Today is Shakespeare’s 451st birthday. Around the world, performances and recitals will be put on in a host of languages, and in a multitude of countries. There is something in Shakespeare’s art wherein everyone tends to find a positive reflection of their community and values, which explains the ease with which various cultures claim the poet as their own.
As Americans, what, if anything, is our special relationship with Shakespeare? Do we even have one? If so, what is the nerve of his particular appeal?
In honor of his birthday, and in quest for an answer, I spoke with Dr. Michael Witmore, current Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.
The first thing to observe, Witmore notes, is that “Shakespeare’s language made us who we are.” The men who shaped this country were great lovers of the Bard. According to Abigail Adams, when Jefferson and Adams reached Stratford-upon-Avon in 1786, Jefferson “fell upon the ground and kissed it.” George Washington, in a letter written as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, parallels the British defeat to a scene in The Tempest. Tocqueville, surveying the American experiment in 1831 noted “there is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” adding, “I remember reading the feudal drama Henry V. for the first time in a log house.” Lincoln, who may aptly be described as a second “Founder,” had a (now) well-publicized love of Shakespeare. The list goes on.
But what accounts for Shakespeare’s popularity over, say, Milton or Marlowe? Witmore believes the answers are tied to values that are central to all Americans. Two stand out above the rest. First, Shakespeare’s characters exhibit ”exuberance in daring,” which appeals to Americans who pride themselves in their “abilities to invent the world they want.” Prospero fits right in line with the “American Dream” when he take charge of his island; Romeo and Juliet, when they defy their parents to follow their hearts; and even Richard III, in his own dark way, did not let his “rudely stamp’d” appearance keep him from chasing his dreams!” Second, Witmore makes the case that the Bard, for all his use of the aristocracy, really was a “democratic writer in scope [who] felt there was drama in the mixing of the classes.” (Prince Hal did not spend his formative years at prep school.) This does not necessitate that Shakespeare be a democrat, but it does suggest that he considered life much improved—and much explained—through the interplay of a variety of human types. He would have been right at home in America.
Finally, and with the Beltway milieu in mind, I could not resist the temptation to ask Dr. Whitmore which play would benefit presidential candidates to study for success. His answer was quick—Richard II—a play above all others in the corpus that “shows [the] mechanics of how political power is lost and won.” Of course, many of Shakespeare’s works portray this dynamic, so to understand what Whitmore means we might treat ourselves to a re-reading. Today seems like as good a day as any.