Shakespeare and the Civil War are forever linked. All the major players had a connection to the Bard, and some might surprise you:
1. Did you know US Grant played a woman in a Shakespeare play!
We rarely see images of the future general and future president without his well-kept beard, but if this apocryphal tale is true, Grant might have grown a beard after he was embarrassed by the reaction of his fellow soldiers during a performance of Othello, where Grant rehearsed the part of Desdemona:
That December, officers decided to stage “Othello.” They looked for someone to play the beautiful Desdemona. Grant was urged to try out for the part. He had a trim figure and almost girlish good looks; his friends called him “Beauty.” Though the costume fit perfectly, the officer playing the Moor couldn’t look at Grant without laughing. They sent to New Orleans for a professional actress to play Desdemona. After that, Grant grew a beard to hide his girlish good looks. He was “Beauty” no more.Civilwartalk.com
#2. President Lincoln, Shakespearean Gentleman
I’ve talked before about how, to the South, President Lincoln was as big a tyrant as Julius Caesar, and how John Wilkes Booth was determined to cast himself as a real life Brutus
What you might not know is that Lincoln’s favorite Shakespeare play was Macbeth. I find a more fitting character for the compassionate and eloquent president would be the good King Duncan from Macbeth. According to Whitehousehistory.org. Lincoln quoted some lines about the good king’s death, a few days before his own:
On Sunday, April 9, 1865, with the war over, he was returning to Washington on the River Queen from City Point, Virginia, where he had visited the front, and he talked Shakespeare to his companions, read aloud to them, and recited his favorite passages from memory. He spent most of his time on Macbeth. “The lines after the murder of King Duncan. Lincoln’s companions were struck by the slow, quiet way he read the lines:Whitehousehistory.org.
“Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well,
Treason has done his worst; not steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch
When Lincoln finished, he paused for a moment, and then read the lines slowly over again. “I then wondered,” reflected one of his friends, “whether he felt a presentiment of his impending fate.”
If you choose to sign up for my Outschool class: The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar, I compare Antony’s speech, (which essentially started a civil war in Rome), with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I also discuss John Wilkes Booth and his obsession with the character Brutus.
#3: Ex Confederates hid out in Shakespeare’s home town!
I was pretty shocked to learn this one, and it took a while before I found a decent amount of evidence to justify reporting on it here, but apparently a few ex confederates fled to England after the war, and took refuge at inns and houses in and around Stratford, including Royal Leamington Spa, which is a town just 12 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.
I had scarcely become domesticated before the visits of the Confederates began, & we have now quite a little Southern Society. Mr & Mrs Fry of N. York, & Mrs Leigh reside very near us. Mr & Mrs Westfeldt also; but just now they are absent. Mr & Mrs Dugan, Mr & Mrs & the MissesNathaniel Beverley Tucker, US Consul, 1861
Stewart, Mrs Hanna & Miss Reynolds, Mr & Mrs Clements, Mr & Mrs Skinner, Capt Flinn, & various others who are here, off & on, compose the little nest of Confederates in Leamington.
England was anti Slavery in the 1860s but they were also partners with the Confederates in the lucrative cotton trade. CSA president Jefferson Davis dispatched a number of ambassadors and negotiators to hopefully gain support from the English to help them fight the US in the Civil War.
Once President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, England politely declined to aid the confederacy militarily, but Davis’ visits opened the door for Confederates in England, and that is why they wound up living in Leamington Spa.
While they were there, some purchased English warships to become part of the Confederate Navy. Some even got married!
1. Shakespeare and US Presidents: Whitehouse History.com
3. New York Times: John Wilkes Booth
4. Leamington History: “A Confederate Nest in Leamington.”