Today in history: End of the American Civil War

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!

US Grant as a US army colonel in the Mexican American War, c. 1846

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

A copy of Shakespeare’s Plays, c. 1865. In the top-right corner, written in pencil is inscribed “A. Lincoln.”

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

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).

https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-american-presidents-and-shakespeare

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:

“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

him farther.”

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.”

Whitehousehistory.org.

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.

Title image for my Outschool class: “The Violent Rhetoric Of Julius Caesar.

#3: Ex Confederates hid out in Shakespeare’s home town!

Ex-Confederate soldiers gathered in Royal Leamington Spa in England, c. 1865.

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 Misses
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.

Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, US Consul, 1861

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!

Sources:

1. Shakespeare and US Presidents: Whitehouse History.com

2. Civilwartalk.com

3. New York Times: John Wilkes Booth

4. Leamington History: “A Confederate Nest in Leamington.”

Shakespeare on Riots

Today is March 15th, a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow democracy.

January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.


Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.

How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:

Example 1: Julius Caesar

George Ed Robertson Antony
(c) Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:

https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeare-learning-zone/julius-caesar/story/timeline

What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.

Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.

Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.

Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates.
And chastise well also the rioters
Who in each shire are now confederates
Against your peace, and all their maintainers
For truly else will fall the fairest flowers
Of your great crown and noble monarchy
Which God defend and keep through his mercy.

(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).

Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.

Biography of Richard, Duke of York, who challenged King Henry VI for his right to be king.

York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:

The Royal National Theater’s production of Henry VI, Parts II, and 7. Jack Cade appears at about the 7-minute mark.
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer.

Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.

15th century woodcut from the War Of the Roses.

Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!

A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.

As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/20/qanon-trump-era-ends/

Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.

Example 3: Sir Thomas More

In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch:

Crafting a Character: Brutus

Happy Ides of March every one. I hope you have enjoyed all the posts for my Roman week. If I have time, I will try to post a few more, since I have not touched on Cymbaline or Titus Andronicus.This will not be an in depth character analysis. I won’t go into every scene and speech of Brutus’. My goal is to look at the history and the actions of Brutus in the play to show why he is such an amazing and ambigous character.

Marcus Brutus was born in 85 BC. Shakespeare’s source for the play, Plutarch’s lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, mentions that his desire to kill Caesar might have been tied to his family: Brutus’ ancestor was Lucius Junius Brutus, the man who drove out the last king of Rome, and first consul. Below is the famous painting of Lucius foiling a plot to restore the monarchy, but to do so, he had to sentence his own sons to death:

Jaques Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789.

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/v/david-the-lictors-returning-to-brutus-the-bodies-of-his-sons-1789

This was how seriously the Brutus family took defending the Roman Republic, they valued it even beyond their own family.

Brutus’ mother was Servilia, half sister of Caesar’s longtime critic, the senator Cato. He even married Cato’s daughter Portia! So you can see that once Caesar starts acting like a king, Brutus must have felt a tremendous amount of pressure from his Family to stay true to his Republican ideology. On the other hand, Servillia was actually Caesar’s mistress and Brutus owed his life to Caesar. After Brutus fought against Casesar, they reconciled after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC:

Most of those who were taken alive Caesar incorporated in his legions, and to many men of prominence he granted immunity. One of these was Brutus, who afterwards slew him. Caesar was distressed, we are told, when Brutus was not to be found, but when he was brought into his presence safe and sound, was pleased beyond measure- Plutarch, retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html

Despite his close ties to Caesar, Brutus chose to betray and assassinate him, so the question remains, why?

In the play and in Plutarch, Brutus is persuaded by Cassius Longinus, his brother in law and colleague in the Roman Senate. As you remember from my post on “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” there are three basic kinds of persuasive speech, and Cassius uses all three:

1. Ethos “If you do know that I do fawn on men, and hold them hard, and after scandal them… then hold me dangerous.”

2. Logos- Cassius points out a series of embarrassing stories about Caesar that set up the following argument:

• Caesar is weak and frail

• Gods cannot be frail

• Why is Caesar treated like a god?

3. Pathos

• The people

• Fear of tyranny

• Brutus’ family honor- this is the real knife that kills any doubt Brutus had. Cassius reminds Brutus of his ancestor Lucius and how he would rather die than see a king in Rome again.

The soliloquy

Brutus. It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

• This speech is a direct predecessor for “To be or not to be,” and Macbeth’s “If it were done,” soliloquy. https://youtu.be/IoDwXjKIenI

  • All three speakers are talking about murder and can’t bring themselves to say either the word murder, nor mention the name of the man who will die.

• All references to murder are in passive voice, as if Brutus wishes a lightning bolt would kill Caesar, so he doesn’t have to accept the responsibility of killing.

•Compared to Hamlet and Macbeth, Brutus’ text is flat, The speech depends on the actor to show the torment in his soul.

  • One question that the actor must answer for himself is, is Brutus really concerned for the well being of Rome, or does he want Caesar dead for another reason?

After the soliloquy, Brutus throws himself into the role of head conspirator: https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU

You can see in this video that Brutus speaks eloquently about how just the cause is and how only Caesar will die. This illustrates that Brutus is well spoken but not pragmatic. As we all know, Marc Anthony eventually gets the crowd to turn on Brutus and will become part of the army that hunts him and Cassius down. The dramatic irony is what helps the argument that Brutus is the real tragic hero of this play.

The murder and its aftermath

The rest as they say, is history. On March 15th, 44 BC, Brutus and the conspirators stabbed Caesar 17 times. In the play, before Caesar dies, he utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!”

The line stands out because it is the only time anyone in this Roman play speaks in Latin. Now, I have heard a compelling argument from Professor J. Rufus Fears, that this might actually be a misquote, and what Caesar really said will amaze you. As I have mentioned, Brutus’ mother was Caesar’s mistress and the two of them were very close. At the time of Caesar’s death he was 40, while Caesar was 16 years his senior. Why did Caesar forgive Brutus fighing against him? Is it not possible that what he actually said was: “Et tu, son?” That’s a question for directors and actors, but it does heighten Brutus’ emotional conflic. Much like his ancestor Lucius, Marcus Brutus is caught between his ideals and his family.

During the funeral, Brutus has a very well crafted speech where he lays out his reasons for killing Caesar. He sets himself up as the friend of Rome. This video from the Royal Shakespeare Company explores the techniques that Brutus uses to get the crowd on his side: https://youtu.be/nyPlvuv8SSk

After Antony makes his speech however, the mob burns Brutus’ house and even slaughters a man just because he shares a name with one of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius take their armies and flee Rome, and prepare to take on Antony and Octavian. The adversity Cassius and Brutus go through pushes them together and they behave like brothers; they fight and reconcile constantly: https://youtu.be/K9EAxjVC22M

In a way, these men are two sides of the same coin: Cassius is fiery but pragmatic while Brutus is stoic and idealistic. It’s like a tragedy in and of itself that these men weren’t melded into one man with Brutus’ heart and Cassius’ mind.

Is Brutus A Traitor?

Unlike Macbeth, Shakespeare’s text leaves it ambiguous as to whether Brutus was right or wrong to kill Caesar. Even Antony, who leads an army against him, ends the play by calling Brutus “The noblest Roman of them all.” Shakespeare also gives us few clues to Brutus’ motivations other than the speech I quoted earlier. Mainly we have to go on Brutus’ actions and their consequences.

One moment that I think perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of Brutus’ actions is the moment where he’s visited by Caesar’s ghost. In other tragedies like Macbeth and Richard III, the villain is tormented by the ghost or ghosts of people he murdered. The ghost serves as a manifestation of the murderer’s guilty conscience and torments him before his death. When Brutus sees Caesar, he does not follow this trope. He isn’t horrified, not struck by guilt, in fact, he wishes that the ghost would stay longer.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar book cover

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In Act 4, why does Caesar’s ghost appear? I don’t understand why Caesar’s ghost shows up. I dont understand the significance of that scene.

Expert Answers info

JUANAMAC

eNotes educator

| CERTIFIED EDUCATOR

Shakespeare, as other Elizabethan writers, uses the idea of ghosts in his plays usually as a foreshadowing of events to come. In “Hamlet,” Hamlet has to deal with working out what to do with his father’s request for revenge, and also, whether the ghost is indeed his father. In “Macbeth“, Macbeth has to deal with the Ghost of Banquo showing up to dinner, literally haunting him. In “Richard III“, Richard deals with the ghosts of the men he has wronged right at the start of the play.

This haunting is significant also in “Julius Caesar“. The Ghost of Julius arrives on the eve of battle to literally haunt Brutus. Brutus had hoped that by killing Caesar he would enact change in Rome, however, the Roman Empire goes on, as does the reign of Caesar (albeit, a new Caesar).

As Brutus goes into battle, and the battle doesn’t go his way, he again turns to Julius Caesar, blaming him for the outcome of the battle,

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.94–96)

Shakespeare’s ghosts are visible to one person (as well as the audience, clearly) so those who react to the ghost are the ones who are supposed to learn from the arrival of the ghost, heeding the message from beyond the grave.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR

How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

GHOST

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

BRUTUS

Why comest thou?

GHOST

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Well; then I shall see thee again?

GHOST

Ay, at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost

Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee.

The ghost itself also resists the clearcut definition as a sign of a guilty conscience. It doesn’t accuse Brutus of murder, it doesn’t curse in fact, all the ghost says is that Brutus will see him at Philippi. Unlike Richard III or Macbeth, the ghost utters no curses or scare Brutus out of his mind.

The only conclusion that Brutus gleans is that his end is near. According to Dr. John Langdon, many Elizabethan ghosts serve as a shorthand to indicate that the play’s denouement is on its way. Brutus seems aware of this as well- he knows that if he sees a ghost, he’s likely to be one soon. Yet the reality of his impending death doesnt change Brutus; he doesn’t express remorse like Richard III or hopelessness like Macbeth, if anything his stocism and seeming world weariness makes him seem more like a hero like Hamlet during his “Not a whit, we defy augery,” speech. This passive embrace of fate is at the core Brutus and it illustrates how hard it is to truly decide if he is a villain or a hero.

Though Shakespeare wrote the character of Brutus as ambiguous, over the centuries many artists and cultures have passed judgment on Brutus. Dante in his book Inferno example places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell, who along with Judas Iscariot, are being forever devoured by Satan himself, imagined below in a medieval illustration as a three-headed beast. You can see the name Brut in the head on the right.

By contrast, during the French Revolution, many statesmen referred to Brutus as a hero for his noble attempt to destroy a corrupt monarchy.

One day men will be astonished by the fact that humanity in the eighteenth century was less advanced than in the time of Caesar. Then a tyrant was slain in the midst of the Senate with no formalities but thirty blows of a dagger and with no other law save the liberty of Rome Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, November 13th, 1792, (2 months before the execution of Louis XVI).

As I have written before, in the 20th and 21st centuries, America has a somewhat more complex relationship with the character of Brutus. On the one hand, America was founded on the principle of resisting tyranny; it’s even on the state flag of Virginia, which is why some early productions of the play make Brutus a hero. On the other hand, as you see above, rebels and traitors like John Wilkes Booth have also taken inspiration from Brutus. His father and brother’s middle name was Brutus and all three brothers performed in the play one year before John turned theater performance into American tragedy.

Like Brutus, Booth seemed amazed with the world’s reaction to his deed, for after he assassinated the president, he wrote this in his journal:

[W]ith every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

John Wilkes Booth, April 21, 1865.

The most recent controversy over Brutus’ actions is the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Caesar directed by Oscar Eustis. As I wrote before, when portraying Caesar as an American president, it tends to anger the political party of his supporters, but the play shows how unplanned political violence can destabilize a country. In these productions, Brutus seems a bit of a well meaning dupe or an naive patsy acting out of fear. On the other hand in cultures that have suffered many violent uprisings, Brutus is a figure that is all to common in places like Uganda, Iran, and the Taliban controlled world: https://youtu.be/5HU8SA33j2w

Brutus is a great character because Shakespeare keeps enough of his motives in the dark to allow for new interpretations, but also showing a man with relatable desires and fears get swept up in a dangerous and unpredictable time.

Scary Shakespearean Stories!

“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!

Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
Lithograph of a demon tempting John Wilkes Booth, created by John McGee in 1865.
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.

Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of "Julius Caesar," starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
Photo from the 1864 benefit performance of “Julius Caesar,” starring John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Brutus Booth Jr (left to right).
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.

Works Cited:

  1. 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/
  2. http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/index.php?option=com_g2bridge&view=gallery&Itemid=256&g2_view=core%3AShowItem&g2_itemId=15120&g2_imageViewsIndex=1
  3. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689283/
  4. http://www.prairieghosts.com/a_lincoln.html