Lemme give you another Rorschach test: Is Shakespeare part of American culture?

He was born, lived, worked, and died in the UK. I’ve seen arguments that he spent some time in Italy, but nothing whatsoever includes America. There is, for Shakespeare the person, no connection between him and the US.

When I was in highschool, the drama department did a Shakespearean play every year. It was probably because WS is out of copyright, and my drama department was broke. Same in junior high. In English classes, both composition and lit, Shakespeare looms large. I’ve read all of his sonnets, most (maybe all) of his plays, and seen dozens live. There are Shakespeare festivals, theaters, and events. For me, an American, Shakespeare is a large part of the literature of my growing up.

Is that culture?

We use his words. He never mentioned us. His legacy is taught in our schools. But we can claim no part of him, the person, only ourselves, influenced by him. Is Shakespeare part of American culture?

I think that’s really more a question about how we see culture than anything else. But this is my blog so…yes.

Culture, the word, has to mean the collected experience of a people. It refers to the common concepts, the shared precets, the things we likely know together even if each person is different. Culture is the subtext of language, the ties that bind. In the US, most people of moderate education know Shakespeare. They may not agree on importance nor on weights. People know less or more as their priorities dictate, but most people who know literature in the US are somewhat familiar with WS. Maybe they don’t know Romeo and Juliet, but they know West Side Story. He has been taken, after his death and without his permission, and woven through the fabric of American life.

Democracy is a part of American culture, and we certainly didn’t invent it. We put a spin on it, but so has everyone else who used it. We fight over it a lot…but so has everyone else. Same for music, food, and art. When you make something, you give it a life beyond your own. The thing has an existence itself beyond the human agency which created it. Shakespeare, the person, had no connection to the US beyond the background noise of his time. But the US is connected to his work, and one cannot truly separate the work from the person. So the connections are made and tied.

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