(Ralph Berry’s article appeared in Chronicles, 7/12.)
Letter From England
Shakespeare contains the cultural history of America. From first to last, Shakespeare is the graph of evolving American values. He early made the transatlantic crossing: It is thought that Cotton Mather was the first in America to acquire a First Folio. Richard III was performed in New York in 1750, and in 1752 the governor entertained the emperor and empress of the Cherokee nation at a performance of Othello in Williamsburg, Virginia. The American revolutionaries seized on Julius Caesar as a parable of tyrannicide, with Brutus as the hero of liberty. Shakespeare was always an honored presence, and became absorbed into the growing pains of the young nation.
The archetypal tourist was Washington Irving, whose charming sketches of visits to Eastcheap and Stratford-upon-Avon are still highly readable. He thought he had seen Shakespeare’s dust, in a vault that laborers had dug adjoining Shakespeare’s. But soon this kind of deferential tourism ran into the growing calls for cultural independence. Whitman thought that “The comedies are altogether unacceptable to America and Democracy.” These calls for an end to the cultural cringe marked a genuine American Renaissance.
American writers took the challenge to Shakespeare much further. It is no accident (as Marxists used to say, and probably still do) that the land of bardolatry gave birth to serious anti-Stratfordism. The first great heretic was Delia Bacon, a monomaniac who, seduced by the accident of her surname, strove to prove that the works of Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon. To this heresy Mark Twain and Henry James subscribed, with partial support from Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same parricidal urge, linked with a nostalgic desire for aristocratic kinship, continued as Oxfordism into the 20th century—overcoming the objection that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, 12 years before Shakespeare’s death.
Anti-Stratfordism yielded to, and was marginalized by, the immense pressures to create a Shakespeare of anterior superiority. Wealthy individuals (Huntington, Folger) acquired the sacred texts for their libraries. These texts—quartos and folios—became an asset class like impressionist paintings. Across America, Shakespeare was staged with persistent success. The all-embracing doctrine was “He is ours as he is yours, by common inheritance.”
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