Shakespeare and the Making of America




sponsored by the 







When: June 27–July 16, 2021

Where: Online, or in any space that you and your laptop or desktop can hijack full time for three weeks: your workspace.

Who: Twenty-five curious, high-energy, eager, and committed middle and high school teachers and a faculty of Shakespeareans, historians, performance experts, mentor teachers, archeologists, and more.  Check the NEH Eligibility Guidelines elsewhere in this post to be sure that you are eligible to apply. And know that it is the clear expectation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Folger Shakespeare Library that teachers accepted to this program commit to participation in all aspects of the institute’s full program.

What: A full-time, full on, three-week immersion into the holds that Shakespeare and early America have had and continue to have on each other--with full attention to the roles that indigenous, Black, brown, and Latinx people played during this slice of history.  We’ll do a deep dive into two plays—The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) and The Tempest (1611)—as well as examine evidence and documents from Shakespeare, early American history, Historic Jamestowne, Monticello, and more. We’ll navigate through all with an eye to what we teach and how we teach it to our students today.

Stipend: Institute participants will receive an NEH stipend of $2850.



Our three weeks together will be a journey of discovery. The path? A close look into a crucible that contains two Shakespeare plays, pre-American history, early American history—and the use and appropriation of all. Against traditional belief that attributes Shakespeare’s national impact to England and that dates America’s foundation to the Declaration of Independence, profound discoveries await us when we consider the “there and here, then and now.” The connections between The Tempest and Jamestowne are historical, literary, and deep. Those between The Merchant of Venice and the founding of the republic are perhaps less evident, but clear nonetheless. Shakespeare’s rhetoric and his language were in the mouths of the Founding Fathers in ways that were at once uplifting and divisive. In addition to the earliest printed versions of the plays, our journey will include unprecedented live, real-time access to the archeology and history of Jamestowne site and Jamestowne’s most brilliant staff . . . as well as the examination of other compelling documents:  
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • John Smith’s A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part thereof, till the last returne from thence. (London, 1608)
  • A selection of runaway slave advertisements from 1750s Virginia. A example, from the Virginia Gazette for January 1751, printed in Williamsburg: RAN away from the Subscriber, in James-City County, the 20th Day of December, a young Man, named Philip Jones, about 22 Years of Age: had on a dark grey Kersey Coat, black Cloth Waistcoat, a Silk Cap, and black-ribb'd Stockings. Whoever brings him to me shall have a Pistole Reward, besides what the Law allows. Emory Hughes. N.B. It is suppos'd he is gone towards Brunswick
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book
  • Memoirs of A Monticello Slave as dictated to Reverend Charles Campbell by Isaac Jefferson, c. 1843

We will examine all of the various perspectives through various means: conversation and seminar with nationally recognized scholars, hands-on work with the language of the plays and these documents, reflection on our own perspectives. The ways in which scholars and historians have typically considered The Tempest and Jamestowne have drastically changed. Whose stories are not told? Whose stories have only begun to be told recently? Engagement with The Merchant of Venice and America’s founding documents makes visible the tension between prejudice and treasure. All of this is, of course, with our eyes on your classroom, bringing your students into this expanded world of literature and history, and to what these plays might mean for them now.


Participants will be expected to invest and engage fully and actively in all aspects of the Institute. The days will be long and full, with most of the work online and synchronous, and a portion of it offline and asynchronous. You will be in lecture and seminar, in performance sessions, and curriculum classes—in plenary sessions, breakouts, small groups, and large-scale interactive sessions too. You will be collaborating with your colleagues and with faculty as well as pursuing individual work. You will be busy. 
We anticipate that Zoom will be our primary go-to platform. Participants are expected to be technologically ready for this work; robust connectivity is an absolute requirement as is the absence of firewalls or other potential barrier-producing quirkiness.
Participants may wish to register for college credit. Upon successful completion of the Institute, Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC will award six hours of graduate credit. A total cost of $750 is associated with the awarding of these credits.
Applicants accepted into the institute will receive a stipend of $2850. For participants in virtual institutes, stipend funds might be used to support your study in other ways—ramped up connectivity, for example, or childcare, or a new device if you need one. You will receive your stipend in two installments, during the first and third weeks of the institute.
Dr. Peggy O’Brien, Folger Shakespeare Library, Institute Director
Dr. Ellen MacKay, University of Chicago, Institute Head Scholar
Dr. Kyle Grady, University of California at Irvine
Caleen Jennings, American University, Washington, DC, emirita
Stefanie Jochman, Trinity Episcopal School, Richmond, VA
Heather Lester, International School at LaGuardia Community College, NY, NY
Amber Phelps, City College High School, Baltimore, MD
Mark Summers, Director of Public and Youth Programs, Historic Jamestowne
Michael Tolaydo, St. Mary’s College of MD, emeritus
President Katherine Rowe, College of William and Mary
Dr. Karin Wulf, Executive Director, Omohundro Institute, College of William and Mary
**We have invited more visiting scholars. Check back.
Should I apply to Shakespeare and the Making of America?  
Probably yes, if . . .
  • you are eager to study the literature and history in depth with a fuller picture of the roles of indigenous, black, brown, and Latinx people, as well as specifics of the crash and flow of Renaissance literature and culture with the American Experiment,
  • you are eager to relate all of the above to the world we currently live in,
  • you are open-minded, have high energy, are an excellent collaborator, and can embrace ambiguity . . . and all online, 
  • you have a sense of adventure and an appetite for digging deep and breaking new ground.
Probably no, if . . .
  • you love and/or teach Tempest or Merchant, and your primary interest is in exploring these plays solely from a literary perspective, and in learning about teaching them from a literary perspective. This is a wonderful and valuable goal for sure, but the broader focus of Shakespeare and the Making of America will be frustrating for you. 
  • if the literary approach is what you are looking for, we’d love to see you at We have lots for you there!




This program is supported by funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities.