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Our Stratfordian Cousin
January 14, 2012 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Lincoln and Shakespeare

Said he,—and his words have often returned to me with a sad interest since his own assassination, “There is one passage of the play of ‘Hamlet’ which is very apt to be slurred over by the actor, or omitted altogether, which seems to me the choicest part of the play. It is the soliloquy of the king, after the murder. It always struck me as one of the finest touches of nature in the world.”

Then, “throwing himself, into the very spirit of the scene,” Lincoln recited all 37 lines of Claudius’s agonized soliloquy, “O my offence is rank.” Carpenter was mightily impressed. “He repeated this entire passage from memory,” he gushed, “with a feeling and appreciation unsurpassed by anything I ever witnessed upon the stage.”
posted by grumblebee (30 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Holy cow this is awesome. Sounds like Lincoln was a pretty tough audience.
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:55 PM on January 14, 2012


My immediate reaction was that if any current presidential candidate admitted he had even read Shakespeare, let alone expressed such keen interest, he would be excoriated as an elitist and drummed out of political life.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:31 PM on January 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


But Lincoln was already famous for his association with theater!
posted by fredludd at 10:50 PM on January 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I feel kind of aggrieved on Lincoln's behalf that for all these years everybody thought he was suggesting that Hackett read the opening speech just to be uncharacteristically blandly polite, or because he thought the guy was actually a good actor. How many subtle digs of yore we must read literally.

My favorite line is "the evidence that he enjoyed them is sketchy at best."
posted by Adventurer at 12:25 AM on January 15, 2012


But Lincoln was already famous for his association with theater!

I thought it was interesting that the article avoided the association entirely (thought flirting with it by mentioning John Wilkes' brother, Edwin Booth).

It's interesting because Lincoln's fondness for Shakespeare adds another element of tragedy to his assassination. If you go through the works of Shakespeare, you can find many scenes, many lines, that could have nobly accompanied the death of the Great Emancipator. Lincoln himself, in his last milliseconds of life, might have appreciated hearing certain phrases from the Great Bard.

Instead, Lincoln was killed while attending Our American Cousin, now widely regarded as a hackneyed play, and he was shot while hearing the words "you sockdologizing old man-trap", a cheap gag, sure to get a big laugh, enough to muffle the sound of a pistol.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:37 AM on January 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Lincoln was a very shrewd reader of Shakespeare, apparently, and quite ahead of his time. Three of the major scenes he loved (Claudius' post-prayer monologue in "Hamlet," the opening monologue of "Richard III," and the fabulous Hal/Falstaff imitating the king scene in "Henry IV Part 1") are all considered vital now by most folks who stage Shakespeare.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:26 AM on January 15, 2012


One of Lincoln's great strengths was his understanding of human nature, and his love of Shakespeare had a lot to do with that. Also his experience riding the circuit court as a backwoods lawyer. He was also a good wrassler, but that had more to do with the backwoods circuit court thing.
posted by tommyD at 5:04 AM on January 15, 2012


I wonder what else was on Lincoln's book shelf?
posted by Fizz at 6:11 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Am I alone in reading the first line of the FPP and hoping this was anachronistic slash-Fic or historically-themed gay porn? No? Oh.

Proposed title: "Beards and Neckruffs"
posted by LMGM at 6:36 AM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lincoln saw Booth perform at Ford's Theater in 1863:
In the theater President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and I [Mary Clay], Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay, occupied the same box which the year after saw Mr. Lincoln slain by Booth. I do not recall the play [Charles Selby's The Marble Heart], but Wilkes booth played the part of villain. The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln's face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, 'Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.' 'Well,' he said, 'he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?' At the same theater, the next April, Wilkes Booth shot our dear President.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:38 AM on January 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I know a fair bit about Shakespeare (he said while buffing his jacket's leather elbow patches), and while I knew about the Colley Cibber version of Richard III and I'd heard of Lincoln's letter to Hackett, I somehow never made the connection that this article did.

I love the idea of Lincoln sitting in the Oval Office and writing a thinly-veiled (yet polite) "Yeah, let's hear you do some real Shakespeare".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:38 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would also recommend Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow, which discusses how much Shakespeare was.a part of the fabric of 19th century American popular culture, garnering mentions in Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition, don't forget the Astor Place Riots, which were touched off by 19th c. Folks in the cheap seats violently reacting to an aristocratic British Shakespearean actor who had replaced a popular American Shakespearean actor.
posted by jonp72 at 6:51 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, if anyone's interested, it looks like the full text of the Hackett book the article mentions (Notes and Comments Upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, with Criticisms and Correspondence) is available on Google Books. It's...not very good at all.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:53 AM on January 15, 2012


It's...not very good at all.

"We have observed that there is not any apparent circumstance in the fate or situation of Hamlet, that should prompt him to harbor one thought of self-murder..."

WOW ... Just ... wow.
posted by grumblebee at 7:05 AM on January 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


"A man may be exhibited shuffling off his garments or his chains; but how he should shuffle off a coil, which is another term for noise and tumult, we cannot comprehend."

You don't say.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:42 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We have observed that there is not any apparent circumstance in the fate or situation of Hamlet, that should prompt him to harbor one thought of self-murder...

Well, to be fair, that's pretty much T.S. Eliot's famous "objective correlative" argument in a nutshell.
posted by yoink at 8:08 AM on January 15, 2012


(thought flirting with it by mentioning John Wilkes' brother, Edwin Booth)

Understandable even outside the context of the assassination, as Edwin Booth was regarded as one of the finest actors of the age. Interestingly, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln's son from injury or death a short time before the assassination:
The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.
posted by kmz at 8:27 AM on January 15, 2012


Here's that opening speech from Richard III. It's kind of hard to see how anyone could not read that as being sarcastic, and do that opening as joyful.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruiséd arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged War hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbéd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

—Act I, sc.
i
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:41 AM on January 15, 2012


Well, to be fair, that's pretty much T.S. Eliot's famous "objective correlative" argument in a nutshell.

I haven't read Eliot's argument, but I'm straining to imagine how anyone could convincingly argue that it's unrealistic for Hamlet to contemplate suicide. If nothing else in the play had happened, Hamlet's FATHER has recently died. Even if his father had died of natural causes, you'd have to be an idiot to claim that has never led anyone to contemplate suicide.

But added to that, mom, almost immediately after his father's death, remarried, and then his father's ghost returned and told him his stepfather killed his father. He then guilted Hamlet into taking revenge by murdering his stepfather.

I am just staggered that anyone would have so little grast of human nature that he couldn't imagine how someone in that situation might consider suicide.
posted by grumblebee at 8:44 AM on January 15, 2012


Here's that opening speech from Richard III. It's kind of hard to see how anyone could not read that as being sarcastic, and do that opening as joyful.


You didn't finish the speech. I'd say it's both sarcastic AND joyful. Not definitively. There are other ways to read it. It could be bitter. Or it could be sarcastic, joyful and bitter, depending on the particular line. But I don't think joyful is a bad reading, at least of parts of the speech.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.
posted by grumblebee at 8:48 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


grumblebee: not to mention that Hamlet overtly contemplates suicide onstage at least twice, right? "Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd/ His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!" and then the first two-thirds of "To be or not to be."

Hackett, dude. The top of the first soliloquy, and then the most famous speech in the entire play. Kind of hard to miss.

Edwin Booth, by the way-- widely acknowledged as the best Hamlet of his age-- spent the rest of his life trying to live down his brother's notoriety and get his acting career back. Poor guy.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:46 AM on January 15, 2012


Edwin Booth, by the way-- widely acknowledged as the best Hamlet of his age-- spent the rest of his life trying to live down his brother's notoriety and get his acting career back. Poor guy.

I'm a member of an organization called the Players Club, which is a social club for theatre people and enthusiasts. It was founded by Edwin Booth and is located in his old house, which he donated to be used for the club.

Upstairs is his bedroom, preserved exactly as it was when he died. It's amazing -- filled with Shakespeare paraphernalia, including human skulls that friends willed him, hoping they'd be used as Yorik props.

By Booth's bed, there's a tiny portrait of John Wilkes, apparently the only image of his brother than he kept.
posted by grumblebee at 10:09 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm straining to imagine how anyone could convincingly argue that it's unrealistic for Hamlet to contemplate suicide

Fair enough (and Stoppard makes some merry hay with the argument in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). My point was simply that you don't have to be a moron to make the argument. Unless, of course, you think Eliot was a moron--which is a tough argument to make.
posted by yoink at 10:24 AM on January 15, 2012


I don't think of people as binarily (if that's a word) being morons or smart people. I don't see how it's possible to actually read the play and pay attention to what's in it and, yet, conclude that it's out-of-character or unrealistic for Hamlet to consider suicide. To me, that's like watching "Star Trek" and concluding that the Enterprise is a sea-going vessel. It's THAT level of not getting it.

I guess a smart person with low social intelligence might make that mistake.

I can also see someone saying "I don't agree with Hamlet's (almost) decision to kill himself." I can see someone finding it morally wrong or cowardly. But psychologically implausible? I just can't fathom how anyone could come to that conclusion. Eliot wasn't a moron, but perhaps he was moronic about that. Or maybe he was trying to be provocative but didn't really believe what he was saying. I don't know. I'll have to read what he wrote. I shouldn't really say more without doing that.
posted by grumblebee at 10:35 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eliot was no moron, but as a critic he was definitely a contrarian. Some of his then-controversial opinions are now accepted as obviously valid; some are just... well... contrary.

Back on the topic of the article, Lincoln is quoted by an army chaplain as saying:
Thus, take the stage edition of Richard III. It opens with a passage from Henry VI., after which come portions of Richard III., then another scene from Henry VI...
This is pretty nearly the version Olivier uses for the opening of his 1955 film of Richard III. He also includes Cibber's line, remembered by Lincoln: "Conscience avaunt! Richard's himself again."

I actually think there's an argument to be made for including bits of Henry IV part 3, but that's a whole different argument.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:54 AM on January 15, 2012


I actually think there's an argument to be made for including bits of Henry IV part 3, but that's a whole different argument.

I once saw a production of "Henry IV, part 3" that ended, and then, after the curtain call, the actor playing Richard came on stage and delivered the opening speech of "Richard III."
posted by grumblebee at 11:09 AM on January 15, 2012


Yeah, I saw the *brilliant* RSC Henry VI where they did all three parts in repertory, and they did something akin to that. At the end of Part 3 everyone left the stage except Richard, who watched the procession exit, turned to the crowd, took a breath and said "Now"-- blackout.

Fearsomely effective.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:28 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


charlie don't surf: Please, the academic Elite consider Shakespeare and the Western Canon in general as the rotten fruit of the imperialistic racist sexist Dead White Male.
posted by TSOL at 8:05 PM on January 15, 2012


That's an unpleasant fantasy.
posted by Adventurer at 8:11 PM on January 15, 2012


the academic Elite consider Shakespeare and the Western Canon in general as the rotten fruit of the imperialistic racist sexist Dead White Male.

I'm not academic or elite, but Shakespeare plays ARE the fruit of an imperialistic, racist, sexist dead white male -- though he was certainly a much more enlightened, fair minded racist and sexist about race and gender than many of his contemporaries.

In addition to being a (white, relatively rich, privileged) man of his time, who wrote some offensive things, he was also the greatest poet and playwright who has ever lived, and his work has added unspeakable beauty, insight and meaning to the human race.

He was not a bad man who also wrote bad plays. He was not a brilliant, gifted poet who was also a saintly man who was always fair minded. That's the reality of the situation. Like the characters in his plays, he was complicated, brilliant and flawed.

People who deify Shakespeare are offensively belittling him and his contributions; people who trash him are doing the same. But the drive towards binary thinking never ceases. Alas.
posted by grumblebee at 9:23 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


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