To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood
do come to Dunsinane…
-Mark Twain

William Shakespeare’s plays were forms of popular entertainment in nineteenth century America. American audiences–farmers and mechanics no less than Boston Brahmins–knew much Shakespeare by heart. They held theatrical performances to a high standard, and they took great delight in outrageous parodies, such as the passage above from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But to his American audiences Shakespeare’s power to entertain was inseparable from his power to dramatize vital truths of the human condition. Their Shakespeare was, in Herman Melville’s memorable phrase, a master of the Great Art of Telling the Truth.

Shakespeare’s America takes the Bard’s wide (at times wild) popularity in nineteenth century America as one of its three points of departure, the other two being the reflections on Shakespeare by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. Emerson declared that Shakespeare “read the hearts of men and women” like no other poet and was “inconceivably wise,” whereas all other great authors were only “conceivably” wise. To Melville, twenty-five years old when he returned from the sea to take up writing as a vocation, Shakespeare became a lifelong source of inspiration because his plays craftily probe “the very axis of reality.”

This will be a seminar devoted to the close, analytical reading of Shakespeare’s plays and masterpieces of American literature. We will read Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, among other plays. American works will include Moby-Dick, essays by Emerson, Hawthorne’s Tales, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Seminar discussions will consider the interplay of form and meaning, figurative language, illusion and truth, varieties of interpretation, and logical uses of textual evidence. The motto of our seminar will be Henry James’ advice to young writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”