The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff

On May 10, 1849, English actor William Charles Macready gave his last American performance as MacBeth at the new Opera house in Astor Place, New York City. Inside the theatre supporters of rival American actor Edwin Forrest shouted so loudly that the entire first act had to be performed in pantomime. Outside a crowd of 20,000 packed the streets armed with cobblestones, ready to attack the National Guard troops who had been called in after the rioting of the previous night. The troops opened fire on the crowd, above their heads at first. The crowd responded, a riot ensued, and upwards of 30 people, many of them bystanders, lost their lives.

People don’t care about Shakespeare like they used to.

The events and social circumstances that led to the Astor Place Riots, or Shakespeare Riots, are carefully examined in Nigel Cliff’s book The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America. Mr. Cliff focuses his study on a single, tragic event, but he also casts a wide net. His book is a history of theatre, of Shakespeare, of the rivalry between America and England. It is also a biography of Ediwn Forrest, of William Charles Macready, of New York City and America. There are many rewards to be found in The Shakespeare Riots.

One reason why William Charles Macready is an important figure in the history of theatre and of Shakespeare is that he made his career restoring Shakespeare’s plays to their original form. 150 years earlier, Nahum Tate had revised King Lear believing he was updating a primitive genius, making his work acceptable to modern thinking. At the close of Tate’s version, Cordelia and Edmund are married. She is crowned queen by Lear who has recovered from his brief period of madness and been restored to his kingdom. Lear then retires to become a happy grandfather to the new ruler’s children. Tate’s Lear has no fool. It also has only 25% of Shakespeare’s actual script. It was the only version of King Lear performed for 150 years, until William Macready presented a restored version with Shakespeare’s original ending and with the fool restored to his rightful place. Audiences loved it. Even American who jealously, and patriotically, argued the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day was their countrymen, Edwin Forrest.

The societal events and the personal rivalry between Macready and Forrest that led up to the riots make for interesting reading. Macready was supported by the upper classes, those with enough wealth to mimic the fashionable ways of London high society. Forrest was championed by the Bowery B’hoys, anti-immigrant gangs from the lower and poorer quarters of New York City. Forrest had shocked English high society and embarrassed American by hissing Macready during a performance of Hamlet. This led to the end of the pair’s long friendship and to the beginning of the end of Macready’s popularity in America.

Normally, this story would all be confined to the footnotes of history–not the sort of stuff one studies in a history class. I can promise you, it won’t be on the test. None of the people involved were “great men”; what happened, though tragic, did not change the course of the nation. But what emerges from The Shakespeare Riots is a portrait of America that deepens the reader’s understanding of the country. From the beginning, the United States has been a “melting pot,” a combination of cultures and peoples, but from the beginning there have been groups fighting against immigration, against anyone outside of the norm. That those groups found a convenient target in an English Shakespearean actor is what makes The Shakespeare Riots so unusual. That Shakespeare once occupied such a central position in American culture says something. That he no longer does says something else.

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4 Comments

  1. Jeanne says:

    Well, central. We can quibble over the word, although I take your point. Still, everyone knows they’re supposed to like Shakespeare, and many of them know a version of the plays, like the basketball rivalry O or one of the film versions of Romeo and Juliet. You can’t get through a children’s summer program without a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
    Have you read Station Eleven? It sounds like you might like the part about how, after the collapse of civilization, a theater troupe is performing Shakespeare.

    1. Shakespeare certainly still carries weight, but at the time period discussed in The Shakespeare Riots people of all social classes were passionate about him, much more so than today.

      I gave Station Eleven again, but I’m at my saturation point with end of the world stories. I think I’ll wait for the movie or the television series, which I suspect will be very good.

  2. When I started reading the premise, I honestly thought this was about a made-up event. I’m glad I know better now, and it’s definitely a book I am interested to read. I was stunned when I found out how few universities and colleges require a class on Shakespeare for literature grads. It’s something like 10%, which is ridiculous!

  3. My school did require a Shakespeare course for undergrads in English literature. Graduates had much more freedom to select an area to study. The daughter of a colleague of mine just graduated with a degree in computer science/programming. She took two Shakespeare classes as did many of the “geeks” at her school. They even produced their own version of Much Ado.

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