That observation made me wonder if there might not be something particularly “Shakespearean” about the Rust Belt, the arc of success and devastation, the clashing of all of those villainous characters during the Gilded Age and the nobility of those who resisted them, and the narrative culmination of the post-industrial landscape as blasted as Lear’s heath.

By Ed Simon 

There is a direct connection between John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil having opened the Excelsior Works Refinery on Kingsbury Run in the east side of Cleveland in 1863 and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC containing 82 folios of the playwright, the largest collection in the world. The path may seem circuitous between the gargantuan, belching, filthy operation where crude oil was refined and the elegant art deco library just a block east of the Capitol Building, but it was Rust Belt wealth and Rust Belt philanthropy that converted that most English of Bards into an adopted national poet of the fledgling American Republic. This year sees the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s first folio, the massive compendium of thirty-six of his plays published posthumously some seven years after the poet’s death;  a crucial volume in generating and maintaining his status as the language’s greatest artist, but while many considerations of this event will focus on the supposedly unique genius of the dramatist, it’s worth considering the influence which he’s had on the industrial Midwest, and the ways in turn that the Rust Belt has contributed to his myth.

As both the metaphorical and literal forge of the United States’ economic ascendancy in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, the industrial regions of the Northeast and Midwest were not just instrumental in American international power, but also in the sheer amount of wealth they produced (as well as wealth disparity). The monetary accumulation of cultural capital in the region remains unparalleled, even while the fortunes of the area itself have been plummeting for generations. Coastal residents may be surprised that Cleveland has one of the best symphony orchestras in the country, or that the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh has the longest running contemporary art exhibition in the world, and that Detroit features some of the most architecturally significant Art Deco buildings in the nation, but it’s a mark of the region’s historical significance. Despite the grudging respect sometimes afforded to Chicago, it’s too rarely perseverated on that places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, and so on were a Wealth Belt long before they were rusty, and the affects of all that money linger even today. Central to the way in which mavens of industry promoted themselves was to affect being patrons of high culture, but when it comes to literature, few have historically signified that very same “high culture” as Shakespeare did. “Taste classifies,” wrote the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his landmark Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, “and it classifies the classifier.” For robber barons like Rockefeller and Schwab, Frick and Carnegie, Shakespeare was a totem of culture deserving of financial largesse. The relationship between Shakespeare and America may go back to the colonial era, but Gilded Age philanthropists were instrumental to effectively purchasing Shakespeare as an American commodity. From the Susquehanna to the Mississippi, the Ohio to the shores of the Great Lakes, industrial wealth funded libraries and theaters, museums and memorials.

“Many of the robber-baron industrialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century were Shakespeare enthusiasts,” said Stephen Wittek, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Shakespeare and the Cultural Politics of Conversion. “Andrew Carnegie quotes Shakespeare repeatedly in his autobiography,” Wittek mentioned, noting that only within a mile radius of the campus named for that complicated Scotsman there were three Shakespeare-related sites from the Gilded Age, including, the Christopher Luman Magee Memorial featuring a quote from The Merchant of Venice, CMU’s ornate Fine Arts Building decorated with a ceiling mural depicting the Bard, and the massive statue of the playwright who sits overlooking Forbes Avenue in front of the museum named for Carnegie. “While I’m at it, I might as well also note the concentration of Shakespeare-themed street names in South Oakland,” including a Hamlet and Ophelia Street in that Pittsburgh neighborhood, “another vestige of the enthusiasm for the drama in the industrial era.” Not just Pittsburgh of course; consider the William Shakespeare Monument designed by sculptor William Ordway Partridge in 1893 for Chicago’s Grant Park or Joseph Motto and Stephen Rebeck’s Bust of the Bard in Cleveland’s British Cultural Garden from 1925; Louisville’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, the longest running non-ticketed event of its type in the world, to the Shakespeareana in the form of plays, lectures, and concerts offered at the summertime Chautauqua Institution in western New York since 1874.

Maybe the clearest sense of Rust Belt propriety over Shakespeare can be demonstrated by conducting an informal census of the current locations of the 235 extant first folios printed in 1623. Three are in Illinois, two at the Newberry Library in Chicago and one at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne; the University of Indiana at Bloomington has a folio in special collections; the University of Nebraska at Lincoln possesses a first edition of Shakespeare; New York State has fifteen folios, predictably most are in New York City, but there are two in Buffalo, one at Colgate University in Hamilton and one at Cornell University in Ithaca, both of which are more credibly “Rust Belt” than the five boroughs; two folios are in Ohio, one in Oxford at Miami University and one in private collection in Springboro; Pennsylvania meanwhile is home to seven copies of the edition, including at the Free Library of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, West Chester University, Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Even Morgantown, West Virginia possesses a first folio, or at least until President E. Gordon Gee decides to raffle it off with the rest of the humanities departments at WVU. If those eighteen folios are included along with the Folger collection in Washington DC – not the Rust Belt clearly, but purchased with Cleveland money – than a hundred of the surviving folios have industrial Midwestern connections, almost half of those which survive and twice the number of those that are currently held in Shakespeare’s home country of the United Kingdom.

The narrative implied by those hundred folios is one of success, of this region’s industrial and economic might, but that’s only the arc in the first four acts, by the time the curtain has fallen, it’s clear that the story of Rust Belt deindustrialization bares the most similarity to tragedy.  “Read by almost everyone at school, staged in theaters across the land, and long valued by conservatives as highly as by liberals, Shakespeare’s plays remain common ground,” writes scholar James Shapiro in Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future, “one of the few places where Americans can meet and air their disparate views.” Read one way, and those thirty-six plays substantiate exactly what the Rockefellers and Carnegies wanted it to substantiate, yet a closer reading of our regional history throws in stark relief how even during the halcyon days of industrial greatness, so much of the wealth which was able to amass the fortunes that built those memorials and purchased those folios was itself based in exploitation. Within the folio itself, there remain ways to address those inequities, for Shakespeare himself is the greatest of working class poets, son of a glove-maker who was used to labor in either the leather shop or the theater, yet it strains credulity to imagine that as a young man by the pastoral banks of the Avon in Stratford that he could have imagined the Excelsior Works by the very different polluted Kingsbury. Yet the two are intrinsically connected across time by the vagaries of capital. That the playwright contains more than a bit of proletarian subversion meant that even if the Bard was supplied by the capitalist class, those working in mines and mills could also find their own uses for his words. After all, as Corrin the Shepherd says with great sense of solidarity in As You Like It, “Sir, I am a true laborer; I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good.”

As the founder and director of the Steel City Shakespeare company Jeffrey Chips told me, “an aesthetic can be malleable to serve the needs of the story,” describing a production of Richard III which he directed that would “tap into themes of the downtrodden… overtaking a tyrannical leader with shades of Andrew Carnegie or Henry Clay Frick.” Chips makes clear that despite the reverence for Shakespeare as “not of an age, but for all time” as the Bard’s contemporary Ben Jonson enthused, the playwright was very much of his own time, and that there are risks in universalizing him. Yet at the same time, Chips says, it’s important to consider how Shakespeare still belongs to us, to recombine and reinterpret his words and plots to generate something new which speaks to our experiences. Recalling performing Shakespeare for Pittsburghers, Chips says that these centuries-old stories can often speak to an audience “renowned for our grit and perseverance through difficult times.” That observation made me wonder if there might not be something particularly “Shakespearean” about the Rust Belt, the arc of success and devastation, the clashing of all of those villainous characters during the Gilded Age and the nobility of those who resisted them, and the narrative culmination of the post-industrial landscape as blasted as Lear’s heath. It could go some ways to explaining the Bard’s omnipresence here. Karla Boos, the visionary founder of Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theater company said to mem that “All of Shakespeare works well here because Pittsburgh has an appetite for poetry and language and larger than life figures,” where we’re already used to these “Big grand personalities whose legacy we live with.” Detailing the popularity of Shakespeare in Western Pennsylvania, Chips mentioned numerous theater companies either dedicated to the playwright or who often perform his work, featuring out for particular praise director Jennifer Tober, the founder of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, which has staged free productions since 2005. Of course any discussion of Shakespeare within the Three Rivers area has to take into account the aforementioned Quantum Theater, the experimental company founded by Boos in 1990 (and where Tober also works as Education Director). Dedicated to exploring the potential of unconventional performance space, Quantum Theater has staged a multitude of plays over the past three decades in places ranging from art museums to parking garages, office complexes to ice skating rinks. Arguably the most celebrated of Pittsburgh theater companies, Quantum has performed Antonin Chekhov and Lucy Kirkwood, Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill, and alongside any number of contemporary playwrights, Shakespeare.

Boos explained to me that Quantum’s history of Shakespeare productions goes back to a 1997 staging of Anthony and Cleopatra held in what was then the abandoned Duquesne Brewing factory on the Southside of Pittsburgh, but which has since been transformed into the artist space known as the Brewhouse. She described it to me as this “crazy industrial space,” with metal artists, some of them former steel workers recently laid off, “squatting and working on large scale works,” a dramatic landscape that lent itself to thinking about Shakespeare in a particularly post-industrial way. By far Quantum’s most successful interpretations of Shakespeare were their productions of King Lear in 2018 and 2019, and of Hamlet in the summer of 2023, both of which were held on the majestic, sublime, dilapidated, and terrifying ruins of the Carrie Blast Furnace in Rankin, Pennsylvania. From 1884 until 1982, the Carrie Furnace rolled around 1,250 tons of molten steel a day, both forge and engine of American wealth and labor. Now, with the grounds lovingly maintained by the Rivers of Steel Foundation, the Carrie site sits empty by the Monongahela as a hulking behemoth, a rusted Acropolis that can act as a stage for memory and mourning. Describing the production of Hamlet directed by Jeffrey Carpenter and starring the incandescently brilliant Treasure Treasure in the title role, Boos told me that it “feels like righteous nobility to stand on these layers, to speak these ancient texts about ambition and hubris, layers that are so Shakespearean.”

The last play which I saw before the shutdowns of the pandemic was when I was still living in Washington DC, a late 2019 production of Henry IV: Part One staged in that temple of Bardolatry, the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was, as can be expected, an excellent production; well-directed, well-acted, well-staged. The first play which I saw after the pandemic was Quantum’s Hamlet at the Carrie, and as good as the Folger’s production might have been, it couldn’t begin to compare to the pathos, sublimity, and epic tragedy of the Pittsburgh play. Some of this was due to Carpenter’s direction, Treasure’s performance, and Boos’ production, but the presence of all of those ghosts amidst the broken windows and cracked concrete, the spraypainted walls and the rusted towers of the furnace, can’t be discounted. “Remember thee,” says Hamlet, examining the toppled towers of the blast furnace, “Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat/in this distracted globe.”

Image courtesy of Quantum Theater. 

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.