It was the measure of Shakespeare's poetic greatness, an early commentator remarked, that he thoroughly blended the ideal with the practical or realistic. “If this be so,” Walt Whitman wrote, "I should say that what Shakespeare did in poetic expression, Abraham Lincoln essentially did in his personal and official life."
Whitman was only one of many to note the affinity between these two iconic figures. Novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights have frequently shown Lincoln quoting Shakespeare. In Lincoln and Shakespeare, Michael Anderegg for the first time examines in detail Lincoln’s fascination with and knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays. Separated by centuries and extraordinary circumstances, the two men clearly shared a belief in the power of language and both at times held a fatalistic view of human nature. While citations from Shakespeare are few in his writings and speeches, Lincoln read deeply and quoted often from the Bard's work in company, a habit well documented in diaries, letters, and newspapers. Anderegg discusses Lincoln’s particular interest in Macbeth and Hamlet and in Shakespeare’s historical plays, where we see themes that resonated deeply with the president—the dangers of inordinate ambition, the horrors of civil war, and the corruptions of illegitimate rule.
Anderegg winnows confirmed evidence from myth to explore how Lincoln came to know Shakespeare, which editions he read, and which plays he would have seen before he became president. Once in the White House, Lincoln had the opportunity of seeing the best Shakespearean actors in America. Anderegg details Lincoln's unexpected relationship with James H. Hackett, one of the most popular comic actors in America at the time: his letter to Hackett reveals his considerable enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Lincoln managed, in the midst of overwhelming matters of state, to see the actor's Falstaff on several occasions and to engage with him in discussions of how Shakespeare’s plays should be performed, a topic on which he had decided views. Hackett's productions were only a few of those Lincoln enjoyed as president, and Anderegg documents his larger theater-going experience, recreating the Shakespearean performances of Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Forrest, and others, as Lincoln saw them.
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Michael Anderegg is professor emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota. His books include Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture and Cinematic Shakespeare.Review:
"Andregg’s account of American access to and reception of Shakespeare during the middle of the nineteenth century enriches our understanding of Lincoln, but this book is at least equally satisfying read as a volume on the intellectual, literary, and theatrical history of America."—American Political Thought
"This is an entertaining read, as it is as much about theatre in Lincoln’s America as it is about Shakespeare and Lincoln, and helps us understand how the 16th President came to be a master of the English language."—New York Military Affairs Symposium
"This book performs a real service to those interested in Abraham Lincoln, the theater, and William Shakespeare."—Civil War Book Review
"While Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare is well documented, Michael Anderegg has produced the first full-scale study of that important subject. In addition to skillfully examining the ways that the dramas that Lincoln read or saw were published and performed, Professor Anderegg plausibly analyzes his responses to them. This is a most welcome addition to the Lincoln literature."—Michael Burlingame, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life
“Marvelously in-depth research. Anderegg has effectively turned mined archives into an engaging account—smoothly written with a refreshing lack of jargon. There is much to learn here.—Robert Bray, author of Reading with Lincoln
"This deeply researched and engaging book thoroughly explores Lincoln’s lifelong ‘Shakespearean journey’ and helps us see even more complexity and nuance in our most admired president."—Martin P. Johnson, author of Writing the Gettysburg Address
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