SHAKESPEARE IN THE CACTUS

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The noise of battle hurtled in the air

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.”

— Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2

SHAKESPEARE, NEW MEXICO — Some 3,000 people once lived in this hamlet. Live actors all, they strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. All the world’s a stage, they said, even this tiny town carved out of the sagebrush in a deep corner of the Southwest.

Most here were miners, drawn shortly after the Civil War by news of silver in these hills. Others were made of sterner stuff, dragging timbers in from who knows where to build a hotel, a saloon, a general store, and a blacksmith shop.

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The town was first called Ralston City but in 1879, locals changed its name to Shakespeare. For good measure, they changed Main Street to Avon Avenue, then added a Stratford Hotel and the Shakespeare Gold and Mining and Milling Company.

The Bard was wildly popular in the old West. “There is scarcely a pioneer’s hut,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, “where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare.” And while England considered Shakespeare the property of (ahem!) the snooty classes, in America a makeshift Shakespeare play might feature a gambler as Hamlet, a prostitute as Ophelia, and assorted barkeeps and sheriffs as assorted strange bedfellows. “What a piece of work is a man...”

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Shakespeare, New Mexico was the only town named for the Bard, but this “land of enchantment” also has a Shakespeare Canyon. Nevada has a Shakespeare Cliff. Texas has Shakespeare Tanks reservoir, and Colorado has mines named Ophelia, Cordelia, and Desdemona. And all of America has such towns as Othello, Stratford, Montague, and Romeo, though not a single Juliet.

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Ghosts haunt several of Shakespeare’s plays. So he would have been proud to know that his namesake is now called a ghost town.

The poor players began to exit stage north in the 1890s, when the railroad came through nearby Lordsburg, missing Shakespeare by three miles. More miners came in the early 20th century but took wing when the silver ran out. The town has been empty and echoing since the Depression.

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Shakespeare, New Mexico is now privately owned and protected. A National Historic Site. You can tour it by appointment but otherwise you just gaze over fences at the old saloon, hotel,and other relics. As the Bard noted, “Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”