Join BookBrowse today and get access to free books, our twice monthly digital magazine, and more.

The Booth Family and Shakespeare in the 19th Century United States: Background information when reading Booth

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


by Karen Joy Fowler

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler X
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2022, 480 pages

    Feb 2023, 480 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Booth Family and Shakespeare in the 19th Century United States

This article relates to Booth

Print Review

Black-and-white photo of John Wilkes Booth (left) with brothers Edwin and Junius Jr. performing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1864 Karen Joy Fowler's Booth features several characters who are Shakespearean actors, starting with Junius Brutus Booth, who was born in England in 1796 and emigrated to the United States in 1821. He managed the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore in the 1830s and also toured internationally, becoming very well-known in the U.S. and abroad. All told, he featured in almost 3,000 stage performances. His son Edwin would go on to be lauded as one of the greatest American actors of the 19th century, especially noted for his role as Hamlet. Older son Junius Booth Jr. was an actor in his own right, as well as a theater director.

The first known U.S. performance of Shakespeare was in 1730: an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet in New York City. Shakespeare was especially beloved by America's Founding Fathers. But it was in the 19th century that the playwright's work became popular across the country, and among all classes of people. French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted the bard's popularity in 1835's Democracy in America: "There is scarcely a pioneer's hut where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare."

Cheap editions had allowed Shakespeare's plays to become as popular with poor homesteading families as with the educated elite, and copies of the complete works are known to have been carried across the Plains. Speeches from Shakespearean plays were included in McGuffey Readers, so generations of young people grew up memorizing passages for school. In 1833, James Fenimore Cooper remarked, "Shakespeare is, of course, the great author of America, as he is of England, and I think he is quite as well relished here as there."

Traveling theater companies also took the works of Shakespeare across the North American continent. Acting troupes performed the plays at Mississippi River landings and on barges. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn poked fun at these 1830s-40s performances through dialogue spoken by the characters claiming to be the Duke of Bilgewater and the King of France, with quotes and references cobbled together from multiple plays. During the mid-century Gold Rush, theaters were quickly constructed in California to help miners fill their leisure hours with (relatively) wholesome entertainment. Edwin Booth traveled to California in 1848 and performed Othello and The Taming of the Shrew; his brother, Junius Jr., debuted with Hamlet in San Francisco in 1851. Between 1850 and 1860, twenty-two of Shakespeare's plays were produced in San Francisco.

The 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, in 1864, prompted major celebrations in the U.S., with public readings, commemorative articles and a statue of Shakespeare commissioned for Central Park in New York City. Edwin Booth assisted in the fundraising for that statue with an 1864 benefit performance of Julius Caesar, starring himself as Brutus and brothers John Wilkes as Marc Antony and Junius Jr. as Cassius. (It was a Latin phrase attributed to Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, that John Wilkes Booth shouted after he shot Lincoln: "sic semper tyrannis" — "thus always to tyrants.") The statue was finally erected in 1872, and Edwin laid the cornerstone, a fitting task for a representative of a family so pivotal in Shakespeare's 19th-century takeover of America.

Left to right: John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth and Junius Booth Jr. in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1864, unknown photographer

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Booth. It originally ran in March 2022 and has been updated for the February 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Long After We Are Gone
    Long After We Are Gone
    by Terah Shelton Harris
    Terah Shelton Harris's marvelous family drama Long After We Are Gone begins with the death of the ...
  • Book Jacket: Exhibit
    by R O. Kwon
    Exhibit, R.O. Kwon's sophomore novel (after The Incendiaries, 2018), introduces readers to Jin Han, ...
  • Book Jacket: Somehow
    by Anne Lamott
    Anne Lamott knows a thing or two about love. In fact, there is so much of it exuding from her essay ...
  • Book Jacket
    The Wings Upon Her Back
    by Samantha Mills
    Faith is a delicate thing. At its best, it can offer peace in times of crisis. At its worst, it can ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
The Pecan Children
by Quinn Connor
Two sisters deeply tied to their small Southern town fight to break free of the darkness swallowing the land whole.
Book Jacket
Long After We Are Gone
by Terah Shelton Harris
After their father's death, four siblings rally to save their family home in this gripping and hopeful tale.
Win This Book
Win Bright and Tender Dark

Bright and Tender Dark by Joanna Pearson

A beautifully written, wire-taut debut novel about a murder on a college campus and its aftermath twenty years later.



Solve this clue:

A W in S C

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.