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Shakespeare & Beyond

Presidential Fools: Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, and comedy

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

Dominic Conti as Abraham Lincoln in the Reduced Shakespeare Company production of The Complete History of Comedy (abridged). Photo by Sandy Underwood. Used by permission.

Regular readers of this blog know well that Abraham Lincoln was devoted to Shakespeare. But did you know that America’s 16th president also invented stand-up comedy? It’s true!

Well…it’s true in the sense that it’s a hyperbolic exaggeration that the Reduced Shakespeare Company claims is true in The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), a show I co-wrote with Reed Martin. We based our extravagant assertion on the undeniable truth that Abraham Lincoln may have been our funniest, or at least wittiest, president. For example, as Lincoln remarked of one opponent, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met.” Reflecting on many people, maybe himself most especially included, Lincoln observed, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” And what would surely go viral today if only he were around to tweet it: “No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens.”

This is top-drawer observational comedy of the kind we’ve seen practiced by standup comedians for decades. Lincoln’s wit served him well in the legislature, out on the lawyer circuit, and in political debate, combining reflection with self-deprecation, a combination that Shakespeare used extensively.

It’s well-known that one of the few books available to young Lincoln was a collection of Shakespeare’s works, a copy of which he kept on his desk in the White House during his time in office. In a letter written in 1863, Lincoln confessed: “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…”

As funny as Lincoln was, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t list any of Shakespeare’s comedies as his favorites. Perhaps he loved the comedy of contrasts, in which a comic line or witty observation packs more punch against the backdrop of a serious or tragic tale. Perhaps, as he was writing to a famous tragedian, Lincoln reckoned that mentioning a comedy was below them both.