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


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.

Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet's Ghost Flyer

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s world? Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s new HarvardX course, Hamlet’s Ghost, takes learners through an exploration of the Ghost’s uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which it emerged.

The online course is free and open to all, requiring only a short registration process. A prompt at the start of the course asks users to introduce themselves by giving their name, location, and a short statement about why they are interested in the class. The responses thus far paint a fascinating picture of the global community that digital projects like this can help foster.

Part I of the course leads off with a look at Shakespeare’s source material and a discussion of the way directors have staged the appearance of the ghost in Act I of the play. This dramatic print depicts Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore.

TS 680.12.1, Houghton Library

The print was engraved by Robert Thew after a painting by Henry Fussell at the behest of John Boydell, an enterprising British publisher who promoted a Shakespeare-inspired revival of the visual arts in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his efforts was the publication in 1803 of a two-volume “elephant” folio of Shakespearean prints created by some of the era’s foremost artists. But we digress. Although we are only just working through Part I, the course is both educational and entertaining. One exercise asks you to imagine how you might direct and stage the ghost for a production of the play. If any other students are in need of ideas, the Harvard Theatre Collection is a great place to look!