Shakespeare Riot: Guns, Fire and Macbeth

The Astor Place Riot (Image from New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons)
The Astor Place Riot (Image from New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1849, about 25 people were killed and more than 120 injured during what came to be known at the Shakespeare Riot.

Here are some things you may not have known about it.

New York City in the Mid-19th century was in the midst of a class struggle between an upper class that wanted to compare itself favorably to the British and a working class that included poorer Americans and Irish immigrants that felt distain for the British and their sympathizers.

This rivalry was also seen in the theater. At the time, the theater was the only real entertainment for the masses. The theaters also were the only places in most towns where people of all classes would gather. This led to occasional riots. One of the major causes of these riots was the fact that theater was dominated by British actors and producers. British actors found themselves the target of audiences due to their prominence and the fact that they were some of the few British people in America at the time.

Edwin Forrest was the great American actor of the time. He started his career at New York’s Bowery Theatre playing Othello. His star rose quickly and he gave back by supporting American playwrights by sponsoring a writing contest that ran for 19 years. He went to London in 1838 and played Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, all of which were successes. On this trip he met William Macready, who was one of the top British actors of the day.

Forrest was viewed as the consummate American. He was strong, with an impassioned delivery which endeared him to working-class fans. Macready’s style, meanwhile, was viewed as subdued and genteel.

Forrest returned to the United States and continued his career, before returning to London in 1845. While performing as Macbeth, he drew hisses from the audience. He blamed the professional jealousy of Macready for the crowd’s reaction, despite the fact that Macready had been helpful to him on his first trip. A few weeks later, Forrest traveled to Edinburgh, where Macready was playing Hamlet. Forrest stood in his private box and hissed Macready, which ended Forrest’s career in Britain and set the stage for the 1849 disaster.

Forrest followed Macready on his third tour of America, challenging him by appearing in the same plays in the same towns. During the tour, half of a sheep’s carcass was thrown at Macready while he was performing.

Macready was scheduled to play Macbeth at the Astor Opera House, while Forrest played Macbeth at few blocks away. On May 7, 1849, Forrest’s supporters had stopped Macready’s “Macbeth” by throwing rotten eggs, potatoes, apples and bottles of stinking liquid. Meanwhile Forrest drew a standing ovation for Macbeth’s line “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug, would scour these English hence?”

We might need a little Shakespearean translation to understand the importance of this moment: Rhubarb and senna were used in Shakespeare’s day as laxatives. So in other words, the line that compares the British to fecal matter brought an audience to its feet.

Macready announced that he would leave for home on the next boat, but was convinced to stay when a group of notables, including authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving, assured him that the behavior would not continue.

The mayor of New York, was not so sure. For the next show on May 10, he called out the state militia, which increased the number of policemen and troops to 450 outside the theater and 150 inside. More than 10,000 people filled the streets surrounding the Astor Opera House. Supporters of Forrest threw stones at the theater, fought with police and tried to set fire to the theater during the performance. Amid the upheaval, Macready was forced to finish the play in pantomime and then slip out the back door in disguise.

At about 9:15 p.m., the troops opened fire on the rioting crowd, at first into the air, then directly at the rioters. Many of those killed were bystanders, and almost all the dead and wounded were working class, including seven dead Irish immigrants.

The exact number killed is unknown, estimates range from 22 to 31. Forty-eight rioters were wounded, between 50 and 70 policemen were hurt and 141 militiamen were injured.

The riot is seen by some as the point where American culture split into two. Where before, the audience was divided by class, they were still attending the same events; afterward the upper class continued with highbrow “respectable” theater; while working-class people gravitated toward the lowbrow vaudeville theater. Shakespeare, which was known universally before the riot, moved from popular culture into the highbrow category.

The Astor Opera House closed after the next season, unable to overcome its reputation as the “Massacre Opera House” and “DisAstor Place.”

Forrest died of a stroke in 1872 at the age of 66. Macready died a year later at the age of 80.

The riot also contributed to “Macbeth’s” reputation for being a cursed play.

Our question, It is said to be bad luck to say the word “Macbeth” in a theater. What is the play called by those who are superstitious?

Today is Independence Day in Romania, Constitution day in Micronesia, and Children’s Day in the Maldives.

It’s World Lupus Day, National Shrimp Day and National Small Business Day.

It’s the birthday of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, who was born in 1838; Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon, is 61; and ESPN talking head Chris Berman is also 61.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1977, the top song in the U.S. was “Hotel California” by the Eagles.

The No. 1 movie was “Annie Hall,” while the novel “Oliver’s Story” by Erich Segal topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or our website.

Also, if you’re enjoying the show, please consider supporting it through

Please rate the show on iTunes by clicking here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.