I’ve been busy lately: I’ve got a conference at the end of the month and I’m still hammering out the conclusion to my paper, plus I’m writing a 10,000 word chapter this summer and doing a bit of legwork for another paper to be presented in September. Ergo, fewer posts that don’t have a built-in punchline or pretty picture.

But this one is prompted by an excellent glimpse of our American political past by John Briggs. He begins by examining the importance of Shakespeare in shaping and giving voice to the political imagination of the nineteenth-century republic:

Americans took their Bard seriously, even as they sought to distance themselves from Britain. In her book, Shakespeare and the American Nation (2004), Kim C. Sturgess reports that at the time of the 1849 theater riots in New York—provoked in part by a British actor’s allegedly haughty rendition of Macbeth—three theaters in the city were presenting divergent interpretations of Shakespeare’s assassin-turned-tyrant. Visions of kingship and tyranny, heroic resistance and rebellion, high virtue and depravity, animated the waking dreams of the young republic. A new order had triumphed—for the ages, it was hoped—over the history of tyranny, mortal discord, and self-destruction that Shakespeare had distilled in tragic drama. Yet the ghosts of the old order returned with their vanquishers, animating republican spirits anxious to perpetuate the founders’ accomplishments. The American adoption of Shakespeare was therefore no simple domestication. The plays accessed political and moral depths and high places to which the American experiment might descend or aspire. They offered a way to purify and incorporate the new nation’s British heritage.

It’s almost a commonplace to look back with nostalgia on the political rhetoric of the nineteenth century. (“Them was the days when Americans read serious books! Even regular folks knew lines from Shakespeare when they heard ’em.”) But Briggs isn’t just reminiscing. He explains that Lincoln’s interpretation of Shakespeare is central to his political understanding, and therefore to his political decisions and acts:

All the plays Lincoln [liked best] have to do with tyrannical rebellion and deposition, both psychological and political. His interest in such reversals, and the inner beings of those caught up in them, was deep. When Hackett visited the White House after a Henry IV play, John Hay reports that the president asked why that work’s mock deposition scene (presumably the one in Henry IV, Part 1, involving Hal and Falstaff changing places as prince and king on a tavern throne) had been left out. Hackett resorted to an incredible explanation: the scene did not work on stage. Whether Lincoln was referring to the tavern scene or perhaps an interpolation of the preceding deposition in Richard II (which had discomforted Queen Elizabeth I), the important thing is that he wanted to see an enactment of royal overthrow in the midst of the country’s civil war. He wanted to see deposition and rebellion repeated feelingly in a Shakespearean frame he could study.

After some (typically brilliant) close reading, of Shakespeare and Lincoln, Briggs reaches what I see to be a central point: that Lincoln is the ideal example of a politician whose reading takes him beyond politics as usual.

The wondrous contrast between these loaded psychological and political understandings of Shakespeare and modern expectations—especially modern academic expectations—is difficult to underestimate. The plays to which Lincoln was drawn were not about slavery, at least not the chattel slavery that moderns now generally assume to be the focus of the Civil War. To be sure, they had profound implications for that slavery. Frederick Douglass posed a moral challenge to a slave-owning and -tolerating nation by quoting frequently from the plays’ affirmation of a common humanity and the power of justice. Lincoln’s tendency, on the other hand, was to consult and invoke Shakespeare rarely, indirectly, and by diffuse means, in an almost disorienting, haunting manner, to illuminate slavery’s potential in the republican soul. From the Lyceum Address of 1838 to the Second Inaugural, this was his Shakespearean preoccupation. Above all, he was interested in the soul of the real and would-be tyrant, and the ways in which the American character and American polity might resist and overcome the onslaught of tyrannical government from within.

For Lincoln, crucial aspects of the plays were especially edifying and curative in this light. As inoculations of a living pathogen, they were to be undergone: read and reread, pondered, taken to heart. The leading American Shakespeareans of the stage, the famous Edwin and his later-notorious brother John (sons of Junius Brutus Booth), were not alone in being caught up in theatrical recreations of tyranny and resistance. Like them, Lincoln invoked Caesar’s name with Alexander’s and Napoleon’s in the Lyceum Address, warning against that “towering genius” who might destroy the founders’ work. He cautioned that such a man would liberate the slaves in defiance of the Constitution or enslave all free men, if he thought it necessary to achieve distinction. But what most interested Lincoln were the tyrannical fevers and circumstances that gave birth to such an ambition. Shakespeare’s most prominent king-killers—Richard III, Claudius, and Macbeth, not the enigmatic and undemonstrative Julius Caesar or Hamlet—were therefore his favorites. All three are enmeshed in implosive psychological dramas as well as political revolt. They draw audiences in, not simply as exemplars of tyranny but as attractive, dangerous potentialities within a republic, temptations that cannot be resisted successfully by reason alone or even by reason vehemently warned.

Lincoln concedes that the threat is invisible as long as a free people fails to recognize such tendencies within itself, especially in its confidence borne of success. Mere speech and the desire to give warning do not regulate the pathology of tyrannical rule by one man or a mob, or submission to political and moral slavery. We detect in retrospect that Lincoln is contemplating the challenge of overcoming that potentiality in himself, not only in his audience, since he is the political genius who sees, and understands sympathetically from within, the mortal threat that is invisible to others.

We see in the Lyceum Speech and Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare the assumption that tyranny cannot be resisted without a sympathetic appreciation of the genius-tyrant’s power to seduce a free people, and perhaps himself, with measures that subvert a self-governing republic. What better examples of this phenomenon in Shakespeare than Richard Duke of Gloucester’s successful wooing of his suspicious yet fatally naïve victims; Claudius’s secret yearning to confess his murder while conspiring to keep Gertrude and kill Hamlet; Macbeth’s falling back before his bloody dagger yet doing the deed anyway and then acting the part of a savior king visiting judgment on the unfaithful?

Briggs shows us how Lincoln used Shakespeare, as a barometer of contemporary temptations and, if not quite strong enough on its own to be the medicine that restores the nation to health, a vital part of the recipe. Briggs’s Lincoln turns out to be a great politician not because he was experienced, cosmopolitan, or well-educated (he wasn’t), or because he was self-interested, pragmatic, or even cynical. He likewise wasn’t great because of some lame conservative turn to the “great books” or some other shallow nonsense. Rather, Lincoln’s greatness was founded on the depth of his political sympathies. His ability to imagine the human threat to the republic, the psychological and sociological elements of tyranny, for example, was essentially Shakespearean. Lincoln wasn’t born great but became great, in a way that still baffles and inspires lesser politicians, because of this ability to imaginatively understand his enemies. That this is founded on the careful, critical interpretation of Shakespeare is as decisive an argument for the relevance and practical nature of a liberal arts education as any I can think of.