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Exhibit Highlights Shakespeare’s Influence in America

For husband-and-wife team Alden and Virginia Vaughan, co-curators of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s latest exhibit, “Shakespeare in American Life,” the Bard has long been a shared passion. The couple met in the summer of 1977 while doing research at the library. Romance blossomed. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Their exhibit, which opened last week, traces the ways American culture has embraced Shakespeare — from performances of his plays in the late 1700s to the scrapbooks of Shakespearean ephemera collected by U.S. theater afficionados (and also young girls with celebrity crushes) in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I don’t think we have to rebel against him the way the Brits do,” said Virginia Vaughan.

Along the way, the exhibit spotlights famous early American Shakespearean actors such as Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth (brother of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth), the growth of Shakespearean societies in the 19th century and the ways Shakespeare has been used to satirize American politicians from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

There’s also an exploration of the “painful” side to the U.S. fascination with Shakespeare, said Virginia Vaughan, referring to the black-face minstrel shows of the 1800s, which were often loosely based on Shakespeare’s plays. (Pioneering black Shakespearean actors, such as Ira Frederick Aldridge and Paul Robeson, also get their due, however.)

For those more gastronomically inclined, the exhibit showcases such culinary delights as Trader Joe’s “Rosencrunch & Guildenpop Gourmet Sweet Popcorn, Almond and Pecan Clusters” and Falstaff Brussels Sprouts, circa 1928.

The exhibit concludes with the inaugural full-length TV production of a Shakespearean play, viewable on a computer monitor. Appropriately, the work in question, “Julius Caesar,” was taped at Folger’s theater in 1949 using student actors from Henry Folger’s alma mater, Amherst College.

“Shakespeare in American Life” runs through Aug. 18 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, located at 201 East Capitol St. SE. For more information, visit

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