Life with the Macbeths.


The Astor Place Riot figures prominently in Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro.

On the evening of May 10th, 1849, the streets outside New York’s grandest theatre, the Astor Place Opera House, ran with blood. The New York state militia opened fire on rioters who were part of a vast crowd, estimated at 10,000-24,000, who had gathered in one of the most furious demonstrations in the city’s history. About 20 people were killed and a hundred wounded. Newspapers called it a “massacre”, “wholesale slaughter” and an event “the most sanguinary and cruel that has ever occurred in this country”. That was hardly true, but the exaggeration is understandable. The theatre came to be called the Massacre Place Opera and Dis-Astor Place.

What was this about? The crowd’s determination to stop a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the great English actor William Macready in the title role. Previously, rioters inside the theatre had violently interrupted his performance. Now, the rage against Macready had become deadly. It had its origins, bizarrely, in accounts of another performance by Macready, this time of Hamlet.

That’s right — the Shakespeare Riot. There’s a hidden reminder at a New York City subway station.

The Forgotten Entrance to Clinton Hall (Atlas Obscura)

 … But often overlooked, on the southbound entrance is a bricked up doorway with a lintel inscribed “Clinton Hall.” At one point, this led directly into the old New York Mercantile Library in the former Astor Place Opera House. The library, known as Clinton Hall, at 21 Astor Place, was created for the growing number of clerks in the city. With a membership of 12,000, the library held over 120,000 volumes, one of the largest periodical subscriptions in the city, cabinets of curiosities, and held lectures by such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Mark Twain.

The address, named after America’s once-richest man, was the site of one of the most bizarre events in New York history. The library building’s previous tenant was the Astor Place Opera House, and in 1849 there took place an evening of violence, whose after-effects are still felt today: the Shakespeare Riots!