How Shakespeare Killed President Lincoln

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How Shakespeare Killed President Lincoln

On Literary Walk in Central Park, New York, there is a statue to the man who inspired the greatest assassination in US history. That man was William Shakespeare. The statue was paid for by a benefit performance of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre. The three leading 1 actors in that performance were Edwin Booth, Junius Brutus Booth, jr. and John Wilkes Booth (playing Marcus Brutus, Caius Cassius and Mark Antony, respectively). But November 25, 1864, was unlike 2 any other night at the theatre. During the performance across Broadway half a dozen hotels were burned down 3 in the first act of domestic terrorism in US history. The Southern terrorists who set New York’s theatre district alight 4 were responding to General Sherman’s campaign in Georgia – widely 5 considered the first modern instance 6 of ‘total war’. 7 The USA was tearing itself apart. 8

Shakespeare asks important questions about democracy, tyranny and the justifications for regicide in his Roman plays. Famously, Communists and Fascists fought 9 in the streets of Paris outside the Comédie-Française in 1934 because both groups claimed Coriolanus as 10 ‘their’ play. The thing is, Shakespeare asks the questions but he doesn’t tell you the answers; you have to work them out 11 for yourself. In part, your answer will depend on your prejudices. In the case of the Booth brothers, Edwin was a Unionist, while John was a Confederate. The central figure in Julius Caesar is Brutus. 12 For some Brutus is a villain who betrays 13 his friend. For others he is a hero who puts freedom before his personal loyalties. One can imagine that most of the Booths were rather 14 pro Brutus. After all, Edwin and John’s father was called Junius Brutus 15 Booth, and their brother was Junius Brutus, junior.

The connection between the assassination of Lincoln and the performance of Julius Caesar four and a half months earlier is not a flight of fancy16 Just 17 before he was cornered 18 and shot dead, John Wilkes Booth scribbled down 19 a note complaining 20 that he was being hunted down 21 like a dog. He concluded the note, “And why? For doing what Brutus was honoured for.” Indeed22 he seemed to have internalized some of Brutus’s inner 23 conflict. He also wrote, “I can never repent it, though [I] hated to kill.”

Yes Shakespeare Special

Discover more incredible facts about Shakespeare in Yes 13.


  1. leading – most important

  2. unlike – distinct from, dissimilar to

  3. to burn sth. down – destroy sth. with fire

  4. to set sth. alight (set-set-set) – set fire to sth.

  5. widely – (in this case) generally

  6. instance – case, example

  7. total war – military actions that affect civilians as much as combatants

  8. to tear oneself apart (tear-tore-torn) – destroy oneself

  9. to fight (fight-fought-fought) – battle, combat

  10. to claim sth. as – declare sth. to be

  11. to work sth. out – determine sth.

  12. he speaks over five times as many lines as Caesar

  13. to betray – be disloyal to, be unfaithful to

  14. rather – reasonably, quite

  15. Lucius Junius Brutus was Marcus Junius Brutus’s illustrious ancestor, who had founded the Roman Republic in 509BCE after ousting the king of Rome, Tarquinius.

  16. flight of fancy – fantastical idea, product of one’s imagination

  17. just – (in this case) immediately

  18. to corner sb. – trap sb., force sb. into a situation from which he or she cannot escape

  19. to scribble down – write quickly

  20. to complain – protest

  21. to hunt sb. down – chase sb. implacably, pursue sb. mercilessly

  22. indeed – (emphatic) in fact

  23. inner – internal, psychological

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