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Why and How Lincoln Became a Shakespeare Enthusiast

by Jeremy Edwards

 

Editors note: At the Lincoln weekend, I twisted Jeremy's arm to give his talk during the dinner. It was without doubt one of the most thought provoking talks I have heard for quite a while. Judging by the comments from my table and others, it was a moment to be savoured. I have done a minimal amount of editing, the following prose should be read in a candlelit room with a large port.

Shakespeare was important in a general way to Lincoln's contemporaries but of far greater significance to Lincoln himself as he used the dramatist's writings to express his own most personal feelings and insights. The words of the guilt-wracked king in Hamlet may be Shakespeare's but Lincoln used them as his own thus acknowledging, at least to himself, the consequences of his own ambition, which he found so well articulated in his favourite work: Macbeth.

 

Lincoln's poor background meant farming, in effect, the life of an American peasant, which allowed few opportunities for formal education and intellectual growth. His own schooling, scattered across several winters, amounted to less than 12 months in all which partly explains his snatching every opportunity for reading and mental activity - his voracious appetite for reading and his love of Shakespeare are rooted in his early circumstances. He had few books in his early days but a well-worn copy of Shakespeare's works was one of them.

 

He didn't actually read all the plays: "Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read at all while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader." But in Lincoln's day the Shakespearian fraternity was not limited to actors and professors of literature, but embraced a wide population, including those who were selfeducated. Two of Lincoln's law partners were almost as familiar with and able to quote from Shakespeare as he was. But for Lincoln Shakespeare was paramount, above all other writers who he admired and read, such as Byron and especially Robert Burns. He always had a copy of his works with him and read from it every evening; it was said he "never missed a night without reading it."

 

This passion extended to theatre in a wider sense, often going to see plays, which frequently meant Shakespeare and ironically a performance of "Hamlet" with Edwin Booth, Wilkes Booth's brother, in the title role. As a lawyer, he defended an Illinois theatre against closure by religious bigots.

 

His Ambition

 

If that were all to be said about Lincoln and Shakespeare we might say "very interesting, but so what?" But the first thing that strikes anyone studying this subject is that of the 8,000 memos, notes, letters, formal speeches etc that make up the eight volumes of his Collected Works, hardly any makes direct allusion to Shakespeare. This simply does not square with his extensive daily readings, often out loud to colleagues. It is necessary to look deeper for the reasons for this passion.

 

Those who knew Lincoln before the war largely agreed about one thing - his passionate yearning to make a mark; his ambition. Herndon wrote that Lincoln was: "the most ambitious man in the world; inordinately ambitious."

 

This is part of the explanation for his attraction to Shakespeare, his fascination by the playwright's depiction of Richard III, Macbeth and Claudius (the murderous usurping king in "Hamlet"), all unnaturally ambitious characters. He said: "I think nothing equals Macbeth." Of all the plays it fascinated him the most.

 

Becoming bored whilst posing for the artist Francis Carpenter in 1863, he enacted the opening soliloquy of Richard III with such force and power that he "made it seem like a new creation" saying he had never heard it better performed, that Lincoln could have had a career on the stage. Lincoln dismissed that idea and offered an analysis about how most actors he'd seen go wrong in the speech proclaiming it as a triumphant set piece, rather than the expression of ambition and complex bitterness that Richard feels, still being far from power.

 

Lincoln was not merely an ambitious man; he was completely preoccupied by the question of what ambition is. The thesis he put forward in his Lyceum address in 1838 was that ambition is dangerous, even evil, but was sometimes prepared to admit that he also was ambitious. At the same time he was very defensive about the nature of the ambition that drove him; that ambition had not influenced the most critical of his public actions. Like Mark Anthony's denial of Caesar's ambition, the very vehemence of his assertions make them suspect. He took pains to assure people that he had not been corrupted by ambition and that ambition had not influenced the most critical of his public actions such as the lengths to which he went to convince the nation that the part he played in making the Civil War was an altogether innocent one. His attitude in his second inaugural address is that of Caesar: civil war was the other side's fault. "Hoc voluerant", Caesar grunted when he surveyed the Roman dead at Pharsalus: "They would have it thus." As Caesar to his senatorial opponents, so Lincoln to his Southern ones. "Hoc voluerant". This is the theme of Macbeth; the perversity of ambition.

 

The Lincoln Assassination

 

Shakespearian parallels and associations surround Lincoln's assassination. Wilkes Booth and his brothers were in a production of Julius Caesar; six months later Booth killed Lincoln, his decision shaped by the events that play dramatised. He had expected to be admired like Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all." "Sic Semper Tyrannis" was to do with Caesar, not the motto of the State of Virginia. A contemporary observer compared the frequent stops in major cities of the train bearing body to Antony's display of Caesar's murdered body. The associations with Julius Caesar are further reinforced by Lincoln's fatalistic reluctance to take the advice of those who warned him of the dangers of assassination. Caesar also ignored the warnings of Calpurnia, his wife.

 

Not long before his death, Lincoln dreamed that he was awakened by the sound of sobbing. Wandering through a gloomy White House, he could hear grieving voices but saw no one. Eventually he became aware of a coffin placed in the East Room. In his dream he asked a guard "Who is dead in the White House?" and was told "the President - he was killed by an assassin." He confided to his bodyguard: "(My dream) has haunted me. Somehow the thing has got possession of me, and like Banquo's ghost, it will not let go."

 

Traveling back to Washington on the Potomac on the day of Lee's surrender, a Frenchman in the party recorded:

 

"As we were steaming up the Potomac, that whole day the conversation dwelt upon literary subjects. Mr. Lincoln read to us for several hours passages taken from Shakespeare. Most of these were from Macbeth, and, in particular, the verses which follow Duncan's assassination. I cannot recall this reading without being awed at the remembrance, when Macbeth becomes king after the murder of Duncan, he falls a prey to the most horrible torments of mind. Either because he was struck by the weird beauty of these verses, or from a vague presentiment coming over him, Mr. Lincoln paused here while reading, and began to explain to us how true a description of the murderer that one was; when, the dark deed achieved, its tortured perpetrator came to envy the sleep of his victim. And he read over again the same scene."

 

That Lincoln would focus on this passage from Macbeth at this precise moment only five days from death is suggestive.

 

Here is some of the text he read:

 

"Better be with the dead,

Whom we, to gain our peace, have

sent to peace,

Than on the torture of the mind to lie

In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his

grave.

After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.

Treason has done his worst; nor steel

nor poison,

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing

Can touch him further."

 

What drew Lincoln to this, aside from the literary and psychological interest the passage has for all its readers? Identification with Macbeth perhaps-which is a feature of the dream anecdote as well, where Lincoln is haunted by a corpse? Or his own feelings of exhaustion and guilt in having gained peace by sending so many-620,000-to peace? Does he share Macbeth's envy of the dead, articulated here with language that is especially and exactly political? Does he wish to be, like Duncan, in his grave?

 

Guilt and Psychological Insights: Shakespeare Speaks for Lincoln

 

Much of Lincoln's love of Shakespeare derived from the dramatist's extraordinary insights into human psychology and from his meditations on political power and its transience, burdens and grief. "He read Shakespeare more than all the other writers together," recalled Hay, his private secretary, who listened for hours, evening after evening as Lincoln read to him from his favorite plays. Hay noted his relish for the speeches of flawed legitimate monarchs like Lear and Richard II, and of the usurping rulers Richard III, Macbeth and Claudius.

 

In 1863 Lincoln wrote to the actor James Hackett thanking him for a book, taking the opportunity to venture into a rare exercise in what appeared to be literary criticism. The letter found its way into the public domain and the press erupted in mockery of the idea that the uncultured buffoon in the White House should presume to engage in Shakespearian criticism, much as their 21st century successors gleefully reacted when they learned that George Bush was spending his holidays reading French Existentialist philosophers.

 

In his letter Lincoln had confided the unconventional opinion that the soliloquy in Hamlet "O, my offence is rank" surpasses that commencing "To be or not to be..." But Lincoln elaborated on the theme again in writing to another actor, James Murdoch, observing that "To be or not to be ..." "was merely a philosophical reflection on the question of life and death without actual reference to future judgment" whereas Claudius's speech showed "force and grandeur" in its "moral tone" as a "solemn acknowledgement of inevitable punishment for the infraction of divine law." The soliloquy which Lincoln admired is the King's attempt to absolve himself of his crime through prayer whilst keeping the objects for which the crime was committed.

 

Claudius has seized the crown by murdering his brother, the King and Hamlet's father, and marrying his wife within a month of the deed. Riven with guilt he tries to pray for forgiveness:

 

"O, my offence is rank, it smells to

Heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon't;

A brother's murder!"

 

He continues:

 

"But O! What form of Prayer

Can serve my turn? Forgive me my

most foul Murder?

That cannot be since I am still

possessed

Of those effects for which I did the

murder,

My crown, mine own ambition and my

queen.

May one be pardoned and retain the

offence?"

 

It doesn't work, of course, and at the close of the soliloquy he makes the fatal admission:

 

"My words fly up. My thoughts remain

below;

Words without thoughts never to

Heaven go."

 

Despairingly, he ends with: "All may be well."

 

Why, then, did Lincoln attach a higher value to the King's failed attempt to seek forgiveness through prayer than to Hamlet's meditation on life and death? It may be suggestive that the King's speech contains the lines:

 

"What if this cursed hand

Were thicker than itself in brother's

blood?

Is there not rain enough in the sweet

heavens

To wash it white as snow?"

 

This echoes the words of Lady Macbeth, and we know that Macbeth was the play Lincoln most admired - a play about ambition, a trait almost universally recognized in Lincoln by his contemporaries. She said:

 

"A little water clears us of this deed."

 

But brothers blood had been shed in great quantities since the beginning of the war, particularly in the recent battle of Gettysburg. In public Lincoln did not blame himself for the war, maintaining that his cause was just - his commitment to the absolute necessity of saving the Union and that the war had been precipitated by the South.

 

But these letters were never intended to be public and although he was philosophical about their unintended revelation, he made sure all subsequent letters were marked "Private"; the thoughts they express are from his inner self and show his public statements, possibly, to be disingenuous as he appears to acknowledge responsibility for the fearful consequences of his ambition. "Lincoln", Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, in her book 'Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln' rarely spoke of his inner feelings and often expressed emotions through the poetry he admired."

 

In his Second Inaugural he quoted St. Matthew's Gospel: "Woe unto the world because of offences! For it needs must be that offences come; but woe unto the man by whom the offence cometh!"

 

It seems at least plausible that Abraham Lincoln's unorthodox view on the relative merits of soliloquies unintentionally expressed some affinity with Claudius in the matter of shedding brother's blood.

 

There is a particularly moving episode which reinforces the idea that Lincoln used the writings of Shakespeare to express his own most intense feelings.

 

While visiting Fort Monroe in 1862, Lincoln also used Shakespeare to ruminate on his dead son Willie. He recited from memory a section of Shakespeare's King John:

 

"And, father Cardinal, I have heard you

say

That we shall see and know our friends

in heaven:

If that be true, I shall see my boy

again:..."

 

As New York banker and Union officer Le Grand B. Cannon recalled their conversation that night - which came after earlier recitations and discussions of Hamlet and Macbeth: "I noticed that he was deeply moved, his voice trembled, laying the Book on the table, he said, did you ever dream of a lost friend & feel that you were having a direct communion with that friend and yet a consciousness that it was not a reality. My reply was, yes I think all may have had such an experience. He replied so do I dream of my Boy Willey. He was utterly overcome. His great frame shook and bowing down on the table he wept as only such a man in the breaking down of a great sorrow could weep."