The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is the finest Shakespeare collection in the world. Henry Folger established the library because he regarded Shakespeare as “one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.”[1] Folger’s interest in Shakespeare was inspired by a short speech he read as a young man by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson argued that Shakespeare was “the first poet of the world,” that he “fulfilled the famous prophecy of Socrates, that the poet most excellent in tragedy would be most excellent in comedy,” and that he is “the most robust and potent thinker that ever was.”[2] Such a judgment was common among educated, and even uneducated, Americans from the earliest days of American independence. Shakespeare became something like what James Fenimore Cooper called him, “the great author of America.”[3] In Walt Whitman’s “maturest judgment” Shakespeare’s English history plays are “in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.”[4] Whitman wondered whether Shakespeare did not put “on record the first full exposé—and by far the most vivid one, immeasurably ahead of doctrinaires and economists—of the political theory and results” of a feudal system “which America has come on earth to abnegate and replace.” He speculated that “a future age of criticism . . . may discover in the plays named the scientific (Baconian?) inauguration of modern Democracy.”



[1] “History of the Folger Shakespeare Library,” Folger Shakespeare Library, accessed March 10, 2017,

[2] Atlantic Monthly, A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics, (Volume 94, No. 563, 1904), p. 365.

[3] Richard A. Van Orman, “The Bard in the West,” Western Historical Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jan., 1974), pp. 29-38, n. 1.

[4] Walt Whitman, “What Lurks Behind Shakspere’s Historical Plays?” Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose (New York, The Library of America, 1982), 1148 ff.


Notes on Shakespeare written by Ralph Waldo Emerson for the celebration in Boston by the Saturday Club of the Three Hundredth Anniversary of the poet’s birth.

We can hardly think of an occasion where so little need be said. We are all content to let Shakespeare speak for himself. His fame is settled on the foundations of the moral and intellectual world. Wherever there are men, and in the degree in which they are civil, have power of mind, sensibility to beauty, music, the secrets of passion, and the liquid expression of thought, he has risen to his place as the first poet of the world.

Genius is the consoler of our mortal condition, and Shakespeare taught us that the little world of the heart is vaster, deeper, and richer than the spaces of astronomy. What shocks of surprise and sympathetic power this battery, which he is, imparts to every fine mind that is born! We say to the young child in the cradle, “Happy, and defended against Fate! for here is Nature, and here is Shakespeare waiting for you!” ‘T is our metre of culture; — he is a cultivated man, who can tell us something new of Shakespeare; all criticism is only a making of rules out of his beauties. He is as superior to his countrymen as to all other countrymen. He fulfilled the famous prophecy of Socrates, that the poet most excellent in tragedy would be most excellent in comedy; and more than fulfilled it, by making tragedy also a victorious melody, which healed its own wounds. In short, Shakespeare is the one resource of our life on which no gloom gathers; the fountain of joy which honors him who tastes it; day without night; pleasure without repentance: the genius which, in unpoetic ages, keeps poetry in honor, and, in sterile periods, keeps up the credit of the human mind.

His genius has reacted on himself. Men were so astonished and occupied by his poems, that they have not been able to see his face and condition, or say who were his father and his brethren or what life he led: and, at the short distance of three hundred years, he is mythical, like Orpheus and Homer, and we have already seen the most fantastic theories plausibly urged, as that Raleigh and Bacon were the authors of the plays. Yet we pause expectant before the genius of Shakespeare, as if his biography were not yet written: until the problem of the whole English race is solved.

I see among the lovers of this catholic genius, here present, a few whose deeper knowledge invites me to hazard an article of my literary creed, that Shakespeare, by his transcendent reach of thought, so invites the extremes that, whilst he has kept the theatre now for three centuries, and, like a street bible, furnishes sayings to the market, courts of law, the senate, and common discourse, — he is yet to all wise men the companion of the closet. The student finds the solitariest place not soli-tary enough to read him, and so searching is his penetration, and such the charm of his speech, that he still agitates the heart in age as in youth, and till, until it ceases to beat. Young men of a contemplative turn carry his sonnets in the pocket. With that book, the shade of any tree, a room in any inn, becomes a chapel or oratory in which to sit out their happiest hours. Later they find riper and manlier lessons in the plays.

And secondly, he is the most robust and potent thinker that ever was. I find that it was not history, courts and affairs that gave him lessons, but he that gave grandeur and prestige to them. There never was a writer who, seeming to draw every hint from outward history, the life of cities and courts, owed them so little. You shall never find in this world the barons or kings he depicted. ‘T is fine for Englishmen to say they only know history by Shakespeare. The palaces they compass earth and sea to enter, the magnificence and personages of royal and imperial abodes, are shabby imitations, and caricatures of his, — clumsy pupils of his instruction. There are no Warwicks, no Talbots, no Bolingbrokes, no Cardinals, no Henry Fifth, in real Europe, like his. The loyalty and royalty he drew was all his own. The real Elizabeths, Jameses, and Louises were painted sticks before this magician.

The unaffected joy of the comedy! — he lives in a gale — contrasted with the grandeur of the tragedy: where he stoops to no contrivance, no pulpiting, but flies an eagle at the heart of the problem, so here his speech is a Delphi, the great Nemesis that he is and utters. What a great heart of equity is he! How good and sound and inviolable his innocency, that is never to seek, and never wrong, but speaks the pure sense of humanity on each occasion. He dwarfs all writers without a solitary exception. No egotism. The egotism of men is immense. It concealed Shakespeare for a century. His mind has a superiority such that the universities should read lectures on him and conquer the unconquerable if they can.

There are periods fruitful of great men; others, barren, or, as the world is always equal to itself, periods when the heat is latent, — others when it is given out. They are like the great wine years, the vintage of 1847 is it? or 1835? — which are not only noted in the carte of the table d’hôte, but which, it is said, are always followed by new vivacity in the politics of Europe. His birth marked a great wine year, when wonderful grapes ripened in the Vintage of God. When Shakespeare and Galileo were born within a few months of each other, and Cervantes was his exact contemporary, and, in short space, before and after, Montaigne, Bacon, Spenser, Raleigh, and Jonson. Yet Shakespeare, not by any inferiority of theirs, but simply by his colossal proportions, dwarfs the geniuses of Elizabeth as easily as the wits of Anne, or the poor slipshod troubadours of King René.

In our ordinary experience of men, there are some men so born to live well, that, in whatever company they fall, — high or low, — they fit well, and lead it! But, being advanced to a higher class, they are just as much in their element as before, and easily command, and, being again preferred to selecter companions, find no obstacle to ruling these, as they did their earlier mates, — I suppose because they have more humanity than talent, whilst they have quite as much of the last as any of the company. It would strike you as comic, if I should give my own customary examples of this elasticity, though striking enough to me. I could name in this very company, or not going far out of it, very good types — but in order to be parliamentary, Franklin, Burns, and Walter Scott are examples of the rule; and King of men, by this grace of God also, is Shakespeare.

The Pilgrims came to Plymouth in 1620. The plays of Shakespeare were not published until three years later. Had they been published earlier, our forefathers, or the most poetical among them, might have stayed at home to read them.

Atlantic Monthly, A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics, (Volume 94, No. 563, 1904), p. 365.

by Walt Whitman

We all know how much mythus there is in the Shakspere question as it stands to-day. Beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf d far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance—tantalizing and half suspected—suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement. But coming at once to the point, the English historical plays are to me not only the most eminent as dramatic performances (my maturest judgment confirming the impressions of my early years, that the distinctiveness and glory of the Poet reside not in his vaunted dramas of the passions, but those founded on the contests of English dynasties, and the French wars,) but form, as we get it all, the chief in a complexity of puzzles. Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism—personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediaeval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation)—only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works—works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

The start and germ-stock of the pieces on which the present speculation is founded are undoubtedly (with, at the outset, no small amount of bungling work) in “Henry VI.” It is plain to me that as profound and forecasting a brain and pen as ever appear’d in literature, after floundering somewhat in the first part of that trilogy—or perhaps draughting it more or less experimentally or by accident—afterward developed and defined his plan in the Second and Third Parts, and from time to time, thenceforward, systematically enlarged it to majestic and mature proportions in “Richard II,” “Richard III,” “King John,” “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” and even in “Macbeth,” “Coriolanus” and “Lear.” For it is impossible to grasp the whole cluster of those plays, however wide the intervals and different circumstances of their composition, without thinking of them as, in a free sense, the result of an essentially controling plan. ‘What was that plan? Or, rather, what was veil’d behind it?—for to me there was certainly something so veil’d. Even the episodes of Cade, Joan of Arc, and the like (which sometimes seem to me like interpolations allow’d,) may be meant to foil the possible sleuth, and throw any too ‘cute pursuer off the scent. In the whole matter I should specially dwell on, and make much of, that inexplicable element of every highest poetic nature which causes it to cover up and involve its real purpose and meanings in folded removes and far recesses. Of this trait—hiding the nest where common seekers may never find it—the Shaksperean works afford the most numerous and mark’d illustrations known to me. I would even call that trait the leading one through the whole of those works.

All the foregoing to premise a brief statement of how and where I get my new light on Shakspere. Speaking of the special English plays, my friend William O’Connor says:

  They seem simply and rudely historical in their motive, as aiming
  to give in the rough a tableau of warring dynasties,—and carry to
  me a lurking sense of being in aid of some ulterior design, probably
  well enough understood in that age, which perhaps time and criticism
  will reveal.... Their atmosphere is one of barbarous and tumultuous
  gloom,—they do not make us love the times they limn,... and it is
  impossible to believe that the greatest of the Elizabethan men could
  have sought to indoctrinate the age with the love of feudalism which
  his own drama in its entirety, if the view taken of it herein be true,
  certainly and subtly saps and mines.


Reading the just-specified play in the light of Mr. O’Connor’s suggestion, I defy any one to escape such new and deep utterance-meanings, like magic ink, warm’ d by the fire, and previously invisible. Will it not indeed be strange if the author of “Othello” and “Hamlet” is destin’d to live in America, in a generation or two, less as the cunning draughtsman of the passions, and more as putting on record the first full exposé—and by far the most vivid one, immeasurably ahead of doctrinaires and economists—of the political theory and results, or the reason-why and necessity for them which America has come on earth to abnegate and replace?

The summary of my suggestion would be, therefore, that while the more the rich and tangled jungle of the Shaksperean area is travers’d and studied, and the more baffled and mix’d, as so far appears, becomes the exploring student (who at last surmises everything, and remains certain of nothing,) it is possible a future age of criticism, diving deeper, mapping the land and lines freer, completer than hitherto, may discover in the plays named the scientific (Baconian?) inauguration of modern democracy—furnishing realistic and first-class artistic portraitures of the mediaeval world, the feudal personalities, institutes, in their morbid accumulations, deposits, upon politics and sociology,—may penetrate to that hard-pan, far down and back of the ostent of to-day, on which (and on which only) the progressism of the last two centuries has built this Democracy which now hold’s secure lodgment over the whole civilized world.

Whether such was the unconscious, or (as I think likely) the more or less conscious, purpose of him who fashion’d those marvellous architectonics, is a secondary question.

Walt Whitman, Complete Works: Specimen Days and Collect, November Boughs and Good Bye My Fancy (New York and London: D. Appleton & Co., 1910),

About The Peoria Project

Peoria is remembered for the speech Abraham Lincoln gave there in 1854. This act of statesmanship began the greatest struggle in American history to bring wisdom together with consent—the struggle for a new birth of freedom in a land devoted to freedom but shackled to slavery. The Peoria Project sponsors and cultivates the continuing search for the wisdom that deserves consent.

Read more.