“Let us sit upon the ground, and tell… THE MOST MESSED UP, MACABRE, EVIL SHAKESPEARE STORIES EVER!”
I have three macabre stories that are 100% true relating to Shakespearean plays, just in time for Halloween!
Tale #1: Life Assassinates Art. Everyone knows John Wilkes Booth was an actor who murdered President Abraham Lincoln at Fords Theater, on April 14th 1865. However, not too many know that he was a Shakespearean actor, and that his experience with the Bard’s play of Julius Caesar, might have encouraged Booth’s murderous hand!
The whole Booth family were a Shakespearean theatrical dynasty; John Wilkes and his two brothers, Edwin and Junius-Brutus Booth Jr were professional actors. The three brothers only appeared together onstage once: in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar- which as you know from my previous posts, is a play where the noble Roman Brutus becomes the head of a conspiracy to assassinate a dictator in the name of peace and freedom. Booth’s father coincidentally was Junius Brutus Booth, and many scholars suspect that Brutus’ son might have taken inspiration from this ancient Roman assassin. In John Wilkes Booth’s mind, Lincoln was a tyrant oppressing the south, and it was up to him to “nobly” sacrifice himself for the good of the Republic.
In the photo on the left, you can see the three Booth brothers onstage as Julius Caesar. In a true twist of fate, John Wilkes did not play one of the conspirators Brutus or Cassius, (who stab Caesar in the back), but Marc Antony, the man who spoke for Caesar at his funeral and incited all Rome to avenge his murder. Five months after this photo was taken, Booth shot Lincoln onstage at Ford’s Theater, and shouted in Latin: “Thus shall it be to all tyrants.”
And the Julius Caesar parallels don’t stop there: just as Caesar’s wife had dreams predicting his murder, President Lincoln was haunted by dreams that warned him of his own death which he told his own wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Days before the assassination, Lincoln himself had a terrifying vision:
“About ten days ago, I retired late. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.
“It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me, but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.
” ‘Who is dead in the White House?’, I demanded of one of the soldiers.
” ‘The President’, was his answer, ‘He was killed by an assassin.’
“Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.” (reprinted from http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html).
The tragic tale of Lincoln mirrors in many ways the assassination of Caesar, a man who to some was a tyrant and to many was a savior. Surely few other moments from history demonstrate Shakespeare’s poignancy, in a more gruesome and macabre way.
- Andrews, John F. “Was the Bard Behind it,” The Atlantic. Accessed from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/10/was-the-bard-behind-it/308480/
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