America's Shakespeare Exhibition Material

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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