America Helps Itself to the Bard

The Folger exhibit
The Folger exhibit "Shakespeare in American Life" features everyday artifacts such as this quilt by Patty Elwin Davis. (Folger Shakespeare Library Photos)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Folger Shakespeare Library's new exhibition, "Shakespeare in American Life," is part of the citywide Shakespeare in Washington festival -- though the Folger would do well to play down the connection. The larger festival, spearheaded by the Kennedy Center, suffers from the same faults as the center's 2005 festival devoted to the arts of the 1940s. It is a jumble of events, often with rather dubious connection to Shakespeare, unified by few common themes, and no argument or intellectual point of view. It's branding, not thinking.

It's hard to walk through the Folger's exhibition, which at best makes only a strong case for the obvious -- that Shakespeare has influenced American life -- and not be reminded of the problems of the larger festival, which began in January and continues through June. There are lots of interesting asides, nuggets of data and fascinating curiosities. But there's no center; no larger claims are made. You leave with lots of questions, but not the right kind. The Folger, which usually focuses tightly on smaller themes, has undertaken a huge subject, but the exhibition doesn't set one to productive pondering, just a lot of frustrated skepticism about the basic premise.

Maybe his influence was a mile wide and an inch deep. It's amusing to learn that references to Falstaff graced both a cardboard tub of Brussels sprouts (from 1928) and an advertisement for cigars (from 1868). And that Trader Joe's sells candied popcorn inspired by "Hamlet" (Rosencrunch & Guildenpop). But often these Shakespeare sightings in the popular culture don't seem to add up to much more than a label. Consider how the playwright appears in political cartoons included in the show. A 1940 drawing of Franklin D. Roosevelt depicts the president as Hamlet, uncertain about whether to run for another term. Another one, also aimed Roosevelt, shows the president indecisive as to whether he needs to purge his Cabinet -- again, he appears as Hamlet.

Falstaff sells food. Wavering political leaders are like Hamlet. Schemers are like Iago. People with blood on their hands are like Macbeth. None of this suggests any particularly deep engagement with Shakespeare.

More likely they are part of a shallow vernacular of cultural reference. What conclusions should be drawn from a series of burlesque plays from the 1870s that travesty works such as "Othello" in the language of minstrel shows ("When first I Desdemona saw, I thought her very fine /And by the way she treated me, I thought she'd soon be mine")?

Yes, perhaps that proves a lot of Americans in the 19th century knew a little Shakespeare. But if you're willing to sit through a show that reduces Othello to a Stepin Fetchit character, maybe you need to go back and do a little rereading. Although the show attempts to deal with the "Americanizing" of Shakespeare (mostly through discussion of how his works influenced theater history and famous actors), one wonders if in fact the real story is an entrenched American resistance to Shakespeare?

Like many exhibitions based mostly on documents, books and clippings, "Shakespeare in American Life" is better at tracing the presence of its subject than its absence. We learn that the first televised production of an entire Shakespeare play in America was by NBC in 1949. But more important, given the state of American cultural life, and the abysmal level of family and educational programming offered by the major networks, would be to learn when was the last time a major commercial broadcaster presented an entire Elizabethan drama?

So, too, we learn about the proliferation of Shakespeare societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. How many of them still exist? And how many of those that have survived have shifted their function from social and intellectual companionship to remedial Shakespeare education?

And where are copies of those abominable "modern language" Shakespeare plays, which "translate" the text into contemporary English -- to better facilitate the ignorance of lazy American students? If one is going to tackle the subject of Shakespeare in American Life, certainly some notice should be given to the astonishing lengths people will go to keep themselves in the dark about the Bard.

If the larger Shakespeare in Washington festival proves anything (and it will only do so by accident), it is that Shakespeare is a safe place to bank your cultural dollars. It is great art, to be sure, but it is also consensus art that ruffles no feathers. Rather like the many deeply traditional and not very engaging productions of Shakespeare that grace Washington cultural life every season, this show suggests that America engages with Shakespeare rather the way dogs watch scenery go by through the car window -- glassy-eyed, quiet, mesmerized almost to stupefaction.

Not surprisingly, the Folger exhibition is best when it deals with Shakespeare at his most hidden. One of the show's more powerful objects is from 1848 -- a handwritten notice for a performance, at sea on a whaling ship, of scenes from "Othello" -- "Wind, Weather, and Whales permitting." So Shakespeare once functioned as a cherished link to civilized life, at least when you weren't busy at the flensing knives and blubber caldrons. But is that still the case?

By the 20th century, the sense of Shakespeare as broad but not particularly well-digested common property begins to yield to something else. Consider another fascinating item, made in the 1930s, by a young woman named Elizabeth McKie, who drew her own extensive Shakespeare atlas, filled with amateurish, brightly colored maps of the unlikely and often preposterous landscapes referenced in Shakespeare's plays. There is a strange, sad, obsessional quality to this labor of love, which speaks volumes about how elite cultural knowledge is often more isolating, in American life, than it is a means of engagement with the broader society.

A more extensive show might ask more sobering questions. If American cultural life really is based on two books (the Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare), has that been a good thing? Has American cultural life been any more deeply influenced by Shakespeare than, say, German cultural life was influenced by Schiller and Goethe, or French cultural life by Racine? Or has Shakespeare sucked all the air out of the American theatrical pantheon?

Perhaps there's no way to answer these particular questions. But a different kind of exhibition might, at least, ask them.

Shakespeare in American Life is on view through Aug. 18 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St.SE, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Call 202-544-4600 or visit

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