Folger Shakespeare Library
Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity



Comparing Shakespeare Then and Sports Today

Comparing Shakespeare Then and Sports Today
James Cook, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan

JAMES COOK: Shakespeare's integrated in American popular culture in all kinds of ways before the Civil War. It's a kind of template or a set of sources that are used in melodrama, in black-face minstrelsy, in comedic satire. And so performers and audiences do what they will with Shakespeare. They make it their own. They use it as a template for jokes. They use it as a set of stories or a set of characters that can be adapted according to their own preferences and according to current events or things going on in their own society and culture that they care about.

And what you have during the first half of the nineteenth century that you don't have as much after the Civil War, is that variety, that heterogeneity of audience under one roof, all together expressing their own preferences and putting their own stamp on Shakespeare.

Really any kind of cultural consumer goes to see Shakespeare in the first half of the nineteenth century. It's a universal kind of appeal and it's adapted and reshaped in various ways to make it appeal to different kinds of people. Today we get really our closest equivalent, I think, to early nineteenth-century theater in something like a professional sporting venue, where you have different classes, races, different kinds of American people all together under one roof, but segregated into different kinds of price levels of seating. You've got luxury boxes up in the top with their own kind of spatial segregation from the riff-raff down below, and you've got a real mix of different kinds of Americans there together to witness the same cultural event.