tsrOne of the bloodiest incidents in New York’s history, the so-called Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849, was ignited by a long-simmering grudge match between the two leading Shakespearean actors of the age. Despite its unlikely origins, though, there was nothing remotely quaint about this pivotal moment in history–the unprecedented shooting by American soldiers of dozens of their fellow citizens, leading directly to the arming of American police forces.

The Shakespeare Riots recounts the story of this momentous night, its two larger-than-life protagonists, and the myriad political and cultural currents that fueled the violence. In an engrossing narrative that moves at a breakneck pace from the American frontier to the Mississippi River, to the posh theaters of London, to the hangouts of the most notorious street gangs of the day, Nigel Cliff weaves a spellbinding saga of soaring passions, huge egos, and venal corruption.

Cliff charts the course of this tragedy from its beginnings as a somewhat comical contretemps between Englishman William Charles Macready, the haughty lion of the London stage, and Edwin Forrest, the first great American star and a popular hero to millions. Equally celebrated, and equally self-centered, the two were once friends, then adversaries. Exploiting this rivalry, “nativist” agitators organized mobs of bullyboys to flex their muscle by striking a blow against the foppish Macready and the Old World’s cultural hegemony that he represented.

The moment Macready took the stage in New York, his adversaries sprang into action, first by throwing insults, then rotten eggs, then chairs. When he dared show his face again, an estimated twenty thousand packed the streets around the theater. As cobblestones from outside rained down on the audience, National Guard troops were called in to quell the riot. Finding themselves outmatched, the Guardsmen discharged their weapons at the crowd, with horrific results. When the smoke cleared, as many as thirty people lay dead, with scores more wounded.

The Shakespeare Riots is social and cultural history of the highest order. In this wondrous saga Nigel Cliff immerses readers in the bustle of mid-nineteenth-century New York, re-creating the celebrity demimonde of the day and capturing all the high drama of a violent night that robbed a nation of its innocence.


The Shakespeare Riots was a finalist for the 2008 National Award for Arts Writing and was chosen as one of The Washington Post’s best books of 2007.

“Wonderful… Cliff’s account of the Astor Place riot – its origins, its multiple significances and its consequences – manages to be both enthralling and scholarly… The Shakespeare Riots is a brilliant debut, far richer and more astute than the two earlier books on the subject…”

— Michael Dobson, London Review of Books

“… it is the merit of Nigel Cliff’s brilliantly engrossing book to make a historical event, absurd on the surface, come to seem plausible, even tragically inevitable… he has done an exemplary job of researching every nook of the story. His engaging, worldly, fluent prose style has an elegant structural logic, with just enough starch to anchor the colorful details. He unpacks each of the narratives strands and contexts, one by one, until they all reinforce each other… crammed with entertaining nuggets.”

— Philip Lopate, Los Angeles Times

“Mr. Cliff tells the whole strange saga with great skill and enormous gusto… his obvious enthusiasm, his sensitivity to the concerns of both actors, his generous fairness to both sides of the conflict—English and Americans, haves and have-nots—and the amazing story itself make The Shakespeare Riots a wonderful read.”

— Edward Herrman, The Wall Street Journal

“An intriguing, thought-provoking book… to Cliff’s credit, he turns this most improbable episode in history into a lively and compelling drama.”

— Daniel Showater, The Washington Post

“Nigel Cliff’s delightful and instructive The Shakespeare Riots explains how ordinary Americans could be stirred up enough to throw eggs at actors and trash a theater… This English journalist blends his gifts for both spirited narrative and insightful analysis. He’s a marvelous storyteller…”

— Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe

“Nigel Cliff … has written a splendid book in a witty, perceptive style … [he] captures it all in his deliciously detailed prose.”

— Sam Coale, The Providence Journal

“In a compelling version of the events leading up to the riots… Nigel Cliff dissects how a friendship between two Shakespearean actors – William Charles Macready, ‘an intellectual Englishman,’ and Edwin Forrest, ‘the first true American star, a national hero and a paladin of democracy to his working-class fans’ — devolved into a fierce personal rivalry.”

— Sam Roberts, The New York Times

“Shakespeare does not belong to the scholars only. In the 19th century, his words were on the lips of ordinary Americans…On one fateful night in 1849, popular adulation turned violent in a deadly episode recreated by Nigel Cliff in The Shakespeare Riots…. The suspense mounts as Mr. Cliff traces the growing enmity between [Forrest and Macready] and the curious way that a personal rivalry evolved into a cultural and political war. Who owned Shakespeare? Which country deserved to rule the future? … Such were the passions aroused by Shakespeare a century and a half ago.”

— William Grimes, The New York Times

“Would you believe that one of the bloodiest riots of New York’s first 200 years was fought between Shakespeare fans? Or that the National Guard had to be called out to stop rampaging mobs that swore their allegiance to a popular interpreter of the role of Macbeth? It happened in New York in 1849. This is the story British drama critic Nigel Cliff entertainingly recounts in The Shakespeare Riots.”

— Jonathan Leaf, The New York Post

“[The Shakespeare Riots] reads quickly, almost like a page-turner, despite the historical research that went into it… The Shakespeare Riots takes a footnote in stage history and makes it a firecracker of a story, a rousing and illuminating study of the last time Americans, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, went to the theater together and fought a pitched battle over who would control public culture in this country.”

— Jerome Weeks, ArtsJournal.com

“A fascinating narrative… reads like a breathless novel”

— Nancy Hazelton, The Bloomsbury Review

“The major achievement of Nigel Cliff’s meticulous, insightful history of [the Astor Place Riot] isn’t that he traces the calamity hour by hour. It’s that he delivers superbly clear, big-picture scholarship that fleshes out the riot’s social and theatrical roots and implications… [Cliff] plays sociological detective and cultural critic… [and] populates his book with brilliant minor players… Overall, it’s a ripping good yarn and an expert presentation of history.”

— Leonard Jacobs, Back Stage

“Cliff weaves an amazing tale of the days when Shakespeare’s works belonged to the masses… Vivid imagery, the chance meetings of historical characters, friendships, bitter rivalries, and the riot that led to the separation of Shakespeare’s works from the masses combine to tell a fascinating story. Cliff presents a triumphant first work. This is a book for those interested in theatrical history, Shakespeare, early American history and for all who love a good tale.”

— Deborah Ground Buckner, AnEVibe

“From British journalist Cliff, a lapidary chronicle of a drama turned deadly… Cliff skillfully portrays the successes, failures and feelings of the lead actors, as well as a supporting cast that includes Charles Dickens and rascally dime novelist Ned Buntline. High drama prevails right up to the final curtain. First-rate social and theatrical history combined with a dash of Shakespearian critical appreciation: a noteworthy story.”

— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Cliff tells [the story of the riots] with considerable verve and a consistent sense of irony. He supplies a wonderful portrait of mid-nineteenth-century New York as an emerging metropolis, and the tale set there is an enjoyable if unsettling mixture of farce and tragedy. Both general readers and those with a special interest in the period will find much to enjoy here.”

— Joy Freeman, Booklist

“Nigel Cliff does an excellent story of telling the strange but true story in The Shakespeare Riots.”

— Shannon Hale, Christian Science Monitor

“It’s thrilling to return to a time when, as Nigel Cliff puts it, ‘Shakespeare was in the blood’ of American culture to the extent that real blood was shed over rival ways of acting and staging his art. Mr. Cliff’s superbly researched study reminds us why clashes over Shakespeare take us deeper into his words – and into ourselves.”

— Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

“A terrific read – the stranger-than-fiction tale, by turns comic and tragic, of a turning point in American urban history.”

— Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland

“This is an impressive and ambitious debut – about a time when Shakespeare really mattered. Nigel Cliff skillfully narrates an extraordinary episode in Anglo-American history: the struggle between two great Shakespearean actors – one British, one American – that led to rioting and bloodshed in the streets of New York City.”

— James Shapiro, author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

“Fascinating…a tragedy worthy of the Bard himself.”

— LA Theatre Review


Listen to Renee Montagne interview Nigel Cliff about The Shakespeare Riots on NPR’s Morning Edition

Read an interview on the Harry Ransom Center Blog, Cultural Compass