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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There was a time in America when Shakespeare ignited great passion and once, a riot. Today we embark on a summer Shakespeare series exploring where a fascination with the bard can lead. We begin with the story of two 19th century actors who conducted a famous feud over their rival renditions of Hamlet.

The legendary British thespian William McCready was the darling of New York high society. The American star Edwin Forest was the hero of the working class and the gangs of New York. In his book "The Shakespeare Riots," author Nigel Cliff tells us how the two camps clashed one deadly night in 1849.

It all began decades before, when the plays of Shakespeare spread across what was then the rough frontier of early America.

Mr. NIGEL CLIFF (Author, "The Shakespeare Riots"): You had Shakespeare popping up in the most extraordinary places. People would pay a chicken or a side of bacon to go and see his play being performed on what was essentially one of the boats moving down the Mississippi, and they would put a little shack on the back of it, put a gangplank to whatever town they - or little hamlet they moored up at. And the play, these little rudimentary creaking boats, would be crammed every night with people coming to watch "Hamlet" or "Macbeth" or "King Lear."

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it would run up a little flag that said theater.

Mr. CLIFF: Theater, because it was the only one. They didn't need a name for it. And right through the frontiers, the frontiers spread, the actors were really at the forefront - going out, finding the audiences. Even in the 1815s, you find family troupes, at that point most of them still English, right in the heart of Kentucky, really trekking through the wilderness to get to the furthest outposts where they would put on Shakespeare plays.

MONTAGNE: Now, I think a lot of people might be quite astonished today, given that Shakespeare is generally thought of as refined, lofty and often expensive, to know that back in the middle 1800s, he was viewed as a people's writer.

Mr. CLIFF: I think that's right. I think it's partly to do with the way the theater worked at the time. There was no real idea of culture on the one hand and popular entertainment on the other. It was all mixed together every night.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to New York and talk about what led up to the riots there. Now, the spark for this riot was a competition between the two foremost Shakespearian actors, one British, one American.

Mr. CLIFF: Yeah, and these were the two greatest in the English-speaking world. McCready had worked his way up through the provinces and through some very painful periods competing for the limelight in London. Forest burst out from nowhere as a teenager, as the first great American star with an unruly and unschooled but incredibly powerful talent for seizing the stage.

And so these two not only became representatives of their countries but also of the differences between their nations. McCready, the classically educated, intellectual - he was trying to make the theater a respectable business - and Forest, the entertainer; he loved nothing more than hot-dogging across the stage with his polished muscles and his biceps gleaming and throwing on a great big show.

So these two great actors, at the forefront of their countries, started out as friends but such was the pressure in the business, the egos were so huge, that eventually they fell out. And this feud assumed the ridiculous dimensions of a minor international scandal. At the time, politicians never really traveled between the two countries, so these actors really were by far the most famous people who would appear in each other's countries.

And then into the midst of this you have this personal feud, which centers on which of these two great actors is showing the way forward for America; whether the upper classes who supported McCready, the elites, were going to set the tone for the future of the city, or whether it was going to be the working classes who supported Forest.

MONTAGNE: Set the scene for us on the night of the riot. Who was there? What was happening?

Mr. CLIFF: Well, throughout the day there had been posters going up over the city, encouraging the gangs of young men down on the Bowery to come and fight on behalf of Forest, the American actor. At the same time, the upper classes had forced the mayor to call up the troops and ready the troops to take action that night as well.

So you had thousands of gang members massing on the Bowery, hundreds of troops massing, and in the middle of it this theater. And by about 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock in the evening, the mayor and the police saw this horrific vision of New York being ruled by a mob. So very quickly the order to fire was given, and the soldiers fired point blank into a mostly civilian crowd, really for the first time in American history.

MONTAGNE: How many people killed?

Mr. CLIFF: I think 25 that night, we know for sure. Dozens of people injured, all because two Shakespearian actors had disagreed over, originally, over one line from Hamlet.

MONTAGNE: What was the line?

Mr. CLIFF: And the line was: I shall be idle, which could either mean pretending to be mad or hanging back and not being noticed. Which sounds very banal but goes to the crux of who Hamlet is at that point and to how McCready and Forest portrayed him. McCready at that point did a little hopping jig around the stage with a handkerchief, obviously trying to look as if he was a bit bonny(ph). And Forest stood there and glowered in a very sort of macho way in the background.

MONTAGNE: Looking back, what would you say, that this was in some sense a low point but also in terms of Shakespeare a pinnacle in the sense that he never would matter so much to so many Americans again?

Mr. CLIFF: In some ways, yeah. I think the riot had the effect, which was desired by the upper classes, of removing serious drama from the working class theaters. Never again would respectable actors go step in in these theaters where they could run into such behavior. And I think by the time you reach that, it sucks all of the life blood out of Shakespeare, it sucked all of the popular excitement and enjoyment of his plays as everyday entertainment.

And you go into the realm of academic Shakespeare, taught as a puzzle in schools rather than someone whose speeches would be on everybody's tongues. Shakespeare certainly was never at the heart of America in quite the way he had been before.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That was Nigel Cliff, who wrote the book "The Shakespeare Riots." We expect to set off a riot of our own as we dare to ask: Did the man from Stratford really write the plays? And if he didn't, what would motivate a brilliant writer to use the pen name Shakespeare?

Unidentified Man: If Shakespeare, whoever he was, had put his own name to the works, he wouldn't have survived 10 minutes because of the satirical and political content of the plays. He needed to mask that in some way, whether through a pen name or through a pen name and a front man, which is clearly what he used, a Stratford man as a front.

MONTAGNE: Groundlings, get ready with your tomatoes. Over the next two days, we'll take up what's known in Shakespeare circles as the authorship question.

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