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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Murder most foul”: How Shakespeare connects Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

James L. Swanson’s non-fiction bestseller, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, brought a page-turning energy to the facts of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices. The first few episodes of Apple TV’s adaptation have just dropped, and while the simply-titled Manhunt doesn’t have the same strict adherence to the facts — nor, as I’ve argued before, is it required to — both the book and the miniseries provide an eerie reminder of the deep connections the president and his murderer share with William Shakespeare.

It’s well known (and much discussed on the “Shakespeare & Beyond” blog and elsewhere) that Abraham Lincoln loved Shakespeare and the theatre. He kept a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works on his desk in the White House, and as a young lawyer, once represented the Illinois Theatrical Company, successfully arguing for the classical origins and worthiness of the art form. Lincoln also claimed in an 1863 letter to have read many of Shakespeare’s plays, “especially Macbeth…perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader.”

Lincoln also loved to read Shakespeare aloud to captive audiences. Just five days before his assassination, in fact, Lincoln was on a boat returning from Richmond and reading Macbeth to his fellow passengers, specifically the sections dealing with a tormented Macbeth agonizing with his Lady in the aftermath of killing King Duncan:

We have scorched the snake, not killed it.
… Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.

Within the week, Lincoln would be “sent to peace” like Duncan (though he wouldn’t be “in his grave” until May 4) and John Wilkes Booth — who played Macbeth many times but probably didn’t understand the play as well as the president — would be enduring “torture of the mind” and body in the wake of killing his king.

Lincoln and Duncan

These 1865 posters in the Folger collection grieved for Lincoln’s death with passages from Macbeth describing the assassinated Duncan.

The Martyr of liberty ... [John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln] . Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File B725.5 no.3 (size M).
Abraham Lincoln . . . Shakspeare applied to our National Bereavement Boston: James Lancey, 1865. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Booth stalked Lincoln, listening to the president’s second inaugural address and standing close enough, as he later confessed, to give him “an excellent chance…to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration-day.” Lincoln also knew of the famous actor, and as Jill Lepore imagines it in The New Yorker, “would have recognized his murderer” if he’d seen him coming. “You know Lincoln’s a fan of yours,” Booth is told in Manhunt and indeed, the president saw Booth in a performance of The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, sitting in the same box seat in which the actor would later shoot him.

Manhunt effectively depicts Booth’s ugly white supremacism, as well as his lust for glory and limitations as an actor. “All you have is rage or self-pity,” his brother Edwin tells him in the miniseries, a criticism that, coming from his much more critically-respected older brother, would undoubtedly sting. Edwin Booth was regarded, then as now, as the greatest Hamlet of the 19th century (the Booth Theatre on Broadway is named for him), and in the miniseries John Wilkes Booth quotes his brother’s character when he realizes his opportunity to kill Lincoln will arrive in just a few hours. In that moment of epiphany, series creator Monica Beletsky has Booth say to himself Hamlet’s line, “If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” Macbeth’s line “If it were done when ’tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly” was apparently considered too on the nose.

Though John Wilkes Booth wrote self-aggrandizing passages from Macbeth in his diary while on the run, it was the murder of Julius Caesar, both in real life and in Shakespeare’s play, that loomed large in his personal and family mythology. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was named for the Roman senator (Marcus Junius Brutus) who was the basis for Shakespeare’s character of Brutus, as well as the assassin (Lucius Junius Brutus) frequently credited with originating the phrase sic semper tyrannis — “thus always to tyrants” — that John Wilkes shouted from the stage of Ford’s Theatre just after shooting the president.

As Cassius recruited Brutus (and others) in both Shakespeare’s play and real life, Booth assembled a band of co-conspirators whose original plan was to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom. When the plan changed, the conspirators agreed to topple the U.S. government by killing Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward on the same night as Booth killed the president. Only Booth succeeded.

Julius Caesar, like Macbeth, was never far from Booth’s mind. Just five months before shooting the president, he acted with his brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus, Jr. in a one-night benefit performance of Julius Caesar at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. Junius Brutus, Jr. played Cassius, Edwin played Brutus, and the future assassin himself played Marc Antony, almost certainly missing the irony when his character calls Brutus the assassin “an honorable man.”

Before Julius Caesar, Brutus was considered a traitor along the lines of Judas Iscariot, but Shakespeare “redefined Brutus for all time,” according to playwright David Blixt (Eve of Ides), changing him in the Elizabethan public mind from a villain “into a good man who commits a great evil for a noble cause.” While on the run from authorities, Booth was desperate to read his “reviews” for killing “a tyrant,” certain that he’d be considered a hero like Brutus. But after discovering that every newspaper he managed to get his hands on “reviled him for his loathsome act” (according to Swanson) and “condemned [him] in the most unsparing, unforgiving, vicious language imaginable,” Booth wrote in his diary that he was “being hunted like a dog… for doing what Brutus was honored for.” Since Shakespeare’s conception of Brutus gave Booth a cloak of tragic nobility with which to mask his cowardice and professional jealousy, Blixt argues convincingly that Shakespeare’s play “had a profound impact on the course of history.”

Another Shakespeare play also played its part in the conspiracy against Lincoln. In the fall of 1864 and early winter months of 1865, Edwin Booth was playing Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, with Samuel Knapp Chester playing Claudius. Chester later testified that during their record-setting run of Hamlet, John Wilkes Booth repeatedly pestered him to join his conspiracy to kidnap President Lincoln from Ford’s Theatre. As Nora Titone, author of My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy, describes it, Chester was “terrified and alarmed…and begged to be left alone.” Booth finally did, but threatened to kill Chester if he breathed a word about the plot, which Chester never did until it was far too late.

The most oddly beautiful reminder of the Shakespeare/Lincoln/Booth connection can be seen the next time you’re in New York. The “Booth Benefit” performance of Julius Caesar raised $4,000 (equal to almost $80,000 today), but where did that huge sum actually go? The money people paid to see a play about political murder performed by a future political murderer helped fund the statue of William Shakespeare that still stands today in Central Park.

Shakespeare statue in Central Park
Public domain image from Wikipedia