New York has been handed a surplus of Shakespeare over the last six months. To celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth, there were eight Broadway and Off Broadway productions on offer — enough, surely, for even the most ravenous Shakespearean appetite. But to a 19th-century American, this stuffed schedule might well look like slim pickings.
Two hundred years ago, Shakespeare accounted for one-quarter of all dramatic productions in cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Philadelphians, between 1800 and 1835, could see 21 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. In the decade after the Gold Rush, Californians stood in line to see a raft of them. Some were presented in the palatial Jenny Lind Theater in San Francisco, where miners, the historian Constance Rourke wrote in “Troupers of the Gold Coast,” “swarmed from the gambling saloons and cheap fandango houses to see ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Lear.’ ”
Americans were mad for Shakespeare. For the evidence, look no further than “Shakespeare in America: An Anthology From the Revolution to Now,” to be published by the Library of America next month, just in time for that big birthday.
The collection, edited by the eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia, begins with a parody of Hamlet’s soliloquy written by an anonymous Tory in 1776, responding to the Continental Congress’s demand in 1774 that all colonists sign on to a boycott of English goods. It starts: “To sign or not to sign? That is the question.” The book ends with “Nets,” a 2004 work by the poet and visual artist Jen Bervin that highlights selected words in the sonnets, eliciting unexpected meanings and associations.
There are discoveries and surprises along the way, like Lord Buckley’s beat-era “Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies,” an extended riff on Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“I came here to lay Caesar out, Not to hip you to him”), and “Shakespeares of 1922,” a vaudeville sketch by Lorenz Hart andMorrie Ryskind. But for many readers the real eye opener will be the heated love affair, richly documented by Professor Shapiro, between ordinary Americans and the most exalted writer in the English language.
“The 25-year period around the Civil War was the most extraordinary,” he said in an interview. “You have John Quincy Adams on Desdemona having sex with Othello, Lincoln reading ‘Macbeth,’ and another president, Grant, rehearsing the role of Desdemona at a military camp. You couldn’t make this stuff up. This is how central a preoccupation Shakespeare was at the time.”
Professor Shapiro, in his introduction, leads off with Grant’s brief turn on the boards, which he rightly calls “one of the more memorable episodes in the history of Shakespeare in America.” The year was 1846, the place was Corpus Christi, Tex.
To distract the troops, a theater was hastily constructed and a production of “Othello” put into motion. James Longstreet, the future Confederate general, was originally cast as Desdemona, but was judged too tall for the part. The shorter Grant took his place. “He really rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but he did not have much sentiment,” Longstreet later recalled. In the end, Grant was replaced by a professional actress at the insistence of the officer playing Othello, who, Longstreet wrote, “could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”
It was not fanciful to think that ordinary soldiers might enjoy a Shakespeare play. Americans in the 19th century absorbed him whole from earliest childhood. “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s. “I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.”
Shakespeare’s words fell on fertile ground, thanks to the American education system, which stressed public speaking as an essential acquirement in a democracy and regarded Shakespeare’s works as a gold mine of political and moral set pieces.
Excerpts featured prominently in elocution books like “The Columbian Orator” and “The National Orator” and in the advanced McGuffey’s readers. “Both boys and girls gave recitations and performed excerpts from the plays,” Sandra M. Gustafson, an English professor at University of Notre Dame, said in an interview. “This was an essential part of education.”
Women seized on Shakespeare as a way to construct a homemade version of a college class. In the second half of the 19th century, women’s Shakespeare clubs began popping up all over the United States, from Worcester, Mass., to Waxahachie, Tex., some 500 of them in the peak years from 1880 to 1940.
“They’d meet once or twice a month,” said Katherine West Scheil, an English professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of the recently published “She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America.” “There was pretty intense study, with quizzes on the plots and the characters and memorization exercises. They’d read the roll and as each name was called, a member would recite a Shakespearean text.” Some clubs took down their minutes in blank verse.
Americans claimed Shakespeare as their own partly because he spoke to the grand questions that stirred the nation. “Issues like immigration and race that couldn’t be dealt with directly could be confronted through Shakespeare,” Professor Shapiro said. “We didn’t have a language to express our feelings about these troubling questions. There probably wasn’t another writer on either side of the Atlantic that allowed audiences to work through issues and divisions as he did.”
With the rise of a more robust American literature, the influx of immigrants outside the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and the spread of other forms of mass entertainment, Shakespeare lost his grip on the common reader. Professor Shapiro’s anthology includes Maurice Evans’s preface to a cut-down version of “Hamlet” that he presented in 1944 to an audience of G.I.s in the Pacific with the assumption that most of them had never seen a Shakespeare play. “We could not presume any on their part any knowledge of the tragedy or any familiarity with the conventions with which it is usually associated,” Evans wrote. General Grant must have spun in his grave.