History Prof Explores Lincoln's Love of Shakespeare

When most people think of Abraham Lincoln, they remember his role in the Civil War and abolition of slavery, or his assassination.

They do not typically remember his love of Shakespeare.

This less known facet of the 16th president was the focus of recent research by York College Associate Professor of History Tim McNeese, who explored Lincoln’s appreciation of the Bard in the paper  “’I Must Have Some Relief or It Will Kill Me’: Abraham Lincoln’s Reliance on Shakespeare.”

Tim McNeese
Associate Professor of History
Chair, History Department

McNeese presented the paper last summer at the Wooden O Symposium, a multi-disciplinary conference hosted at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. The paper has recently been accepted for publication by Journal of the Wooden O, an academic publication featuring articles relating to William Shakespeare, as well as medieval studies. The journal is a publication of the SUU Press.

McNeese’s interest in Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare developed over the past two years after reading several books on Lincoln, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. He was intrigued with her references to Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare after hearing her speak.

“My research revealed that Lincoln used Shakespeare to help him cope with the pressures he felt during the Civil War,” observes McNeese. “He was a lifelong admirer of Shakespeare, had memorized many lines from plays, and loved the language of Shakespeare’s time.” McNeese says Lincoln spent evenings with friends reading and discussing Shakespeare, especially his favorite plays, which included Hamlet and Macbeth.

“He also attended the theater to see Shakespearean plays as often as they were being performed in Washington,” says McNeese. Lincoln attended the two popular theaters in the capital, Ford’s and Grover’s, during his four years in office and even saw his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, perform. 

“Lincoln possibly attended plays at Grover’s Theater at least 100 times during his presidency. It’s no wonder that he was shot in a theater, he was there so often.” 

Going to the theater helped take the problems of the war off Lincoln’s mind, says McNeese. “He used the theater as many of us do watching TV or going to the movies or even reading a book—as an escape.”

 McNeese and his wife, Assistant Professor of English Beverly McNeese, attended the Wooden O Symposium during the university’s annual Utah Shakespeare Festival, which features Shakespearean productions and other theater performances. (The festival centers around an outdoor theater fashioned after Shakespeare’s Elizabethan-era theater, the Wooden O, thus the name for the symposium.)

“Bev and I had attended this conference before, but had never presented a paper,” says McNeese. “I’m certainly not the Shakespeare person in the family, but we do take time each summer to attend at least three Shakespearean plays.” McNeese says he and Mrs. McNeese set a goal several years ago to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed. They are up to “around two dozen” he says. Beverly has taught an upper-level English course on Shakespeare for many years at YC.

McNeese’s article in the Journal of the Wooden O will be published later in 2012. The work will be indexed in the MLA International Bibliography as well as the premier online data base products at EBSCO Publishing which distributes JWO articles in full-text. These research tools will increase access to McNeese’s article and extend the reach of his scholarship.

 

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