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Shakespeare and America

April 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, who is not only the poet of the English speaking people but also their political teacher, as Homer was the political teacher of the Greeks and Vergil the political teacher of the Romans. Although he wrote long before the Founding of the United States, American politics owes much to Shakespeare as well. During his visit to America in the 1830s, Alexis d ‘Tocqueville noted that even in the meanest cabin on the American frontier of the time, one found two books: the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

So what could Americans learn from a poet who wrote about kings and dukes and Roman nobles? The fact is that Shakespeare explores a number of themes that have influenced not only British, but also American politics: the nature and limits of political life; the effect on politics of Christianity, classical philosophy, and modernity as represented by Niccolo Machiavelli and Francis Bacon; the meaning and practice of statesmanship; the best polity vs. real polities in the form of England, Italy, and Rome; the link between individual character and the political regime; and the relationship among poetry, politics, religion, and philosophy.

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