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Detail from The New York times, March 26, 1916

William Shakespeare Through the Ages: Different Visions of the Bard in Primary Sources

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Does each generation represent William Shakespeare in its own way? April, National Poetry Month, includes the anniversaries of both Shakepeare’s birth and death, and this year marks the 400th anniversary of his death. I was exploring ways the “Tercentenary” was commemorated when the headline “How Each Age Finds New Flaws in Shakespeare: Each Praises – But Rewrites Him – And is Laughed at by the Next,” published in a newspaper a century ago, caught my eye. I wondered how items from the Library of Congress collections from different eras represent the bard, and began to investigate.

James Moran & Co.’s Romeo, fine cut, chewing tobacco, 1874

One of the first things I noticed during my searching was how often nineteenth century advertisements allude to Shakespeare. I wondered about the underlying assumption that consumers would recognize the allusions, from the chewing tobacco ads naming Romeo and Juliet, to the more subtle typewriter ad including an almost invisible snip from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. A colleague noted that none of the examples explicitly connect the plays to the product, but use them to suggest certain level of prestige. Students might examine the advertisements and speculate on how effective they might have been in selling the products at the time, and then assess how effective they would be now. Students might also create their own advertisements, in print or other media, incorporating a visual or textual reference to Shakespeare’s work.

Juliet, fine cut, chewing tobacco, 1873

I noticed Shakespeare intertwined with political purposes, too. For example, in his address to the Virginia General Assembly in 1946, Winston Churchill names Shakespeare as being part of what the U.S. and Great Britain have in common, listing him along with  Walter Raleigh and Richard Grenville as “the light of the Elizabethan age.” Students might compare Churchill’s usage to that of the advertisements.

“Voodoo” Macbeth scene with witch doctors, 1936.
“Voodoo” Macbeth scene with witch doctors, 1936.

Finally, I noticed the variety of applications and adaptations of the works of William Shakespeare, including “Negro Unit in ‘MacBeth,” Playbill from production of Macbeth (Classical program for high schools) and a production of Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles, and set in Haiti instead of Scotland, sometimes called “Voodoo” Macbeth. In contrast, this playbill from a production of Romeo and Juliet conforms to more traditional expectations.

Students might think of adaptations that they’ve seen of Shakespeare’s works. For example, some might be familiar with similarities between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Students might also identify and describe a non-traditional setting for the Shakespeare play of their choice. What aspects of the play would remain the same? What would change?

What did your students see differently in the work of William Shakespeare after examining these primary sources?


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