Technically he’s not our bard, but you wouldn’t know it from the performances that light up the American landscape every summer. How did a playwright who died four years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth give rise to an annual tradition of outdoor stagings across the nation, from Bethlehem, N.H., to Fairbanks, Alaska?
William Shakespeare has inspired Americans from the Founding Fathers to Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim. But his omnipresence in our amphitheaters is also connected to the special relationship between American literature and English. As 19th century writers like Emerson and Melville called for the birth of an American literary tradition distinct from that of our colonial forebears, they also saw that Shakespeare, perhaps more than any other English writer, could be drafted to help illuminate the American experiment. A play’s a living thing, subject to constant reinvention, not unlike a young nation. Shakespeare took on a bill of rights’ worth of issues ranging from race and religion to the power of human will. (In Shakespeare in America, James Shapiro notes how often American Presidents have turned to the Bard’s words in times of crisis.) And though his works have nominal settings, he wasn’t a lush scene painter, which means you can create Verona in Orange County just as easily as at London’s Globe Theatre.
What America grants Shakespeare is manifest destiny–backdrops, as at Boise’s Idaho Shakespeare Festival (left), magnificent enough to reflect the expanse of his imagination. He knew the allure of a brave new world. It’s America’s privilege to stage him in it.