Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
“This day, three hundred years ago, the greatest of modern poets, William Shakspeare, commenced; this day, two hundred and forty-eight years ago, the same quit again,” Mark Twain wrote on April 23, 1864, in the Virginia City (Nevada) newspaper for which he served as editor. The occasion for his brief announcement was not only the Bard’s tricentenary but also the performance that evening of Othello at the Gold Rush town’s local theater, Maguire’s Opera House, where Shakespeare’s “disembodied spirit will have an opportunity of seeing one of his tragedies . . . performed in a manner calculated to exceed the most extravagant expectations of the deceased.” One can imagine.
We don’t know the exact date when Shakespeare was born, of course. April 23 has traditionally been commemorated because it is three days before he was baptized—a date we do know. (He also died on April 23.) That we know so little about Shakespeare’s life was a source of frustration to Mark Twain. Years later, as he worked on his autobiography, he recalled that short item he’d written in Nevada and how he had grabbed an encyclopedia off the shelf to fill up some column inches in the newspaper. “There wasn’t enough of what Shakespeare had done to make an editorial of the necessary length, but I filled it out with what he hadn’t done—which in many respects was more important and striking and readable than the handsomest things he had really accomplished.”
One of Twain’s lifelong obsessions was his idea to create a full-length parody of Hamlet, but he was never able to finish anything he considered worth publishing. Toward the end of the year of the Shakespeare tricentenary, however, he did complete a short spoof of Act III of Julius Caesar, re-imagining the assassination as it might have been reported by a crime reporter for a West Coast newspaper. For the 457th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, we present “The Killing of Julius Caesar, Localized” as our Story of the Week selection.