Was the Bard Behind It?

Old light on the Lincoln assassination

If you’re like a lot of Americans, your school days included a class in which you recited orations from Julius Caesar.  You may have been taught that the title character in Shakespeare’s tragedy was a forerunner of the King that Britain’s New World colonies felt driven to defy in 1776. And you may have learned that the Patrick Henrys and Nathan Hales who took arms against George III were following in the steps of honorable patriots who had done what they d had to do during the most soul-trying days of republican Rome.

Julius Caesar encourages people to draw such parallels, because shortly after Brutus and his companions have performed their bloody deed, Cassius asks,

                 How many Ages hence
Shall this our lofty Scene
                 be acted over
In States unborn and Accents yet unknown?

These are provocative, prophetic words, and a Shakespearean actor who heard them spoken a century and a quarter ago appears to have taken them as his cue for one of the most dramatic moments in American history.

That moment is the culmination of the new eleven-hour, five-part documentary The Civil War, on PBS,--a fitting occasion to ponder “the irrepressible conflict” the way Lincoln sometimes did: as a re enactment of Shakespearean tragedy.

As it happens, the man who fired the most notorious shot in the struggle bore the name of an eighteenth-century British radical, John Wilkes, who had supported the secessionist rebellion that established a new nation on these shores. There can be little doubt that John Wilkes Booth looked to his contentious predecessor for inspiration during the Confederacy’s effort to sever unwanted political bonds. But Booth responded to even deeper stirrings, with a more classical source. His father, the eminent Junius Brutus Booth, had been given a name that identified him with both the legendary founder of the Roman Republic (Lucius Junius Brutus) and the descendant who fought to preserve that republic half a millennium later (Marcus Junius Brutus). The elder Booth in turn had bestowed the same appellation on the oldest of his American-born sons, three of whom were destined to follow him into the theater.

You’ll recall that in Julius Caesar the example of the original Brutus is invoked as a symbolic conscience for Shakespeare’s brooding protagonist. Partly through the persuasions of Cassius, but mostly through Brutus’s sense of his own honor, the spirit of the ancient Brutus urges the inheritor of hrs virtues to circumvent a would-be king and thereby safeguard the liberties that have defined Roman dignity since the abolition of monarchy some five centuries before.

Like the Marcus Junius Brutus of Shakespeare’s play, John Wilkes Booth was keenly receptive to the promptings of ancestral tradition. He aspired to what “an antique Roman” would do in his place, and it is very likely that he was alluding to both Brutuses when he spat out “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (“Thus Be it Ever to Tyrants”) and slew a President he had frequently scorned as a “King.”

What Booth declaimed was the motto of the State of Virginia. For him it was a rallying cry for the Confederacy. But it also seems to have epitomized a cause he identified with “the noblest Roman of them all” and his venerable forebear.

Five months earlier Booth had spoken the eulogy for Brutus at the end of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy. The occasion, in November of 1864, was a benefit in which he and his brothers performed Julius Caesar to raise funds for a Central Park statue to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the playwright’s birth. The production took place in New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, and it was attended by an enthusiastic audience of more than 2,000. Junius Brutus Booth the younger portrayed Cassius. Edwin played Brutus. And John Wilkes appeared as Mark Antony.

Subsequent developments would suggest that the youngest of these actors was in the wrong part for an evening that one observer later described as “too strikingly historic to be soon forgotten.” But it may have occurred to him even then that he was in the right play. And how carefully he must have listened as he heard his oldest brother describe the timelessness of a scene that was soon to be remounted in another lofty setting, not far from the White House.

Other members of the Booth family were strong supporters of the Union. In fact, Edwin Booth had saved Robert Todd Lincoln from a near-fatal accident, when the President’s son slipped between a departing train and a railway platform in Jersey City. His alertness earned Edwin a letter of gratitude from General Ulysses S. Grant and solidified the warm regard of the President, who saw him perform several times and who counted himself among the actor’s most ardent admirers.

But, of course, it was Edwin’s brother whose destiny most tellingly converged with Lincoln’s. In the view of the younger Booth, the President was determined to destroy the Constitution, set aside the rights reserved to the states, crush civil liberties, and restore monarchy. Persuaded that the Confederacy was the only means of upholding the values of the Founding Fathers, John Wilkes Booth devoted much of late 1864 and early 1865 to a series of plots to abduct Lincoln and use his capture to nullify the Union’s war aims. Every scheme ended in frustration. So by the time Lee surrendered to the Army of the Potomac, in the second week of April, it was clear that only the most desperate of measures offered any hope of salvaging the Southern cause.

Shortly before he went into the theater for what would turn out to be his final performance, John Wilkes Booth stopped for a drink in a nearby tavern. According to one account, an acquaintance laughingly remarked that the young Booth "would never be as great as his father.” With “an inscrutable smile" Booth assured his critic that “when I leave the stage, I will be the most talked-about man in America.”

And so he was. As he fled across the boards of Ford’s Theatre to the horse that awaited him in the alley, he must have been convinced that he had identified himself forever with the role that Shakespeare had scripted for antiquity’s most notable assassin.

What he may not have realized was that he had cast himself even more indelibly in the role of antiquity’s most infamous villain. The night that Booth had selected for his deed was April 14, Good Friday, and the symbolism of the date contributed immeasurably to the rapidity with which his victim came to be enshrined as a martyr.1 The President’s redemptive qualities were emphasized in one sermon after another. Inevitably, the name of his killer became associated not with “the noblest Roman” but with Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who had been placed by Dante, in the Inferno, alongside Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of hell.

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