Scope and Approach: Shakespeare and the Making of America

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2020 Teaching Shakespeare Institute

An invitation from Head Scholar Ellen MacKay and Institute Director Peggy O’Brien:

What does Shakespeare’s world look like when your students imagine it? Accents? Laced up dresses and stiff ruffs? Pale poets writing with goose quills by candlelight? Shakespeare and the Making of America will reveal a fuller and more accurate picture, one that will compel you to leave that other picture in the dust.

Together with diverse scholars, mentor teachers, and theatre professionals, you and 24 colleagues chosen from across the country will encounter a Shakespeare whose “majestic vision” was clearly shaped by the colonization of America, and who shaped America through the wonders and plunders he envisioned in his plays. Against the common sense that that attributes Shakespeare’s national impact to England and that dates America’s foundation to the Declaration of Independence, we will convene for three weeks on the storied campus of the College of William and Mary—the second oldest institution of higher learning in the US—to study two plays: The Tempest, whose establishing shipwreck was inspired by the loss and recovery of a Virginia Company flagship, and The Merchant of Venice, allegedly the first play professionally performed in America, in 1752 Williamsburg (Thomas Jefferson saw it performed there in 1768). Our emphasis will be on the contradictory views of justice, liberty, refuge and belonging that animate these comedies, and that took hold on American shores and in American minds long before the nation’s birth in 1776. 

We will look at literature and history simultaneously, through documents, through rigorous inquiry, and by literally getting our hands dirty. As always, rigorous study of the plays will be distinguished by attention to their scholarly, performative, and pedagogical elements—and, this summer, the historical elements as well. You will be invited to delve into an unprecedented array of English and American resources, including the archaeological findings unearthed at Historic Jamestowne, the heritage environment produced at Colonial Williamsburg, the legal and popular records found in the College of William and Mary’s Special Collections and Earl Gregg Swem Libraries, the rich history of inquiry gathered at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History, and a trove of books, manuscripts and artifacts from the Folger Shakespeare Library, specially assembled for this Institute. As you explore America’s mark on Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s Making of America, the staff and faculty of the Institute will be there to guide you, inspire you, and to learn right along with you.