The Bowery Boys’ William Shakespeare Collection: Four stories of the Bard and the big city

William Shakespeare died 402 years ago today — April 23, 1616. Seven years earlier, his countryman Henry Hudson, sailing for the Dutch East India Company, first sailed up a broad North American river that would one day bear his name. Almost eight years after the Bard’s death, Dutch settlers first arrived into the harbor, eventually to settle the town of New Amsterdam.

The playwright never knew New York City, but the city has been profoundly influenced by his legacy. The first statue to ever grace Central Park was one honoring William Shakespeare (partially funded by a performance of Julius Caesar by Edwin Booth and his brother John Wilkes Booth.) One of the city’s most significant off-Broadway theater companies started as a summer program of free Shakespeare productions in city parks. And that company is located in a neighborhood with a dark and violent past associated with a very infamous performance of Macbeth.

This being Shakespeare Day — his birthday is also celebrated on April 23 — please explore these past episodes of the Bowery Boys podcast involving the famous writer and his fascinating New York connections:

 

THE ASTOR PLACE RIOT: Massacre and Macbeth

England’s great thespian William Macready mounted the stage of the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, to perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as he had done hundreds of times before. But this performance would become infamous in later years as the trigger for one of New York City’s most violent events — the Astor Place Riot.

Macready, known as one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean stars, was soon rivaled by American actor Edwin Forrest, whose brawny, ragged style of performance endeared the audiences of the Bowery. To many, these two actors embodied many of America’s deepest divides — rich vs. poor, British vs. American, Whig vs. Democrat.

On May 10th, these emotions overflowed into an evening of stark, horrifying violence as armed militia shot indiscriminately into an angry mob gathering outside the Astor Place theater. By the end of this story, over two dozen New Yorkers would be murdered, dozens more wounded, and the culture of the city irrevocably changed.

EDWIN BOOTH AND THE PLAYERS CLUB
Edwin Booth was the greatest actor of the Gilded Age, a superstar of the theater who entertained millions over his long career. In this podcast, we present his extraordinary career, the tragedies that shaped his life (on stage and off), and the legacy of his cherished Players Club, the fabulous Stanford White-designed Gramercy Park social club for actors, artists and their admirers.

The Booths were a precursor to the Barrymores, an acting family who were as famous for their personal lives as they were for their dramatic roles. Younger brother John Wilkes Booth would horrify the nation in 1865, and Edwin would briefly retire from the stage.

But an outpouring of love would bring him back to the spotlight and the greasepaint. Edwin Booth would give back to the theatrical community for the formation of the Players Club in 1888. In this show, we’ll take you on a tour of this exclusive destination for film and theatrical icons, including a look at the upstairs bedroom where Booth died, still preserved exactly as it looked on that fateful day in 1893.

NYPL

SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK: Joseph Papp vs. Robert Moses

What started in a tiny East Village basement grew to become one of New York’s most enduring summer traditions, Shakespeare in the Park, featuring world class actors performing the greatest dramas of the age. But another drama was brewing just as things were getting started. It’s Robert Moses vs. Shakespeare! Joseph Papp vs. the city!

THE PUCK BUILDING: What Fools These Mortals Be!
A 6-foot plump gold impish figure stares down at you as you look up to observe the gorgeous red-brick design of the Puck Building, built for one of the 19th Century’s most popular illustrated publications. But this architectural masterpiece was very nearly wiped away by a sudden decision by the city. How did it survive?

Puck’s utterance “What Fools These Mortals Be!” is the slogan for Puck Magazine and words written by Shakespeare.