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Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity

THE AMERICAN IDENTITY

 

Listening to Civil War Voices

Listening to Civil War Voices
Stephen Dickey, an award-winning senior lecturer at UCLA, has often been on the faculty of Folger Shakespeare Library's NEH-funded Teaching Shakespeare Institute, which brings high school teachers from around the country to Washington, DC, for a month of intensive study. This portion of a lecture by Dickey during the 2006 session explores how figures from the era of the Civil War used Shakespeare in their letters, diaries, and other writings. Collectively, the references he assembles here show just how deeply Shakespeare's words had infiltrated and saturated American speech and writing at that time.
Footnotes refer to original sources. Numbers in parentheses refer to lines from Shakespeare's plays, which are listed in the margin at right.

Here are some voices from the past that I'd like you to hear.

Sam Watkins, private, First Tennessee Regiment, was in every battle his company fought, a list that includes some of the bloodiest in the Civil War: Shiloh, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Atlanta. He survived—one of seven men remaining alive from an original company of 120—to write his memoirs. At one point he describes walking through a forest and standing upon something he suddenly recognizes as a decomposing corpse: "I recollect of saying, 'Ugh, ugh,' and of my hat being lifted off my head, by my hair, which stood up like the quills of the fretful porcupine."1 (1)

Sometime later, Watkins was involved in a dispute with an officer who threatened to arrest him, even though he was wounded and being taken to the hospital. "Turning back I said, 'Sir, aye, aye, you are clothed with a little brief authority, and appear to be presuming pretty heavy on that authority; but, sir'—well I have forgotten what I did say." (2) Note that he forgets (or pretends to forget, diplomatically) what he said to the officer, except for the phrase from Shakespeare.


1 Sam R. Watkins, Co. Aytch. 1882. rpt. New York: Touchstone, 1977, pp. 175–6. Subsequent quotations from pp. 191, 215.

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Library of Congress


(1) The Ghost: "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make…each particular hair to stand an end, / Like quills upon the fearful porpentine." Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5

(2) Isabella: "Man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority." Measure for Measure, Act 2, scene 2