Shakespeare in American Life

Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944. Folger Digital Image 1132.

Shakespeare in American Life, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger opened March 8, 2007 and closed on August 18 2007. The exhibition was curated by Alden and Virginia Vaughan with the assistance of Rachel Doggett, Richard Kuhta, and Virginia Millington. The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

William Shakespeare has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on American culture, education, and even politics! The Bard would surely be pleased, and probably surprised, at how Americans have embraced his plays, sonnets and poems. Shakespeare in American Life celebrates the Bard's influence on American culture and the Folger Library's 75th Anniversary in 2007.

Contents of the exhibition

Shakespeare in American Life audio tour

Explore Shakespeare in American Life through this audio tour

Making Shakespeare Our Own

Listen to co-curator Virginia Vaughan discuss a presentation copy of Shakespeare's Complete Works.

Items included

19th-Century Americans Study Shakespeare

Listen to co-curator Virginia Vaughan discuss Delia Bacon's theories on authorship.

Items included

American Travesties of Shakespeare

Listen to co-curator Virginia Vaughan discuss minstrel shows use of Shakespeare's texts.

Items included
  • Desdemonum: an Ethiopian Burlesque, in Three Scenes. New York: Happy Hours Co., 1874?. Call number: PR2829 A72 D4; displayed front cover.
  • R.W. Criswell. The new Shakspeare and other travesties. New York: The American news company, 1882. Call number: PR2878 .C85; displayed pp. 8-9.

African-American Pioneers

Listen to co-curator Alden Vaughan discuss Paul Robeson

Items included
  • Robert Edmond Jones. Costume design for Paul Robeson as "Othello". Ink and gouache drawing with fabric swatches attached, 1943. Call number: ART Box J79 no. 1 and LUNA Digital Image. Gift of James O. Belden in memory of Evelyn Berry Belden.
  • Carl Van Vechten. Portrait photograph of Paul Robeson as Othello. Silver gelatin photographic print. [New York]: 1944. Call number: ART 251518 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Shakespeare. The tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Souvenir promptbook. [S.l. : s.n., n.d.]. Call number: PROMPT Oth. Fo.2 and LUNA Digital Image.

Shakespeare in American Politics

Listen to co-curator Alden Vaughan discuss Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Items included
  • Clifford Kennedy Berryman. To bee or not to bee.... FDR, as Hamlet, considers a third term. Pen and ink, ca. 1940. from Political caricatures inspired by Shakespeare. Pen and ink drawings, [1932-1944]. Catalog item 36. Call number: ART Box B534 no.5 and LUNA Digital Image.

Shakespeare Festivals

Listen to co-curator Virginia Vaughan discuss Caliban by the yellow sands by Percy MacKaye.

Items included
  • Shakespeare-by-the-Sea, Virginia Beach. Romeo and Juliet; Taming of the Shrew. Promotional poster, 1982. Call number: Shakespeare Festivals: American. 1982, Virginia Beach Department of Parks and Recreation and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Percy MacKaye. Caliban by the yellow sands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1916. Call number: PR2923 1916.M2 and LUNA Digital Image.

Shakespeare in American Life exhibition item list

Shakespeare in American Life children's exhibition

Shakespeare in American Life radio program

In celebration of the Folger Library's 75th Anniversary, a radio documentary aired on Public Radio International (PRI) stations beginning in April 2007. This Folger production of three one-hour shows, narrated by Sam Waterston and created by producer Richard Paul, reaches out to new audiences as it brings to life an extraordinary range of topics in radio’s theater of the imagination.

Listen to the documentary

Shakespeare in American Life website

An extensive website, Shakespeare in American Life was developed as both a lasting online resource and a companion project. Primarily focused on the radio program, it includes a variety of supplemental materials and interactive elements.

Stage and Screen

Supplemental material for the first episode, Shakespeare Becomes American.

Early records of Shakespeare in America are fragmentary, but we know of an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1730 and a professional staging of Richard III in 1750, both in New York. Since then, the vast story of Shakespeare on the American stage has come to include everything from lavish historical recreations to bare-bones outdoor sets and, in recent years, actors of every ethnic and racial origin. In the twentieth century, new media like radio, the movies, and television provided brand-new arenas for America’s directors and performers to explore the many possibilities of Shakespeare’s works.

Listen to the episode.

Education and Inspiration

Supplemental material for the second episode, The Father of the Man in America.

Shakespeare’s works weave like a bright thread through the history of American education and self-improvement. Over the centuries, his plays have served in the classroom as models for public speaking, guides to morality, works of literature to be read, passages to be performed—and sometimes all of the above. In the public arena, Shakespeare has appealed to different American audiences, from rowdy nineteenth-century workers to the literary and social elite, and from local groups that formed their own Shakespeare societies to picnic-bearing families at outdoor theaters under the stars.

Listen to the episode.

The American Identity

Supplemental material for the final episode, Shakespeare is a Black Woman: Shakespeare in American Politics.

This section examines Shakespeare’s impact on many aspects of American life, from commercial references in advertising and product packaging to such diverse subjects as crafts, American politics, and ethnic and racial identity. It also takes a closer look at the Shakespeare play that is most closely tied to the New World—The Tempest, which may well refer in part to a terrible storm in 1609 that struck an English fleet on the way to Jamestown.

Listen to the episode.

Educator resources

Select lesson plans for teachers for a variety of subjects related to Shakespeare and American life.

As you can tell from these lesson plans, Folger Education believes that the best way to learn Shakespeare is to do Shakespeare and encourages teaching methods that get students up on their feet. To see some Folger Education teaching methods in action, go to Playing Shakespeare Today.

Special features

Launch your own exploration of Shakespeare in American life through these unique features—from an interactive timeline that spans four centuries, to the works of art in our American Shakespeare Gallery, to the quips, insights, and comments of Americans who were “speaking of Shakespeare.” Download a screensaver or wallpaper to customize your desktop, or weigh in with your own projects in Shakespeare in Your Life. Try the FAQs to learn more about Shakespeare in American life. To find Shakespeare theaters, festivals, and other destinations throughout the United States, explore the clickable maps in Shakespeare USA.

Supplemental materials

For further information

Consult this list of websites to learn more online about Shakespeare in American life.

Readings related to Shakespeare in American Life

Shakespeare on the American Stage
Shakespeare and African American Theater
Shakespeare and Ethnic Theater
Shakespeare in Different Regions of the United States
Shakespeare in the Movies and on Television
Shakespeare in Print in America
Shakespeare in the American Visual Arts
Shakespeare and American Education
Shakespeare in American Political History
The Sea Venture and The Tempest

American film, television, and documentaries related to Shakespeare

The Plays
Inspired by Shakespeare
Movie and Television List

Related websites