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Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd was anything but smooth. At one point it helped bring on a bout of severe depression that left the future president nearly dysfunctional for a brief period and caused him to avoid Springfield’s social world for several months. In a letter to an absent friend, the future Mrs. Lincoln lamented this state of affairs and wished “that he would once more resume his Station in Society, that ‘Richard should be himself again.’ ” The expression she used is clear enough in meaning, but Lincoln’s biographers have been less certain about its source. In fact, the expression “Richard’s himself again” was in vogue in antebellum America, deriving from one of the best-known speeches in the most performed of all Shakespeare plays, Richard III. But that speech, as Lincoln himself would later point out, was not written by Shakespeare.
This curious state of affairs is surprisingly emblematic of the undernourished state of our knowledge of Lincoln’s famous affinity for Shakespeare. We have so many well-attested stories of Lincoln extolling Shakespeare as a young man in New Salem, of his carrying a volume of Shakespeare’s works around with him on the judicial circuit, of his ability (and willingness) to recite from memory long passages from Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, and of his reading from the plays by the hour to his secretaries and guests as president, that there can be little doubt of his longstanding attachment to the writings of the Bard.
And although he seems to have had few opportunities to see Shakespeare’s plays performed before becoming president, he frequently attended the theater in Washington, including many performances of Shakespeare. But this well-established pattern has led his biographers and other commentators to make some unwarranted assumptions and surmises, while neglecting clues that lead to strikingly different conclusions.
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Douglas L. Wilson is codirector of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. His most recent book is Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.