Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Today is the 397th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death and, if you believe word of mouth, the 449th anniversary of his birth. The British playwright brought to the world a plethora of instantly quotable monologues, coined thousands of words still in use today, and of course, wrote some of the most lauded works in the history of stage.

It is little surprise, then, that Shakespeare remains wildly popular within theatre circles in a certain English-speaking nation known as the United States.

The Bard's work features greatly in High School drama curricula, not to mention that of particular English departments. Many community theatres across the country take delight in performing Shakespeare plays and, owing to a lack of copyright, professional theatre companies are more readily able to budget stipends for their cast and crew when producing a heavyweight show such as Richard III.

However, prior to the nineteenth century, Shakespeare was not as widely known in the United States as he is today, as puritanical efforts to marginalise the acting profession stifled theatrical growth. That said, amateur versions of some of Shakespeare's most popular plays - such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet  - were performed throughout cities like Philadelphia in the 1700s.

It was not until the late 18th century, particularly during and following the Revolutionary War, that Shakespeare began to rise in popularity. With the influx of British settlers and the ongoing misery of war, Shakespeare's universal themes began to strike a chord with America's increasingly diverse populace.

More and more theatres - particularly in places like Williamsburg, Virginia, - began to increase their repertory with further Shakespeare works. By the 1800s, touring theatre groups were exposing people all across the land to his tragic and comedic plays alike.

The nineteenth century saw such a popularity increase for Shakespeare's plays, in fact, that burlesque troupes would routinely parody many of his most notable characters. Indeed, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, famed American writer Mark Twain makes reference to this when his duke and king characters muddle together different Shakespeare monologues ("To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin").

Though the financial constraints of producing plays with larger casts threatened to derail the Shakespeare train, major emerging British stage actors such as John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Laurence Olivier helped to keep the Bard's flame alive during World War II. Indeed, the latter's 1944 film version of Henry V was richly received in the United States, receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Olivier).

Indeed, Shakespeare's stories have graced the cinema prominently in recent years - often notably adapted into other titles. 10 Things I Hate About You is a modernization of Taming of the Shrew (notice, the titles even rhyme), while the 2001 film is a loose adaptation of Othello.

So what does all this tell us?

Well, if Shakespeare's journey across the Pond tells us anything, it is this: that his universal themes - be they love, betrayal, death, power, greed or heroism - transcend not only time, but cultures. This is arguably why he is regarded by American and British scholars alike as perhaps the greatest playwright of all time.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia and Smitten by Britain. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. 

1 comment:

  1. Hurrah for the Bard! I just saw a performance of A Midsummer Nights Dream put on in Baltimore and it was really spectacular.


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