Few things unhinge the British as much as doublet and hose. The merest hint unleashes golden fantasies of order and well-being, yoking together gentility and free-born earthiness within a deep dream of peace. And so, in 1989, when bulldozers in Southwark accidentally laid bare the foundations first of the Rose Theatre and then of the Globe, a furore began fit to astonish any passing Elizabethan ghost. The possibility that one of these sites might fall prey to property developers generated more squeaking and gibbering in the London streets than you could shake a severed head at. Greenrooms of actors ranged anoraked bodies against the pile-drivers. Guggenheims of scholars jumboed in from North America. There was weeping and wailing and the gnashing of clapperboards for the TV cameras. The air thickened with pronouncements about culture, art, our ‘national heritage’.
It’s worth reminding ourselves during the present lull in hostilities that a salutary strand of Puritanism is woven into the very ‘national heritage’ that the self-appointed guardians of the Rose and the Globe Theatres claim to be preserving. One of the major charges levelled by the Puritans against the playhouses of Shakespeare’s day was that they were involved in and encouraged idolatory: the worship of graven images. The appalling spectacle of famous actors and actresses praying over heaps of bricks and mortar, lighting candles, and tying paper flowers to the wire fencing around the Rose and the Globe, had a familiar whiff.
Andrew Gurr and John Orrell’s Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe concerns a project conceived well before the recent discoveries. But its primary aim – to present the case for a ‘reconstruction’ of the Globe Theatre in Southwark near the site of the original – might well set the odd Puritan nostril twitching. Gurr’s crisp, lucid survey of the present state of knowledge about audiences, acting companies and playgoing in 1600 is predictably impeccable, and nothing less could be said of Orrell’s account of the structure of the original Globe and the Inigo Jones designs for indoor theatres. The book’s scholarship, its commitment, its good intentions lie manifestly beyond dispute. However, there are difficulties.
The first and most obvious one lurks in the linked notions of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘original’. Their involvement in what the fell sergeants of deconstruction have urged us to see as a culture-specific need to establish legitimating presences, and what less amibitious citizens might rank as a longing for a vanished Eden, should give us pause here. The potential of ‘origin’ as an agent of affirmation, confirmation and limitation makes it a powerful ideological tool. If we can persuade ourselves that in some way origins generate authenticity, determine, establish and reinforce essentials, then we can forget about change and about the history and politics which produce it. A covert, idolatrous agenda backs temptingly into view. The ‘original’ Globe Theatre! That firmest of rocks on which the true unchanging English culture is founded! To bolt the shifting uncertain present firmly to that monument must be a project worth encouraging. Let Europe loom, the pound wilt, Shakespeare’s wooden O offers a peculiarly satisfying bulwark against change.
Another difficulty is that the notion of an ‘original’ Globe theatre doesn’t bear much looking into. There were, to begin with, two of them. The first Globe was constructed in 1599. It burned down in 1613 and a second Globe was constructed on the same site. If the first Globe is the ‘original’ one, a central problem must be that the timbers from which it was built were themselves ‘originally’ used to construct Burbage’s first playhouse, called The Theatre, situated on the north bank of the Thames and dismantled in December 1598. In short, the first and ‘original’ Globe was itself already a literal ‘reconstruction’ of a pre-existing theatre, and the present project runs the serious risk of being a reconstruction of a reconstruction. The dizzying prospect of a third remove enters with the fact that the best physical picture of the Globe is the one afforded by Wenceslas Hollar’s ‘Long View’ of London. But this gives a view of the second Globe, which is, of course, a reconstruction on the same site of the first Globe. Finally, as if in mockery of all such reaching after authenticity, it happens that Hollar’s engraving reverses the captions on the two buildings, with the result that the one it clearly nominates as ‘The Globe’ is no such thing. Indeed, the sacred edifice itself is ignominiously designated for all to see as an arena for ‘Beere bayting’.
The less than edifying spectacle of scholars in pursuit of authenticity is familiar enough in the field of Shakespearean textual scholarship, where the quest for what the Bard ‘originally’ wrote in pristine and unsullied manuscript form has its own comic and ideologically illuminating history. But Gurr and Orrell’s meticulous and delicate work deserves a better fate than the underwriting of what has begun to look rather like an Elizabethan theme park with two reconstructed playhouses (the Globe and the ‘Inigo Jones playhouse’) firmly (if that’s the word) at its centre – I speak as a former enthusiast for the project. The playhouses, we are told, will act as the focus of a larger complex, an ‘educational milieu’ presenting a ‘re-created piece of London’s history’. The good news is that, to conform to modern fire regulations, the theatres will have illuminated ‘Exit’ signs. Light one for me.
There is, of course, an ultimate difficulty. What can never be reconstructed is the major ingredient of all Shakespeare’s plays, the factor which completed them and made them work: their original audience. Annabel Patterson’s Shakespeare and the Popular Voice boldly confronts this issue in a spirited study of the ways in which the plays might be said to give that audience a voice. Rejecting as ‘counter-intuitive’ the notion that Shakespeare would have supported an aristocratic and ‘anti-popular’ myth of society, she offers a populist Bard writing on the side of an inherited cultural tradition of popular protest. By the early 19th century this Shakespeare had been expunged from the record and a different voice was on offer as the true utterance of the Bard. Patterson is one of a number of critics and scholars who have recently been trying either to establish contact with the voice of the earlier incarnation or to understand the nature of the expunging process itself.
One of the most effective agents in that respect was certainly the apostate Coleridge, whose lectures on Shakespeare gear themselves to a growing fear of popular revolution and, in the playwright’s name, deploy a considered programme of anti-Jacobin propaganda. As Jonathan Bate has pointed out in an incisive study of the cultural politics of the period,Hazlitt stands as the Radical to Coleridge’s Conservative in terms of a struggle for possession of Shakespeare that was a feature of British ideology between Waterloo and Peterloo.
Shakespeare’s centrality as an instrument of cultural meaning was confirmed by that contest. The creature familiar to us as ‘Shakespeare’ was to some degree produced by it. Reinforced and transmitted by the educational system, this is a figure we immediately recognise and embrace: liberal, disinterested, all-wise; his plays the repository, guarantee and chief distributor next to God of unchanging truth. If there is a darker side, it emerges in the conclusion to which Hazlitt is ineluctably drawn – that, by virtue of his poetic imagination, Shakespeare is ultimately complicit with the political power he scrutinises.
Bate’s thoughtful analysis suggests that the plays ultimately elude wholesale appropriation, that they cannot be finally constituted by political preference. But Hazlitt’s conclusion remains to trouble us. Are Shakespeare’s plays essentially reactionary? Can we discern popular protest only in their unconscious revelations, in the patterns of their systematic blindness? Or do they offer us the direct voice of that protest, once we have trained ourselves to hear it beyond the filtering mediations of the intervening years?
In Annabel Patterson’s view, this ‘direct voice’ comes to us indirectly through a kind of. ‘ventriloquism’, whenever we hear it cited by its enemies on the stage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a good example. If we move beyond the operatic and balletic acccretions attached to the play between 1662, when Pepys was able to dismiss it as ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’, and 1914, when Granville Barker tried to dispense with the scenic display that generations of spectacular musical versions had imposed, ‘the play that Shakespeare wrote’ emerges in a powerful and startlingly different light.
The major beneficiary of such a re-vision is the character of Bottom, with the production of Pyramus and Thisbe in which he stars thrust into new prominence. This mocking and sharply focused performance – capable of making its aristocratic audience as uncomfortable as the performance of ‘The Mousetrap’ does in Hamlet – takes up virtually the whole of the Fifth Act of the play, and the rehearsals for it resonate in the rest of the action to such a degree that they drown out much of the rather tedious framing plot. Add factors such as the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and the midsummer disturbances in London of 1595 (involving up to a thousand rioters, a mixture of artisans and apprentices) and the worrying potential of the presence on the stage of a number of such persons becomes apparent. Bottom’s repeated assurance that he and his men have no wish to cause alarm is an example of the ‘ventriloquism’ Patterson cites. His sexual triumph with Titania – an enactment in fantasy of upper-class fears regarding the potency of the lower elements both of society and the body – is another.
In this way, Patterson argues, the play engages effectively with the political pressures operative in its society. Whether or not – in its ‘carnival’ or ‘festive’ mode – it aspires to defuse them is, of course, another matter. Early Modern ‘festival’ occasions with their ritual mocking of authority are said nowadays to have functioned largely as ‘safety valves’ for harshly repressed communities. But many instances exist in which their subversive potential seems to have taken over the occasion and turned it into a political manifestation of some power, if no precise focus. Our own experience of so-called ‘football violence’ may well interest future historians on this basis. But Patterson argues that it was not until after the Midlands Rising of 1607 ‘that Shakespeare was forced to admit that the popular voice had grievances that the popular theatre could no longer express comedically.’
As a result, that voice gradually becomes more direct and less ‘ventriloquised’. Hamlet marks the point of transition to the new dynamics of the reign of James. As the Prince increasingly uses the terms employed by artisans and the lower orders, he seems to commit himself to a language learned from the politically voiceless, and thus to become their mouthpiece. To the Court this signifies madness.
Madness of a similar sort characterises those speeches of Lear which seem to offer a radical critique of a social structre in which men can change places ‘handy dandy’ because no social position has absolute standing. In this play, says Patterson, Shakespeare overtly takes up the case of society’s victims and – in a startling transgressive gesture – boldy confronts a monarch with them.
But the ‘frontal political nakedness’ of Coriolanus makes it the obvious focal point of her analysis. Of course, the same feature also accounts for the degree of ideological appropriation which has ever been this play’s lot. Marxist and Fascist readings have tugged at it repeatedly. Both Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and George Eliot’s Felix Holt have processed it for their own purposes. The play seems always to have functioned as a kind of arena. However, Patterson’s concern to establish what the ‘text of Coriolanus itself’ has to say presumes to stand aside from all this in an attempt to read the actual ‘grain’ of the play in its own terms. In her view, it offers a pro-democratic analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of republican political theory, which it presents as a challenge to the authoritarian principles underpinning the Jacobean state. Of course, as she points out, to choose a Roman subject was in any case to engage in a Jacobean cultural practice which had its own oppositional ‘grain’. Hobbes himself warned that ‘they that live under a Monarch conceive an opinion that the Subjects in a Popular Commonwealth enjoy Liberty; but that in a Monarchy they are all Slaves.’ But this fails to account for the clout of the plebeian’s case, its political acumen, its grasp of the strategies of patrician argument, its tough-minded capacity for counter-attack. Under Patterson’s admirably intense scrutiny, the play appears to raise the fundamental populist questions of who should speak for the commons, what power the common people should have in the system, and the extent to which such power is compatible with national safety.
Problems arise, of course, with the claim that these are the ‘real’ and essential meanings of the text ‘itself’, the heart of the ‘play that Shakespeare wrote’, the standard from which other readings diverge. The account she supplies of the various uses made of Coriolanus in history creates particular difficulties for Patterson’s brand of essentialism because it indicates that no text is wholly obdurate, hardened into single meaning. The opposite case can be just as persuasively put. It would argue that texts yield only to reading and that reading is a political and a politicising act: that to read a text, in however complex a mode, is to enlist it. In terms of material practice there can be no final ‘text itself, floating free from current and previous processing. And paradoxically, in the event, the supple power of Patterson’s own readings helps to make this point.
Her project – the reclamation of Shakespeare in the name of the common people – has an attractive urgency that the sophistication of current critical theories should not be permitted simply to dismiss. Her scholarship is never less than scrupulous, adroitly deployed and deftly driven home by close attention to the text. She has valiantly sifted a mass of historical material, and future generations will thank her for that and for her efforts, signalled by reiterated attention to a set of metaphors involving heels, toes and shoeleather, to keep all our feet firmly on the ground.
The main difficulty with her argument lies less in its presentation of the plays as the ‘expression’ of a popular voice, than in its conviction that, in this, they represent the un-mediated fulfilment of their author’s intentions. If Shakespeare’s plays can be said to be more (and less) than this it is primarily because they are texts, and thus constituted not only by an author but also by the interpretative strategies of readers and the material political and social pressures of the historical contexts helping to shape those strategies. That processing has at the least made the ‘plays themselves’ unreachable. At best, it may itself be more interesting and more revealing than they could ever be.
For it is surely the case that we can have no immediate or objective access to the works of an ‘essential’ Shakespeare, to the ‘plays themselves’ or to what they ‘really’ mean. Nor could Shakespeare. Indeed that is hardly the point of him or them. The point of Shakespeare and his plays lies in their capacity to serve as instruments by which we make cultural meaning for ourselves. In short, we can say of Shakespeare’s plays what we can say of those other instruments by which we make meaning, the words of our language. They don’t, in themselves, ‘mean’. It is we who mean, by them.
In just this spirit, Gary Taylor’s Re-Inventing Shakespeare offers a lively ‘cultural history’ of our use of the Bard. In fact, he proposes a new discipline, somewhat clumsily dubbed ‘Shakesperotics’, whose field is more or less everything that a culture gets up to in the name of Shakespeare. Taylor’s quarry is that by now transnational cultural and commercial industry whose product’s potency underwrites the appearance of its emblem on banknotes, pub-signs, credit cards, T-shirts. What Shakesperotics confronts could well be termed Bardbiz.
Taylor takes up the story from 1660, the point at which the theatres re-opened, but ironically, also the point by which most material knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays had been lost. The subsequent history of Shakespearean scholarship, criticism and performance is the story of that knowledge’s retrieval or, better to stress the age’s purposeful employment of the Bard, its ‘restoration’. Restoring Shakespeare after 1660 links him to the restored monarch, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church, to the mutual advantage of each. Meaning by Shakespeare even awards Pericles, an inherently unlikely choice, a brief toehold in the Restoration repertoire, because it can be made to speak to the adventures of Charles II. In much the same way, Henry V offers itself as a vehicle for the mediation of wartime trauma. In our own century, Olivier’s film addresses the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 and – perhaps more obliquely – Kenneth Branagh’s film engages with the current carnage of Belfast.
In the 18th century an early shift of emphasis from performance to print led to Shakespeare’s becoming irrevocably woven into the strands of a national literary culture, first through long-standing discussion of the plays in the Spectator and the Tatler, and then as a result of Jacob Tonson’s practice of persuading well-known writers to edit the Bard’s works. For over a century some of the finest authors in English merged their talents with those of Shakespeare as they helped in the remodelling and transmission of his plays – always a good investment, as the increasing number of editions of the Complete Works shows. Taylor calculates that in the hundred years up to 1708 there were four of them. In the following hundred years, there were 65. Nor need we dismiss this activity as barren. Poetry itself springs from the search for what Shakespeare actually wrote when, with Pope’s Dunciad, a masterpiece by one interpreter of Shakespeare grows out of an attack on two others, Theobald and Cibber.
If Bardbiz took root at the beginning of the 18th century it was in full flower at its close. The Romantics, who might have challenged the Shakespearean hegemony, ended by colluding with it in the interest of the preservation of a national culture. Part of the effect of the French Revolution in Britain was, as Leigh Hunt remarked, ‘to endear the nation to its own habits’. Amongst these was a mistrust of rational abstraction and a preference for intuitive, organic development. Led by Coleridge’s organicist political theories transmuted to a theory of aesthetics, Romanticism tended to glorify the Shakespearean canon as the benignly rule-flouting, coherence-generating, meaning-conferring work of a genuinely British Bard. ‘Chief Poet!’ Keats called him, sitting down to read King Lear again, ‘Begetter of our deep eternal theme!’ Unlike revolutionary France and America, Britain entered the 19th century without the benefit of a rationalised, written constitution. But in terms of making meaning, the works of the Chief Poet served as well if not better.
Victorian processing of that constitution benefited from scholarly work on Biblical texts and from parallel developments in science and industry. Division of labour brought precision in dating, ordering, collating. In 1864 a watershed was reached. In that year the aptly named Globe edition of the plays appeared and remained the ubiquitous standard text for over a century. Produced by three Cambridge dons, it marked the first serious entry into Bardbiz of professional academic ‘experts’. Fighting off the attempted depredations of marauding Baconians, scholars such as Edward Dowden (one of the first Human beings ever to earn his living by teaching Shakespeare) related the plays to an imaginary, Darwinesque, smoothly evolutionary ‘life’ of the playwright, whose narrative embodied many of the age’s presuppositions concerning history, psychology and the nature of the subtly progressive English-speaking world whose imperialist hub was London.
Dowden was an Anglo-Irish Protestant and his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (which went through 12 British editions between 1875 and 1901 and is still in print) not unnaturally discerns in the Bard’s life and works a covert scenario for the settlement of the Irish problem. But what such studies overtly achieved was the shepherding of Shakespeare into the examination room. There, with the additional help of such as the rogue philosopher A.C. Bradley, the rapidly developing academic subject called ‘English’ – addressed to readers of the plays, not theatregoers – used Shakespeare as a kingpin in its project of welding native cultures abroad and local cultures at home into a single coherent imperial entity.
Taylor’s racy populism makes no bones about pointing to the professional academics as themselves the creators of the problem-racked Bard they currently study. He rips into their pretensions with relish, making the point that by the clear light of day the subject of them turns out to be a writer of no necessary distinction, a former star, reduced now to the status of a ‘black hole’. By the middle of the 20th century, firmly in the possession of research-minded professors and the staple of many of their careers, Shakespeare appeared to speak only the patois of Modernism. As intimate with foreign cultures as Joyce, as widely read as Pound, as laden with literary references as Eliot, his failure to produce The Waste Land, Ulysses or the Cantos was merely an oversight. An extra nick from Taylor’s finely honed irony is reserved for Cleanth Brooks, whose essay ‘Shakespeare as a Symbolist Poet’ (1945, reprinted as ‘The Naked Babe and the Cloak of Manliness’ in The Well Wrought Urn in 1947) seems to epitomise the academic profession at its most self-serving.
Finally, the focus narrows to 1986, the year of the World Shakespeare Congress in Berlin. It finds Taylor jetting to major centres of Bardbiz in London, Chicago, Oxford, Stratford, Washington, Paris and elsewhere, offering en route a tough-guy run-down on the scholars and critics operating in each place. Who would have thought the Bard had undone so many? Pale groaning shades slink past, feminists, bibliographers, theatre-historians, Marxists, historicists new and old. Some wretched ‘white British Shakespearean scholar’, scourged in half a paragraph for a lifetime’s imperception, is well on his chastened way back to the sulphurous and tormenting flames before I realise that he bears my own name. This is Bardbiz, nor are we out of it.
Neither is Taylor. For 1986 is also the year which sees the unveiling of the Oxford Shakespeare, of which he is himself an editor. Oxford, Shakespeare, the words chime an authoritative peal. But the American Taylor is quick to suggest that the revolutionary modes they ring in (the disintegrationist Oxford edition prints two distinct versions of King Lear and is as genuinely ‘shocking’ to some as any Marxist or Deconstructionist accounts of the plays) are underwritten and perhaps compromised by the global prestige of the institutions from which they spring.
Nevertheless, there’s no people like Bardbiz People, and on the strength of this volume the star that has been hung on Gary Taylor’s study door need not be revoked just yet. No black hole he. His sprightly ‘March of Time’ style, his cheeky, know-all stance, his gamy psychopathology of academic life, will win him few cigars in academe, where it’s all right to be a star, but not all right to want it so much. The book’s central weakness – its undertheorised commitment to a ‘real’ (albeit unremarkable) Shakespeare lying underneath all the ‘reinventions’ – shouldn’t be permitted to spoil the fun. In what amounts to a case-study of the contingencies that determine social renown and political influence, Taylor has found a novel way to place a sensitive and scholarly finger on the pulse of our culture. Like it or not, this tightly-packed, incisive, often infuriating book represents a genuine contribution to our knowledge of how that culture works.
For a lot of people, it works by the deployment of power in specific interests and through covert channels. Taylor’s book is not the first to suggest that literature acts as one of these, but the recent republication of influential books by Malcolm Evans and Jonathan Dollimoreconfirms a developing and converging set of concerns with the possibilities, the subtleties and the crudities of the process he spotlights. Although Evans’s Signifying nothing, a virtuoso performance of startling ingenuity, is very different from Dollimore’s edgy, penetrative and disconcerting Radical Tragedy, both have had important roles to play in a continuing revisonary project which in the last decade or so has aimed at a reassessment of Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama precisely in terms of that connection with politics.
Fundamentally, the project has involved locating the drama in history. First, by reinserting the plays into the cultural history of their own time, by abandoning the modern category of ‘literature’ and merging them back into the context of the circulating discourses from which ‘English’ has prised them, it sets out to judge the degree to which the drama was or was not complicit with the powers of the state that seem to sustain it. Second, by inserting the ‘afterlives’ of the plays into subsequent history and by historicising salient features of ‘literature’ and ‘criticism’, it offers to assess their use as instruments of present cultural meaning.
The first enterprise seems largely to have sprung from American soil, where, as ‘New Historicism’, it has for some time been subjecting the historical ‘meaning’ of Elizabethan drama in its own time to extensive realignment. The second is a mostly British phenomenon and comes partly in response to a more abrasive political climate. Despite a certain amount of uneasy fidgeting beneath a common banner whose strange device reads ‘Cultural Materialism’, much of its activity remains most fruitfully grounded in the work of Raymond Williams. Both Evans and Dollimore offer powerful examples of the unsettling purchase this newly historicised and politicised British criticism can obtain on the Elizabethan past and the Thatcherised present. Latterly, British concerns have started to make their presence more strongly felt in the United States, and in Hugh Grady’s forthcoming The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (Oxford) the ideological underpinnings and the literary and political roots of academic literary criticism on both sides of the Atlantic will be at the centre of the stage.
Indeed, it is mildly surprising that Gary Taylor himself fails to burst from the wings in the most recent example of what might be termed American cultural materialism, Michael Bristol’s fascinating Shakespeare’s America, America’s Shakespeare. Taylor’s nationality, his co-editorship of the Oxford Shakespeare, to say nothing of his capacity for discovering ‘new’ poems by the Bard (the best-forgotten ‘Shall I die?’), identify him as one of that indefatigable army who have astonishingly established a British playwright as a central institutional feature of the way of life of the United States.
However, Bristol’s book complements Taylor’s and to some extent neatly outflanks it by means of a much harder-hitting and more consciously stressed political dimension. The result is a trenchant materialist account of the way Shakespeare has been and is being used within American culture. Bristol’s examination of the epistemological implications of the topic has an appropriate depth. But there is a level at which the issue is also very simple: Shakespeare functions as one of the central ways in which America makes itself meaningful in its own eyes. And at the heart of that there is a clear anomaly: deep inside the New World’s project of renovatio lies a commitment to the Old World so powerful that it seeps into the very foundations and institutions of the Republic.
Bristol begins by subjecting the theoretical bases of current Shakespeare studies to devastating scrutiny. Their effects are well-known: Shakespeare as timeless, ‘beyond ideology’, the centre and epitome of that ‘affirmative culture’ which humanism tirelessly promotes. The causes are pursued and disentangled in areas such as the political economy of scholarship within the educational apparatus, the use of ‘tradition’ as a social agency, and the employment of bibliographical and editing techniques in the ‘deuteronomic’ reconstruction of an originating ‘authority’.
Concrete detail enlivens the story. The diary of John Adams – one of the founding fathers of the Republic – records a melancholy trip he made to Stratford in 1786 in the company of Thomas Jefferson. The Americans cut slivers from an old chair in which Shakespeare had supposedly sat, and, beginning a tradition to which Henry James and T.S. Eliot were heirs, proceeded to admonish the bemused locals on their ignorance of their own heritage. Just how and why a society founded on and committed to distrust of hereditary privilege and holding sacred the principle that, in Adams’s words, ‘real merit should govern the world’ managed to cleave to its very bosom an artist whose primary themes are, as Bristol says, ‘the pathos of kingship and the decline of the great feudal classes’ constitutes the puzzle his book sets out to solve. In the process, a chilling thesis emerges: the interpretation of Shakespeare and the interpretation of American political culture, are mutually determining practices.
A simpler, if no less disturbing way of putting it is to say that Shakespeare has become, both metaphorically and literally, an American institution. A major symbol of this is the Folger Shakespeare Library. One of the world’s great collections of Shakespeareana, it was founded by Henry Clay Folger, president of Standard Oil. Rejecting suggestions that it be housed in Stratford-upon-Avon, Folger insisted that his library should be situated in close proximity to the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and other edifices in the heart of Washington DC. When it opened in 1932, Joseph Quincy Adams spoke of Shakespeare’s establishment as ‘the cornerstone of cultural discipline’ in America at a time when ‘the forces of immigration became a menace to the preservation of our long-established English civilisation.’ Indeed, in his speech at Folger’s funeral, William Slade, the Library’s first director, made this symbolism explicit by pointing out that ‘a line drawn from the site of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial through the Capitol building and extended onward will all but touch the monument to Washington and the memorial to Lincoln.’ Washington, Lincoln, Shakespeare: the Bard as the completing element of democracy’s Holy Trinity and bulwark against the alien hordes is no more ludicrous an idea than many enountered in Bristol’s provocative study. Put with verve and wit, his case has disconcerting implications for defenders of Britain’s own no less rickety and probably no more long-established ‘English civilisation’.
The centrality of Shakespeare to American culture – indeed, the function of his work as a central site of cultural struggle there – might finally make us look again at the Globe Theatre project in London. Its onlie begetter is of course an American, the talented actor Sam Wanamaker, and the project owes most of its success to his transatlantic vigour. If the pile rising in Southwark silently berates the locals for neglecting their heritage, perhaps it not only evokes the shades of Adams and Jefferson on their visit to Stratford, but also shares certain features of other rather more threatening transatlantic missions periodically set up in our midst. Of course, they all offer to defend our way of life. They would, wouldn’t they? Is Bardbiz in this guise merely the continuation of American foreign policy by other means? The praying actors might ponder that. Meanwhile, right across the road from the original location of Shakespeare’s wooden O, not more than a fret and a strut from its immemorial stage, a brand new building soars indifferently skywards. No less of a monument to our present way of life, it houses the Financial Times.