- Lincoln and Shakespeare by Michael Anderegg, and: Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford
The location of Abraham Lincoln's assassination has made this infamous event a continued point of inquiry not just for historians generally but for theatre researchers. Two recent books focus on the principal actors in that drama, and, while admirable works of scholarship, each would have been better served had the author had a firmer grounding in the theatre world of the mid-nineteenth century. [End Page 343]
Abraham Lincoln's fondness for Shakespeare has become something of a commonplace. In Lincoln and Shakespeare, Michael Anderegg examines the depth of the president's relationship to the Bard. Sensibly organized, this work analyzes the evidence of Lincoln as a reader and audience member while also examining Shakespeare's place in the popular culture of the time. Anderegg then turns his attention to the actors themselves, noting that many of the prominent Shakespeareans whose performances Lincoln attended also had personal contact with him. Throughout, the author does an excellent job of examining the available material and adjudicating its trustworthiness. He clearly states where he is operating on a basis of supposition and supports his conclusions commendably.
The image of Lincoln that emerges is one of a highly selective reader and an analytical, and often less than enthusiastic, spectator. While providing valuable insight into Lincoln's character, Anderegg cannot escape the fact that so little evidence exists on his subject. Only a small percentage of Lincoln's documented theatre attendance was for productions of Shakespeare, and his pronouncements on Shakespearean topics are few in number. As a result, Anderegg needs to cast a wide net to pull in enough material for a book-length study. For example, he dedicates considerable space to actor Charles W. Couldock's 1857 performances in Springfield while admitting that we cannot know whether Lincoln attended them. Elsewhere, Anderegg looks at Shakespearean allusions in Lincoln-era political cartoons. Fine so far, but it seems strange that in a chapter titled "Abraham Lincoln and America's Shakespeare," he is obliged to pull half the images from the British periodical Punch.
More crucially, Anderegg reveals a marked unfamiliarity with nineteenth-century theatre reviews. He mentions that critics both lauded and lambasted Couldock, adding, "neither of which tells us what kind of performer he was." (60) However, he then quotes several reviews that create a definite impression of Couldock's acting style. The same sensible approach Anderegg uses for other topics, such as how the young Lincoln may have been introduced to Shakespeare, he seems unable to apply to live performance. This is particularly unfortunate, given that the second half of the book focuses largely on that very topic. In the end, the reader is left with the impression that an interesting in-depth article (or two) has been stretched beyond its natural length.
Meanwhile, as Terry Alford states in the introduction to his new book, "Fortune's Fool is the first full-length biography of John Wilkes Booth ever written" (3). Other installments in the Booth canon focus, understandably, on his role as assassin. Scholarly, well-rounded accounts of Booth's whole life have been lacking, and Alford admirably fills this gap. [End Page 344]
The book is exhaustively and expertly researched. Alford seems to have gone through every statement on Booth in the public record and in diaries and letters of the actor's intimates. What he provides, in clear and animated prose, is the story of a deeply contradictory, though seldom conflicted, individual. Booth was remembered by some associates as a model of chivalry and professionalism, by others as the picture of shiftlessness and instability. Alford does honor to the historic record by presenting both sides of the voluminous testimony regarding Booth's character, though in places he could have made stronger efforts to reconcile them.
He is similarly evenhanded when it comes to examining...