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January 15, 2012

Lincoln on Shakespeare

Douglas L. Wilson has a lovely article that tries to make sense of what we know about Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare. He argues that one fact about the performance of Shakespeare at the time illuminates comments Lincoln made to actors and friends. (No spoilers here, my friends!)

BTW, we learn early on in the article that Lincoln thought Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy was outdone by the one in which Claudius wonders whether forgiveness is possible for his murder of his brother.

Oh, my offence is rank. It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not.
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall
Or pardoned being down? Then I’ll look up.
My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn, “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
There is no shuffling. There the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limèd soul that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels. Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.
All may be well. (kneels)

[(SparkNotes’ translation is here.]

I’ll stay away from the cheap psychologizing about Lincoln’s interest in the forgivability of unforgivable crimes during a war waged at least in part against slavery. Instead I’ll offer cheap psychologizing about the theme of the doubleness of self — with the attendant heightened perception of one’s self as always at issue — that seems to go through Lincoln’s favorite passages.

Finally, I might note that articles like this one show the value of experts, something we dare not lose in the networking of knowledge (in case anyone was wondering).

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December 26, 2008

The Lincoln Memorial rededication

Like every New Yorker reader, I am perpetually behind. But I’ve been greatly enjoying reading issues from before the election. Knowing how it turns out relieves all the stress.

It also deepens the joy. Thomas Mallon has a terrific article (book review, actually) in the Oct. 13 issue, about how our view of Lincoln has changed over the years. For example, when the Lincoln Memorial was first opened, in 1922, Lincoln was celebrated as the Great Unifier, not the Great Emancipator. Here’s how the article concludes:

In 1909, the Reverend L. H. Magee, the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, voiced his disgust at the exclusion of blacks from the town’s centennial dinner, but he imagined that by the time of the bicentennial, in 2009, racial prejudice would be “relegated to the dark days of ‘Salem witchcraft.’ ” Next year’s Lincoln commemorations in Washington will include the reopening of Ford’s Theatre, restored for performances for the second time since 1893, when its interior collapsed, killing twenty-two people. Congress will convene in a joint session on February 12th, and on May 30th the still new President will rededicate the Lincoln Memorial. The look and the emphasis of the occasion will have changed—measurably, for certain; astoundingly, perhaps—in the fourscore and seven years since 1922.

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