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Lincoln and Shakespeare

Lincoln and Shakespeare
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. In the 2006 session, participants studied four plays, including Macbeth and Julius Caesar. This portion of a lecture by Dickey during the session explores President Lincoln's knowledge of Shakespeare and his special affinity for Macbeth.

There were, of course, many ways to acquire familiarity with Shakespeare's works in a country where almost every literate home in the nineteenth century had a Bible, a copy of Pilgrim's Progress (if Twain is correct), and a volume of "the Bard." Abraham Lincoln got his knowledge of the plays the way he seems to have acquired almost all of his learning: by solitary and dedicated reading and exercise of memory. Many of the witnesses to Lincoln's early years who were assembled by William Herndon for his oral biography attest to Lincoln's young interest in, and knowledge of, Shakespeare. Yet the first thing to be said about any study of Lincoln's use of Shakespeare is that in the nearly 8,000 memoranda, notes, letters, drafts, petitions, dinner invitations, pardons, formal speeches, and even "proposal of a barbecue" that came from Lincoln's pen and that comprise the eight volumes of his Collected Works, hardly any makes a direct allusion to Shakespeare.

We know from his son Robert, however, that Lincoln constantly carried around a volume of the plays in the White House. We know from Lincoln's private secretary John Hay that Lincoln would read in that volume late into the night, sometimes aloud to a sleepy Hay. We know from Francis Carpenter, who spent six weeks in the White House to make studies for his famous painting of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, that once when bored with posing, Lincoln recited—no, enacted—the opening soliloquy from Richard III "with a degree of force and power that made it seem like a new creation." Carpenter told him he had never heard it better performed, and that Lincoln could have had a career on stage. Lincoln dismissed that idea, but then launched a detailed analysis about how most actors he'd seen go wrong in the speech, declaiming it as a triumphant set piece and not gauging the ambition and complex bitterness of Richard's mood at that moment, as he feels himself still far from power.

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