This Saturday, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of the death of a certain well-regarded English writer.
Library of America is marking the occasion with the paperback release of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, a collection that traces how Americans made Shakespeare their own, through examples from a broad array of genres—poetry, fiction, essays, plays, memoirs, songs, speeches, letters, movie reviews, and comedy routines. Edited by Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, the book marshals a remarkable roster of contributors ranging from Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville to James Agee, John Berryman, Pauline Kael, Isaac Asimov, Adrienne Rich, and Jane Smiley.
Lest anyone dismiss the idea of claiming the Bard for this side of the pond as simple cultural appropriation, a recent article in the the London-based Guardian newspaper bore the headline William Shakespeare: a quintessentially American author and asked, in its subhead, “how did this icon of Englishness become a US phenomenon?” The article’s author, Robert McCrum, considers the roots of America’s Shakespeare mania in the eighteenth century and examines how the phenomenon slowly built from there. The first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play in America is Romeo and Juliet in New York City, in 1730; more than two centuries later, the same play would form, in McCrum’s words, “the apotheosis of the marriage between Shakespeare and the new world” when it was adapted as the musical West Side Story.
Another Guardian article presents a collection of U.S.-based commemorations of Saturday’s anniversary. Following are just a few highlights:
- • A natural complement to the Library of America volume is Shakespeare’s Star Turn in America, an exhibition on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through May 27. Engravings and photographs document the look of Shakespeare productions over centuries, supplemented by costumes, pieces of stage sets, prompt scripts used by the likes of Edwin Booth and Katharine Hepburn, and much other arcana.
- • The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC is sponsoring a nationwide tour of the First Folio, the mighty 1623 publication that gathered all of Shakespeare’s plays in print for the first time.
- • The city of Chicago goes big with Shakespeare 400 Chicago, a festival running through 2016 that pays tribute through performances, visual art exhibitions, concerts, video games, and food.
- • Groundlings hoping for a more participatory experience can try We Are Shakespeare, an interactive collaboration between the Shakespeare Theatre Association and the University of Notre Dame that invites users to submit YouTube videos of their own Shakespearean performances, testimonials about what the plays mean to them, and other forms of homage.
Taken cumulatively, these events validate the words of Stephen Greenblatt in a recent New York Review of Books piece, where he characterized Shakespeare as “a global artist” whose works “continue to circulate precisely because they are so amenable to metamorphosis. They have left his world, passed into ours, and become part of us.”