America's Shakespeare Exhibition Material

This article offers a comprehensive list of each piece included in America's Shakespeare, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.


“Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.” “To be, or not to be, that is the bare bodkin.” “extremity is the trier of spirits.” “Old World, he is not only thine.” “Fig Newtons and King Lear.” “Shakespeare’s black? Not yet.” “It is of the heart that Shakespeare speaks.”

Shakespeare has been part of America’s conversation from the very beginning. As you walk through this exhibition, you will hear voices from the past and present calling on him as they talk about politics, race, entertainment, relocation—anything that is part of their lives. You’ll hear Abigail Adams writing about the Battle of Bunker Hill; Abraham Lincoln moved by Macbeth; Mark Twain celebrating amateur actors along the Mississippi; Bart Simpson doing Hamlet; and Rita Dove remembering her childhood reading Shakespeare.

You’ll also experience Shakespeare in a variety of media, from print to photography; stage to film and television; radio to YouTube. Whenever Americans have developed a new form of media, they have included Shakespeare because his plots and words are so widely known and admired.

Shakespeare’s words have always been a common language for Americans in a diverse society. During the 19th century, they were spoken on the stages and in the schools of New York and Boston, and also in New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco. Today we see and hear them everywhere. They were known by our Founding Fathers and are tweeted now. We’ve been talking with Shakespeare for generations, and his words will continue to empower the many conversations of our lives.

Forging A New Nation

“Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.” By the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place on April 19, 1775 in Concord, Massachusetts, Shakespeare had been imported from England on stage and page to the New World. His plays were performed on the east coast from Massachusetts to Virginia, where the first documented theater building opened in 1718. Though not yet taught in school, Shakespeare was widely read, most often in editions printed in England.

As patriots and loyalists took sides, Shakespeare provided a common language through which they could express their differences.  It was a war fought with ink and paper as well as with bullets and guns.  “Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question,” wrote a patriot in 1770; while a loyalist Tory expressed uncertainty about whether to sign on to a boycott of British goods in 1774: “To sign, or not to sign? That is the question” – both sides channeled Hamlet.*

After the war, the colonists formed themselves into the American nation, ratifying the Constitution with the Bill of Rights in 1791. American acting companies were already established, and a complete edition of Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems was published in Philadelphia, proudly calling itself the “First American Edition.”   

*Anonymous poem, Georgia Gazette, 11 March 1769; Anonymous, “The Pausing American Loyalist,” The Middlesex [England] Journal, and Evening Advertiser, January 1776

The American Revolution (1.1)

During the American Revolution, both sides referred to Shakespeare as a way of talking about the war.

A British political cartoon shows England as a man leaning on a crutch, trying to pull the American colonists by the nose: “And therefore is England maimed & forc’d to go with a staff.” (1) This quotation is from Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part 2, suggesting that the Colonists rebelling against the British king are like Cade and his rabble-rousers in Shakespeare’s history play.

On the American side, Abigail Adams writes to her husband John after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, praising the courage of the militiamen by quoting from Coriolanus: “Extremity is the trier of spirits/ Common chances common men will bear.” (2 & 3)

NEW FIND!  While working on this exhibition, the Folger acquired a book once owned by Edward Dale (1620-1695), who immigrated to Virginia in the 1650s.  The book itself is unremarkable, but inside is a list of books Dale owned at the time of his death, including a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632).  (4)  What you see is one of the earliest records of Shakespeare's Works owned in America.

Read more about Edward Dale’s books and listen to an actor reading Abigail Adams’s letter at Touchscreen 1 behind you.

Items Included

1. Matthew Darly (active 1741-1780). Poor old England endeavouring to reclaim his wicked American children. Etching. [London]: M. Darly 39 Strand, 1777 Apr. LOC PC 1-5397 (A size). LOAN courtesy of the Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress,Washington, D.C.

2. Abigail Adams (1744-1818). Letter to John Adams. Braintree, June 25, 1775. Adams Family Papers. LOAN Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

3. Benjamin Blyth (1746-1811). Abigail Adams. Pastel on paper. ca. 1766. Reproduction. Courtesy Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

4. Juvenal (ca. 55 - 127 AD). Decimus Junius Juvenalis . . . translated . . . by Barten Holyday. Oxford: W. Downing for F. Oxlad Senior, J. Adams, and F. Oxlad Junior, 1673 J1276 copy 2. Copy owned by Edward Dale from Virginia, 1695

Post-Revolutionary America (1.2)

After the war ended in 1783, the colonists established their new nation and adopted Shakespeare as their own.

The first printing of Shakespeare’s image in America was part of an advertisement using an American portrayal of an English subject. The engraving, showing the statue of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey, advertises the goods of a stationery store in Philadelphia in 1787. (1) The first complete edition of Shakespeare’s Works in America was also published in Philadelphia in 1795-1796, but it used a text edited by one of England’s great literary men, Samuel Johnson. (2) The first individual plays – Hamlet and Twelfth Night – based on stage productions had been published earlier in Boston. (3) 

The playbill advertises a production by the Old American Company of Much Ado About Nothing at The Theatre in New York, 1787, "never performed in America."  It is signed "Vivat Respublica" or "Long Live the Republic." (4)

In Thomas Jefferson, America had a cultured mind to match Samuel Johnson’s.  As one of the most literate men of his age, Jefferson found himself called upon to give advice on what to read. He created a course of study that anyone could follow at home, which included reading Shakespeare in the evenings as relaxation.  “Shakspear must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language,” Jefferson wrote in the document on display. (5)

Items Included

1. James Trenchard (b. 1747). Books & Stationary . . . sold at the store of Thos. Sedden. Philadelphia: Seddon, Spotswood, Cist, and Trenchard, 1787. AP2 A2 U6 Cage

2. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare. Corrected . . . with notes by Samuel Johnson. First American Edition. Philadelphia: Bioren & Madan, 1795-96. PR2752 1795a copy 1 Sh.Col.

3. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: a tragedy in five acts. “As Performed at the Theatre in Boston”. Boston: David West and John West, 1794. PR2807 A16 copy 1 Sh.Col.

4. The Theatre, New York. Much Ado About Nothing. Old American Company. March 19, 1787. Playbill. Bill Box U4 J66 1787

5. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Letter signed to John Minor. Monticello, August 30, 1814. With a copy of reading list for Bernard Moore. LOAN Courtesy of the Biddle Law Library & Archives at the University of Pennsylvania

Shakespeare and Westward Expansion

“This volume left for California March 15th 1849 via the way of the plains . . ."

The new country expanded westward in the 19th century, offering land and economic opportunities for settlers from the East Coast, and for immigrants from a variety of countries. Shakespeare went with them - sometimes in copies of his plays carried over the plains, and sometimes in performances by the actors who followed. Lured by the money that could be made in the mining camps and in cities such as Louisville and San Francisco, these professional actors often performed with casts drawn from local groups on makeshift stages, as well as in real theaters. 

Various acting troupes along the Mississippi River performed on barges or at landings.  Later in the century, Mark Twain made fun of these rough Shakespeareans in Huckleberry Finn. He also showed how broadly Shakespeare's language had spread within the American consciousness when he told the story of the "king" and the "duke" who perform a garbled version of Shakespeare to a naive audience along the river.  The topics of the plays - love, murder, politics, revenge, jealousy - all spoke vividly to popular audiences. 

Listen to the passage from Huckleberry Finn at Touchscreen 1 to your right.  

Shakespeare Goes West (2.1)

As Americans began to spread out from the East Coast, they took Shakespeare with them. An example of this migration is the copy of Shakespeare’s Works seen here, published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1835. The inscription reads: “This volume left for California March 15th 1849 via the way of the plains and arrived home the 17th day May 1851.” (1a & b)

West coast theatrical tours promised financial gain, which was not lost on the first great American acting family, the Booths.  Junius Brutus Booth Jr. debuted in San Francisco in 1851.  The following year he returned along with his father Junius Brutus Sr. and younger brother Edwin.  Here an earlier photograph shows a young Edwin and his father. (2)  The promptbook of Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.  with his signature indicates that he played King John in San Francisco in 1857. (3)

Performances of well-known speeches and readings from the plays were also popular. Actor James Edward Murdoch took his volume of notes and readings from Hamlet on the road as a kind of nineteenth-century handmade teleprompter. (4 & 5) 

Listen to an actor read J.D. Borthwick's humorous account of hearing a performance of Richard III  in Nevada City, CA at Touchscreen 1 to your right.

Items Included

1a &b. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The Dramatic Works. From the text of . . . George Steevens. Hartford, CT: Andrus and Judd, 1835. PR2754 2a1 copy 2 Sh.Col.

2. Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. (1796-1852) and Edwin Booth (1833-1893). Collotype. United States, mid-19th century. ART File B725.6 no. 13 PHOTO

3. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). King John. A Tragedy in five acts . . . With the stage business. New York: Wm. Taylor and Co., 1846. PROMPT John 1

4. James Edward Murdoch (1811-1893). Lecture notes on Hamlet. Manuscript, ca. 1850. W.b.18

5. James E. Murdoch as Hamlet. Reproduction of print from Laurence Hutton, Curiosities of the American Stage. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891. PN2221 H83

Helena Modjeska, Polish-American Actress (2.2)

Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), a well-known Polish actress, immigrated to America in 1876 with her husband, and settled in Anaheim, California. She began her first tour of the U.S. in Carson City, Nevada in 1877 and subsequently performed Shakespeare in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Francisco, and other cities. Conditions could be difficult. In her memoirs she mentions the horrible smell in the Cedar Rapids theater, caused by a nearby tannery. In order to make acting bearable, she “sprinkled the stage with eau de cologne,” before going on.*

We see Modjeska wearing black—contrary to the customary white—as she performs Ophelia’s mad scene. (1) She delighted the large Polish community in Chicago by speaking the part in their native language.  Her popularity is indicated by a published collection of plays in which she performed, printed in Indianapolis. (2)  In addition to the four Shakespeare plays included, she also portrayed a glamorous Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, wearing the golden asp on display. (3) 

Rosalind was Modjeska’s favorite role. (4) You see here the prompt copy of As You Like It, which according to her husband, “Madam always used.” (5)  In Washington, D.C. she performed Rosalind to a distinguished audience including President Chester A. Arthur and Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. 

*Helena Modjeska, Memories and Impressions (New York: Macmillan, 1910)

Items Included

1. Modjeska as Ophelia. Photograph. 19th or early 20th century. ART File M692.4 no.20 PHOTO

2. Seven Plays as Performed by Helena Modjeska. Indianapolis: Hasselman-Journal Co., 1883. PR1245 S5 Ex.ill.

3. Cleopatra Snake Girdle worn by Helena Modjeska. Paris, Late 19th or early 20th century. Gold with gemstones. ART Inv. 1096

4. Mora (b. 1849), photographer. Modjeska as Rosalind in As You Like It. New York: 19th or early 20th century. ART File M692.4 no. 16 PHOTO              

5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). As You Like It. United States, 19th century. PROMPT AYLI 15

Wall (near 2.2)

Celebrations at Mardi Gras are always over-the-top, but this parade beats them all! Sponsored by club members from the Mystick Krewe of Comus, the floats feature eighteen Shakespearean plays from the well-known Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Tempest, to the more obscure Henry VIII and Pericles. The Mystick Krewe of Comus, founded in 1856, still has members today. (1)

Shakespeare’s popularity across 19th-century America is demonstrated by these playbills from the Midwest and far West. Note the various entertainments offered in one evening after the two Hamlet performances. Attending the theater in those days was like sitting in front of the TV today and watching a variety of programs. Although the Keene production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has no afterpiece, the elaborate scenery is described as a selling point. (2-5)

Items Included

1) Carnival Edition of The Picayune “Comus Represents Scenes From Shakespeare”. New Orleans: T. Fitzwilliam and Co., 1898. Reproduction. ART 268390

2) Mercantile Library, St. Louis, Missouri. Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair.Three Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Shakspeare. April 23, 1864. St. Louis: Daily Union Print, 1864. Playbill. PLAYBILL 268194

3) Mobile Theatre, Louisiana. Hamlet. Starring J. J. Adams. January 21, 1835. Playbill. Bill Box U7a1 M71mt 1835 no. 2

4) St. Louis Theatre, Missouri. Hamlet. Farewell Benefit of Mr. C.D. Pitt. June 22, 1850. Playbill. Bill Box U7 m7 s14 n1 1850a no.4

5) American Theater, San Francisco, California. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Starring Laura Keene as Oberon. May 29, 1855. Playbill. Bill Box U7c1 S19at 1854-55

Lincoln, The Booths, and Civil War

"It is of the heart that Shakespeare speaks."

The 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864 coincided with the Civil War, which began in April 1861 and lasted until April 1865. Once again, soldiers, actors, political cartoonists, writers, and President Lincoln himself turned to Shakespeare for language through which to express their own turmoil

Shakespeare’s plays continued to be performed during the war – in the North and the South – both by soldiers looking for entertainment, and by American actors such as the popular Booth brothers.

This was also the first great era of American history to be captured by the new media of photography and chromolithography, bringing the past nearer to us. We see the Booth brothers in their Julius Caesar costumes, and posters announcing Lincoln’s death with words from Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s birthday was celebrated in American towns and cities in spite of the war. Chicago newspaperman Elias Colbert praised Shakespeare in American terms as having a “free, fearless spirit of adventure.”  “It is of the heart that Shakespeare speaks." *

*Elias Colbert, “Eulogy on Shakespeare” (1864) in Scoriae (Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1883) 

The Civil War (3.1)

During the Civil War, Shakespeare was performed by soldiers in camp as well as actors on stage, and his 300th birthday was celebrated with plans to raise a statue to his honor in New York’s Central Park

In 1862, the Union Army’s 7th Regiment was camped at Baltimore. Their ‘Amusement Association’ acted the Trial Scene from The Merchant of Venice, accompanied by music performed by the Regimental Band and a comic afterpiece, the whole ending with a tattoo (musical performance) by the Drum Corps.  (1 & 2)

Two years later in 1864, brothers Junius Brutus, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth who were normally rivals on stage, teamed up in a production of Julius Caesar to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. (3 & 4)  Designed by John Ward, the statue was finally dedicated after the war in 1872.  Mrs. Folger acquired a quarter-sized bronze version of the statue from the sculptor's widow in 1911. (5) Poets, inspired by the statue, pointed to Shakespeare’s Americanness:

Old World, he is not only thine!

Our New World too has part, . . .

In his stupendous mind and heart.

William Ross Wallace* 

*William Ross Wallace, poem printed in Shakespeare: Ward’s Statue in the Central Park, New York (New York: T.H. Morrell, 1873)

Items Included

1. Fort Number 1, West Defenses of Baltimore, MD. Baltimore: E. Sachse & Co., 1863. Lithograph. Reproduction. Courtesy of the Hay Library, Brown University

2. Fort Federal Hill, Baltimore, Maryland. The Merchant of Venice. August 8, 1862. Playbill. PLAYBILL 261129

3. Winter Garden Theater, New York. Julius Caesar. November 25, 1864. Playbill. Bill Box U4 W78 1864-65 no. 2a

4. John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth in Julius Caesar. Reproduction from original albumen print. NPG.80.163. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

5. John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910). Shakespeare. Bronze. New York, 1870; posthumous cast, 1911. ART Inv. 1161

Lincoln and Macbeth (3.2)

President Abraham Lincoln loved Shakespeare and was an avid theater-goer. In an 1863 letter to actor James Hackett, Lincoln remarks that he has frequently read "Lear,' 'Richard Third,' 'Henry Eighth', 'Hamlet,' and especially 'Macbeth.'"  "I think none equals 'Macbeth,'" he continues. (1)  A contemporary drawing for a political cartoon shows Columbia (the U.S.) as Lady Macbeth, attempting to wash her hands of slavery while Lincoln and Grant[1] look on. (2)

On April 15, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the theater was draped in black for mourning. (3 & 4)  Ironically, as Booth fled into hiding, he also quoted from Macbeth in the last words of his diary: “I must fight the course.’ Tis all that’s left me.” You see the diary reproduced here in facsimile; the original is on permanent display at Ford's Theater.(5)

Shakespeare provided the words that Americans needed in order to begin healing.  When Lincoln’s death was publicly announced, the posters once again referred to Macbeth, comparing Lincoln with the virtuous Duncan of that play. (6) John Wilkes’s brother, Edwin was devastated by the assassination and went into retirement briefly. He finally returned to the stage in 1866 as Hamlet, his most famous role.

See a transcription of Lincoln’s letter and listen to an actor reading it at Touchscreen 1 to your right. 

Items Included

1. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Letter signed to James H. Hackett. August 17, 1863. LOAN courtesy of the LOC Lincoln Collection. Document 25655. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

2. Yet here’s a spot – out, damned spot, out, I say!. Ink drawing. 19th century. ART Box S528m1 no.2

3. The Martyr of Liberty. Lithograph. United States, 1865. ART File B725.5 no.3

4. Ford’s Theater with guards posted at entrance and crepe draped from windows. Photograph. Washington, DC, 1865. Reproduction from original plate. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

5. John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865). Diary. Facsimile based on original at Ford’s Theatre. Washington, DC. Courtesy of Ford’s Theatre and the National Park Service

6. Abraham Lincoln . . . Shakspeare applied to our National Bereavement. Boston: James Lancey, 1865. Sh.Misc. 390 (flat)

The Gilded Age of Stage and Screen

By the end of the 19th century, American theater had adopted new technologies – electric lighting and sophisticated stagecraft – to create opulent productions.  At the same time, another new technology - silent film - was in its infancy.  Both drew heavily on Shakespeare. 

Theaters such as those of Augustin Daly in New York appealed to the public with elaborate sets and costumes, and star actors, such as Ada Rehan.  Beginning in 1904, Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern, a leading stage couple, performed Shakespeare across the country.  By this time, photography was used more widely to record theatrical performances.

At the same time, the film industry was just developing. During the silent film period between 1899 and 1927, close to 300 films were made based on Shakespeare.  Film appealed to an even wider audience than theater because it was cheap and easily accessible in the new nickelodeon cinemas that charged 5 cents admission. Unfortunately, many of these films are now lost, but surviving footage includes Taming of the Shrew (1908), King Lear (1916), and Richard III (1912), “the first feature-length film based on” a Shakespearean play.*

Enjoy watching some of these early films at Touchscreen 1 and on the nearby projection. 

* Judith Buchanan, Shakespeare on Silent Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

**Zoran Sinobad, “Shakespeare on Film and Television In . . . The Library of Congress” (January, 2012)

Ada Rehan, Shakespearean Heroine

Ada Rehan (1857-1916) was the stage name of Ada Crehan, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland with her family when she was five. She began her theatrical career at the age of sixteen, but her big break came when she was noticed by New York manager, Augustin Daly. Rehan signed with him in 1879 and worked with his company for the next twenty years.

Rehan played many of Shakespeare's comic heroines including Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Kate in Taming of the Shrew - her signature role.

Rehan had to grow into the more subdued role of Viola, but she eventually excelled in that as well. A critic called it “one of the best Shakespearean interpretations of the time.”* Rehan wore the costume shown here when she played Viola disguised as the young male servant, Cesario, in Twelfth Night. (1a & b)  You see a printed version of the play with Rehan's signature (2), as well as a costume design for Cesario, and a photograph of Cesario and Malvolio from the production (3 & 4) 

*Norman Hapgood, theater reviewer in the Commercial Advertiser, New York, December 2, 1893

Items Included

1a. Costume worn by Ada Rehan as Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night. Crimson velvet brocade and red satin. Late 19th century. 1-8-26-6-6

1b. Dagger worn by Ada Rehan as Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night. Brass jeweled hilt, yellow velvet scabbard. Late 19th century. 10-11-23-45

2. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Twelfe Night, or, What you will. New York: Privately printed for Augustin Daly, 1893. PR2837 1893-1 copy 2 Sh.Col.

3. W. Graham Robertson (1866-1948). Costume design for Cesario in Daly’s production of Twelfth Night. Watercolor. Reproduction. ART Vol. b33 fol. 24

4. Sarony, photographer. George Clarke as Malvolio and Ada Rehan as Viola disguised as Cesario in the 1893 Daly production of Twelfth Night. Photograph. Reproduction. ART Vol. b32 fol. 108

Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern, Acting Duo (4.2)

Julia Marlowe (1866-1950) and E. H. Sothern (1859-1933) were both English actors who made their careers in the United States. Marlowe was a successful actor in her own right, preferring classical plays such as Shakespeare’s to the modern drama of Shaw and Ibsen. She then met E.H. Sothern and toured North America with him from 1904 through 1924, sharing direction of the plays, as well as managing and finances. They married in 1911.

Marlowe premiered as Juliet in New York in 1887, and when she and Sothern later took their production of Romeo and Juliet across the country, it became the standard rendition of the play for a generation. They performed Romeo and Juliet at the Belasco Theatre in Washington, DC in 1912. Here you see one of her Juliet costumes along with two photographs from the 1904 production. (1-3) 

Marlowe and Sothern were invited to perform in the new film media, but they never made a Shakespeare movie.  The Vitagraph Company was one of the earliest in the business.  Because copyright law at the time had no provision for film format, the frames of early films such as Antony and Cleopatra, seen here, had to be printed on paper rolls which were then copyrighted.  Thus a number of early short films are known to us today that would have been lost.  (4) 

Items Included

1. Costume worn by Julia Marlowe in the role of Juliet. White silk velvet and iridescent scale dress. American, early 20th century. 2-7-16-159 Mar. 

2. Hall’s Studio, photographer. Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern in Romeo and Juliet. New York, 1904. ART File S717.5 no.25 PHOTO

3. Hall’s Studio, photographer. Julia Marlowe and E.H. Sothern in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. New York, 1904. ART File S717.5 no.29 PHOTO

4. Vitagraph Company of America. Antony and Cleopatra. 1908. Paper print fragments, no. 5. LOAN courtesy of the Motion Picture, Broadcast, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Shakespeare at Home and School

Shakespeare has entered our homes in so many ways that we probably take him for granted.

His wide-spread appearance in advertising and in items for the family, such as calendars, comic books, puppets and baby books, assumes a general familiarity with Shakespeare’s works in America over hundreds of years. This familiarity was encouraged in earlier years by reading at home and by memorizing and reciting speeches in school.

As more kinds of media entered our lives, reading aloud at home gave way to listening to Shakespeare on the radio, watching productions on television, film, and more recently, on YouTube, Twitter and other media.

While retaining printed books, schools have also moved from film strips and slide shows to digital texts and performances on the web as they introduce Shakespeare to new generations.

Advertising - A Touch of Class (5.1)

Shakespeare selling sewing machines? Apparently the New Home Sewing Machine Co. thought it would work, as they offered a booklet with plot summaries of 34 of Shakespeare’s plays to capture their market. (1)

Since the 1787 reproduction of Shakespeare’s image in an ad for a Philadelphia stationer’s shop, he has appeared thousands of times, selling everything from cigars to Levis, from fishing reels, beer, and whisky to cough syrup, cars, and cell phones.

Advertisements by Coca Cola, Marcus Ward, and James Moran tobacco all rely on the use of Shakespeare to add a sense of class, luxury, and refinement to the everyday objects in our lives. (2-4)

When Twentieth Century Fox released the film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1999, Ronnie Specter, the make-up artist, created limited-edition cosmetics to attract a young audience to the movie. (5) The widespread use of Shakespeare in American advertising over many generations speaks to his continued recognition and importance in our culture. 

Watch clips from modern ads at Touchscreen 2 behind you.

Items Included

1. George L. Gray. Shakespere Boiled Down. Chicago: New Home Sewing Machine Co., 1890. Sh.Misc. 776

2. “Thirst, too, seeks quality”. Magazine advertisement for Coca Cola. American, ca. 1950. Uncataloged

3. Marcus Ward, Inc.. Shakspere Calendar. Belfast, Ireland and New York, 1917. Scrapbook E.4.2, folder 7

4. James Moran & Co.’s Romeo, fine cut, chewing tobacco. St. Louis, MO: C. Hamilton & Co., 1874. Lithograph. LOT 10618-53A. Reproduction. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

5. Max Factor. Discover the Beauty of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Collection. Advertisement. American, 1999. ART 260497

At Home (5.2)

Look in your toy chest, in the attic, on your desk, in that old box under the stairs - you’ll likely find a remnant of Shakespeare, whether it’s finger puppets, a calendar, a children's book, or an old classic comic. (2-5)

You may even have planned a party with a Shakespearean theme, as suggested here in a magazine article during the 1964 celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. (1)

Now we watch Shakespeare on streaming video, but back in the early days of radio and television, producers loved Shakespeare as a way of legitimizing and glamorizing the new media. In the 1930s, both CBS and NBC sponsored series of radio broadcasts of Shakespeare’s plays. (6) In the 1940s with the advent of television, one manufacturer used Shakespeare as a selling point for this new media: “All the world’s a stage” – in your living room through the magic of television. (7) 

See the cast list starring Rosalind Russell from the CBS radio broadcast of Much Ado About Nothing and listen to some of the broadcast at Touchscreen 2 behind you.  Watch clips from TV shows also.  

Items Included

1. Midsummer Night’s Madness. Magazine article. United States, 1964. Scrapbook F.3.1 Folder 1  

2. Shakespeare’s Hamlet Finger Puppets. New York: Unemployed Philosophers Guild, 2002. ART Flat c4

3. Shakespeare’s Insults: a 365-day Calendar for 2011. Library of Congress. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate, 2010. Sh.Misc. 2220

4. Jennifer Adams with Alison Oliver, illustrator. Romeo and Juliet: a Counting Primer. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2011. Sh.Misc. 2266

5. Julius Caesar/William Shakespeare. New York: Gilberton Co., 1950. Classics Illustrated comic no. 68. Sh.Misc. 1705

6. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Much Ado About Nothing. Radio adaptation by Brewster Morgan. As presented over CBS on Monday, July 19, 1937. Mimeographed typescript. N.p., 1937. Reproduction. PROMPT Mu.Ad. Fo.4

7. Verily, Mr. Shakespeare ‘All the World’s A Stage’ . . . With Television. New York: Allen B. DuMont Laboratories, Inc., 1944. New Yorker magazine advertisement. Reproduction courtesy of Duke University Libraries

In School

When you were in school, did you have to memorize “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” or “To be, or not to be”? Most Americans from the 19th century to the present first met Shakespeare in school.

Earlier students studied oratory and elocution in books such as McGuffey’s Reader and Cook’s Sequel to the American Orator. They were thus introduced to Shakespeare through individual speeches rather than complete plays. (1 & 2)

Even today when high schools read Julius Caesar, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, students often memorize lines and act out scenes in the classroom. (3-5)  Many schools have used filmstrips or slides to teach about Shakespeare's life and times. (6) They have also used films to help students visualize the action and hear the language of the plays, whether Laurence Olivier’s Henry V from the 1940s or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet from the 1990s. (7)

Today, students produce their own versions of Shakespeare scenes and post them on YouTube.

Explore the new Folger digital Shakespeare editions and other Shakespeare media at Touchscreen 2 to your left.  

Items Included

1. Increase Cooke (1773-1814). Sequel to the American Orator, or, Dialogues For Schools. New Haven: Increase Cooke, 1813. PN4201 .C71 1813 Cage

2. William H. McGuffey (1800-1873). McGuffey’s New Sixth Eclectic Reader. Cincinnati: Sargent, Wilson and Hinkle, 1857. LOAN courtesy of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

3. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The Merchant of Venice. Ed. David Bevington. The Bantam Shakespeare. New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1988. PR2753 B4 1988 v.15

4. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Wolfgang Clemen. The Signet Classic Shakespeare. New York: New American Library, 1963. PR2756 S5 MND Sh.Col.

5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Julius Caesar. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. The New Folger Library Shakespeare. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. PR2753 M6 1992 copy 2 v.8

6. Garrett Mattingly (1900-1962). The Invincible Armada and Elizabethan England. Ithaca, New York: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Cornell University Press, 1963. Booklet with slide set. Folger Archives

7. Max J. Herzberg (1886-1958). William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V,’ An Interpretation of the Photoplay. New York: Theatre Guild, 1946. Ball 1.17.34

Multicultural Shakespeare

Immigrants first brought Shakespeare to America.

Beginning in the late 17th century, English settlers brought copies of the plays with them or ordered them from London. Later, they westward, carrying their copies of Shakespeare. From the mid-19th century through the years up to World War I, these pioneers were joined by new waves of non-English speaking immigrants. Some of these groups had experienced Shakespeare productions at home and sponsored stage versions here in their own languages. Many have wanted to read Shakespeare in a way that helps them tell their own story: a Yiddish King Lear, a Latino Romeo and Juliet, an Asian Titus.

While the Africans who were brought to America as slaves did not come armed with their own Shakespeare in the 17th and 18th centuries, black Americans began to appropriate Shakespeare as early as the 19th century. For black actors, "performing Shakespeare was a way of tapping into a proven popular market with recognizable characters and stories." It was also a way of "gaining cultural power—of being taken seriously."* Because American theaters were segregated, and because there were few black theaters, many black actors had to go abroad or on tour to succeed. Only in the 20th century were back actors integrated into mainstream American theater.

Shakespeare, then, is himself an immigrant in America, and is continually revised and enriched by our multicultural community.

*Francesca T. Royster, "Playing with (a) Difference: Early Black Shakespearean Actors, Blackface and Whiteface," in Shakespeare in American Life, ed. Alden and Virginia Vaughan (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2007).

Immigrant Shakespeare

Theater—especially comedy and variety shows—was a popular form of entertainment for the thousands of immigrants who arrived from the mid-19th century through the years up to World War I. These Germans, Poles, Russians, Italians and other European immigrants, settled on the East Coast but also traveled westward. Soon they supported Shakespeare in translation or in bi-lingual productions.

Immigrant groups developed their own theaters. Antonio Maiori presented an Italian Hamlet in New York’s Bowery around 1901. (1) At the same time, Yiddish productions adapted Shakespeare’s plots to reflect their personal experiences. Jacob Adler (1855-1926), a Russian Jewish actor, became famous as Shylock, a role which he premiered in a Yiddish theater in the Bowery. (2&3) When he was asked to perform the role on Broadway in 1903, he did so in Yiddish with an English-speaking cast. Big-name Italian and German actors such as Fanny Janauschek (1830-1904) and Adelaide Ristori (1822-1906) as Lady Macbeth, and Tommaso Salvini (1829-1916) as Othello, Hamlet and King Lear, visited America. They toured the country, performing Shakespearean roles in German and Italian in English-speaking productions. (4-7)

Items Included

1. Teatro Italiano, New York. AMLETO PRINCIPI DANIMARCA. New York, NY: 1901. Playbill. 262733 PLAYBILL.

2. Byron Company, Photographer. JACOB ADLER AS SHYLOCK. New York, late 19th or early  20th century. Photograph. ART File A 237 no. 11 PHOTO.

3. Windsor Theatre, New York. YUDISHER KENIG LIER BY JACOB GORDIN. October 13, 1898. Playbill. Reproduction. Courtesy of Dorot Jewish Division, New York Public Library.

4. Sparks Studio, Photographer. MADAM JANAUSCHEK. Philadelphia, 1887? Photograph. ART File J33 no.6 PHOTO.

5. MADAME RISTORI. 19th century. Photograph/ ART File R597.4 no. 3 PHOTO.

6. Booth’s Theatre, New York. ADIEU TO AMERICA OF THE ILLUSTRIOUS ITALIAN ACTOR, SIGNOR TOMMASO SALVINI [IN] OTHELLO. April  28th, 1883. Playbill. ART File S185 no.2  PHOTO (reverse).

7. TOMMASO SALVINI AS OTHELLO. 1857? Photograph. ART File S185 no.9 PHOTO.


  1. Update, April 29, 2020: The figure next to Lincoln actually represents Horace Greeley, not General Grant.