Lincoln’s opening scene pits North and South at war, knee-deep in mud and blood. Lincoln’s two greatest speeches book-end the rest of this mighty film. A farcical scene, where White and Black soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address for the president, introduces its central problem: slavery. Lincoln is palpable on the big screen, whereupon he walks with his melancholy gait, flashes his quizzical smile, tells bawdy stories, and dotes on his youngest boy. Throughout the film Lincoln deploys his immense power and singular rhetoric to persuade family, politicians, and a reluctant nation to follow a righteous path. He does so amid daunting personal, political, and military constraints. Lincoln’s breathtaking finale pivots seamlessly from deathbed to the Second Inaugural, from mortality to posterity. The film ends with immortal Lincoln delivering his greatest speech with sublime pathos and aplomb.
The film’s creators understood that Shakespeare is central to understanding Lincoln. It acknowledges that the Kentucky bumpkin lawyer could not have become America’s greatest war president without his intimate knowledge of the great plays. These taught him about statecraft, politics, rhetoric, acting, humor, and — not least of all — the variety and vagaries of human nature. Lincoln quotes directly four times from Hamlet, Henry IV (P. 2.), Macbeth, and King Lear.* Stars from these plays are visible in Lincoln. Of these, Falstaff shines brightest when we see Lincoln’s wry smile, hear him laugh, and watch him debate in scene after scene. Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most intoxicating creation, is Prince Hal’s larger than life drinking companion in Henry IV (1 & 2). He is the embodiment of hedonism, wit, and humor. In tribute, Shakespeare ascribes these lapidary words to him: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” Prince Hal, like all Falstaff aficionados, is captivated by his humor, his capacious appetites, and his astonishing mastery of rhetoric. Before he ascends the throne to become King Henry V, Prince Hal and Falstaff are constant companions and foils. The prince holds his own in debate, wordplay, and pranks. In Henry IV (1 & 2) we see Hal win over his father — with words and arguments — in the wake of brutal chastisement. He learned this rhetorical deftness in the tavern from his other father, whom he calls a white-bearded Satan and a “villainous abominable misleader of youth.”
Shakespeare sought to inspire and educate statesmen down through the ages, just as Falstaff prepares Prince Hal for the crown. Virtually all of Henry V — like Lincoln — is about the art of political persuasion and leadership. From beginning to end we see Falstaff’s tutelage as this mirror of kings leads and inspires armies, as he debates, jokes, and plays pranks on common soldiers; as he debates with and takes council from his ministers; as he wins over the audience with pious and passionate soliloquies; and even as he adroitly woos princess Kate after the war. So too, Shakespeare’s tutelage educates, guides, and supports Lincoln. The film reminds us that Falstaff buoys the president during his hardest political trials and personal suffering. Lincoln hugs him hard; so much so that he frequently drives his austere ministers into a fit with antics they consider presidential buffoonery. So too, Falstaff lives ostentatiously in Henry V, in the King’s pranks, humor, and peerless rhetoric. King Henry V’s political virtues are Lincoln’s. None more than his humor and singular rhetoric – the Lincoln music to borrow Shelby Foote’s memorable phrase – that has permitted him to inspire and lead down to the present.
Lincoln’s triumph is that it permits us to see and hear the music that until now has only existed in the unruly fog of our imagination. Thanks to Daniel Day Lewis’ virtuoso performance, it is easier now to conjure Lincoln guffawing and slapping his bony knee while reading the witches’ rhymes in Macbeth, his favorite play. We can see him brooding at his desk, commiserating with Macbeth on questions of blood and vaulting ambition. We are reminded of Lincoln’s furtiveness, which rivals Falstaff’s. We see the president manipulate ministers, allies, and lobbyists as he appeals to their vanity, patriotism, and greed. We see him discourse with telegraph operators in a manner reminiscent of the campfire scene in Henry V, where the king debates with and preaches to common soldiers in cognito. There is little doubt that Lincoln took delight, and quite possibly some horror, in these and many other parallels.
*“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…were it not that I have bad dreams.”; “We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow.”; “unaccommodated poor bare forked creature such as we all are.”; and “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not . . . ” These are references to Hamlet, Henry IV , King Lear, and Macbeth respectively. The screenplay can be found here. I am grateful to Mary Allen Todd for pointing out the Macbeth quote, which I had originally missed. Let me know if I missed any please.
**For a contrary opinion on Shakespeare in Lincoln, see this excellent essay. There are, of course dozens of reviews on the film worth consulting. The one cited by Professor Bromwich is controversial in my view. I think the good professor is dead wrong on a few things and that Kushner/Spielberg were right to portray the relationship between Shakespeare and Lincoln as they did. I don’t, in short, believe that the artistic liberties that they took are contrary to Lincoln’s character and vision of himself as I understood it from Shelby Foote and others. The good professor might be right but his is not the final word on the matter. In my view, he underestimates Lincoln’s vaulting ambition. His essay did bring to my attention the King Lear quote that I had missed. Finally, I want to note that my essay was fully formed before I read Professor Bromwich’s review, which of course would reject the very premise on which I base my paean to the film.
Below are some of my favorite images from the film: