides a behind-the-scenes look at exhibitions and collections at the Folger. A reception with light fare is included.

Kim Hall

“Othello Was My Grandfather”: Shakespeare and the African Diaspora

June 27, 2016, 7pm; $15/10 for members

Join Dr. Kim Hall, Lucyle Hook Chair and Professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard College, for a special lecture as part of the Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series, presented by Folger Institute.




A guide to the exhibition for younger visitors is available.


Monday – Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm

Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge.  No advance reservations required.

Wednesday at 12pm; Saturday at 2pm

Folger docents offer a special exhibition-focused tour, free of charge. No advance reservations required.

Group Tours

Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675-0395.


Folger Shakespeare Library is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world. The Folger welcomes millions of visitors online and in person. We provide unparalleled access to a huge array of resources, from original sources to modern interpretations. With the Folger, you can experience the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of pathbreaking research. We offer the opportunity to see and even work with early modern sources, driving discovery and transforming education for students of all ages. Shakespeare belongs to you. His world is vast. Come explore. Join us online, on the road, or in Washington, DC. Learn more at