The title of my popular, New York University undergraduate seminar, “American Shakespeare”, always raised a few eyebrows. “It’s a survey of Shakespeare in America,” I once explained to a stuffy, Oxbridge colleague. “But,” he sniffed, “Shakespeare was never in America.” “Indeed,” I replied heartily, “but he is very much with us now.”
My seminar examined what Emerson termed the “Shakespearization” of America. I had no idea where this exploration might lead. And, certainly never imagined I would find myself re-discovering Shakespeare in a tiny, fishing village in southern Alaska.
That excursion began with a dare. One day, I sauntered into class with a topic I knew my students would be keen to devour. I’d found details of a production of Othello in Alaska. The play had been adapted into a 19th century, Alaskan context. Othello became a Native Alaskan, instead of a Moor. The goal of this touring show was to facilitate dialogue between Native and non-Native communities.
Can, or should, Shakespeare be used in this way? My students, as always, were hotly divided between the purists and the progressives. Reaching a fevered pitch, they demanded I settle the debate: “Dr. Smith-Howard, you must go there and find out.” They dared, and, off I went.
I wrote the theatre company and asked if I could observe their work. Next thing I knew, I was flying over the Rocky Mountains, to the vast, wild, least populated, and most breathtaking state in the American union.
The experience that followed was an incredibly powerful one, and one that underscores for me the discernable differences in what Shakespeare means today. One facet of Shakespeare’s inheritance is that he has become a trusted brand. His name, image and words are used to market and sell a staggering array of goods around the globe, from the Shakespeare Coffee Company (Bidford-on-Avon), “Hamlet” Cigars, and Austin motor-cars (“Travel…as you like it.”) in Britain, to mentholated cough syrup in Brazil (“To Coff, or not to coff, that is the question”).
In contrast is the esteem in which Shakespeare is held in America, where he is perceived as a touchstone, a symbol of artistry and wisdom. Americans seem to have accepted as gospel the 19th century, British notion of Shakespeare’s secular godship. Joseph Papp, America’s foremost theatre director, put it best:
Why do so many people get hooked on Shakespeare and develop a habit that lasts a lifetime? What can he really say to us today, in a world filled with inventions and problems he could never have imagined? Because, Shakespeare is showing you human nature. Shakespeare has enriched my understanding of life immeasurably. I hope you’ll let him do the same for you.” (Shakespeare Alive!, 1988)
Like Papp, I, too, have experienced the transformative power of Shakespeare in people’s lives: from disadvantaged teens in NYC to Native American elders in rural Alaska. I have witnessed Shakespeare’s words empowering the voiceless; and being the common language differing cultures previously lacked. I have seen his texts creating a common ground, a campfire around which a divided community could gather. For me, this is his greatest and most enduring legacy.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Shakespeare, wherever you are!