It’s interesting to reflect on how deeply and broadly Shakespeare infiltrates our culture. He is everywhere in history in some context or other (something we discussed in our Shakespeare in America article).
On Wednesday, 9th April, 1865, five days before he was murdered, Abraham Lincoln was still celebrating the end of the Civil War with a group of friends. They were returning to the White House after a trip on the Potomac in the presidential boat. Lincoln was reading poetry to his guests – poetry by his favourite author, William Shakespeare. According to a French visitor he was reading from Macbeth. He was reading the lines after the murder of the king, Duncan, where Macbeth is expressing his moral torment. Lincoln told his audience that the lines were an exact picture of a murderer’s mind, when, the murderous act over, its perpetrator already envies his victim’s calm sleep. Ironically, his own assassin, just a week later, and on the run, would be experiencing the same mental torture.
The murder took place on Good Friday, Wednesday, 14th April, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, where Lincoln was attending a performance of Our American Cousin. The assassin heard about the proposed visit to the theatre in the morning and in the evening walked into the theatre and straight past the guard sitting outside the box where the presidential party was seated, without being challenged. He then shot the President in the back of the head at point blank range. The reason that the guard didn’t challenge him is that he was the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, who was well known at the theatre and was able to come and go as he pleased.
John Wilkes Booth was the younger son of the distinguished actor, Julius Booth, who had three sons, all actors. They toured America, spreading Shakespeare all round the country. John Wilkes eventually went solo, and became a major celebrity, with his good looks and frequent theatrical appearances. But he still performed with the family from time to time. He played several parts, including Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He once said that his favourite character was Brutus, the assassin of the tyrant, Julius Caesar.
Just five months before the assassination of Lincoln, the Booth family, including John Wilkes, performed Julius Caesar in New York. The newspapers generally acclaimed the performance as the greatest theatrical event in New York history. The proceeds went towards the statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park, which still stands today.