On the 23rd April 2007 the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC celebrated its 75th anniversary. To commemorate this milestone the Folger created an exhibition called Shakespeare in American Life and helped produce a three hour radio documentary, subsequently broadcast on stations across the United States. While the commemorative event is now over, this published collection of eight essays and the exhibition catalogue, complete with many illustrations, perhaps serves as a suitable souvenir.
Unfortunately, a reader of this book will not find new scholarship as its content, with exception of the illustrations, appears to be already available elsewhere in other more comprehensive publications. However, Shakespeare in American Life offers an easily readable summary of the many ways in which, as the editors put it, ‘Americans have made Shakespeare their own’ (113). In this significant editorial statement there is, perhaps for a European at least, a whiff of a sort of possessiveness and nationalism. As a statement of declared possession the book can be adjudged impressive. But as such the book is not the celebration of Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake but part of a continuing promotion of an appropriated American hero and of American enterprise.
Nowhere in this book, justifiably praising the foundation of the Folger Shakespeare Library, do the editors feel the need to comment upon why a single American Institution needs to possess 79 of the 217 copies of the First Folio known to still exist in the world. That the Washington DC collection also includes 58 Second, 23 Third, and 37 of the Fourth Folios plus 209 period Quartos, suggests that making ‘Shakespeare their own’ is accepted and now a recognisable part of American interest.
The narration of America’s Shakespeare industry may be fascinating for enthusiasts or students of culture but there is little here that will advance understanding of Shakespeare for scholars. Undoubtedly, this was not the purpose of the publication.