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



Popular Interest in Shakespeare

Popular Interest in Shakespeare
Heather S. Nathans, associate professor of theater, associate chair of theater department, associate director of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the African Diaspora, University of Maryland

HEATHER NATHANS: If you go through, let's say, the imports of book lists that are coming into the new nation, if you go through the Pennsylvania Gazette—and you can search it online—if you search "Hamlet," you will see so many copies of Hamlet being imported into the United States before the American Revolution that it makes you think, "well, there must be something here." If you just throw in "plays" as a title, God help you, because you're going to get every listing of every play that came over on a ship that's now available to be bought in the bookstores.

So, it suggests to me that you do have people who are consuming these plays in private and that,of course it makes sense that they will consume them in public when they have the opportunity, because the language to them is not unnatural. If you're familiar with the King James version of the Bible, and again, this is a point [Lawrence] Levine makes, the language of Shakespeare is completely natural in its cadence and its rhythm.

And if you think too about, the Shakespeare that they're seeing on stage is not the Shakespeare that we think of today. I'm sure David Garrick liberally altered Shakespeare, or people like Colley Cibber liberally altered Shakespeare. There's a version of The Merchant of Venice that's probably the original version that's done here—it's written in, I believe, 1702. It has Shylock singing in it. It has Shylock at this big feast, singing a toast about money.

So it's not the same Shakespeare that we necessarily think of today. It's not the same Shakespeare that we're reading in schools. It's a very flexible, adaptable Shakespeare that hasn't been rendered sacred.