Thomas Jefferson and Shakespeare

Thomas JeffersonBecause he was chosen to compose the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson is the man most often associated with a historic document whose language continues to resonate today.

“Thoroughly versed in classical oratory and rhetorical theory as well as in the belletristic treatises of his own time, Thomas Jefferson, draftsman of the Declaration, was a diligent student of rhythm, accent, timing, and cadence in discourse,” as Stephen E. Lucas writes in an essay about the stylistic artistry of the Declaration of Independence. One of the writers Jefferson devoted special study to was William Shakespeare.

Jefferson, like many of the other Founding Fathers, was very familiar with Shakespeare’s plays. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson recommends Shakespeare for reading in the evening, explaining that “Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.”

As a young man, Jefferson would likely have seen Shakespeare’s plays onstage. One biographer writes that he “haunted the playhouses” of Williamsburg, Virginia, in the spring of 1768, most likely attending (among other plays) the Virginia Company of Comedians’ production of The Merchant of Venice. Later in life, he went to The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth in London.

When a friend asked him to recommend books to buy, Jefferson encouraged him to include some works of fiction, like Shakespeare’s plays, as a guide to virtue, arguing that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.”

While in England in 1786, Jefferson went on a trip with John Adams that included Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Although Adams described this tourist site as “small and mean,” Jefferson simply noted the costs of going there, including entry fees to see the birthplace and the tomb. He and Adams also followed the custom of other visitors by cutting a souvenir piece of wood from a chair where Shakespeare had supposedly sat. In 2006, Jefferson’s home at Monticello exhibited this memento, along with a wry note by Jefferson: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true like the relics of the saints it must miraculously reproduce itself.”

Jefferson and Adams’s diaries certainly suggest the visit was disappointing (one biographer pictures Jefferson’s “teeth obviously grating” as he jotted down the fees). Many years later, however, a very different version of these events—perhaps apocryphal—was suggested by Abigail Adams. She wrote in an 1815 letter that when Thomas Jefferson first reached Stratford, he kissed the ground.

Editor’s Note: This blog post includes text from the Shakespeare in American Life archived website.

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