“Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.” By the time the first battles of the American Revolution took place on April 19, 1775 in Massachusetts, Shakespeare had been imported from England on stage and page to the New World. His plays were performed on the east coast from Massachusetts to Virginia, where the first documented theater building opened in 1718. Though not yet taught in school, Shakespeare was widely read, most often in editions printed in England.
As patriots and loyalists took sides, Shakespeare provided a common language through which they could express their differences. It was a war fought with ink and paper as well as with bullets and guns. “Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question,” wrote a patriot in 1770; while a loyalist Tory expressed uncertainty about whether to sign on to a boycott of British goods in 1774: “To sign, or not to sign? That is the question”—both sides channeled Hamlet.1
After the war, the colonists formed themselves into the American nation, ratifying the Constitution with the Bill of Rights in 1791. American acting companies were already established, and a complete edition of Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems was published in Philadelphia, proudly calling itself the “First American Edition.”
During the American Revolution, both sides referred to Shakespeare as a way of talking about the war. A British political cartoon shows England as a man leaning on a crutch, trying to pull the American colonists by the nose: “And therefore is England maimed & forc’d to go with a staff .” This quotation is from Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part 2, suggesting that the Colonists rebelling against the British king are like Cade and his rabble-rousers in Shakespeare’s history play.
On the American side, Abigail Adams writes to her husband John after the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, praising the courage of the militiamen by quoting from Coriolanus: “Extremity is the trier of spirits/ Common chances common men will bear.”
The Folger recently acquired a book once owned by Edward Dale (1620–1695), who immigrated to Virginia in the 1650s. The book itself is unremarkable, but inside is a list of books Dale owned at the time of his death, including a copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio (1632). This is one of the earliest records of Shakespeare’s Works owned in America.
This blog post is adapted from text used in the America’s Shakespeare exhibition, on display at the Folger Apr 7 – Jul 24, 2016.