EVERY DAY ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE NATIONAL media arrives in Austin, each one trying to answer two questions: Who is George W. Bush? And isn’t there something really bad that he’s done sometime in his life? That’s all right for them, but here at home, can’t we think about something else just for a moment? Here is a question that intrigues me: What is the relation, if any, between Texas and the great poet and playwright William Shakespeare?
This isn’t a random musing. We are confronted with the question because, as if overnight, Shakespeare is more potent and popular than ever. There’s Shakespeare in Love, of course. Ten Things I Hate About You is a teen version of The Taming of the Shrew. Michelle Pfeiffer is starring in a movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that will be released in May, and several other Shakespeare movies are in progress. The re-created Globe Theatre in London, where audiences in the pit stand during the performance as Elizabethan audiences did and where the plays are performed as nearly as possible as they were first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, is consistently filled to capacity. This summer the Shakespeare festivals in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Winedale are expecting record crowds.
It is not recorded—or at least I could not find—when the first performance of Shakespeare occurred in Texas. We can be sure, though, that it was early on, sometime not long after the first Anglo settlers began to leak into the forests of East Texas or show up in the humid port towns along the Gulf of Mexico. We can be sure because, from the time the first settlers arrived on the Atlantic seaboard, pioneers were not just striking out for new territory but were often rather self-consciously carrying civilization westward. To them civilization meant English civilization, and it is a cliché of history that that in turn meant the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French intellectual who traveled through America in 1831 saw “hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.”
Before there were many towns with enough people for an audience and enough civic ambition to build a theater, Shakespeare arrived in the saddlebags and wagons of men who came west. (Ronald L. Davis of