Lincoln, Churchill & Shakespeare

Abraham Lincoln and Literature

In 1849, Abraham Lincoln sought to be federal commissioner of lands. He lost that post and was offered the territorial governorship of Oregon as a consolation prize. Under the influence of his wife Mary, Lincoln turned it down. When a congressman from Chicago much later suggested that his decision had been providential, Lincoln replied: “Yes, you are probably right,” adding, “I have all my life been a fatalist. What is to be, will be; or, rather, I have found all my life, as Hamlet says, —

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.'”1

Lincoln loved poetry in general and William Shakespeare in particular. Lincoln discovered the Scottish poet Robert Burns at the age of 22 when he migrated to New Salem, Illinois, in 1831. Among Lincoln’s favorite poems of Burns was “Letter to a Young Friend,” in which one can see Lincoln’s own melancholy ambition. In 1860, after Lincoln saw busts of both Shakespeare and Burns in the newspaper office of the Chicago Record, he remarked: “They are my two favorite authors, and I must manage to see their birthplaces some day, if I can contrive to cross the Atlantic.”2 The time never came.

But it never stopped Mr. Lincoln from reading the work of the Bard. Mr. Lincoln “read Shakespeare more than all other writers together,” wrote aide John Hay. Evenings in Washington, Mr. Lincoln liked to read aloud. In August 1863, Hay wrote in his diary: “I went with him to the Soldiers’ Home & he read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry VI and the beginning of Richard III till my heavy eye-lids caught his considerate notice & he sent me to bed.”3 Later, Hay wrote: “He passed many of the summer evenings in this way when occupying his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. He would there read Shakespeare for hours with a single secretary for audience. The plays he most affected were Hamlet, Macbeth, and the series of Histories; among the latter, he never tired of Richard the Second. The terrible outburst of grief and despair into which Richard falls in the Third Act, had a peculiar fascination for him; we have heard him read it at Springfield, at the White House and the Soldiers Home.”

For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground.
And tell sad stories of the death of kings: –
How some have been deposed, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed;
All murdered: – For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king,
Keeps death his court: and there the antick sits
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks;
infusing him with self and vain conceit, —
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,
Comes at last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, King!4

In spare moments at night, Lincoln found solace and entertainment in reciting Shakespeare. While plotting the capture of Norfolk in May 1862, Lincoln recited the speech of Queen Constance from King John. The queen’s lament about her son apparently reflected Lincoln’s own grief about the death of his son Willie in February 1862. When Lincoln concluded, he said: “Did you ever dream of some lost friend and feel that you were having a sweet communion with him, and yet have a consciousness that it was not a reality?…That is the way I dream of my lost boy Willie.”5

Attorney Henry C. Whitney wrote: “Shakespeare was to him more than to the average great man. He read it over and over again, and was especially fond of the political characters, as Richard, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and the like….But while he was not averse to quoting other poetry in public, he never, to my knowledge, did quote either from Shakespeare or Byron, except in the circles of his close friends.”6 Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite play – or so he told Charlotte Cushman who played Lady Macbeth at Grover’s Theater in October 1862.7 President and Mrs. Lincoln attended along with their son Tad.

Adolphe Pineton, the Marquis de Chambrun, accompanied the presidential party back to Washington from newly-captured Richmond in April 1865: “On Sunday, April 9th, we were proceeding up the Potomac. That whole day the conversation turned on literary subjects. Mr. Lincoln read aloud to us for several hours. Most of the passages he selected were from Shakespeare, especially Macbeth. The lines after the murder of Duncan, when the new king falls a prey to moral torment, were dramatically dwelt on. Now and then he paused to expatiate on how exact a picture. Shakespeare here gives of a murderer’s mind when, the dark deed achieved, its perpetrator already envies his victim’s calm sleep. He read scene over twice.”8

In World War II, Winston Churchill faced a more formidable task when he confronted with the German blitz of London. On October 15, 1940, nearly 500 German planes dropped 70,000 firebombs on the city. In order to save the city, Churchill decided that “To the basements” must be replaced by “To the roofs.” London was mobilized to fight nightly fires and to save such symbols as St. Paul’s Cathedral. Churchill understood the wisdom of Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who said before the battle of Agincourt that “all things be ready if our minds be so.” Shakespeare’s Henry V was a recurring Churchill theme of the war. General Hastings Ismay noted one parachute commander said as he entered his plane: “And gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”9 In early February 1943, Churchill addressed British soldiers of the Eighth Army who had defeated German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In closing, he said that “after the war when a man is asked what he did it will be quite sufficient for him to say, ‘I marched and fought with the Desert Army.’”10 In a staff memo in July 1943, Churchill closed with a quotation from Act IV of Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.
And we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures.11

Whereas Lincoln found his relaxation in going to the theater, Churchill found his in seeing movies, primarily on Saturday nights at Chequers. On the night of his murder, Lincoln was at the theater, watching a comedy. Just as often, he watched Shakespeare. After attended a performance of King Lear in January, 1865, Lincoln said: “I have only one reproach to make of Shakespeare’s heroes – that they make long speeches when they are killed.”12 He also objected to James Hackett’s “reading of a passage where Hackett said, ‘Mainly thrust at me’ the President thinking it should read ‘mainly thrust at me.’” The President added that “the dying speech of Hotspur an unnatural and unworthy thing.”13

When the film Henry V was shown at Chequers in November 1944, Churchill “went into ecstasies about it.”14 Historian Max Hastings noted that in August 1944, Churchill “was moved… not least because he was in no doubt about who was playing the king’s part in England comparable mid-twentieth-century epic.”15 Churchill did not often attend the theater during World War I, but Winston and Clementine went to see Richard III on October 4, 1944.16 In the 1950s, Churchill attended a performance of Hamlet in which Richard Burton played the title role. From the front of the theater, Churchill recited Hamlet’s lines right along with Burton. “I could not shake him off,” Burton subsequently complained. “I tried going fast, I tried going slow; we did cuts. Every time there was a cut an explosion occurred. He knew the play absolutely backward; he knows perhaps a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays intimately.”17 While a student at Harrow, Churchill had memorized Shakespeare. At 13 he had competed in a school contest to learn a thousand lines of Shakespeare, narrowly losing.18

Lincoln “was particularly fond of a play of Shakespeare well acted,” wrote John Hay. “He was so delighted with Hackett in Falstaff that he wrote him a letter of warm congratulation which pleased the veteran actor so much that he gave it to the New York Herald, which printed it with abusive comments. Hackett was greatly mortified and made suitable apologies; upon which the President wrote to him again in the kindliest manner saying: “Give yourself no uneasiness on the subject….I certainly did not expect to see my note in print; yet I have not been much shocked by the comments upon it. They are a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule, without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.”19 Telegraph operator David Homer Bates wrote that the president ‘was very fond of Hackett personally and of the character of Falstaff, and frequently repeated some of the latter’s quaint sallies. I recall in his recitation for my benefit he criticized some of Hackett’s readings.”20

Artist Francis Carpenter recalled a conversation with President Lincoln before he went to the theater to see Edwin Booth in the role of Hamlet: “There is one passage of the play of ‘Hamlet’ which is very apt to be slurred over by the actor or omitted altogether, which seems to me the choicest part of the play. It is the soliloquy of the king, after the murder. It always struck me as one of the finest touches of nature in the world.” After that, President Lincoln delivered the soliloquy of King Claudius.21 William O. Stoddard recalled: “There were some persons even then who criticized the President severely for his heartless wickedness in ever going to a theatre or listening to music or any such frivolity at a time when the affairs of the nation required him to sit in a corner and weep whenever he was not signing commissions for officeseekers or listening to delegations of solemn functionaries, clerical or other, who came to advise him on the conduct of the war and on his own conduct and that of his generals and of Congress:

The house was crowded, and there were many soldiers in uniform who had obtained furloughs that they might come and hear Hackett and have an evening’s relief from the monotony of camp life. It appeared to me, also, that there were present an abnormal number of opera glasses, all of which from time to time were aimed at our box.

Hackett had not yet made his appearance when there came a brief and unexpected experience. One of the President’s oversensitive critics had a seat away back toward the entrance, and his soul, if he had one, was moved within him. He arose on his feet and shouted out something like this: “There he is! That’s all he cares for his poor soldiers.”

The President did not move a muscle, but another party, in uniform, was instantly up, declaring vociferously, ‘De President haf a right to his music! Put out dot feller! De President ees all right! Let him haf his music!”

There was a confused racket for a few seconds, and then the luckless critic went out of the theatre, borne on the strong arms of several boys in blue who agreed with their German comrade as to the right of Abraham Lincoln to as much theatrical relief as they themselves were having.22

Lincoln could be a critic – especially when engaging with Shakespearean actors. He told actor John McDonough: “I am very glad to see you, sir, for I want to learn something of Shakespeare. I don’t get much time to study his writings, and I want to put some questions to you that I put to Mr. Hacket[t]. I will tell you frankly that Mr. Hackett’s replies on one or two of the points were very unsatisfactory to me; they almost impressed me with a doubt as to whether he studies Shakespeare thoroughly, or only the acting plays.” Lincoln then lectured another visitor: “Probably you do not know that the acting plays are not the plays as Shakespeare wrote them. Richard III, for instance, begins with passages from Henry VI; then you get a portion of Richard III; then more of Henry VI; and then there is one of the best known soliloquies, which is not Shakespeare’s at all, but was written by quite another man – by Colley Cibber, was it not, Mr. McDonough?”23 President Lincoln told artist Francis Carpenter: “The opening of the play of ‘King Richard the Third’ seems to me often entirely misapprehended. It is quite common for an actor to come upon the stage, and in a sophomoric style, to begin with a flourish:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried!”

Lincoln continued: “Now, this is all wrong. Richard, you remember, had been, and was then, plotting the destruction of his brothers, to make room for himself. Outwardly, the most loyal to the newly crowned king, secretly he could scarcely contain his impatience at the obstacles still in the way of his own elevation. He appears upon the stage, just after the crowning of Edward, burning with repressed hate and jealousy. The prologue is the utterance of the most intense bitterness and satire.”24

Certainly, both Lincoln and Churchill knew about bitterness and satire. But they rose above it. As Hamlet said to Horatio:

‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

For Further Reference

  1. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 81.
  2. James Grant Wilson, “Recollections of Lincoln,” Putnam’s Monthly, February 1909, p. 517.
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 282 (August 19, 1863).
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 137.
  5. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 78. (Le Grand B. Cannon).
  6. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 424.
  7. See Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her circle of Female Spectators, pp. 227-231.
  8. Marquis de Chambrun, Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War: a Foreigner’s Account, p. 83.
  9. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 357.
  10. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941-1945, p. 330.
  11. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory, 1941-1945, p. 442. R. Crosby Kemper wrote: “While [Churchill’s] wartime speeches echoed the great speeches at Harfleur and Agincourt of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Churchill’s real sympathy was with the great opponent of the English, Joan of Arc. Far from the ‘hollow empire’ of Henry V with its wasteful search for military glory was her noble simplicity, from which the whole conception of France seems to have sprung and radiated…'” R. Crosby Kemper (III.) Winston Churchill: Resolution, Defiance, Magnanimity, Good Will, p. 25.
  12. Don E. And Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 294 (August Laugel, diary, January 13, 1965, p. 88).
  13. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 128 (December 19, 1863).
  14. John Colville, The Fringes of Power: The Incredible Inside Story of Winston Churchill, p. 529 (November 25, 1944).
  15. Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 295. p. 403.
  16. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 982.
  17. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 60.
  18. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 21.
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 136.
  20. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the Untied States Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War, p. 223.
  21. Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, p. 50.
  22. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 165.
  23. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 277 (speech of William D. Kelly, April 26, 1865).
  24. Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, pp. 50-52.
Posted in Essays