- Lincoln and Shakespeare. by Michael Anderegg
Lincoln’s interest in Shakespeare was often noted by his contemporaries and has played an important role is the development of Lincoln hagiography. According to most professional accounts, Lincoln had an abiding interest in Shakespeare for much of his life and was often associated with the playwright. Yet the significance of these associations is not immediately clear. How invested was Lincoln in Shakespeare and how much of this investment is part of hagiography? Which Shakespearean works do we know Lincoln read or saw performed? Which did he like and why? What was the impact of Shakespeare’s work on Lincoln’s own thoughts and writings? Michael Anderegg’s Lincoln and Shakespeare sets out to answer these questions and many related ones in what this reviewer believes is the first full-scale study of these two figures together. This work will no doubt be a useful reference for scholars interested in reception studies, Lincoln, the “Americanization” of Shakespeare, American theater history, material history, and nineteenth-century American culture. [End Page 96] Anderegg’s book is a model of good archival scholarship and is extraordinarily readable for a book that takes on what might seem like a rather specialized topic.
Pinning down Lincoln’s understanding of Shakespeare turns out to be a much more complex task than we might expect, in part because “Shakespeare is only infrequently mentioned or cited in Lincoln’s speeches and writings” (22). Also, “Whatever effect Shakespeare’s works may have had on Lincoln’s thought and emotions, they do not appear to have had much in the way of direct influence on Lincoln’s writing style; very little that could be described as ‘Shakespearean’ can be found in Lincoln’s writings, early or late” (33). Yet we know that Lincoln was an avid play-goer while in the White House and that he corresponded with at least one major Shakespearean actor in the nineteenth century, James Hackett, who was famous for his portrayal of Falstaff. For this reason, Anderegg’s book casts a wide net starting with an exploration of Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America, moving through the few Shakespearean references in Lincoln’s writing to the plays Lincoln was known to attend, and finally exploring his relationship with a few prominent Shakespearean actors in the United States. In this regard, the book can profitably be split into two parts. The first contains three chapters that relate Lincoln to Shakespeare as he was performed and studied in the nineteenth century. This ground has been well explored by previous scholars, most notably Lawrence Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow and Alden and Virginia Vaughan in Shakespeare in America. However, Anderegg does important work to connect Lincoln’s life with this scholarship. He looks at everything from the textbooks Lincoln would have used where he first encountered Shakespeare to the particular versions of specific plays Lincoln might have encountered in his travels. The second part consists of two chapters that look at Lincoln’s relationship to a number of prominent Shakespearean actors in the nineteenth century, especially Hackett. In these chapters, Anderegg takes an opportunity to read Lincoln’s correspondences closely to establish thoroughly how deep an investment Lincoln had with Shakespeare.
Chapter one explores the role Shakespeare had in nineteenth-century American culture and the reason he is intimately linked with Lincoln. Anderegg explains, “Lincoln’s interest in Shakespeare necessarily belonged to the wider history of how Shakespeare’s plays were received and understood in nineteenth-century America” (5). The nineteenth century was an era when better editions of Shakespeare were available, which, Anderegg argues contra Levine, changed the reception of the Bard. Although much of this chapter looks at material that would be familiar to scholars interested in Shakespeare in the United States, Anderegg does a wonderful job exploring how these things intersected with Lincoln. The highlight for this reader was seeing the way Shakespearean ideas [End Page 97] were integrated into political cartoons. We learn that Lincoln was portrayed as Othello, Oberon, and even Yorick’s skull.
Chapter two focuses on...