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Lincoln and Shakespeare

Lincoln and Shakespeare
Stephen Dickey, senior lecturer, UCLA; faculty member, Teaching Shakespeare Institute at Folger Shakespeare Library

(Page 2 of 4) We also know that Lincoln was especially fond of the history plays and studied them closely, even debating with Hay where the proper stress should fall in one of Falstaff's lines. In December of 1863, Lincoln attended performances at Ford's Theater of Henry IV, Part 1 and The Merry Wives of Windsor by the leading comic actor and Falstaff-specialist James Hackett. One of Lincoln's aides, William Stoddard, wrote:

his strong love of humor made Falstaff a great favorite with him…and I expected to see him give himself up to the merriment of the hour, although I knew that his mind was very much preoccupied by other things. To my surprise, however, he appeared even gloomy, although intent upon the play, and it was only a few times during the whole performance that he went so far as to laugh at all, and then not heartily. He seemed for once to be studying the character and its rendering critically, as if to ascertain the correctness of his own conception as compared with that of the professional artist.

As if to confirm this speculation, Lincoln invited Hackett to the White House for dinner to discuss the Falstaff plays. Lincoln was mystified as to why the tavern scene play-within-a-play between Hal and Falstaff was always cut in performance. Hackett assured him it was unplayable: it just didn't work. Hackett also revealed that he performed Falstaff while wearing an undersuit of India rubber, saying that Shakespeare clearly intended this when he wrote Hal's line "how now, blown Jack." Lincoln's response to this idea is unrecorded, but in a later letter to the actor, he stated more fully than anywhere else his opinions about Shakespeare:

Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "O, my offense is rank" surpasses that commencing "To be or not to be." But pardon this small attempt at criticism. I should like to hear you pronounce the opening speech of Richard the Third.

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James H. Hackett as Falstaff. Print, 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.