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Shakespeare and the American Nation
Kim C. Sturgess
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
£45.00, 234 pages, ISBN 0-521-83585-2 (hardback).

Michèle Vignaux
Université de Versailles-Saint Quentin


“Why do so many Americans celebrate Shakespeare, a long-dead [and, one might add, white, male] English poet and playwright?” This is the central question which Kim C. Sturgess raises in his fascinating book, which tells the story of America’s appropriation of Shakespeare to the cause of the American nation (rather than on any appreciation of his plays by American literati)—a process which goes back to the origins of the newly independent nation in the nineteenth century and has shown no sign of abating since, paradoxical as this may seem.

This is not quite the first book that addresses the subject, and Sturgess duly acknowledges previous work in the field, most notably Michael D. Bristol’s Shakespeare’s America, America’s Shakespeare (1990) and Lawrence W. Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988), while taking issue with what he identifies as “the three broad generalisations” that make up “the more recent orthodox hypothesis on America’s nineteenth-century relationship with [Shakespeare’s] plays,” namely that “Americans, as civilised people, quite naturally recognised Shakespeare’s universal appeal;” that performance of Shakespeare’s plays was primarily “a result of the presence in America of British actors and theatre managers;” and that “Americans celebrated Shakespeare because they were generally anglophiles” [7]. Sturgess argues that these conclusions are simplistic, misleading, and in need of important qualification.

The book is organized into two main sections: the first, which deals with “the apparent paradox of the American consumption of Shakespeare” [10], explores the irony of the process that led the Americans in search of native writers to turn to a foreign author and claim him as an honorary American, referred to as “our” Shakespeare. The second section proceeds to a detailed examination of the various factors that led to appropriation and naturalisation of an Elizabethan English writer. They provide an in-depth study of the appropriation process on both sides of the Atlantic, touching on issues ranging from the “First American Edition” of Shakespeare’s works printed in Philadelphia in 1795, the association of Shakespeare with the concept of manifest destiny, and more generally the nineteenth-century context of western expansion, to a few forays into the twentieth century, with American enthusiasm and financial involvement in the building of a theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, American circus owner P.T. Barnum’s attempt to purchase Shakespeare’s birthplace and transfer it to America, and Chicago-born actor Sam Wanamaker’s more than thirty-year campaign to rebuild the New Globe near its original site in London in 1997. In addition, the book supplies valuable appendices: the preface to the “First American Edition” of Shakespeare and a location map for the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., as well as an important bibliography and useful index.

Drawing on material not previously used for that purpose as well as on earlier work, this book aims at offering an altogether more comprehensive and more accurate account of America’s appropriation of Shakespeare in connection with the construction of an American identity “problematic as that in turn is” [8]. Particular emphasis is placed on what is no doubt the most original aspect of this study, Fourth of July orations with their rhetoric informed by Shakespeare’s speeches, yearly glorifying the United States as the heroic crusader for freedom from the tyranny of the English enemy, considered to be the primary danger to the continued success of the American “revolution.” This accounts for the popularity of the plays staging acts of heroic rebellion and the death of tyrants: Julius Cæsar, Richard III, Hamlet and Macbeth, and for the fact that a duly Americanised Shakespeare could be “considered an ally in the fight [against England] rather than a symbol of English cultural influence” [56]. It is interesting to see how the idea, put forth in the preface to the “First American Edition,” that American readers were quite able to explore Shakespeare’s text untrammelled by the layers of scholarship of a “pretentious English literary ‘aristocracy’” [65] paved the way for mid-nineteenth-century American editions “without distracting notes” [147].

Another important point is the ubiquitous popularity of Shakespeare, both in the long-established eastern cities and in the booming frontier towns, and the way Shakespeare could be made to serve a variety of purposes and be enlisted in various and sometimes opposite causes, as exemplified by the use of quotations selected for use in early political debates on the form of republican democracy that future independence might bring or on the institution of slavery (on both sides). Admittedly, the Shakespeare of a New York or a Boston audience was not quite the same as the form of theatrical melodrama performed as part of popular burlesque variety shows enjoyed by frontier audiences, yet in both cases, Shakespeare was regarded as sharing, even embodying, the spirit of the American nation. The connection between American pioneers of the Jacksonian era (1830-1850) and Elizabethan adventurers, with the attendant parallelisms of prairie and ocean, became part of the continuing process of appropriation that assimilated the man and the plays into the myths and traditions of the American nation as stories of frontier and Shakespeare supplemented the stories of the Mayflower pilgrims and the War of Independence.

Of particular interest are the analyses showing how, in the context both of territorial expansion and of a change in the pattern of immigration, which made English a minority language, Shakespeare was promoted as “a founding father of the American language” [63] and harnessed to the twin concepts of manifest destiny and the less palatable one of Anglo-Saxonism. Although Anglo-Saxonism did not originate in America, it became “central to the process of American ethno-genesis” [108] and allowed Americans to promote widespread acceptance of Shakespeare together with a rejection of England. With its overtones of a return to pre-Norman purity, Anglo-Saxonism made it possible to separate the cultural heritage from the political system of England. At the same time, because English was the (unspecified) national language, America’s naturalisation of Shakespeare went “largely unnoticed” [59].

These are the highlights of an argumentation that also touches on side issues, more loosely connected to the main topic, such as the establishment of Shakespeare libraries or the authorship controversy. One might complain that the demonstration tends to get rather lengthy in places, even occasionally far-fetched, and does not avoid a number of repetitions, but all in all, the felicitous blend of in-depth research and colourful anecdotes makes for a book that is highly entertaining as well as informative.

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