A Providential Theology: Shakespeare's Influence on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

By Stevenson, James A. | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

A Providential Theology: Shakespeare's Influence on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address


Stevenson, James A., The Midwest Quarterly


The subject of Abraham Lincoln's religious beliefs has occupied students of Lincoln lore since 1865. Some historians, for example, have noted that Lincoln's religious outlook was influenced by the American puritan religious tradition. Other writers have maintained that, after his New Salem sojourn (1831-1837), Lincoln underwent a conversion experience and became a Christian. Partly in response to this type of contention, Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, was at pains to contend that Lincoln had died as he had lived, "an unbeliever" (Current, 55). But virtually no published writer has suggested that Lincoln's religious views were seriously influenced by the ideas expressed in the works of William Shakespeare. Yet, once Shakespeare's influence on Lincoln is acknowledged, it provides a new focus for understanding Lincoln's religious outlook and his March 4, 1865, religious utterances in the Second Inaugural Address.

When contemplating the role of Shakespeare's ideas on Lincoln's religious beliefs in the Second Inaugural Address, there are two outstanding facts to recognize. First, Shakespeare's verses obviously abound with philosophical and theological ideas. Second, Lincoln examined the words of Shakespeare with great care. After all, many of Lincoln's closest contemporaries have stated that he enjoyed quoting or reading extensive passages from the Bard's great works. Francis B. Carpenter, Lincoln's presidential portrait painter, for example, described Lincoln as casually reciting almost forty lines from Hamlet in "the very spirit of the scene" (50-51). Lincoln himself once wrote:

   Some of Shakespeare's [sic] 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.... I think the
   soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "O, my offense is rank" surpasses that
   commencing "To be, or not to be." (CW VI, 392)

These comments as well as Lincoln's frequent attendance at Shakespearean theatrical performances, testify to the familiarity that Lincoln had with Shakespeare's ideas. No surprise, then, that one of Lincoln's foremost biographers, James G. Randall, concluded that Lincoln "not only used a great many Shakespearean allusions [in private conversations] but he also discussed problems of interpretation, with remarkable insight, and gave effective performances of his own" (Randall IV, 378). In sum, it is clear that Lincoln had an astute mind, and he certainly did not overlook the theory of Providential design which pervaded the plays that he so admired. Indeed, following his boyhood immersion in a predestinationist Baptist tradition, Shakespeare's Providential view of history must have struck Lincoln as common sense.

In 1946, Shakespearean scholar Eustace M. W. Tillyard described Shakespeare's Providential theory in a brilliant study of Shakespeare's History Plays (Henry VI, Richard III, King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and, as an epilogue of the Histories, Macbeth). Illuminated by verses taken from some of the very plays which Lincoln cited as his favorites, Tillyard demonstrated that Shakespeare, like virtually all of his countrymen, rejected the sixteenth-century Machiavellian outlook that there had never been a "fall" and that disorder was the natural state of man. Instead, Shakespeare had imbibed the "thought-idiom" of his age and assumed that "behind the disorder of history" there was "some kind of order or degree on earth [which had] its counterpart in heaven" (21). According to Tillyard, the world presented itself to Shakespeare and to his fellow Elizabethans as a chain of being which stretched from the "lowest of inanimate objects up to the archangel nearest to the throne of God" (11). And, most importantly, given this chain, the various levels or planes of the chain were affected by one another. …

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