Thursday, May 30, 2013

Who reads Shakespeare?

Visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace
I cannot answer who reads Shakespeare today, but in the 1800s many people did, and  Isaac Werner was certainly among those readers.  On December 31, 1870, he wrote in his journal:  "The following works I long to the course of time to possess them all, and arranged in my library...Clark's Concordona to Shakespeare and some future time also one of the very best large editions of Shakespeare, and so we can cultivate deeper familiarity with authors the more we long to read their works and see the best we can the individuals themselves."  On January 4, 1871 he recorded in his journal having ordered that book, along with Wealth of Nations, Don Quixote, Wharton's History of English Poetry, and several others.   
Isaac was unusual among many boys of that era, for at the age of 17 he and his twin brother were still attending school in Wernersville, PA where they were raised.  Clearly, he had received more education than many of his peers.  However, as a young druggist in Rossville, IL he chose to spend much of his income acquiring a personal library and continuing his learning.  (See blog post "Isaac's Library, February 2, 2012)  For the rest of his life he enjoyed Shakespeare, describing in his journal during his years as a homesteader on the prairie many evenings spent reading Shakespeare.

On January 26, 1871, Isaac recorded the list of books he had ordered, including the prices he had paid for them.  Clark's Concordona to Shakespeare was the second most expensive of all the books, at $11.25.  (Don Quixote cost $12.)  To put this cost into context, I researched average earnings in 1870.  According to, the average yearly income for 1870 was $129.  According to a book no longer in print titled the National Bureau of Economic Research, hourly wages that year ranged between 17 and 41 cents per hour.  Can you imagine wanting a book so badly that you would spend 12% of your annual income to buy it?! 

Title Page to Shakespeare's 1st Folio
Isaac was not alone in his love of Shakespeare.  According to Abraham Lincoln's aide, John Hay, President Lincoln "read Shakespeare more than all other writers together."  We even know which of Shakespeare's plays was Lincoln's favorite, for in 1863 he wrote a letter to Shakespearean actor James Hackett saying, "I think nothing equals Macbeth.  It is wonderful."  Ironically, following Lincoln's assassination the murder of King Duncan in that play was often compared to Lincoln's own death.

For many children of that era--as families pushed westward and often lived on isolated farms or struggled beside their parents just to survive--formal education was not possible.  If these children learned to read and write, they had to learn at home, and often the only books from which to learn were the Bible and Shakespeare--if they were lucky.

One of my favorite quotes from a child of this historic period describing his discovery of the works of Shakespeare comes from the famous lecturer, Robert Ingersoll, who was not so lucky as Lincoln to have Shakespeare in his home.  Ingersoll was in his teens, already on his own in search of work when he heard an old man reading aloud in a small hotel.  He was "filled with wonder," and when everyone left the room for supper, Ingersoll lagged behind to read the title of what the man had been reading, too ashamed to have simply asked the man when he felt the book must be something "an intelligent boy ought to know."  The book was Samuel Johnson's edition of Shakespeare.  Poor and getting by through traveling to offer himself for work wherever it could be found, Ingersoll spent $4 of his meager earnings for his own copy of the book the next morning!  Years later, this is what he wrote about the experience.  "For days, for nights, for months, for years, I read those books, two volumes, and I commenced with the introduction.  I haven't read that introduction for nearly fifty years, certainly forty-five, but I remember it still.  Other writers are like a garden diligently planted and watered, but Shakespeare a forest where the oaks and elms toss their branches to the storm, where the pine towers, where the vine bursts into blossoms at its foot.  That book opened to me a new world, another nature..."

Tableaux recreating scene from Shakespeare's era
How many of us today have read Shakespeare since one or two of his plays were assigned to us in high school?  Perhaps that is because Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed, and as a result, they are better heard than read silently.  The plays are still performed, and many have been adapted for the screen.  Romeo and Juliet may have been adapted more than any other, including George Cukor's 1936 adaptation in which the main characters, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, had a combined age of 75!  The beautiful 1968 adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli, that attracted many young fans to Shakespeare, cast teenagers Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as the Juliet that I will forever picture in my mind.  For the younger MTV generation, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Dane as the young lovers.

Shakespeare Theater in Ashland, OR
Sometimes movie versions are inspired by Shakespeare's plays rather than being adaptations.  Two hugely popular movies based on Shakespeare's plays are West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, and The Lion King, based on Hamlet

Sadly for Isaac, there is no indication that I have found that he ever saw Shakespeare performed, but he read it with friends and he read it alone.  He, like many other great men of that era and since, elevated their minds by reading Shakespeare.  If you have a dusty volume of Shakespeare on a bookcase somewhere, you might consider pulling it off the shelf to read something young men were once willing to spend money earned with days of sweat and toil to buy a challenging book. 

To read a wonderful analysis of Lincoln's interest in Shakespeare you may visit

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Read some plays and a few poems since highschool. Never seen one performed though. Someday. In so many ways a giant among giants. Kids schooled on Shakespeare were well educated.