We know that Shakespeare’s influence can be felt throughout the Western Cannon. We find his work in everything from novels, plays, movies, operas, and classical music pieces. Being England’s greatest poet, it can be of no surprise to find he inspired later poets, who often paid tribute to him in their works. Keats, Alexander Pope, and Wadsworth openly admitted their admiration in letters and poems.
As I read through Shakespeare in America, a collection of essays and poems written by American scholars and writers, two pieces stood out. Not so much for the content, but the authorship. One was written by a very American writer and the other, by a man forced to assimilate into the America culture. These two men stand in stark contrast yet are united by their admiration of Shakespeare.
Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, one of the greatest American novels. His themes of man vs. nature, greed, obsession, and naïve belief in one’s own abilities against all odds are quintessentially early American values. The country was founded on these very ideas. Yet Melville lived during a time when the country was tearing itself apart due in large part because of these very ideas.
This picture “A coming Storm” was painted in 1863, right in the middle of the American Civil War. Herman Melville viewed it at the National Academy exhibition in Manhattan shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln. What struck Melville was the fact that the actor Edward Booth, brother to John, the very man who had murdered the President, owned the painting. Melville must have been in a very depressed mood and seemed to project his feelings onto Edward Booth. Melville’s poem suggests that Edward saw in the painting a kind of coming national storm, a tragedy in the making much like what was foreshadowed in Hamlet
A Picture by S.R. Gifford, and owned by E.B.
Included in the N.A. Exhibition, April, 1865.
All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim–
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinated here.
A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild
As this urned lake, the home of shades.
But Shakspeare’s pensive child
Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
Such hearts can antedate.
No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there–
Man’s final lore.
In contrast to Melville is Maungwudaus, a Chippewa Native American, whose identity as an American was not something to be celebrated. His name, Maungwudaus meant “Great Warrior” yet like most young Native’s he was indoctrinated into the American culture by forced schooling. He would eventually give up his birth name and take the very English name of George Henry. But before he became completely Americanized, he traveled throughout Europe, performing tribal customs in front of large audiences with the optimism that this would gain sympathy and understanding for the Native people.
Here was a young man who could have been bitter and hold the Western world in utter disdain and contempt. Who would have blamed him? Yet, for all that was done to him and his people, he felt a connection to Shakespeare. He most certainly was introduced to Shakespeare at school. And though Shakespeare is very much a product of his Western upbringing, there is something universal in his words. Maungwudaus felt some connection to the poet despite the span of time and culture identity. We know Maungwudaus and his friends deeply admired Shakespeare and saw something of themselves mirrored within his work. We know this from a short but very moving poem.
While in England in 1848, Maungwudaus and his performing troupe visited Stafford-upon-Avon. They all signed their names in the visitor’s book at Shakespeare’s birthplace, but Maungwudaus was moved to act beyond simply visiting the site. He penned a poem that very day and then had it printed on a small pamphlet. How many he made and for whom he made them remains a mystery. The poem would have been lost to history had it not been for James McManaway, a scholar working with the Folger Shakespeare Library. Around 1948, MacManaway found a copy of the poem and traced its origin. Sadly, no original printing of the poem has ever been found.
It is not the best poetry to be sure, but it speaks to us, and compels us to consider just how far reaching Shakespeare’s work is. He inspires across cultural divides. This is the power of Shakespeare. Is it any wonder he continues to inspire us today?
Indians of North America
Heard the name that shall not decay.
They came and saw where he was born,
How great is the sound of his horn.
They respect and honor his grave
As they do the grave of their brave;
Rest thou great man under these stones,
For there is yet life in thy bones.
Thy spirit is with Mun-nid-do,
Who gave thee all thou didst do:
When we are at our native home
We shall say “we have seen his tomb”
J. Shapiro, Shakespeare in America
Finding Shakespeare, Chief Maungwudaus visits the Birth-Place http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/chief-maungwuduas-visits-birthplace-1848