Sunday, April 10, 2016

William Shakespeare: a quintessentially American author

From Abraham Lincoln’s White House readings to Hollywood westerns and West Side Story, Shakespeare’s plays are an integral part of the American dream. So how did this icon of Englishness become a US phenomenon?

The apotheosis of the marriage between Shakespeare and the new world occurs with West Side Story (1961)
The apotheosis of the marriage between Shakespeare and the new world occurs with West Side Story (1961). Photograph: Allstar/United Artists
If dramatists and explorers share an addiction to conflict, jeopardy and transgression, then Shakespeare and the first American settlers had rather more in common than their mother tongue. Since the founding fathers, this has developed into an association with an extraordinary cultural dividend. Four hundred years after the death of our national poet, and the subsequent landing of the Mayflower, the playwright who is an icon of Englishness has also become a central feature of the American dream, in which the mirror of his great dramas gets held up to a society perpetually in search of itself.

When President Bill Clinton says “our engagement with Shakespeare has been long and sustained: generation after generation of Americans has fallen under his spell”, he is acknowledging this most surprising fact – that Shakespeare’s afterlife as the greatest playwright who ever lived is now as much an American as a British phenomenon, and integral to the crazy fabric of life in the US.

Stephen Greenblatt, the bestselling author of one of the finest recent Shakespeare biographies, Will in the World, finds many reasons for America’s adoption of the playwright. “One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare,” he says, “is that his plays are not exclusively a national possession. He can become an emblem of that which you might possess if you actually could not trace your roots to the Mayflower.”   MORE

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