Douglas L. Wilson writing for the The American Scholar says that biographers have made many incorrect assumptions about Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong love affair with the works of Shakespeare:
We have so many well-attested stories of Lincoln extolling Shakespeare as a young man in New Salem, of his carrying a volume of Shakespeare’s works around with him on the judicial circuit, of his ability (and willingness) to recite from memory long passages from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and of his reading from the plays by the hour to his secretaries and guests as president, that there can be little doubt of his longstanding attachment to the writings of the Bard. And although he seems to have had few opportunities to see Shakespeare’s plays performed before becoming president, he frequently attended the theater in Washington, including many performances of Shakespeare. But this well-established pattern has led his biographers and other commentators to make some unwarranted assumptions and surmises, while neglecting clues that lead to strikingly different conclusions.
One of these assumptions and surmises is that the Shakespearean texts Lincoln knew and loved were the same texts he saw performed on the stage. Wilson points out that in Lincoln’s time Shakespeare was rarely performed verbatim. Producers, directors and actors took liberty with Shakespeare’s words in an effort to make them more dramatic and accessible to often illiterate antebellum audiences.
Wilson says that Lincoln was a reader in an age when a rising tide of literacy and a revolution in printing and papermaking had helped create a mass audience for literature and
Eventually, the massive influx of new readers, of whom Lincoln was a celebrated example, would help pressure the theatrical profession to play Shakespeare and abandon the adaptations. In short, Lincoln’s sharply critical reaction to the plays he saw as president was no anomaly, but a harbinger of things to come.
Here some other interesting discoveries Wilson makes about Lincoln and his obsession with Shakespeare:
- Lincoln’s favorite play, by far, was Macbeth
- Lincoln preferred Claudius’ soliloquy “my offence is rank” to Hamlet’s more famous one “to be or not to be”
- Lincoln performed entire scenes from Shakespeare’s plays for his friends having committed all of the lines to memory
- Lincoln thought the opening lines of Richard III (“now is the winter of our discontent… .”) were universally performed wrongly with a flourish rather than with the resentment and sarcasm he believed the text and context warrants
(Hat Tip: @Charles_Consult)