In the 1990s, during the Internet’s adolescence, someone at Shakespeare & Company, a theater in Lenox, Mass., had the forethought to snap up the Shakespeare.org domain name. It was only about 30 bucks, a sum no one would miss if the whole Internet thing suddenly went bust.
That decision reaped Internet gold over the next two decades. People who searched for “Shakespeare” on their browser for the playwright’s name got an eyeful of the latest offerings from the now-40-year-old company.
Now, company officials believe, that savvy marketing decision is also responsible for the death threats Shakespeare & Company has been getting this month in a politics-laden case of mistaken identity.
A production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” 150 miles away, in New York’s Central Park, has stirred up controversy for its depiction of the title character. Hint: The Caesar character wears a blond wig, a suit and a solid red tie extending far below his waist.
He’s also brutally assassinated onstage, a bloody stabbing scene involving a presidential impersonator that has been criticized for being in poor taste.
The New York company that oversees Shakespeare in the Park has gotten its share of protesters and death threats. Some sponsors have pulled their support and the National Endowment for the Arts also distanced itself from the play. Protesters disrupted the show on Friday night, and a small but steady stream of picketers regularly gather outside the theater. But some of that animosity has been misdirected at Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, which finds itself assailed by people with a lot of rage and the wrong theater.
“F— you,” one particularly splenetic message begins. “hope you all who did this play about Trump are the first do die when ISIS COMES TO YOU f—– sumbags.”
Another message informed the company that “You are vial despicable excuses for human beings. I wish you all the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.”
The messages started coming Monday morning, when unsuspecting crew members checked the company’s answering machine and got an earful of vitriol and death threats.
“I walked in the office and people were like ‘Get this,’ and they started playing the messages that were coming in from like 4:30 in the morning,” the company’s artistic director, Allyn Burrows, told The Washington Post.
Their first decision was whether to respond — and how.
“We wanted to be measured,” he said. “At first we didn’t even tell them that we’re not Shakespeare in the Park (that did “Julius Caesar”). We went right to the heart of the argument.”
Other companies across the country are receiving their own share of misdirected invectives, ostensibly because they have “Shakespeare” in their titles.
Shakespeare Dallas is among them, according to the Boston Globe. Executive and artistic director Raphael Parry’s company told the newspaper that he’s received about 80 messages, including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater’s staff is “sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.”
Parry told the Globe he blames Google’s analytics, which he said prioritize local search results for theaters.
“They’re just doing a general Google search,” he said. “When you Google ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in the Texas region, our name pops up first, and they just go to town.”
Concerns about depicting a political assassination onstage were heightened after a gunman opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen last week as they were practicing for a charity baseball game.
In Massachusetts, Burrows said his theater opted to treat the angry, misdirected callers the same way they treat anyone who leaves a message at the theater. They called them back.
Most people the theater contacted were less splenetic during the conversations, even conceding that they did not want the cast and crew of Shakespeare & Company to die of cancer.
Burrows said the theater company also resisted the knee-jerk reaction to beef up security, although he has encouraged staff members to “be vigilant” and “widen our peripheral vision a little bit.”
“If you’re an arts institution and you want to create conversations, it’s going to come in all forms,” he told The Post. “And don’t be horrified if people have emotional reactions to stuff. That’s where we’re at. ”