Among the extraordinary Shakespeare-related items in the Folger collection are a number of 19th-century theatrical costumes and props, magnificent relics of long gone performances. The great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth wore this royal tunic as Richard III. Made of embroidered velvet, it was placed over his stage armor in the play’s final scenes at Bosworth Field. The tunic reflects a time when stage productions often sought to include accurate historical detail—in this case, the royal coat of arms of Richard’s day, which includes lions and French fleurs-de-lis.
This week marks the 188th anniversary of Booth’s birth in Maryland on November 13, 1833. The son of Junius Brutus Booth, a famous tragedian who came to the United States from England in 1821, Edwin Booth originally traveled and performed with his father and then toured in California and Australia. He became a theatrical star on the New York stage in 1857 and played many leading roles, although he was most famous for his portrayal of Hamlet.
Booth made theatrical history by performing Hamlet for one hundred nights in a row at the Winter Garden in New York during the 1864-65 season, an uncommon feat when most productions ran for only a week or two. Less than a month later, he and the nation were stunned when his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, also an actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.
Horrified and shocked, Edwin Booth went into seclusion. Several months later, however, he returned to the stage and to further success. In 1872, a hand-colored engraving, part of a set of a dozen engravings of Booth, showed him in costume as Richard III.
As Booth’s career continued, he founded Booth’s Theatre, which was a creative but not a financial success, and established the Players, a private social club in New York. In 1891, he made his farewell performance, playing his signature role as Hamlet.
Booth’s royal tunic was exhibited in the 2014 Folger exhibition, Here is a Play Fitted: Four Centuries of Costume and Design. The exhibition was accompanied by short videos, including this discussion of Booth’s Richard III tunic by curator Denise A. Walen:
To examine Booth’s royal tunic for yourself, zoom in and move the image below, allowing you to look very closely at the ornate details of the stage costume.
Learn more about Edwin Booth from the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode The Actor and the Assassin: Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, an interview with Nora Titone, author of My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy. This earlier blog post includes Titone’s highlights from her research for the book in the Folger collection.
You can also learn about Edwin Booth from another Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, Shakespeare in California, an interview with Stephen Dickey, co-curator of the 2016 Folger exhibition with the Library of Los Angeles, America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.
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Edwin Booth’s first costume for Richard III was more amusing. Read about it in the Booth biography My Thoughts Be Bloody. My g-g-uncle was his cousin-star.
Thomas Stout — November 10, 2021