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John Adams

John Adams

John Adams read and quoted from Shakespeare’s plays throughout his life. From his earliest years as a colonial teacher and a lawyer, Adams filled his diaries with references to Shakespeare’s plays—including King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VIII, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Timon of Athens—as well as other literary references and accounts of the people he met. “Let me search for the clue which led great Shakespeare into the labyrinth of human nature,” he wrote. “Let me examine how men think.”

Adams and his wife Abigail also often quoted passages from different Shakespeare plays in their letters to each other. Like other patriots during the Revolution, they liked to compare King George III with Shakespeare’s arch-villain, Richard III. “The time is hastening,” she wrote to her husband in 1775, “when George, like Richard, may cry, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’” During the siege of Boston in March 1776, she quoted the passage from Julius Caesar that begins, “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”

After the war, Adams was appointed the first US minister to England. In the spring of 1786, he and Thomas Jefferson took a six-day tour of the English countryside that included a disappointing stop at Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon. The house was “as small and mean as you can conceive,” wrote Adams in his diary. “There is nothing preserved of this great genius... which might inform us what education, what company, what accident turned his mind to letters and drama.”


Library of Congress