Shakespeare and the Imagination of America

Frank Meola Click to

Frank Meola Head ShotFrank Meola has published work in New England Review, Prospects, South Carolina Review, Michigan Quarterly Review and The New York Times.  He contributed an essay to Framing Hitchcock and recently completed a novel.  Now he is at work on a new novel juxtaposing the 21st and 19th centuries.  Meola holds an MFA from Columbia and a Ph. D. from UCLA.  He teaches writing and humanities at NYU and lives in Brooklyn.

The play opens, famously, with a storm. We are in the midst of it, and we know only that a boat is shattering on a violent sea and men are shouting. Tempest-tossed, lost and frightened, these characters seem far from any familiar land. In later scenes we will learn that only some of them apparently survive, to find themselves in a strange place amid weird flora and fauna, puzzling natives–an atmosphere of magical possibility and lurking danger. What did Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century audience make of these exotic, otherworldly first scenes of The Tempest? They might well have sensed evocations of that distant, unreal America so recently “discovered,” conquered, settled by seafaring British and European voyagers. One of Shakespeare’s probable sources for the play was an account of the shipwreck off Bermuda of a vessel bound for the ill-fated Jamestown settlement in Virginia, that colony named for Queen Elizabeth. Despite the tragic back-stories, the play’s audience perhaps felt intimations of new ways of life emerging from upheaval. They might even have discerned stirrings of a new democratic, “multicultural” future, where the other is acknowledged in the self, the alien transformed into the kindred. And in time Shakespeare’s plays would become increasingly central to the new democracy of America, as it developed from a collection of theocratic and mercantile colonies into a culturally maturing nation.

Renaissance hopes for a revived Golden Age had long since begun to focus on those lands and peoples encountered through overseas exploration. In The Tempest, this urge to imagine a perfected life in a renewed world first emerges in Gonzalo’s celebrated speech in Act II, Scene 1, describing the commonwealth he would establish had he dominion over this land they have shipwrecked on:

In the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty.

To which Sebastian replies, in one of the play’s many challenges to the idea of renewal and perfection, “Yet he would be king on’t.” This doesn’t stop Gonzalo, who asserts that nature will provide all that his “innocent people” need, and that he “would with such perfection govern, sir, T’excel the Golden Age.”

Scholars point to another source for Shakespeare’s play, a more literary source: Montaigne’s description in his Essays (Book One, Chapter 31) of a native society in Brazil recently encountered by explorers. Montaigne first links these voyages of exploration to history and mythology, going back as far as Plato’s inundated Atlantis, thereby joining (as it were) America to these earlier “new worlds” and to the perpetual vision of a once and future place of human perfection. Montaigne describes “nations” that are “barbarous in the sense that they have received very little molding from the human intelligence, and are still very close to their original simplicity.”

The essay is titled “On Cannibals,” and Montaigne goes on to contrast the supposed barbarism of these nations to the barbarities of his own civilization, all the while asserting the essential innocence of the aboriginals. Shakespeare too portrays a “savage,” in the person of Caliban (suggesting “cannibal”), who resides in the island on which Gonzalo imagines establishing his ideal commonwealth. And Caliban is, of course, a slave to the island’s actual sovereign, Prospero. Caliban’s brutish behavior and ignorant servility toward the newcomers who encounter him would seem to belie Gonzago’s (and Montaigne’s) notions of utopian innocence. Prophetically, perhaps, Shakespeare imagines a reborn world based on reports of American discoveries while also hinting at the enslavement and rebelliousness of the people already living in that distant place.
But of course the characters in the play are not in America; they have not travelled even as far as the mythic Atlantis, just beyond Gibraltar. Shakespeare and his audience are projecting a world, inventing a sort of America, on an island off the main European continent but very close to it. An island, in fact, like Great Britain. So the nowhere land of Prospero is also a re-imagined England, like the idyllic one in Shakespearean Henry’s speech at Agincourt or the green and pleasant land evoked in Blake’s much later “Jerusalem.” These hints of America in Shakespeare might also be glimpses of a renewed England, of a new world brought into the old one.

Flash forward to the actual new world and the actual people in it. If Shakespeare transferred America, as it were, into England, Shakespeare’s works epitomized English culture for America–with all that implies about ambivalence, the interrelations of colonizers and colonized, and perhaps the mutable geography of the rootless, migratory modern world. Early America, of course, was dominated by religious and political concerns that, especially in Puritan New England, relegated theater–like all the arts–to a secondary status at best. But as Americans began to define themselves against England, while also continuing to identify with it, Shakespeare’s work became more and more popular–and also became a medium of cultural exchange. “Old” and “new” worlds continued to influence one another. A lesser-known example: in 1824, American scribe Charles Sprague, known as the “banker-poet,” composed verse honoring Shakespeare in which he expresses the need both to forge a new American identity and to retain a link to Britain. He addresses Shakespeare:

Our Roman-hearted Fathers broke
Thy parent empire’s galling yoke,
But thou, harmonious Monarch of the mind,
Around their Sons a gentler chain shall bind:–
Once more, in Thee, shall Albion’s sceptre wave,
And what her mighty Lion lost, her mightier Swan shall save!

Sprague hopes for a new sort of English dominion, a benign cultural hegemony with Shakespeare as its central figure and ruling spirit.

Throughout the nineteenth century, even as immigration from non-Anglo-Saxon countries was transforming the United States, Shakespeare continued to figure prominently in the transatlantic process of mutual Anglo-American influence. This process took on at times an almost surreal quality: in 1848, the Native American Maungwudaus, a Methodist minister among other professions, travelled to Stratford-upon-Avon during a European sojourn. He paid tribute to Shakespeare and wrote about it in a poem:

Indians of North America
Heard the name that shall not decay
They came and saw where he was born
How great is the sound of his horn

They respect and honor his grave
As they do the grave of their brave;
Rest thou great man under these stones,
For there is yet life in thy bones.

Thy spirit is with Mun-nid-do,
Who gave thee all thou didst do:
When we are at our native home
We shall say, “We have seen his tomb.”

This is a distinctive example of Shakespeare’s pervasive presence in America. Maungwudaus’ visit might also seem faintly akin to those appalling occasions when aboriginal or colonial people would be publicly displayed in Europe, sometimes dead and stuffed like animals, as specimens from exotic overseas lands. But this Native American was not being exhibited; he was an autonomous if hybrid person, internalizing Anglo culture while performing a version of his native culture, perhaps embodying the American Indian of English imagination. The two origins of America, as it were, that clashed and commingled in Virginia, in Massachusetts, here were joined–the rejected other of the new world meets the spurned ancestral culture of the old. Yet of course both are central to the American identity. We can only wonder what this pre-English American was thinking and feeling as he stood on foreign land not sacred to him, honoring a British cultural idol, a long-dead white man.

Insecurity, cultural uncertainty. Voyages and explorations forged westward as Americans continued to define and re-define “the newness” (in the nineteenth-century New England phrase) of their nation. (“Tis new to thee,” Native Americans and Hispanics might have responded, like Prospero to Miranda.) And Shakespeare’s work spread with the spreading populace. Like the Bible, it became perhaps a kind of talisman of stability in a society of movement and change. Plays were performed in remote Western outposts; imitation Stratfords and Globe Theaters arose on shores and prairies from which Indians and their nature-focused ceremonies had been driven. The nation was “realizing Westward,” as Robert Frost would write, as it attempted to give embodiment to dreams of a reformed world such as those Gonzalo articulated on an alien-landscaped, imaginary island whose potential habitation–and perfection–only he could envision.

Westward, yes, but also perpetually returning Eastward, back across to the progenitor nation(s). The journey of Maungwudaus was only the most incongruous of many pilgrimages to Britain, where Stratford became a crucial stop on most itineraries. Jefferson and Adams visited, together. And many other political travelers made the transatlantic trek. Shakespeare’s greatest impact, however, was cultural, and pre-eminent among the literary visitors to Britain was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who heralded and promoted a new American literature while immersing himself in cultures of the past. Emerson visited England twice, in 1833 and in 1847, and wrote incisively (sometimes satirically) about it in the wonderful English Traits (1857). He stopped in Stratford but has little to say about it; he wasn’t a worshipper at the Shakespearean shrine. In fact, he discusses Shakespeare in ways similar to his descriptions of other British luminaries, living and dead. He refuses to be awed. While acknowledging genius, he seeks out its origin, as if to carry back to America what he once termed “energies for new creation.” He wants to locate the cultural force in Shakespeare but hopes for its emergence in new forms in the United States, which he envisions as the rebirth and fulfillment of English culture without the deadening weight of tradition.

It was earlier, though, in Representative Men (1850) that Emerson wrote most extensively about Shakespeare; the Bard is given a full chapter. This book is a series of essays on European icons, each embodying an aspect of society or culture. Shakespeare represents “the poet” not “the playwright,” perhaps because of some lingering Puritan-Colonial sense that literature should have a higher moral, spiritual or at least political significance that frivolous theater could not provide. Yet Emerson’s Shakespeare is a poet of the people and is clearly creating a new popular art form that bespeaks a new era in English life. Even though “the Puritans… and the religious within the Anglican Church would suppress them,” Emerson asserts, the people wanted plays. So Shakespeare’s genius expressed itself through drama. But it was not “original” genius, Emerson points out. Existing stories, histories, legends, plays, and journalism (writings high and low) as well as “the rude warm blood of the living England” became Shakespeare’s source material. Through his language, he made the material his own, elevated it, found “the grains of gold.” Implicitly arguing for the value of American literature and newly-forming American culture, Emerson sees in Shakespeare a kindred spirit who, undaunted by tradition, made that tradition new by reinventing it. American writers, seeking to be original, intimidated by the British canon, need only emulate the greatest figure in that canon in order to discover true originality, which consists of finding yourself in what has already been done.

Shakespeare is therefore a poet for a democratic age; the popular audiences of his England had their modern descendants in the far-flung crowds of all social strata who gathered to see his plays across America. His work was widely read too: Tocqueville observed that “there is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare’s popularity no doubt arose partly from an urge to (re)identify with the cultural heft of Britain, but also from his expression of universal concerns, his evocation of the common humanity even in aristocrats and kings. This commonality, Emerson suggests, comes from the fact that “what is best written or done by genius in the world was no man’s work, but came by wide social labour, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” The implication here is that the greatness ascribed to extraordinary people, as well as their foibles and tragedies, belong also to each individual. Culture is a common enterprise.

And, as a corollary, each individual can be great. This Emersonian exhortation (which in fact dates back to “Self-Reliance”) would have a particularly strong effect on American writers, especially those influenced by history and tradition yet desiring to create new literature for a new country. To do so, he or she had to learn to negotiate carefully between the past and the present. Emerson asserts that “the generic, catholic genius, who is not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of all, stands with the next age as the recorder and embodiment of his own.” This is a sort of paradox: those who combine originality with tradition by seeking and emulating past exemplars of originality become the representative figures of their own time. Numerous American writers of the nineteenth century (and beyond) fit this description, notably Hawthorne (who re-created the Puritan era for a Unitarian one), Melville (especially in the encyclopedic Moby-Dick) and Whitman (who invented a mythology of the self that tried to encompass all mythologies).
In these American projects, Shakespeare is a vital underlying influence, because of his democratic inclusiveness, his original use of “found” material, and his rediscovery of the creative energies in tradition. Melville’s work in particular displays the strong presence of Shakespeare in its characters, language, and form (Moby-Dick includes “stage directions” and soliloquies in its vast skein of language, which echoes the Bible as well as Shakespeare). But it is Whitman who engages Shakespeare most directly, struggling to reconcile admiration for the Bard with doubts about his English penchant for aristocratic conflicts and feudal forms. This ambivalence arises from Whitman’s celebration of possibility, centered on the American land and its fostering of democratic individualism.
In “Democratic Vistas” (1871), Whitman alludes to “rich Shakspere, luxuriant as the sun, artist and singer of feudalism in its sunset, with all the gorgeous colors, owner thereof, and using them at will.” He returns to Shakespeare several more times in the essay; Shakespeare is the touchstone and pinnacle of British culture and therefore to be both venerated and superseded. He is a model for the type of poet America needs–one who would discover and exalt democratic equivalents of the kings and military leaders whose triumphs and downfalls are ever-alive in Shakespeare’s dazzling language. In a later essay (1884), Whitman argues that Shakespeare’s historical plays form an “expose” of the aristocratic order that America exists to overthrow and replace. Shakespeare portrays “low” characters but focuses on the noble and the renowned, whereas Whitman’s own poetry attempts to encompass–and equalize–all levels of humanity and myriad forms of living. His democratic epic “Song of Myself” makes the common man (and woman) the heroic center, thereby carrying forward the intimations of transformed life Shakespeare offers us, especially in the late Romances like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale. Whitman aspires to re-imagine traditional forms, as he declares in “Democratic Vistas” after describing great literary, religious, philosophical figures in history (including Shakespeare):

Ye powerful and resplendent ones! ye were, in your atmospheres, grown not for America, but rather for her foes, the feudal and the old–while our genius is democratic and modern. Yet could ye, indeed, but breathe your breath of life into our New World’s nostrils–not to enslave us, as now, but, for our needs, to breed a spirit like your own–perhaps (dare we say it?) to dominate, even destroy, what you yourselves have left! On your plane, and no less, but even higher and wider, must we mete and measure for today and here. I demand races of orbic bards, with unconditional, uncompromising sway. Come forth, sweet democratic despots of the west!

For Whitman, Shakespeare is both feudal and democratic, a burden from the British past and an inspiration for American poets. Shakespeare’s popularity in the U.S., Whitman implies, results from a dearth of great American literature, but that scarcity would soon be remedied by native writers who would celebrate the burgeoning multiplicity of the western-moving nation. Whitman’s own language blends past and present for a projected future; his cadences and usage (including the Elizabethan “ye”) evoke Shakespeare while improvising new modes of verbal expression drawn partly from common contemporary speech. (Of course, Shakespeare also drew on the vernacular, as Whitman implicitly acknowledges.) Whitman’s poetry imagines a culture that would find commonality in differing levels and kinds of society. This equalizing country, with its diverse indigenous and immigrant population, might nurture new forms of community.

Many other cultural and political figures in nineteenth-century America found in Shakespeare an impetus to democratic expression. Abraham Lincoln quoted Shakespeare often, especially the historical works, with their themes of testing, trial and restoration after bloodshed. Later in the century, Mark Twain would use Shakespeare (notably in Huckleberry Finn) both to satirize “superior” English culture and to suggest that Shakespearean conflict, comedy and tragedy abounded in everyday American life.

And so, as nineteenth-century America was creating a national culture, breaking away from the narrowly Puritan past while building on it, Shakespeare’s plays helped further the process of defining and understanding what kind of place this “new” country was and would be.

In Act II, Scene 1 of The Tempest, before Gonzalo makes his speech about a utopia on the island to rival the Golden Age, he and his fellow shipwrecked men banter about the qualities of the “desert” place in which they are stranded. Gonzalo perceives a near-paradise, as does Adrian, whereas Sebastian and Antonio see only a swampy, malodorous wasteland. These differing attitudes toward a new place of potential habitation arise from divergent temperaments and world-views. They might be expressions of the varied ways in which settlers regard the places they’ve landed in–these could be the colonists of Jamestown or Plymouth Plantation, both of which experienced the rigors of an inhospitable land and climate yet saw in it (the Pilgrims especially) visions of golden cities, a new Jerusalem. Like the sailors in Shakespeare, invoking Virgil, whose epic chronicled the founding of an empire, these new Americans looked to the Bible and to history to give narrative and symbolic form to what otherwise might have seemed an alien, potentially annihilating environment. Even though the Puritans would not have turned to Shakespeare, their nineteenth-century descendants certainly did, and the Virginia colony–with its Anglican roots–embraced his work much earlier.

Throughout Anglophone North America, the self-defined new lands found an old world affinity in Shakespeare, whose work foresaw the new while giving life to history receding into the semi-mythic past. For the United States, forming itself even as it broke apart, this combination of projected future and storied past perhaps filled multiple needs–for playacting aristocracy free of actual power, for fantasized pastoral, for the forms of history and culture America seemed to lack. Hawthorne alludes to this “lack” in his definition and defense of Romance as a genre that enhances a bleak social reality. In The Blithedale Romance he portrays as fiction (that is, Romance) the actual utopian experiment of Brook Farm, one of many such communal endeavors that attempted to revive the original dreams of a new kind of society going back at least to Plymouth and inspiring the American Revolution. Of course, Blithedale ultimately fails (like Brook Farm), evincing Hawthorne’s skepticism about American pastoral dreams and echoing Shakespeare’s “problem” Romances, which technically end like comedies but carry darker undertones that linger after the happy outcome.

By the time of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Whitman, Americans were ready to accept–and enjoy–artistic expressions of utopian hopes and disturbing, tragic history, and such expressions would of course continue into the twentieth century and beyond. Aside from the obvious Shakespearean influences on American poetry and theater, including popular adaptations, the American Shakespeare found expression in fiction and film–and not only in “literary” fiction or art film. Genre forms are perhaps even more Shakespearean in tone and theme, including the Western and, especially, science fiction and fantasy–from the science-based Asimov to the neo-Romance of Bradbury or LeGuin, traces of Shakespeare abound. Brave new worlds and grand, flawed heroism blend in these nonrealistic narratives that often interweave bold personal drama with cultural and social motifs in ways that are decidedly Shakespearean. SF film offers a multitude of examples, from the comic/heroic Star Wars to the sublime 2001, but one movie in particular stands out for its direct links back to The Tempest, epitomizing the Americanization of Shakespeare. In Forbidden Planet (1956), a starship crew sent to investigate the strange silence on a planet colony discovers two surviving colonists and a world alive with mysterious, seemingly alien presences. The movie follows the trajectory of Shakespeare’s final play while taking its themes of transformation and discovery into eerie new directions. Finally, of course, these American explorers, like the sailors in The Tempest, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, discover or re-discover themselves, immersed and reborn in oceanic space, changed by a new yet already old world filled with things rich and strange.
Quotations from The Tempest are from the Pelican Shakespeare edition, Peter Holland, ed.
Quotations from Maungwudaus and from Charles Sprague are taken from Shakespeare in America, ed. James Shapiro, in the Library of America.
Excerpts from Montaigne’s Essays are the J.M. Cohen translation, Penguin Classics.
Excerpts from Emerson are from his Collected Works, Volume IV, Harvard UP.
Quotation from Tocqueville is from Democracy in America, translation by George Lawrence, Anchor Books edition.
Excerpts from Whitman are from Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. James E. Miller, Jr., Riverside/Houghton Mifflin edition, and from Shakespeare in America.