John Adams on Shakespeare, or, As You Dislike It

Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1823. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Another year of Shakespeare has drawn to a close. This week on Broadway the curtain came down on the hit show Something Rotten! whose song “I Hate Shakespeare” offered the closest thing to a respite from the past year’s tempest of fulsome tributes. Those weary of the much ado can take heart: the next anniversary won’t come around until 2039, when Stratford’s favorite son turns 475.

Over the din of universal praise, the Bard’s detractors seldom get much airtime. Houghton’s own exhibition last spring, Shakespeare: His Collected Works, somehow managed nods to poet-playwrights John Dryden and William D’Avenant while playing down the artistic quarrel between Shakespeare and his adaptors that overspread much of the eighteenth century. Mea culpa.

Instead the exhibition highlighted just one contrarian: President John Adams, whose complaint was hardly artistic. He objected on moral grounds, laying out his argument in a disapproving letter to a young, ambitious, and I daresay, unsuspecting, playwright.

By 1822 Samuel B.H. Judah had two plays mounted at the Park Theatre in New York with indifferent success. A third, dramatizing events at the Battle of Lexington, was to be performed on Independence Day. Perhaps in light of these patriotic stirrings, Judah presumptuously sent to both Adams and Thomas Jefferson copies of his newly published dramatic poem Odofriede, compelled, he wrote, by its favorable reception “in some of the first cities in our country.”

It was a shameless exaggeration.

AC8.J8802.822o, Houghton Library.

Adams, then in his eighty-seventh year, patiently listened while Odofriede, eighty-three pages long, was read aloud, and then dictated, signed, and dispatched to its author the following letter:

Montezillo 25th June 1822

Sir–

I have heard read your horrible Odofriede; although there are marks of genius and talents, which in so young a man; if hereafter carefully cultivated and applied to more proper subjects, may produce something agreeable and useful, yet I can neither applaud or approve this kind of composition in prose or verse. They serve only to continue in the minds of men chimerical fantasies, which never existed anywhere but in human imagination. They greatly diminish the sum of human happiness by keeping up a constant terror in the minds of a great part of mankind, for fear is a painful and distressing passion. I could wish that Shakespear had been asleep when he imagined or borrowed from Teutonic tales his gost [sic] of Hamlet, his Witches in Macbeth, his Queen Mab, and his Oberon. I could wish that the German Oberon had never been written and especially that it had never been translated into English by Sotheby beautiful as it is. I thank you however for your civility in sending me the Book.

and am your hearty well wisher
J Adams

MS Thr 32, Houghton Library.

While it is tempting to credit the pugnacious elder statesman with a takedown, it is doubtful that Adams intended “horrible” to carry today’s meaning. (Another reviewer did confess, however, that he had “seldom met with a writer so entirely deficient in all the essentials of his art.”) More likely, Adams was using the word in its etymological sense, given what he has to say about fear later on. But it is the seriousness with which he takes up the mantle of literary critic that makes the letter so amusing. The reference to Mercutio’s lines on Queen Mab from Romeo and Juliet, he slips in as proof that he has studied the plays closely.

Adams’ distaste for the supernatural elements in Shakespeare is indicative of the general skepticism regarding works of fiction shared by the Founders. For his part, Jefferson gingerly declined to comment, replying that “the chill of 80 winters has so compleatly extinguished his sensibility to the beauties of poetry; as to leave him no longer competent either to enjoy or judge them.” Well played, Jefferson.

Despite their protestations, both men were lifelong admirers of Shakespeare. Decades earlier, in the spring of 1786, the odd couple had made the pilgrimage to his birthplace, only to find it, in Adams’ words, “as small and mean, as you can conceive.” Stratford wasn’t then the tourist mecca that it is today, and Adams bemoaned that the English hadn’t done enough to honor the immortal poet. Too bad his visit didn’t fall on an anniversary year. It might have changed his mind.

Transcripts of Samuel Judah’s letter to Adams, his almost identical letter to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s reply are available from Founders Online.