Edwin Booth as Hamlet


To Be Shakespeare, or Not to Be

In the early 19th century, if you went to see Edwin Booth's father Junius, another noted American actor, playing Shakespeare's  Richard III, these would have been the opening words of the Duke of Gloucester, soon to be Richard III:

Now are our Brows bound with Victorious wreaths,
Our stern allarms are changed to Merry-meetings,
Our dreadfull marches to delightful measures. …
Then since this Earth affords no joy to me,
But to Command, to Check, and to Orebear such,
'As are of Happier Person than my self,
'Why then to me this restless World's but Hell,
Till this mishapen trunks aspiring head
'Be circled in a glorious Diadem --

These were not, however, the opening lines of the performance: before them came a long scene in which Henry VI was told of his son’s death in battle.

Had you attended Richard III performed by Edwin Booth in his maturity, the curtain would have risen to these lines by Gloucester:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures. …
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

The first set of lines above is from an adaptation by Colley Cibber (1671-1757), actor, theater manager, playwright, and poet laureate of England. From 1700, when Cibber wrote it, until the late 19th century, Cibber's was the preferred acting version of Richard III. (Colley Cibber was lampooned in Pope's Dunciad ; for his adaptation of Richard III, see here.)

June 7, 1893: Death of Edwin Booth

Edwin Booth (1833-1893), one of America’s most famous actors, is credited with reverting to Shakespeare’s original texts when performing Richard III andKing Lear. The role for which he was famous, however, was Hamlet, in which character he’s represented in the Gramercy Park statue. In New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1864, Booth set a record of 100 consecutive performances of Hamlet, and he played Hamlet as the last performance of his career, in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 1864, for the first and only time, Edwin appeared on stage with brothers Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. and John Wilkes Booth. The benefit performance of Julius Caesar by the Booth brothers was a great success in raising funds for a Shakespeare statue in Central Park.

Booths in Julius Caesar

Above: Our Edwin is in the center. Future presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth is on the left, looking considerably less threatening than Junius, on the right.

Although Edwin retired temporarily after his brother’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln in May 1865, audiences welcomed him back to the stage in early 1866 with cheers and applause. He remained one of America’s most famous and most beloved actors.

To facilitate meetings between actors and other prominent Americans, Booth founded The Players Club in 1888, in his elegant brownstone at 16 Gramercy Park. The Club is still there; Booth's statue faces it.

Further Readings