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Lincoln as Literary Critic

May 20th, 2006 | 1 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

On a recent reading of some of Abraham Lincoln's letters and speeches, I discovered this interesting line in a letter to James Hackett, a Shakespearian actor:

Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "O, my offence is rank" surpasses that commencing "To be, or not to be." But pardon this small attempt at criticism.

I am mainly impressed by Lincoln's familiarity with the play and his willingness to offer critical opinions about it. For some reason, I have a hunch that contemporary politicians think demographic studies or polling information more valuable than Shakespeare. And so, speeches are written by professionals and debates are avoided if at all possible. Lincoln's masterful rhetoric no doubt stems at least in part from his extensive familiarity with Shakespeare's english. Perhaps orators would do themselves well to spend a little time reading the Bard.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.