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First American edition of Shakespeare's works

On the occasion of American Independence Day, library volunteer Anna Kerr explores the history of the first American edition of Shakespeare’s works held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library.

Anna Kerr
First American edition of Shakespeare
Complete works of Shakespeare published in Philadelphia (1795-96)

I was originally born and grew up in Colorado, before moving to Warwickshire at the age of 10. As such, I left the United States before having a clear vision as to what the American “identity” was, and it has always been a pleasure to rediscover those parts of myself which, as many immigrants do, I feel as if I’ve left behind.

The edition of Shakespeare’s works published in Philadelphia from 1795-1796 proudly proclaims itself as the ‘First American edition’. There are eight volumes altogether, which include a glossary, preface, and history of Shakespeare’s life. There is minimal information given in these volumes, however, about the editor, though it has been guessed to be one Joseph Hopkinson, who at the time operated a legal practice in the city.

Hopkinson’s father, Francis, a civil servant in the early American government was also one of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Joseph later followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a federal judge and congressman. Joseph, like his father, was also well-known for writing political pamphlets which celebrated American independence and nationalism, and composed popular theatre songs such as Hail Columbia, meant, in his own words, to ‘get up an American spirit, which should be independent and look and feel exclusively for our own honour and rights’.

Yet Hopkinson, an American patriot, chose to publish a collection of works by Shakespeare, an English poet and playwright, during a time when Anti-English sentiment was common. Furthermore, the Puritanical ethos of many states and cities also meant theatres were often banned, or seen as immoral. Why, then, did Hopkinson choose to publish this first American edition of Shakespeare’s works? The preface to Volume 1 may help to shed some light on this.

In a manner befitting a lawyer, Hopkinson systematically works his way through various arguments in his defence of Shakespeare’s worth. Firstly, he admits to his readers the immortality of the English stage, borrowing this quote from Lord Gardenstone, a Scottish lawyer: ‘A people must be in the last degree depraved, among whom such public entertainments are produced and encouraged!’

Hopkinson reassures his readers, however, Shakespeare is a ‘moral writer’ whose ‘fools are always despised, and his villains always hated’. He further attempts to align his readers with Shakespeare by suggesting that his English contemporaries were unappreciative and dismissive of his works. ‘He (Shakespeare) lived in an age of ignorance when their (his plays) value was only understood by the scanty audience of a London playhouse. How wretched must have been the state of English literature in the days of Shakespeare, when six years elapsed after his decease, before his friends found it worth their trouble to print his plays! This did not arise from the poverty, but the total want of taste in the English nation, for Queen Elizabeth alone, during her “golden age”, as it has been called, bestowed 300,000 pounds on a single paramour.’ By suggesting Shakespeare has been ‘mistreated’ by the English, Hopkinson encourages his readers to align their sympathies with him, and as such, adopt him as their own.

Unfortunately, besides this preface, little else in the first American edition of Shakespeare is of interest. As Albert van Rensselaer states, Hopkinson did ‘hardly more than hand the printer a glossary from one edition, a text from the second (edition), a few notes from the third’. More relevant, perhaps, is the 1805 edition of Shakespeare’s works also published in Philadelphia by Joseph Dennie, a recognised scholar who was also a friend of Hopkinson’s.

This first American edition, nonetheless, foreshadows the American engagement with Shakespeare throughout history, by people from every walk of life. Abraham Lincoln, for example, invoked the words of Shakespeare as political rhetoric during the Civil War, even as soldiers from both sides of the conflict performed his plays in between battles. Pioneers, miners and farmers moving West often performed his plays as a form of entertainment during times of hardship. African-American actors and playwrights developed their own theatres in the early 19th century, from which Ira Aldridge, the noted Shakespearean actor, found his beginning, and subsequent immigrant movements to the United States have continued to engage with Shakespeare as a means of sharing in the American spirit, from Yiddish King Lear to Kabuki Macbeth.

Nothing is more reflective of this American engagement with, and love for Shakespeare than the inscription on the sculpture of Shakespeare in Central Park, erected in 1872:

 ‘Old World, he is not only thine! Our New World too has part, in his stupendous mind and heart’.

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