Shakespeare wrote for a broad audience, but performances have sometimes served to highlight, rather than bridge, class divisions. This broadside helped incite the 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, a moment when Shakespeare on the American stage literally became a matter of life and death.
American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready had been rivals for years, with popular audiences championing the former and elite audiences the latter. The rivalry soon became a proxy for deeper issues of nationalism, class, and economics.
In 1849, they appeared simultaneously as Macbeth, with Macready at the aristocratic Astor Place Opera House, and Forrest at the working-class Bowery Theater. Believing Macready had conspired to ruin Forrest’s European career, Forrest’s supporters drove him from the stage. When he announced a reappearance, inflammatory posters like this went up, drawing thousands to the theater on 10 May. Everyone expected police arrests would ultimately disperse the crowd, but the mayor called out the National Guard with fatal results. It became a defining moment in labor as well as theater history.
This is the only known copy of the broadside to survive. When it appeared at auction in November, its Shakespearean resonance and American pedigree made it an essential acquisition to round out the Jubilee year of Shakespeare in American Life.