“Now, literature, philosophy, and thought, are Shakspearized”: American culture and nineteenth -century Shakespearean performance, 1835–1875
This dissertation investigates Shakespeare's presence in nineteenth-century American culture and the meanings audiences made of Shakespeare's texts. My interest and my method has been to examine the intersection of textual representation, performative representation and cultural reception of the six most popular Shakespeare plays on the nineteenth-century American stage. The careful and extensive examination of the reviews of many productions and the promptbooks that guided performances has formed the backbone of this inquiry and has suggested how the culture read the performances it was seeing.
An analysis of nineteenth-century American Shakespeare productions raises questions about and challenges current beliefs about the attitudes nineteenth-century audiences held on gender, race, ethnicity and democracy. I look at American Shakespearean performance between about 1835 and 1875 to see where the smooth surface of theater history appears to give way—to rupture in some way—and reveal something startling about gender, race, ethnicity and attitudes toward democracy, something that would not be readily apparent without the Shakespearean overlay to bring it out.
My reading of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet addresses the practice of women taking on the roles of Romeo and Hamlet and examines how the almost certainly disruptive figure of the transvestite on stage would have called into question gender and gender roles. The discussion of Othello investigates how blackface minstrelsy powerfully influenced productions of the play in the legitimate theater before and after the Civil War; meanwhile, The Merchant of Venice became a site of exploration for audiences struggling with Jewish difference, revealing a collective ambivalence toward American capitalism. In my reading of Richard III and Julius Caesar, I discuss how these two plays, in championing freedom and yet cautioning against unlawful rebellion, provided audiences with a vocabulary in which to frame feelings of uneasiness about the democratic experiment.
0323: American studies