War and America’s Shakespeare

“Extremity is the trier of spirits/ Common chances common men will bear.”

Quoting from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Abigail Adams praised the courage of the militiamen at the Battle of Bunker Hill in a letter to her husband, John Adams, in 1775. From the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War, Americans have engaged with William Shakespeare and his plays to describe and comment on national conflicts, raise morale among deployed troops, and grieve fallen leaders.

American soldiers have carried Shakespeare into the trenches of World War I and the jungles of Vietnam. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the American Library Association raised $5 million to establish the Library War Service, buying and sending thousands of books (including Shakespeare) to American soldiers and sailors; the bookplate shown below (left) was commonly used in these books. On the right, the copy of The Taming of the Shrew on the back of this soldier’s helmet in Vietnam is an early Folger Edition.

Important Shakespeare anniversaries have at times coincided with periods of great uncertainty and conflict. As America was contemplating whether to enter World War I, The New York Times ran a special section to celebrate the Shakespeare tercentenary in 1916.

In 1864, Shakespeare’s 300th birthday was celebrated in American towns and cities in spite of the Civil War; his plays were performed by soldiers and civilians alike. This playbill advertises a performance of the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice at Fort Federal Hill in Baltimore, put on by the Union Army’s 7th Regiment Amusement Association during the war in August 1862.

Just one year later, in 1865, posters like the ones shown below grieved for President Abraham Lincoln’s death with passages from Macbeth describing the assassinated Duncan.

“Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking off.”

America also has a strong tradition of using Shakespeare’s well-known words in political cartoons, such as these ones in the Library of Congress collection, produced by Herbert Block during the Cold War.

Come see Abigail Adams’ letter, Herbert Block cartoons, and other items in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s America’s Shakespeare exhibition, through July 24, 2016.

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