In 1863, James H. Hackett sent a copy of his Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare to the White HouseAbraham Lincoln wrote a note of thanks and revealed his Shakespearean reading habits. He had read some “as frequently as any unprofessional reader,” listed several tragedies, and added “I think nothing equals Macbeth.”

David Bromwich follows up on this clueto track the effect that Shakespeare had on Lincoln’s political imagination. He observes that Lincoln did speak of “the inward pressure of his love of fame. It is clear from his speeches, writings, and actions that he struggled against ambition in order not to let it prevail over his sense of justice. It was a struggle, and it never ended.”

Where might he have learned of the dangers of ambition? Bromwich thinks that Shakespeare is a source, Macbeth in particular. He finds multiple echoes of Macbeth in an 1848 speech criticizing Polk’s ambitions in the Mexican War: “Those images appear as a phantasmagoria of floating causes, yet, at the same time, they confess the concrete reality of his guilt. Macbeth has pursued an object of dangerous allure beyond the reach of self-understanding. The speech that opens Act 2, which begins, ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’ - that speech, for one, throws a shadow forward into actual history in the accusation by Lincoln against a president who seems to have become a usurper. Macbeth is referred to, elsewhere in the play, as an equivocator, and the same epithet by implication is extended by Lincoln to President Polk in his dealings with Mexico and his evasive explanations to the American people. Lincoln’s description of such an adventurer having ‘swept, on and on,’ makes us aware, too, of the resonance in his mind of the words of Macbeth: ‘I am in blood, / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’”

An additional, chilling layer: A photo accompanying Bromwich’s article in the NYRB shows John Wilkes Booth dressed as Mark Antony with his brothers as Brutus and Cassius.

More on: Shakespeare, Lincoln

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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