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Lincoln and Shakespeare: Together in Berkshire

Lincoln reflected upon how often, too often, the deaths of kings were violent. A leader reflected upon murdered leaders before he was murdered.

Thursday afternoon, August 14, at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, the Berkshire Theater Group and Chesterwood, a National Historic Site, presented “Lincoln’s Favorite Shakespeare” written and narrated by Lincoln biographer, Harold Holzer, and directed by Gordon Hyatt. This was a fund-raiser and was not intended for theatrical review.

Nonetheless, I can report the audience loved it. For an hour and nineteen minutes, the audience was engrossed – laughing, groaning, and gasping as if on cue. They were so intent upon hearing every word that when one hapless spectator crinkled a plastic wrapper, in unison the entire audience demanded “shh.” In mid-crinkle the spectator froze.

Credited with some 40 works about Lincoln, Holzer was what a biographer should be: both authoritative and filled with wonder, that is, he knew his subject thoroughly and still liked him.

Holzer used lines from Shakespeare’s plays to illuminate Lincoln’s life, and Lincoln’s comments to illuminate Shakespearean lines: the biographer contemplating Lincoln contemplating the Bard.

One hundred and fifty-one years ago almost to the day, on Aug. 17, 1863, Lincoln wrote to Shakespearean actor James Henry Hackett:
“I think the soliloquy in ‘Hamlet’ commencing ‘O, my offense is rank’ surpasses that commencing ‘To be or not to be.’ But pardon this small attempt at criticism.”

Lincoln was less impressed by a man asking if he should commit suicide than by a man asking if he can be forgiven when he refuses to forego the benefits of his crime.

It was riveting: one great man considering the words and ideas of another great man.

After dinner at the White House, guests would be treated to a reading by Lincoln. He held strong opinions about the interpretation of some lines. For example, Lincoln felt that the opening speech in “Richard III” – “Now is the winter of our discontent” — was routinely misread.

In his opinion, it was not a paean to Edward but a deeply cynical outpouring of an ambitious and jealous man. Read correctly, in Lincoln’s opinion, it should be a complicated man jealous of his brother’s power and position expressing sarcastically how great that brother is.

In the same letter, Lincoln named his favorite plays by Shakespeare: “Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think none equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.”

Biographer Douglas L. Wilson points out that wonderful is a unique word for Lincoln to use in earnest when it was a common word for him to use sarcastically especially when debating political opponents.

For example in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln said: “This argument seems wonderful to me. It is as if one should argue that white and black are not different.”

Holzer goes beyond the favorites that Lincoln lists in his letter and adds Henry V: a ruler in the time of war considering plays about a ruler in the time of war.

What did Lincoln feel about “this band of brothers” and the necessity to go “once more into the breach”?

The actors bringing Shakespeare’s words (and sometimes Lincoln’s) to life were: Fritz Weaver, Kathleen Chalfant, Chris Noth, and John Douglas Thompson.

Fritz Weaver was spectacular – raging to the heavens or the balcony – spitting out, crying out, or whispering the lines appropriately – drawing special applause. Weaver did indeed “speak the speech…trippingly on the tongue.” And “in the whirlwind of passion” Weaver did “acquire a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

With a twist on theater in Shakespearean England where men and boys played all the parts including female parts, it was Kathleen Chalfant who was Macbeth. Chris Noth was Hamlet and did “To Be or Not to Be” and Weaver did Lincoln’s preferred soliloquy by Claudius. John Douglas Thompson was Henry V. Each did other parts as well.

Holzer drew us through Lincoln’s life from his discovery of Shakespeare, his love of Shakespeare, his unwillingness to put his copy of Shakespeare’s plays down (he carried it with him), to Lincoln’s comments on the plays.

Lincoln read the plays to himself “as frequently as any unprofessional reader.” He read the plays aloud to others or quoted from memory.

Lincoln loved Shakespeare and soon everyone knew it. The political cartoonists got hold of the news, and oddly, Lincoln was criticized for it.

The program wove speeches from Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III with Lincoln’s comments about them. The performances of the actors broke up the biographical narrative illustrating a point, adding life, and energy.

Lincoln commented on the speeches given by Shakespeare’s characters as they die: “Too long,” he says. A much revered giver of speeches critiqued great dramatic speeches. Then Lincoln begged pardon for having the temerity to criticize Shakespeare.

And in the end…

“Let us sit upon the ground and speak of the death of kings.” Lincoln reflected upon how often, too often, the deaths of kings were violent. A leader reflected upon murdered leaders before he was murdered.

And so Lincoln was dead: killed in a theater by an actor.

The show closes with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s words sounding not unlike a Shakespearean epitaph: “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen. Now he belongs to the ages.”

They both do.


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