Article - Winter 2012

His Hour Upon the Stage


As a lifelong reader of Shakespeare’s plays, Lincoln had reservations about how they were presented

By Douglas L. Wilson


Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd was anything but smooth. At one point it helped bring on a bout of severe depression that left the future president nearly dysfunctional for a brief period and caused him to avoid Springfield’s social world for several months. In a letter to an absent friend, the future Mrs. Lincoln lamented this state of affairs and wished “that he would once more resume his Station in Society, that ‘Richard should be himself again.’ ” The expression she used is clear enough in meaning, but Lincoln’s biographers have been less certain about its source. In fact, the expression “Richard’s himself again” was in vogue in antebellum America, deriving from one of the best-known speeches in the most performed of all Shakespeare plays, Richard III. But that speech, as Lincoln himself would later point out, was not written by Shakespeare.

This curious state of affairs is surprisingly emblematic of the undernourished state of our knowledge of Lincoln’s famous affinity for 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.

To begin with, Lincoln’s pursuit of Shakespeare in Washington theaters has long been overstated. A recent biographer relates that as president, Lincoln “rarely missed an opportunity” to see Shakespeare, but existing records of performances and the president’s attendance indicate that this is a clear exaggeration: he had been in office for two years by the time of the first reliable record of his attending a Shakespeare play. If such a common overgeneralization is hardly a crime against scholarship, it leads to another assertion that takes us even further afield: “He enjoyed them all.” Lincoln undoubtedly attended performances of his favorite plays, such as King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, but the evidence that he enjoyed them is sketchy at best. This alone should give us caution, for it signals an important qualification of his attachment to Shakespeare.

Circumstances kept Lincoln away from the theater during his first two years in office—the rebuilding of one of the major theaters, the burning of another, the death of his son, and his almost total immersion in a grave national crisis that was going badly. But another reason we have no record of his going to see Shakespeare performed during this period is likely that he preferred to slip into theaters unannounced and without fanfare.

Slipping unannounced into a theater is just what Lincoln did on March 13, 1863, the first presidential visit to a performance of Shakespeare for which we do have clear documentation. It occurred at the Washington Theatre, the city’s oldest, where he saw the veteran actor James H. Hackett, known as the American Falstaff, perform in Henry IV, part 1. The president took along one of his secretaries, William O. Stoddard, who published a revealing account of this outing the year following the president’s assassination. Stoddard said that Lincoln had been eager to attend this performance and that he fully expected his chief to

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.

Although this description indicates keen interest, it hardly suggests enthusiasm, or even approval. His only occasional laughter at Falstaff’s antics is surely an ominous sign. Stoddard’s promising clue to the nature of Lincoln’s experience with Shakespeare on the Washington stage has not gone unnoticed by scholars, but it is one of many dots on this subject still waiting to be connected.

After Hackett performed before the president, he sent Lincoln a copy of a book he had just published, Notes and Comments Upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, with Criticisms and Correspondence. As Lincoln would discover, Hackett was a shameless self-publicist, and his book a rambling farrago of self-advertisement. On August 17, 1863, ostensibly to acknowledge this gift, Lincoln wrote an often-quoted letter to Hackett that remains the centerpiece of our knowledge of Lincoln’s devotion to Shakespeare. Arguably the most forthcoming of his personal letters, it may also be the least appreciated.

For one of my age, I have seen very little of the drama. The first presentation of Falstaff I ever saw was yours here, last winter or spring. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to say, as I truly can, I am very anxious to see it again. Some of Shakspeare’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 offence 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. Will you not soon visit Washington again? If you do, please call and let me make your personal acquaintance.

Yours truly A. Lincoln.

For Lincoln, this is a remarkable letter. As his closest friends all testify, he was a deeply private man, and a cagey one as well. Although warm and affable in conversation, and sociable and apparently open-handed with strangers, he was nonetheless guarded and circumspect about revealing his feelings or intentions. That his “compliment” to Hackett on the actor’s performance is curiously hedged—and might not be a compliment at all—is thus not surprising. Especially in light of Stoddard’s account, Lincoln may well have deliberately stopped short of outright praise, implying instead that he’d like another look before making up his mind. The difficulty in knowing what Lincoln intended is not unusual.

What is unusual is Lincoln’s telling a professional actor he has never met about his background as a reader of Shakespeare, the plays he knows best, and pointedly challenging the standing of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. But what is downright astonishing is his saying of Macbeth, “It is wonderful.” This from a man who was notoriously stingy with praise of any kind, and who usually avoided superlatives. He used the word wonderful very sparingly, and when he did use it, more often than not it was offered ironically, as in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas: “This argument seems wonderful to me. It is as if one should argue that white and black are not different.”

The point is not that Lincoln’s letter is disingenuous or misleading, but that it is, for its author, exceptional, and should be recognized as such. Although this letter is a fountain of information, consideration of it is usually quickly diverted to a discussion of how Hackett had it printed as a broadside for his own self-promotion, thus exposing it and Lincoln to public ridicule in the newspapers. This, too, is emblematic of why our knowledge of what Lincoln thought about Shakespeare is so often off base and superficial. Lincoln reacted graciously to Hackett’s discreditable behavior, which tells us about Lincoln’s forbearance, but it tells us nothing about why he is informing Hackett that he prefers Claudius’s soliloquy to Hamlet’s.

What also stands out in this brief letter is that two plays, Richard III and Hamlet, are mentioned twice and that Lincoln calls attention to particular soliloquies in each. For students of Lincoln, this calls to mind another well-known source for information about his attachment to Shakespeare that spotlights these same two plays and speeches. Francis B. Carpenter’s book, Six Months at the White House, is a memoir of his residence at the Executive Mansion in 1864. Carpenter was there to produce a painting of Lincoln announcing the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, but he managed to engage the president in a series of discussions on many topics. When the conversation turned to Shakespeare, Carpenter reports, he was treated to a solo performance of scenes from Hamlet and Richard III, with the president doing all the parts himself and providing a running commentary.

The conversation began with the president’s anticipated attendance at a forthcoming appearance of the celebrated actor Edwin Booth (the assassin’s brother) in the role of Hamlet.

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.”

But the president’s performance was not finished. “Remaining in thought for a few moments, he continued:—‘The opening of the play of “King Richard the Third” seems to me often entirely misapprehended. It is quite common for an actor to come upon the stage, and, in a sophomoric style, to begin with a flourish: —

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York,

And all the clouds that lowered upon our house,

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried!’ ”

Lincoln then explained why the intonation he had just demonstrated was “all wrong,” and why the passage should instead be rendered as “the utterance of the most intense bitterness and satire.” He then proceeded to recite from memory and with great “force and power” this speech, which was about equal in length to the one from Hamlet. Carpenter was again greatly impressed and allowed that although he had been familiar with the speech “from boyhood, I can truly say that never till that moment had I fully appreciated its spirit.”

If Carpenter remembered this scene accurately, Lincoln’s feelings about these two passages were not only strong but also somehow related. Both are intense, passionate, and highly revealing of the character’s state of mind, but they were also paired for Lincoln in a way that Carpenter either failed to report or perhaps did not recognize. By connecting a few more dots, we can readily see that these speeches were indeed related in Lincoln’s mind, and in a way that tells us something unexpected about Lincoln and his abiding interest in Shakespeare.

For three of his four years in the White House, Lincoln retreated in the summer months to the Soldiers’ Home, a government facility three miles to the north. Seated on a height of land that afforded a spectacular view of Washington and the Potomac River, it was much less humid and many degrees cooler than the swampy setting of the White House. In spite of these advantages, Mary Todd Lincoln spent much of the sweltering summer season at resorts on the Atlantic coast or in the mountains of New England. As a result, the president was often alone when not working in his office.

Lincoln’s congenial secretary, John Hay, sometimes shared these idle hours with him. Here is a familiar entry from Hay’s diary, dated August 23, 1863: “I went with him to the Soldiers’ Home & he read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry VI and the beginning of Richard III till my heavy eye-lids caught his considerate notice & he sent me to bed.”

Those who cite this excerpt have little reason to note that Lincoln’s letter to Hackett was written less than a week earlier or that his interest in the beginning of Richard III appears, from this circumstance, to be a persistent one. But we get a sounder grasp of Lincoln’s affinity for Shakespeare if we pick up the cue.

Lincoln knew Shakespeare from his incessant reading and rereading of printed texts of the plays, texts that are similar to those in modern editions. What Lincoln probably didn’t know until he began seeing the same plays performed on the Washington stage—and what most modern students of Lincoln still do not recognize—is that the texts of the acting editions used for theatrical performances in Lincoln’s day were different from the texts found in editions intended for readers, and in some cases substantially different.

Richard III is a classic case in point. Lincoln once had occasion to explain this circumstance to a visiting army chaplain:

From your calling it is probable you do not know that the acting plays which people crowd to hear are not always those planned by their reputed authors. 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., and the finest soliloquy in the play … was never seen by Shakespeare, but was written … by Colley Cibber.

The “finest soliloquy” Lincoln refers to ends with the protagonist’s announcing “Richard’s himself again.”

We don’t know when Lincoln discovered this state of affairs, but he probably knew by the time of his interview with the chaplain that actors and audiences alike preferred Cibber’s adaptation to Shakespeare’s original and that Cibber had successfully held the stage in Britain and America for 150 years. This success had come even though his version played fast and loose with Shakespeare’s text, eliminated many characters and scenes, and added new speeches and scenes of Cibber’s own invention. Cibber’s Richard III was vastly different from the play Lincoln had been reading for years, but what must have been especially shocking to Lincoln was that Cibber’s version does not begin, as Shakespeare’s does, with the brilliant soliloquy Lincoln loved to recite, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Rather, as Lincoln explained to the chaplain, it begins with a scene borrowed from Henry VI, which was doubtless what Lincoln was trying to demonstrate to John Hay at the Soldiers’ Home, while succeeding only in putting his young secretary to sleep.

Seen in this light, a line in Lincoln’s letter to Hackett takes on a new meaning: “I should like to hear you pronounce the opening speech of Richard the Third.” When we grasp that he is asking the actor to choose between Shakespeare and Cibber, it is clear that the letter had a purpose most readers have not been aware of, which was to confront the famous actor about the liberties taken in the theater with Shakespeare’s text.

But how does all this connect to Hamlet and Claudius’s soliloquy “O my offence is rank”? The connection is hinted at in Lincoln’s reported complaint to Carpenter that Claudius’s speech in performance is “very apt to be slurred over by the actor, or omitted altogether.” The entire scene in which Lincoln’s favorite soliloquy appears was often cut in performance and does not even appear in the standard acting editions of the day. Therefore Lincoln’s “small attempt at criticism” in his letter to Hackett was, in effect, another implicit challenge to the altering of Shakespeare’s text practiced by the “gentlemen” of Hackett’s profession. Hackett would have seen at once that he would be obliged to explain why Lincoln’s favorite speech in Hamlet, which he considered better than “To be, or not to be,” was routinely omitted in performance.

As Lincoln was to learn, none of the plays he knew so well were acted on the stage using the text he knew. The cutting of lines, speeches, and whole scenes was, of course, commonplace in the theater, and always had been. Richard III and Hamlet are, after all, two of Shakespeare’s longest plays, requiring nearly four hours to perform in their entirety, a length that was probably beyond what was acceptable even at Shakespeare’s Globe. Its prolixity was one of the major reasons Richard III had been so thoroughly recast by Cibber in 1700, and although Hamlet had not undergone so drastic a refitting, the actor who presided over its rising reputation in the 18th century, David Garrick, fiddled with the text as if it were his own. Another actor, Nahum Tate, notoriously rewrote King Lear so as to lighten its tragic load by adding a love interest (Edgar and Cordelia) and a happy ending.

By the time Lincoln was president, the tragic ending had generally been restored, but when he saw Lear played in 1864 by Edwin Forrest, one of the giants of the American stage, the production still used an acting version that was more Tate than Shakespeare. What must have been the reaction of a spectator like Lincoln when he discovered that the part of the Fool—a role without peer in the use of humor to sharpen the edge of tragedy—had been entirely eliminated? These considerations lend poignancy to a remark of Lincoln’s reported by Carpenter that speaks to the importance of knowing Shakespeare’s text: “It matters not to me whether Shakspeare be well or ill acted; with him the thought suffices.” Which is to say, Shakespeare’s own words and ideas are what really matter.

When Hackett called at the White House, John Hay recorded some of his conversation with the president. Lincoln’s complaint about the absence of a certain scene in Henry IV, part 1 recalls the note of dissatisfaction that Stoddard reported in Lincoln’s demeanor as he watched Hackett’s performance.

The conversation at first took a professional turn, the President showing a very intimate knowledge of those plays of Shakespeare where Falstaff figures. He was particularly anxious to know why one of the best scenes in the play[—]that where Falstaff & Prince Hal alternately assume the character of the King[—]is omitted in the representation. Hackett says it is admirable to read but ineffective on the stage. That there is generally nothing sufficiently distinctive about the actor who plays Henry to make an imitation striking.

If he hadn’t encountered it earlier, here Lincoln came smack up against the issue—all-important for theater professionals—of managing Shakespeare’s text on the basis of actability. Hay does not report what Lincoln thought of Hackett’s explanation, but another source does. Pennsylvania Representative William D. Kelley, who had brought the chaplain to the White House, also brought along a famous actor, John McDonough, to meet the president, who promptly asked his guest to tell him “something about Shakespeare’s plays as they are constructed for the stage.” Lincoln explained that he had recently discussed this matter with Hackett but had “elicited few satisfactory replies, though I probed him with a good many questions.” The president then read the passage from Henry IV, part 1 he had asked Hackett about (act 2, scene 4). This is the scene in which Falstaff, given leave by Prince Hal to play the role of his father, the King, uses the opportunity to heap praise on himself.

A goodly, portly man, i’faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye and a most noble carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or, by’r Lady, inclining to threescore. And now I remember me; his name is Falstaff. If that man should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me, for Harry, I see virtue in his looks.

Prince Hal then “deposes” Falstaff and, assuming the role of King, turns the tables on his drinking partner:

There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in years?

“Mr. McDonough,” said Lincoln after reading the entire scene, “can you tell me why those lines are omitted from the acting play? There is nothing I have read in Shakespeare, certainly nothing in Henry [IV] or the Merry Wives of Windsor, that surpasses its wit and humor.”

Lincoln’s reported conclusion about Hackett probably tells us what he considered to be the heart of the problem: “Hackett’s lack of information impressed me with a doubt as to whether he had ever studied Shakespeare’s text, or had not been content with the acting edition of his plays.” Theater professionals paid little attention to the authentic texts and therefore were indifferent to complaints about the unfaithful acting editions. The unavoidable conclusion is that the theatrical profession had different interests and different criteria from those of readers like Lincoln. His encounters with Hackett apparently left their imprint on the president. His son, Robert Todd Lincoln, told Hackett in an 1871 letter that his father often recalled their meetings: “In reading he would often quote you and not infrequently fight over again the battles of the Poet and the Acting Editions.”

Lincoln’s objection to the acting editions constitutes an important qualification to how he experienced Shakespeare on the Washington stage, and it helps us understand what he once told his friend Noah Brooks after seeing Edwin Booth perform in The Merchant of Venice: “It was a good performance but I had a thousand times rather read it at home.” He lent emphasis to his declaration by borrowing a phrase from the play he and Brooks had just seen, where Portia tells Bassanio that for his sake she could wish herself “a thousand times more fair.” Lincoln thus makes a clear distinction between the playgoer’s pleasure in seeing a skillful actor’s performance and his own much-preferred way of engaging Shakespeare—as a reader.

What is noteworthy here is not simply Lincoln’s idiosyncrasies; the implications of his reactions to the acting editions are much broader than that. Lincoln was a reader in an age when a rising tide of literacy and a revolution in printing and papermaking were helping to create a mass audience for literature. Shakespeare had made his mark as a playwright, and the theater had kept his name and his works alive for 250 years, but Lincoln came along at a time of change. While Cibber’s adaptation was still in vogue, even its champions were aware of its liabilities. As one of them wrote, “he has improved the play, but he has destroyed the poem.” But in Lincoln’s time, interest was shifting from the playwright to the poet, from the play to the poem. Critics of the era were beginning to point out that the full potential of what a poet like Shakespeare had to offer, especially in the tragedies, required time to weigh the words and consider the colorations and complexities of the figurative language, something that the theater did not afford. Others took the next logical step and argued that Shakespeare’s talents as a poet were not well suited to the conditions of the stage. 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.

Douglas L. Wilson is codirector of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. His most recent book is Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.

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