Shakespeare at center stage in our national story
Barry Edelstein is artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego This year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and institutions worldwide are pulling out the stops in commemoration. My home base, the Old Globe in San Diego, is at the center of a monthlong, citywide Shakespeare-palooza centered on the book Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published According to the True, Original Copies, a.k.a. the First Folio of 1623.
is artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego
This year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and institutions worldwide are pulling out the stops in commemoration. My home base, the Old Globe in San Diego, is at the center of a monthlong, citywide Shakespeare-palooza centered on the book Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published According to the True, Original Copies, a.k.a. the First Folio of 1623.
Printed seven years after Shakespeare's death, the book is the first place where all 36 of his plays appear together. Eighteen of those plays had never been printed before; without the First Folio, masterpieces such as As You Like It, The Tempest, and Macbeth would have been lost. We would not know that all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players; nor that we are such stuff as dreams are made on; nor that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Half of the canon that is the cornerstone of our shared literary mythology, our imagination as a culture, and even our language, comes from the First Folio. It's the book that gave us Shakespeare.
A copy of the priceless treasure is this month making San Diego its only California stop on a nationwide tour organized by the great Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the world's premiere Shakespeare repository.
From our country's earliest days, Shakespeare has been central to our national experience. Alexis de Tocqueville tells in his famous 19th-century travelogue of finding Shakespeare in every pioneer's hut and reading Henry V in a log cabin. In the gold rush, 49ers staved off boredom by reciting the plays from memory. Our Founders read him and revered him. George Washington saw touring English companies perform his plays in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams together made a pilgrimage to his house in Stratford-upon-Avon. John Quincy Adams published his own Shakespeare criticism.
Abraham Lincoln was obsessed with the Bard and always kept a copy of the plays close at hand. Macbeth was his particular preoccupation. Ironically the play contains the first use of the word assassination in English, and Lincoln was felled by a Shakespearean actor who, in a letter he wrote on the day of his crime, quoted Julius Caesar to justify his actions. John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin, also an actor and the finest Hamlet of his generation, later wrote a letter apologizing to the nation for his brother's deed in a futile attempt to remove the stain of the act from his family name. It doesn't get more Shakespearean than that.
Philadelphia is the earliest American home of Shakespeare, making the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's recent suspension of activities all the sadder. But the Philly-born actor Edwin Forrest, who preceded the Booths by two decades, was the first superstar of the American stage and Shakespeare was his specialty. Handsome and charismatic, his athletic, highly emotional style electrified audiences and revolutionized American acting, which until then imitated the rhetorical and dandified style of the English stage. Forrest owned a precious First Folio of his own. Along with the rest of his library and his house, he willed it to destitute fellow thespians, creating the Edwin Forrest Home for Decayed Actors in Philadelphia. When a fire destroyed the Broad Street house, someone rescued the burnt fragments of the Folio, which reside today under glass in the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kislak also houses the Furness Memorial Library, another major American Shakespeare collection. Horace Howard Furness (1833-1912) was the foremost Philadelphia Shakespearean and perhaps the greatest-ever American Shakespeare scholar. An attorney, he was an early member of the idiosyncratically spelled Shakspere Society of Philadelphia, the oldest such group of its kind.
Furness eventually quit the law to devote himself to the Bard full time. His gift to posterity is the New Variorum Shakespeare, a series of annotated editions of 16 of the plays (his son completed three more). Furness conceived his project as a place to record everything that was then known about Shakespeare, and the 19th-century scholarship in it continues to be a resource today. I turn to Furness every time I direct a Shakespeare, not just for his insights but also for his considerable wit and humanity.
One of Furness' most important disciples was Emily Jordan Folger, a Washingtonian convinced that scholars could reconstruct a complete, flawless text of Shakespeare if only they had access to all of its earliest published versions. To help her research, her husband, Henry Clay Folger, used his Standard Oil wealth to search the world for Shakespeare material and buy it. That trove of Shakespeareana formed the basis of the library that bears his name.
The Folio visiting San Diego thus hails from a Washington library inspired by a Philadelphian. Another Philadelphian was the first to tune our ears to Shakespeare's American sound. The West Indies-born poet Peter Markoe immigrated to Pennsylvania and in 1787, the same year our Constitution was being written, wrapped the First Folio in stars and stripes. His declaration of Shakespearean independence opens James Shapiro's anthology Shakespeare in America, itself an indispensable reminder of our country's long connection to the Bard:
Monopolizing Britain! boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin'd;
Shakespeare's bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen'ral blessing for the world design'd.
Two weeks before July Fourth and 400 years after the Bard's death, from our country's western shore to the streets of Philadelphia, I echo Markoe's clarion call: William Shakespeare is America's national poet.
Barry Edelstein will speak on "What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Law" at 1 p.m. Thursday at the National Constitution Center. Edelstein is artistic Ddrector of the Old Globe.