After the Confederates were defeated in the US Civil War and Robert E Lee’s forces surrendered in 1865, many of them sailed across the Atlantic and sought sanctuary in a rather unexpected place: Stratford-upon-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire. Islam Issa says: “The county became a hub for Confederates in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. And many people don’t know this but specifically Leamington Spa, just north of Stratford, attracted a lot of Confederates.”

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Explaining why so many radicals were drawn to the distant county, Issa says: “Essentially the region sympathised with the Confederate cause. It was perfectly positioned for the new arrivals with access to London via the train, and to Liverpool, which was a key city for slavery.”


Listen: Islam Issa reveals how terrorists have twisted Shakespeare’s life and work to suit their own ends over the centuries, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


This settlement, Issa argues, is just one way that William Shakespeare has been used by political radicals throughout history to justify their beliefs. “We have this idea of Shakespeare legitimising a cause, in a similar way to how he was used by the Nazis and others. But for better or for worse, there have been Confederates associating themselves with Shakespeare throughout history, and that was specifically heightened due to their proximity to his hometown.”

One of the most famous Confederates who used Shakespeare to justify an act of terror was John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of US President Abraham Lincoln. As well as holding strong political views, Booth was a committed actor and came from a family who doted on the Elizabethan bard. Issa says: “Booth, along with his father and brother, was part of a Shakespearean family. They loved Shakespeare; they were Shakespearean actors who toured the country putting on Shakespeare plays.”

Booth developed an obsession with one of Shakespeare’s characters in particular: Brutus, from the play Julius Caesar. This proved monumental, as “we think of Brutus as somebody who legitimises the assassination of Julius Caesar, even if it’s a mob that did the actual deed.” Booth even wrote about the character in his journal, saying that Brutus’s dagger was guided by its love for Rome. Issa reflects: “I’d say Booth tries to emulate Brutus and to some extent Macbeth, and the result is that he became the first person to assassinate a US president.”

The place of Lincoln’s murder was also significant, as he was fatally shot in a theatre. Issa opines: “Booth really embodies Shakespeare’s idea that all the world’s a stage. He becomes transfixed with the idea of taking things into your own hands, as these characters do, and he becomes obsessed by some of the themes of Shakespeare’s plays, such as tyranny – specifically Lincoln’s tyranny. So in a way, he carries out an action that we’d expect from a Shakespearean character, not so much from someone in real life.”

Islam Issa is the author of Shakespeare and Terrorism (Routledge, 2021)

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Authors

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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