Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 139

There are lots of stories about Abraham Lincoln and his passion for Shakespeare. Some are true, while others are made up out of whole cloth. We talk to scholar Michael Anderegg about Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare and the anecdotes that recount it. Why do these stories fascinate us? What can they tell us about Lincoln, and about Shakespeare’s place in the American story?

Michael Anderegg is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of numerous books including Cinematic Shakespeare, and Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture. His book Lincoln and Shakespeare was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2015. Anderegg is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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From the Folger's Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published March 3, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Welcome, My Tall Fellow,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: In the 19th century, Americans loved Shakespeare. Theaters produced Shakespeare. Other theaters produced parodies of Shakespeare. There were other theaters that did Shakespeare plays by people who weren’t Shakespeare. There were Shakespeare plays with different endings. Politicians quoted Shakespeare. All the time. And for one American in the 19th century—arguably the most prominent American of the 19th century—the love of Shakespeare was so well known that some people just liked to make up stories about it.

[Music plays]

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The prominent American I’m talking about is the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

It was well-known in his time that Lincoln read Shakespeare and that he went to plays when he could. But Lincoln is such a mythical figure in American history that there are plenty of stories about him that are made up out of whole cloth, including stories about Lincoln and Shakespeare.

In 2015, Michael Anderegg wrote a book that tries to separate the myth from the reality. The book is called Lincoln and Shakespeare, and it takes a deep dive into some of the most-told stories to try and figure out which ones are real and which ones are bunk. Professor Anderegg came into our studio in Washington, DC recently to give us a sample in a podcast episode we call “Welcome, My Tall Fellow.”

Michael Anderegg is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: There are so many stories about Lincoln and Shakespeare. Why don’t we start with some Lincoln/Shakespeare myth-busting? And maybe you could tell me a story or two about the Shakespeare connection, and I’ll try and guess whether it’s true or not. Does that work, Michael?

MICHAEL ANDEREGG: Well, sure. Yeah, we can do that. I can start with the story of Lincoln’s young secretary, John Hay, who went to the soldier’s home with Lincoln one night in the summertime. Late into the evening Lincoln started reading Henry VI, Part Three of Shakespeare and the beginning of Richard III. As he was reading he looked over at John Hay and noticed that his eyelids were closed. So Lincoln very kindly told him to go bed. That’s a good evidence of Lincoln reading Shakespeare to a friend, associates, family. You can guess that one.

BOGAEV: I was going to say I’ve had people fall asleep on me while I’m reading out loud to them. But is it true? Yeah, I’ll say it is. I’ll say yes.

ANDEREGG: Yes. I believe it is. John Hay actually wrote about this in his diary the next day. And there was no reason for him to make up stories. And so I find that a convincing story, and it’s also interesting because it shows that Lincoln was reading some of the less well-known plays of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Was he embarrassed that he fell asleep?

ANDEREGG: Oh, he was embarrassed in a way, but he was used to Lincoln doing things like that. The other story he tells is of Lincoln coming into his room—he had a room at the White House that he shared with the other secretary, John Nicolay. In the middle of the night, Lincoln, in his nightgown, would sort of trot down to Hay and Nicolay’s room, sit on the bed and read some poetry to him, including Shakespeare and others.

BOGAEV: Really? Sounds kind of great but also a little annoying to travel with Lincoln.

ANDEREGG: Yes. I think Hay wasn’t altogether charmed by it.

BOGAEV: Okay, why don’t we try another one. What other stories do you want to run by me?

ANDEREGG: I’ll tell you another story. Yes. This is in the White House—in fact, close to the time of the assassination. Where Lincoln went downstairs one morning and started telling about his dream that he had the night before. And it was a dream that he saw himself lying on a bier, dead in the White House. He says that this is haunting him right now, like Banquo’s ghost. He also made several allusions to Hamlet as he retold this story. You think that one’s true or not true?  

BOGAEV: Okay, I’ve heard this one. This is fairly often told. And I’ve always thought, “Oh, that just sounds too perfect.” Also, I don’t trust when people dream of something happening the next day. So I’m going to say no, not true. False.

ANDEREGG: Yes. I think it’s not true. There were a number of stories after Lincoln’s assassination suggesting that he had dreams about dying or that he had some sort of second sight about it. Of course it was easy to say that after he had been assassinated. The other problem with this story is that the person who told the story was generally thought to be unreliable.

BOGAEV: Okay, I’m two for two. Let’s go for a hat trick.

ANDEREGG: Okay, one other story. Perhaps the one that includes much more of Shakespeare than other stories do, is again a story that takes place only a few days before Lincoln’s assassination. When he comes back from his visit to Richmond, he’s on a boat with other people. He starts to read from various plays, but mostly Macbeth, including the passages that have to do with Macbeth’s murder of Duncan. And again, this seems like… well, I’ll let you decide what’s it seems like. I don’t want to preempt your response. What do you think of that story?

BOGAEV: Well it certainly sounds credible. Sure. Yes. I’m going to say it’s true. Did it happen?

ANDEREGG: Okay, yeah. I think it is credible, even though it might seem surprising that Lincoln would be talking about a play that involves the assassination of a king right before his own assassination. But what makes this story credible is that there were several different witnesses to it, including Charles Sumner, the republican senator, and the young Frenchman, a marquis, who was on the boat at the same time, and Lincoln’s daughter-in-law. So that’s pretty good evidence.

BOGAEV: Well, did you go into this knowing that there were tall tales about Lincoln’s connection to Shakespeare? Or did you walk in thinking, “Okay, most of these stories must be true.”

ANDEREGG: Yes, that’s a good question. I assumed that the stories were generally true, and it wasn’t until I started doing the research that I was able to pretty much dismiss some of them right off the bat. Others I would put in the “I’m not sure” category. And then others were fairly supported by various kinds of evidence.

BOGAEV: Before we talk about the ins and outs of this, why do we care what Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Shakespeare was? I mean, what is so significant about this American President’s connection to this playwright?

ANDEREGG: Yes. There’re several ways of looking at that. One of them, of course, is the idea that because Lincoln was a backwoodsman from the wilds of the frontier, that he had virtually no formal education. It was surprising to people that Lincoln would have read Shakespeare, would have attended Shakespeare productions. All of that created a kind of conflict in people’s view of Lincoln.

BOGAEV: And we’re going to talk a little bit more about this I’m sure, but… I mean, is this a way into a psychohistory of Lincoln? The fact that he read the plays deeply and the plays that he did like, and perhaps it gives us some insight into how he did feel about the war and the deaths he perhaps felt responsible for?

ANDEREGG: Yes. I mean it’s notable that Lincoln was particularly interested in the tragedies and in the history plays. And after a particularly horrible battle, Lincoln would turn to Shakespeare as a way of coming to some sort of way of dealing with some of the horrible things that the Civil War brought about.

Some people have even suggested that Lincoln felt so much guilt about it that he naturally turned to plays with guilty protagonists, as Macbeth is. He particularly liked the speech in Hamlet that Claudius delivers where he confesses that he indeed has killed his brother and feels horribly guilty about it.

It may be, you know, reading too much into things that don’t really prove that much. But there’s no doubt that Lincoln—and not only Lincoln… in the 19th century other people also were interested in the history plays and the tragedies, and the way that Shakespeare dealt with the question of legitimate rule and illegitimate rule, and tyranny, and those issues that were alive to 19th-century Americans.

BOGAEV: And that’s my next question, because wasn’t everyone just dripping in Shakespeare in Lincoln’s time? And you quote a lot of speeches from the Congressional record that contain passages from Shakespeare.

ANDEREGG: Yes, I mean I wouldn’t say everyone. Most people, their exposure to Shakespeare was primarily through the theater. Shakespeare was very popular on the stage in the 19th century. They probably didn’t read Shakespeare that much. A lot of people, of course, weren’t literate. And then the educated people, like the senators and congressmen, did cite Shakespeare in their speeches. Now, again, some of that is sort of like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. There are certain passages from Shakespeare that everybody knew even if they had never read the play that the passage appeared in.

BOGAEV: Right? And Bartlett’s came out at this time, didn’t it? It was like brand new, so people must—speech writers must have been… just been all over that thing. I mean they are still. Must have been a great new tool.

ANDEREGG: Exactly. Yes. Bartlett did literally come out around the time that Lincoln was a teenager. So what I did is, I tried to track down every allusion to see if it was in Bartlett’s. In some cases they were and in some case they weren’t.

BOGAEV: Well, switching gears, and just to put a finer point on it, Lincoln didn’t spend that much time in formal schooling. So do we even know if he ever studied Shakespeare in school?

ANDEREGG: Yes. Well, we don’t know if he studied Shakespeare in school. What we do know is that one of the three or four most popular textbooks—the equivalent to what later would be McGuffey Readers—those books, several of them had passages from Shakespeare in them. And one of them called Lessons in Elocution, Lincoln’s mother very likely owned a copy of it. What it had were numerous passages from various poets. But most of the passages were from Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And we had a guest recently on the podcast who talked about those books.

ANDEREGG: Yes, I listened to that podcast. Yes.

BOGAEV: Oh, great. And thank you so much, I’m so glad. Then you’ve heard that he said, often, or almost always, the writers of the textbooks, they featured these excerpts, but they didn’t identify sources. So if students were reading from Shakespeare’s plays in that era, they had often no idea it was by Shakespeare. When did Lincoln make the connection that, “Oh, those things I read back in that reader. That was Shakespeare.”

ANDEREGG: Yeah, that particular book, Lessons in Elocution, did identify the passages from Shakespeare. Others may not have, but I know that because I’ve actually looked at a copy.

BOGAEV: Lectures were so big at that time too. I guess it was like TED Talks, right? Did Lincoln attend a lot of lectures?

ANDEREGG: Yes, well, that’s right. That’s right. I don’t know about a lot, but we know that he attended some. And we also know that he himself prepared that kind of lecture. The Young Men’s Lyceum was the name of the organization in Springfield that sponsored lectures. Lecturers would come to town and often they would lecture on Shakespeare, among other things.

We know that one particular lecturer who came to Springfield met Lincoln and talked with him, and Lincoln actually sponsored one of the lectures. He would hear Shakespeare talked about as well as hear Shakespeare read in that setting. And that was popular. Reading Shakespeare and then talking about what you just read was one form of popular lecture.

BOGAEV: And it sounds like it was no myth that Lincoln really did know his Shakespeare pretty well. You quote some people who tell stories about that. In fact, you have a passage you could read for us, perhaps, in which they talk about Lincoln quoting Shakespeare.

ANDEREGG: Yeah, this is from John Littlefield, and as a young aspiring lawyer, he worked in Lincoln’s office. He remembered that Lincoln could recite whole passages from Shakespeare—from Hamlet particularly—with wonderful effect, he says. A particularly vivid description of Lincoln reading was given by Isaiah Grinnell, who described Lincoln’s enjoyment repeating a line he had recently heard spoken in Henry IV. “Mister Lincoln rose from his chair and stepped out from behind the table, struck an attitude, and raised his hand as if in holy horror.This world is given to lying,’ he said.” Several relatives and acquaintances from his youth commented on Lincoln’s skill at mimicry.  

BOGAEV: Ha. That’s so vivid. Another person that comes up in your book is somebody called Jack Kelso, who may or may not have gotten Lincoln interested in Shakespeare, and may or may or may not know whether Lincoln knew his Shakespeare well. So, who was Jack Kelso?

ANDEREGG: Yes. Not only that, but he may or may not have actually existed. Jack Kelso was supposedly a school teacher. Some people described him as a village poet. Some people thought of him as the village drunkard. But the idea was that he was very interested in Shakespeare and in fishing. He and Lincoln would go fishing together and they would recite Shakespeare to each other. The person that tells this story adds that although Lincoln loved Shakespeare, he didn’t really much care for fishing.

BOGAEV: That whole story sounds fishy, personally... Sorry for that.

ANDEREGG: Well, yeah. It probably is. But it’s true that at least four or five people who knew Lincoln as a young man, mention Jack Kelso.

BOGAEV: One of those enduring myths about Lincoln is him riding the circuit as a young lawyer with a copy of Shakespeare in his saddlebag. I called it a myth. So, is it a myth and where does it come from?

ANDEREGG: I mean it’s not necessarily a myth. It comes from John Todd Stuart who was a law partner of Lincoln’s and who traveled the circuit with him. The problem with this story is that he tells it many years later, and by that time everybody knew that Lincoln read Shakespeare. So, it’s perhaps a little convenient and just a little too pat to say that he had Shakespeare’s works in one saddlebag and he had his law books in the other saddlebag. It’s not impossible.

BOGAEV: You’re right, though it does sound very convenient and it leaves him very little for food in his saddlebags, or matches.

ANDEREGG: Yeah, that is true. And if it was Shakespeare’s complete works it would’ve taken up a fair amount of room. On the other hand, it’s not likely that Lincoln had a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, because it was a fairly expensive book. But it’s a story again that reinforces the idea, and it’s told by someone who’s fairly reputable.

BOGAEV: And we know that Lincoln loved theater. There is this wonderful story about the Illinois Theatrical Company in Springfield that speaks to that and this whole conversation we’re having. Why don’t you tell us that?

ANDEREGG: Yes, that’s probably my favorite story. And it’s a good example of something that sounds like myth but many many years later, evidence is discovered that supports it. And this was that the Illinois Theatrical Company was an organization founded by Joseph Jefferson Senior and a partner. Joseph Jefferson Junior, who became famous throughout the 19th century for playing Rip Van Winkle on the stage, he was a kid at the time that his father’s company went to Springfield.

They opened a theater there and they were going to put on some plays, but the city fathers didn’t let them do it because a lot of them were fairly conservative Christians and they didn’t believe in theater.

And so the Jefferson Company hired a young lawyer to argue their case and he gave, evidently, according to Joseph Jefferson, a brilliant defense of the theater and traced its origins back to Greek and Roman sources, and was so convincing that the city fathers reversed themselves. Of course Jefferson ends the story, which he told on the stage a number of times, by saying, “And of course you may not realize this but that young lawyer was Abraham Lincoln.” And so, it’s a great story.

BOGAEV: Of course he was. Because Abraham Lincoln was the only lawyer in America at the time.

ANDEREGG: Right. But the interesting thing about this story is that only recently, maybe in the last 20 years, Lincoln’s legal cases have all become available and transcribed and put online. And one of those cases involved the Illinois Theatrical Company. Very little is said about it, except that Lincoln was paid three dollars and 50 cents.

BOGAEV: How much was he paid?

ANDEREGG: He was paid $3.50 for his work on that case. And I hope Lincoln also got some free tickets.

BOGAEV: Huh. Did that theatrical company even do Shakespeare?

ANDEREGG: They did. Whether they did it in Springfield or not, we don’t know. It’s one of those cases where you have evidence from somewhere else, another town in Illinois. The plays that they put on happened to be reported in the newspapers. There’s a good chance that they included several Shakespeare plays.

BOGAEV: Well I guess in our chronology of Lincoln’s life, we’re up to the White House by now. How much did Shakespeare figure into Lincoln’s life during his time there?

ANDEREGG: Well there, it mostly was a matter of going to the theater. Something that in the early years of his administration, obviously he didn’t have much time to do. When he finally could relax a little bit is when his son died and he and Mrs. Lincoln went through a period of mourning.

So it wasn’t until 1863 that Lincoln first attended the theater. And that first time, that’s when he first saw James H. Hackett playing Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One. That was his first Shakespeare play that we know for sure that he saw. That’s how he came to know James Hackett, which is another story.

BOGAEV: Hackett a famous actor of the day, who wrote a book of commentary on Shakespeare’s plays that he sent to Lincoln as a present, right?

ANDEREGG: That’s right. He did. He saw that Lincoln had come to see him in Henry IV, Part One, so he took the opportunity to write Lincoln a note and say, “Thank you for coming, I hope you’ll come and see me again. And meanwhile here’s a book I’ve written, and so I hope you’ll accept that as a gift.”

About some months later, Lincoln got around to responding to Hackett, and he sent him a little note saying, “I was glad to see you as Falstaff and certainly enjoy seeing you again.” And then he actually… it’s a very brief letter, just a note really, but it’s long enough that he was able to say, “I’ve seen very little of the theater in my life, but I have read Shakespeare.”

Then he mentions his favorite plays: Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III. He also mentions oddly enough, Henry VIII. He also, there, mentions the fact that he likes the speech in Hamlet that Claudius delivers. “My offence is rank. It smells to heaven.” He preferred that to, “To be or not to be.”

That was a mistake on his part, because almost immediately after, Hackett took that letter, had it set up in print and sent it to the newspapers. So everybody knew that Lincoln was a Shakespeare critic. And everybody knew that Lincoln liked Shakespeare. But there were people who made fun of him. And so…

BOGAEV: What, how’d they make fun of him? You mean saying, “Here’s this country bumpkin, you know? Throwing around his weight.”

ANDEREGG: Yeah. Right. “Who does he think he is?” you know. That was one way. Even without saying too much they would just say, “Oh so Lincoln is a Shakespeare expert now.” Actually, it wasn’t just that he was made fun of, he was viciously attacked in the Southern newspapers. They pointed out that one of his favorite plays—and he says in fact his very favorite play is Macbeth—and the Southern newspapers said, “Of course he likes Macbeth, it’s about a murderous tyrant.”

BOGAEV: Well, how rude of Hackett.

ANDEREGG: Yeah, it was, and Lincoln forgave him. He wrote immediately to Lincoln and said, “I don’t know how this happened. What a surprise to me.” But of course, yeah... If Lincoln had actually read Hackett’s book, he would have discovered that Hackett did the same thing many years earlier with John Quincy Adams. He was a tireless self-promoter. But Lincoln forgave him.

BOGAEV: Oh, whoops. That’s a kind of… that’s a wonderful story. I mean it seems to illustrate that people will read into anything. It’s all determined by their opinion of the president, or in this case of Abraham Lincoln. It’s like Obama and the man in the tan suit, you know. You take whatever you’re handed in order to express what you already thought about them.

ANDEREGG: Right. Right. It was just an excuse for his enemies to have fun at his expense.

BOGAEV: I want to go back to what we were talking about before this great story, which is that Lincoln really knew his Shakespeare. But for a president who really knows his Shakespeare, he didn’t seem to quote him much in his speeches. Why do you think that was?

ANDEREGG: Yes, it’s a good question. He did not generally speak in quote from any poetry or literary text in his speeches. There’s one exception, and that was a speech he delivered in Peoria, Illinois before he was president in the 1850s. And in that speech he quotes several times from Macbeth and at least one or two times from Hamlet. It was an important speech. It was one of his earliest, most important speeches. And he thought so well of it, that he wrote it down and had it published in a Springfield newspaper.

That’s where the Shakespeare quotes are. It’s possible, some people suggested, that he added the quotes to make the speech a little more educated sounding, although the speech doesn’t really need the quotations. So, that is the only time that he directly quotes Shakespeare. But generally speaking, he didn’t.

I think one of the reasons was that he wrote in a style that was essentially simple in terms of language and syntax. A style that did not depend on any kind of classical or literary decoration. And he doesn’t quote from the Bible in his speeches either. And he clearly knew the Bible very well.

BOGAEV: Well it’s interesting that you have a lot of evidence of Lincoln knowing Shakespeare, having a pretty extensive attachment or involvement in Shakespeare. But there are also all these stories, some of which are true. We seem to be very enamored of these stories about Lincoln and his Shakespeare connection.

So now after writing this book, why do you think our collective portrait of Lincoln has this heavy sprinkling of Shakespeare? What is it about that that appeals to us, and that feeds our perception of Lincoln? Or what does it say about what Lincoln represents about America?

ANDEREGG: Well, it represents in part… Some people have actually suggested that Lincoln was in some ways was like Shakespeare. He was originally a young man of modest background, not a great education, who essentially made himself by his own efforts. The person who has a “right to rise,” as Lincoln would have said.

BOGAEV: Which is a very Democratic, very American ideal.

ANDEREGG: That’s right. I think it is. And so, I mean the odd thing about Shakespeare in America is that he was very popular among intellectuals, poets and so forth. And he was also even thought of in some ways as perhaps being more American than British. He was thought of as someone who was opposed to tyranny, was critical of various people who had tried to exploit their own power. Some people thought he was really—he should be an honorary American. And several writers in the 19th century went so far as to say, “We should adopt him.”

BOGAEV: I don’t know if you found any evidence for this, but I was thinking as I read your book, Lincoln had suffered a lot of tragedy in his life. He’d risen from very little, but particularly the fact that he had suffered in his life. His life reached these great dimensions of, I guess, Shakespearean tragedy. Whether that is part of the thrall that plays into this idea that we want to think of him as the great American President who so appreciated Shakespeare?

ANDEREGG: Well, it’s true that his own experience of tragedy no doubt fed into his interest in Shakespeare. There’s one particularly poignant story that was reported not long after his son Willy died. A visitor comes to see him and finds him with a book of Shakespeare in his lap. They start to speak and he says, “I want to read you something.”

He reads from a passage from another pretty obscure play—though the Folger did a wonderful production of it last year—of King John. But there’s a passage in there where the character Constance is lamenting the death of her son. And it’s a very moving passage where she talks about how she’s haunted by her child’s absence. Or, her child’s absence is a kind of presence to her. She feels his clothes on him. She feels him walking around. She imagines him back with her. And Lincoln read that story. According to the witness who saw him—he was a military officer—Lincoln wept as he read that passage. Clearly, that was a way of dealing somehow with his pain. Doing it through Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And that story, we know is true?

ANDEREGG: Well, I think it’s very likely to be true. As I say it was a colonel who knew Lincoln slightly and who visited him a number of times. That would be an odd story to invent out of a whole cloth, and there would be no reason to do so. So I’m fairly certain that that is a legitimate story.

BOGAEV: Well, Michael, thank you so much for the myths and for the history. I really appreciate it, and for talking today.

ANDEREGG: Well, thank you.


WITMORE: Michael Anderegg is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of numerous books including Cinematic Shakespeare, and Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture. His latest book, Lincoln and Shakespeare, was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2015. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “Welcome, My Tall Fellow,” was was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. That really is the best way to let people know about the work that we’re doing. Thanks so much for your help.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.