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Shakespeare & Beyond

The Astor Place riot: Shakespeare as a flashpoint for class conflict in 1849

Astor Place Riot
Astor Place Riot
Astor Place Riot

Riot at the Astor-Place Opera-House, New York. Wood engraving, 1849. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is the story of the Astor Place riot. In the whole history of Shakespeare in American life, perhaps the most shocking single fact is that 22 or more people once died as a result of a riot in New York over the correct theatrical interpretation of Macbeth.

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that, but the statement is correct in its essentials. In 1849, the American actor Edwin Forrest was at the height of his popularity, famous for his ruggedly masculine good looks and forceful acting style. For years, he and the more restrained British actor William Macready had been professional rivals, with increasing contempt for each other’s work and approach to the classic Shakespeare roles.


Two of my fathers books, both of which Jackie Kennedy chose for The White HOuse Library were “Edwin Forrest: First Star of the American Stage” and “The Astor Place Riot.” I hope the author of this piece enjoyed them. I just happened on to the site to buy tickets for The Winter’s Tale because my good friend Aldo Billingslea is in it and I’ll be by chance in D.C.

eric craig Moody — March 11, 2018

[…] 1849, Macbeth even caused a riot in New York. The Astor Place Riot was caused by two rival actors arguing about whose portrayal of Macbeth was […]

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