Shakespeare and the Presidents : Thomas Jefferson

Next up in our series comes Thomas Jefferson (as always, brought to us by Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare in American Life series).

Jefferson sounds like my kind of guy:

Still, like John Adams, Jefferson usually treated Shakespeare’s plays as something to be read. In one letter, he recommended Shakespeare for reading in the evening, explaining that “Shakespeare must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” When a friend asked him to recommend books to buy, Jefferson encouraged him to include some works of fiction, like Shakespeare’s plays, as a guide to virtue, arguing that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.”

Did everybody catch that “something to be read?”  I’m just sayin.

Seriously, though, I love how that passage nails what I’ve been trying to say for years — if you want to know what it means to be a human, look to what Shakespeare put on the stage.

I noted in a previous post that, when Adams and Jefferson went to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, Adams was disappointed. What did Jefferson think?  He “noted the costs of going there, including the entry fees.”  Which lead to a later biographer imagining “Jefferson’s teeth obviously grating” as he jotted down the fees.

That’s interesting to me.  You mean to tell me that in 1786 they were already charging fees to visit the birthplace of Shakespeare, as a tourist attraction? I had no idea.  I suppose we can trace it directly back to the influence of David Garrick, a few decades before this, who made Shakespeare such an attraction?

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