Chicago + Shakespeare
"Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. . . .Bareheaded, Shoveling, Wrecking, Planning, Building, breaking, rebuilding…" Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems, 1916
"O brave new world that has such people in’t." William Shakespeare, The Tempest, c.1610
Shakespeare 400 Chicago. An unlikely pairing, perhaps?
Perhaps. But know this: Chicago is no novice when it comes to shape-changing events. Our city’s first quadricentennial (delayed a year by Congress) dates back to 1893 and the World’s Columbian Exposition. Galvanizing and inspiring a city to become more than it was, the exposition reshaped a boomtown, known already for risk-taking, determination and, yes, audacity.
As Shakespeare wrote his Tempest, England’s tentative settlement in Jamestown still struggled for a foothold. Two more generations would pass before the first Europeans (though not the English) set eyes upon this western shore of Lake Michigan, site to Chicago’s future. By the time “Chicago” made its presence known on a map, Shakespeare was dead. A king, beheaded. One revolution, lost and won. London, burned and built once more. And while Europe imagined its Renaissance and conceived the Enlightenment, bison roamed the great prairie, hunted and revered by the Native Americans.
What might Shakespeare have written about this New World and its people…
We were unknown to him; he was by no means unknown to us. He was part of the fabric and soul of this place. The colonists staged productions of his plays. Our founding fathers quoted and collected his works. The settlers carried his books and pioneering spirit with them. And our Midwest native son Abraham Lincoln grew up reading Shakespeare by firelight in his family’s one-room log cabin.
Chicago grew topsy-turvy until the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 burned a third of the city to the ground. Like London, it refused to remain in ashes, emerging at the epicenter of a vast continent’s routes of trade, transport and culture. We grew up, rough edged, unruly, untamed.
Chicagoans inherit this legacy. We have taken our rightful place among the premier orchestras, operas and dance companies of the world. Hog butcher for the world is today a world-class culinary destination. Our museums of art, science and the humanities are internationally renowned. Ours is a city that fuels the most dynamic theater community in the country. Our great universities are unparalleled in talent and breadth. Our architectural pedigree, rendered by Sullivan, Wright, Olmsted and van der Rohe, is as imposing and original as our city skyline and lakefront.
A longing for exploration and for freedom of expression severed our New World from the old. The most adventurous, independent and nonconforming were lured westward, to the Great Lakes and tallgrass prairie, to what seemed to our ancestors an endless expanse.
This same longing for exploration brings us back to Shakespeare, to a boundless geography he left behind for us, as wide as the infinite spaces of our histories, our emotional lives and our imaginations. We are relentless, audacious searchers for new meaning and expression, inspired by the most exquisite body of words extant.
Chicago is where Shakespeare has chosen to live. And we will never have a better chance to get to know him than here in 2016…