Monday, April 23, 2007


The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff

This post is part of the Shakespeare Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee. Check there for links to other posts.

By Edward Copeland
One thing I've always puzzled over is how Shakespeare, once beloved by everyone, even the least-educated groundlings of the Globe Theatre, transformed over the centuries into someone whose works were considered suitable only for the "elites." I remember the disdain many fellow students had when we were required to read the great plays in high school and that attitude usually followed into adulthood.

An answer to this mystery may be found in an insightful new book called The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in Nineteenth-Century America by Nigel Cliff. The book tells the history of the event which gives the work its title, namely unrest in New York in the 1840s that started over a dispute about two leading Shakespearean actors of the time. It seems extraordinary to imagine that kind of violent passion erupting today, but it did, its spark originating in the same Five Points area of Manhattan that later produced the even deadlier Draft Riots depicted in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. As Cliff sees it, and his case is fairly convincing, the Shakespeare Riots led to the fissure in views of The Bard that continues to this very day.

The book recounts the history that led up to the Astor Place Riots in New York in 1849, when the feud between two of the top Shakespearean actors in England, William Charles Macready, and the leading American performer of the Bard, Edwin Forrest, escalated to the point of actual fighting and death. Cliff's book doesn't just cover the specific event but takes a more panoramic view of the events that led up to the conflict that ended up with more than 30 dead on New York's streets.

It's fascinating to read of the time where many of the elite looked down on Shakespeare while the common man embraced his work, even out in the newly settled American West, though often by taking liberties with the works themselves. It also recounts the tension between English writers and America with a little bit of history I also was unaware of concerning U.S. copyright laws.

Back then, the U.S. didn't recognize foreign copyrights on any works written in the English language so prominent writers such as Charles Dickens couldn't earn a dime from the dissemination of their works in America — a law that amazingly stayed on the books until 1986.

While I won't recount the specifics of the events that led to the riots because I hope people will seek out this book and read it for themselves. I will add though that, in Cliff's opinion, this is the key event that led to the common man's rejection of Shakespeare and his image as that for only the highly educated.

Once the smoke and blood had been cleared following the violence, the rich of the time built sparkling new theaters further up in Manhattan so they would no longer have to mingle with the riffraff — complete with prices that made sure that those lower on the economic scale would stay away and they did, not even bothering much to continue staging the Bard themselves in their own areas.

It's a shame, because Shakespeare is timeless and no matter your social or economic status, everyone would be better served by exposure to his great and timeless works.

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Interesting article! Thanks for pointing out this book. I'm going to read it as soon as I finish Making Movies by Sidney Lumet.

This event appears to have "Shakespearean tragedy" written all over it.
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