Founders' Writings on Their Admiration of William Shakespeare
To have cake or not to have cake… that is the question as we mark William Shakespeare’s birthday! Well, what is generally celebrated as his birthday, anyway.
Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 – as estimated by records of his baptism, which took place April 26 – in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. His earliest plays, likely one of the three parts of King Henry VI, were written between 1589-1591, but his legacy has lasted far beyond. His influence stretched across the Atlantic Ocean and reached the ears and eyes of budding Revolutionaries in early America.
To mark the Bard’s birth – notably the same date as his death in 1616 – take a look at the deep appreciation many founders had for Shakespeare and their recurring citations of his work.
“Let me search for the Clue, which Led great Shakespeare into the Labyrinth of mental Nature!” – John Adams, 1758
John Adams was a well-documented fan of Shakespeare. Whether they were lines from a play or just expressions of general admiration, Adams often referenced Shakespeare in his letters and journals, like this diary entry from Sept. 3 or 4, 1758:
“Let me search for the Clue, which Led great Shakespeare into the Labyrinth of mental Nature! Let me examine how men think. Shakespeare had never seen in real Life Persons under the Influence of all those Scenes of Pleasure and distress, which he has described in his Works, but he imagined how a Person of such a Character would behave in such Circumstances, by analogy from the Behaviour of others that were most like that Character in nearly similar Circumstances, which he had seen.”
“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4)
John was not the only member of the Adams household who oft quoted Shakespeare. In 1775, perhaps sharing a common sentiment with other Revolutionaries, Abigail Adams referenced a famous line from Shakespeare’s Richard III, likening the villain to King George III: “The time is hastening,” she wrote in a letter to John Adams, “when George, like Richard, may cry, ‘My kingdom for a horse…”
Among many other references to Shakespeare’s plays in her letters over the years, she included a verse from Coriolanus in a June 1775 letter praising the courage of the militiamen after the Battle of Bunker Hill:
“Every account agrees in 14 and 15 hundred slain and wounded upon their side nor can I learn that they dissemble the number themselves,” she wrote. “We had some Heroes that day who fought with amazing intrepidity, and courage—
‘Extremity is the trier of Spirits—
Common chances common men will bear;
And when the Sea is calm all boats alike
Shew mastership in floating, but fortunes blows
When most struck home, being bravely warded, crave
A noble cunning.’ Shakespear.”
Notably, John Adams also recited a passage from Coriolanus as an undergraduate at Harvard University as part of the Harvard Discussion Club. Their adoration for Shakespeare was also passed down to their son, John Quincy Adams, who once wrote, “My admiration for Shakespeare as a profound delineator of human nature and a sublime poet is but little short of idolatry.”
“Stratford upon Avon is interesting as it is the Scaene of the Birth, Death and Sepulture of Shakespear.” – John Adams, 1786
In 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited Shakespeare’s home in England – and took a piece of it home with them.
Adams wrote of their visit in his diary, saying “Stratford upon Avon is interesting as it is the Scaene of the Birth, Death and Sepulture of Shakespear.” However, he didn’t seem as impressed as you might think. “Three Doors from the Inn, is the House where he was born, as small and mean, as you can conceive,” he wrote. In an 1815 letter, however, Abigail Adams wrote that Jefferson kissed the ground upon the pair’s arrival.
John Adams also wrote about their partaking in the “custom” of slicing off a souvenir piece of the chair the writer supposedly used.
“They shew Us an old Wooden Chair in the Chimney Corner, where He sat. We cutt off a Chip according to the Custom,” he wrote. “A Mulberry Tree that he planted has been cutt down, and is carefully preserved for Sale. The House where he died has been taken down and the Spot is now only Yard or Garden. The Curse upon him who should remove his Bones, … His Wit, and Fancy, his Taste and Judgment, His Knowledge of Nature, of Life and Character, are immortal.”
In 2006, the wood chip was displayed at Jefferson’s Monticello, with a note that read, "A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespear's house at Stratford on Avon, said to be the identical chair in which he usually wrote, if true, like the relicks of the saints, it must miraculously reproduce itself.”
“Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1771
Trying to cut down your screen time and read more before bed? In a 1771 letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson recommended reading Shakespeare “from Dark to Bed-time.”
“Read the best of the Poets,” he wrote, “but among those Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.”
In fact, if you were to ask Jefferson for any reading recommendations, Shakespeare may be among the first names he mentions. In another letter in 1771, he wrote, “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 ever were written.”
“What’s past is prologue.” (The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1)
George Washington documented his day-to-day schedule during the Constitutional Convention in July 1787, held in Philadelphia. Between sessions of sitting for a portrait by Charles Willson Peale and having tea, Washington recorded one afternoon in which he “dined at Springsbury with the Club and went to the play in the Afternoon.” The play was a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3)
Washington’s appreciation for Shakespeare even shows up here in the Museum’s galleries. Above a tableau scene in our core exhibit in which Washington is breaking up a fight between soldiers, you can spot an excerpt from Washington’s Farewell Orders to the Continental Army (1783) where he calls his troops a patriotic “band of brothers.” This is a reference to a line in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Washington was also fond of some of the Bard’s other works, including Hamlet and Julius Caesar.