It’s November and in the US, we are rapidly gearing up for Thanksgiving, which means turkeys, pudding, pies, family, and remembering the story of the Pilgrims who travelled to North America from England as part of a large movement to colonize new lands. Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, founders of the Independent Puritan Church congregation which would eventually sail to America on the Mayflower, was imprisoned and hung at The Clink in Southwark, London, in 1592, the same year Robert Greene is calling Shakespeare an upstart crow in the exact same area of London.

This connection made me realize there is a deeper connection between Shakespeare and the United States than we typically talk about in Shakespeare history. England has their claim on him as a native son, sure, but it turns out, William Shakespeare is just as embedded in the history and establishment of the United States as he is in the foundation of England.

While the bodily form of William Shakespeare never set literal foot on the continent that became the United States of America his plays were among the few books and possessions that people like the Pilgrims brought over with them when they set out across the Atlantic from England.

Here’s a brief look at how Shakespeare’s legacy came to be firmly rooted in the history and founding fathers of The United States of America.

“A painting by Robert W. Weir (1803–1890) showing Protestant pilgrims on the deck of the ship Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Delft Haven, Holland, on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The prominence of women and children suggests the importance of the family in the community. At the left side of the painting is a rainbow, which symbolizes hope and divine protection.” SOURCE: The New World Encyclopedia 
Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood founded the Independent Church, also known as Puritans. Their congregation formed the group that would eventually sail to America on the Mayflower. John Greenwood was imprisoned in The Clink in 1586 ‘for reading scripture.’ 1586 is during Shakespeare’s “lost years”, but the year before in 1585, Shakespeare’s twins Hamnet and Judith were born, and 1586 saw Queen Elizabeth bring Mary Queen of Scots on trial for treason.

These Puritans weren’t the same as the colonists who settled Jamestown in 1607, the Pilgrim Fathers migrated primarily to establish a community where they could practice their religion freely while maintaining their English identity. 1607 was the year William Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna married Dr. John Hall, and was around the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.

As part of that English identity, The Puritans considered bringing Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio to be rather essential, as it was packed along with the Bible as one of the few literary possessions they took with them on their voyage across the Atlantic. While it did make great reading material, and very quickly after their arrival saw the establishment of theater companies, the actual Puritans probably did not perform the plays on board the Mayflower as their faith prohibited acting.

Help the 1620 Experience come to life! Donate to their crowdfunding campaign here.

William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, was living in the Scrooby manor house and serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. If you are American, you know this man’s name as highly influential in the cause of the Pilgrim fathers. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter to Robert Cecil sympathizing with the Puritans. Robert Cecil was the main person to discover the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and serving at court under James I in 1607, when Brewster decided to take his congregation to Holland, forming a main reason the Pilgrim Fathers who would depart England in 1620 were thinking of going to Holland. Brewster’s fellow congregation member, William Bradford, kept a journal of the congregation’s events that would later be published as Of Plymouth Plantation. Does all of this mean Shakespeare knew about the Puritans and Pilgrim’s cause? There’s no way to know for sure, but it looks really unlikely that a guy like Shakespeare who kept his finger on the pulse of politics in England would be ignorant of the goings on that were happening in his own neighborhood, literally the same section of London (Southwark) where he lived and had his theater, The Globe.
William Brewster ((c. 1566–1644) “A leader of the Puritan Separatist movement, William Brewster was one of the pilgrims who traveled aboard the Mayflower to America.” Source:
“Nancy Hallam, a niece of Lewis Hallam, as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by Charles Willson Peale (1771). Credit: Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.” Image Source
According to one writer, early americans preferred the tragedies to the comedies of William Shakespeare, saying “Of those oft performed favorites, tragedy wins out. Of the 13 different Shakespeare plays performed in Colonial America, the only comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor. ” To me, that’s fitting for the Puritan faith which often frowned upon too much frivolity, I doubt they would have enjoyed plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“The first recorded production in America of a play by Shakespeare took place in 1730 in New York City – an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet . Although Shakespeare’s plays often figured in the collections of early colonists, they did so only as literature, hardly as performance scripts. This was mainly because the dominant Puritan and Quaker religious beliefs prohibited acting, but once Romeo and Juliet made its first appearance more followed in Philadelphia and Charleston. Richard III and Othello were popular choices, as was Romeo and Juliet.

In 1751, the London Company of Comedians , under the direction of Lewis Hallam, landed in Virginia where the ban on the immigration of actors had recently been lifted. Their first production was The Merchant of Venice , which played to mixed groups of settlers and Native Americans, and over the next ten years they added Richard III, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet to their repertory . By 1754, the company had toured prosperous cities like Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Annapolis. They spent four years in Jamaica and returned to Philadelphia and New York in 1758 with new productions of Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth .”

Source: No Sweat Shakespeare

Help the 1620 Experience come to life! Donate to their crowdfunding campaign here.

This is the cover page of the Shakespeare Folio belonging to Edward Dale. You can see his name written in ink there on the page. This is housed at The Folger Library in Washington, DC.
“It contains the armorial bookplate of Edward Dale and a contemporary inscription in the front shows that the book was a gift of Sir William Skipwith to Major Edward Dale, Sept. 16, 1686. Below that is another inscription, “Edw. Dale to Edw. Carter.” Source : The Folger

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh. In service of the Queen and denied permission to settle a new colony personally, Sir Walter Raleigh invested heavily in the expeditions that helped establish the colony of Virginia, near Roanoke Island (now North Carolina), and named the new colony after the virgin queen, Queen Elizabeth I. Image Source: Britannica

There are some historians who argue linguistically that the American accent is evidence for Shakespeare’s influence on America. Apparently, Shakespeare’s original pronunciation was not a high brow language system, it was the language and accent of the everyday man, the commoner. Therefore, some of the American accents you will find in the US, specifically places with iconic and unique style pronunciations like Tangier Island in Virginia and the mountain dialect of North Carolina have had their speech patterns highlighted as including rounded O sounds that match exactly the West England dialect from which Shakespeare’s language originated.

“Another US area that’s been linked to 17th-Century British English is Appalachia, especially the mountainous regions of North Carolina… “Mountain speech has more archaisms than other types of American English, but that’s about it,” Montgomery writes. These include terms like ‘afeard’, which famously appears in The Tempest.”

The article points out that ‘afeard’ appears in The Tempest, but the word “afeard” actually appears a total of 31 times in Shakespeare’s works, including Alls Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Henry VI Part 1, Cymbeline, Henry IV Part 1, Henry V, King John, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Troilus and Cressida, and A Winter’s Tale in addition to The Tempest.

Just in this one word alone, we can see solid evidence that words like “Afeard” were quite a common occurrence for Shakespeare. As a result, although there are plenty of variations, modern American pronunciation is generally considered a closer replica of 18th century English than modern British accents. Source: BBC Britain

The BBC 4 has an excellent podcast episode on Shakespeare and Plymouth which explores Shakespeare’s influence on the establishment of Plymouth in the New World. Listen here.
Image from The Clink Museum website of a wax figure imprisoned inside The Clink like the prisoners kept there centuries before. Image Source
Getting “thrown in The Clink” became an expression meaning “to be put in jail” due to the notorious reptuation of The Clink prison in Southwark, London, where the Pilgrim Fathers were imprisoned for “reading scripture” prior to their departure for Holland and the American continent. Southwark is the same district where Shakespeare lived and had his playhouse, The Globe.

Learn more about The Clink here.

Help the 1620 Experience come to life! Donate to their crowdfunding campaign here.

Join the Newsletter!

Episode notifications delivered each week and free artwork like this is given away free exclusively to subscribers. Sign up here and download this free life map of William Shakespeare that shows events like Squanto and the Pilgrims and where those historical figures overlapped with the life of William Shakespeare.