First, let’s start with a series of dates.
March 15, 44 BC: A group of Roman senators stab Julius Caesar to death. One of the senators allegedly says sic semper tyrannis, “thus ever for tyrants.”
April 26, 1564: William Shakespeare is baptized a few days after his birth.
September (?) 1599: William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is performed possibly for the first time.
November 25, 1864: Famous American actor John Wilkes Booth acts in a performance of Julius Caesar. Though, he plays Mark Antony in this performance, he once said Brutus was his favorite character to play.
April 14, 1865: Famous actor (also, younger brother of more famous actor) and Brutus fanboy, John Wilkes Booth shoots President Abraham Lincoln. He shouts “sic semper tyrannis” as he does so.
April 26, 1865: Exactly 301 years to the day after Shakespeare is baptized, Booth is killed by Union soldiers.
So, what does this all mean? I think it’s obvious: Shakespeare is responsible for Abraham Lincoln’s death. Damn you, William.
Shakespeare Caused Lincoln’s Death
William Shakespeare had an unparalleled mastery of the English language. He essentially solved the problem of English and had to invent new words because the language was too small for him. That’s why his work has persisted for over 400 years. They are textbooks on metered poetry, history lessons, idyllic forms of storytelling, and just plain beautiful. That’s why high school students study them. Studying Shakespeare is to the English language as chemistry is to the natural world: the building blocks.
Actors rehearse Shakespeare to learn their craft. They perform Shakespeare to test themselves against the greats. Poets imitate his sonnets. Historians study him to learn how history was perceived in Elizabethan England.
At its very best, great art can set hearts beating and feet marching. At its worst, great art can set wicked hearts racing and guns firing.
Everyone Thinks They’re Brutus. Nobody Thinks They’re Mark Antony.
In Shakespeare’s play, Brutus is clearly the main character. He has the most lines and the most character development. He loves Caesar personally and holds a great deal of respect in Rome. However, he is beholden to a higher loyalty, the Roman Republic. As such, he does what is honorable and just in his mind. He’s compassionate, tragic, heroic, and loyal to his country. This is what John Wilkes Booth thought he was.
Even if you think Caesar was a tyrant who destroyed the world’s oldest republic (he was), you probably also think he was pretty cool (he was).
But, Mark Antony? He doesn’t even get a Latin name in the play. Everybody else is Cicero and Lepidus and Metellus and he’s Mark. You know a guy named Mark. It’s a fine name, but it ain’t Brutus. He’s a follower, a lackey. He follows Caesar around trying to hoover up some crumbs of his fame and power. He gets the best speech in the play (and maybe in the English language), but even that brilliance is a weaselly and dishonest attempt to scrape up the love Rome had for Caesar for himself.
Most people are the nameless, faceless fickle crowd of Romans who go from loving Caesar to hating him and then back to loving him within a few pages. A lot of people in Washington DC are Mark Antonies. Very few are Brutuses. And God help us if we ever meet a Gaius Julius Caesar.
John Wilkes Booth wasn’t even a Mark Antony, and Abraham Lincoln was no Caesar.
However, one thing Mark Antony says of Caesar is also true of Lincoln: “Thou art the ruins of the noblest man/ That ever lived in the tide of times./ Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!”