Presidential Fools: Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, and comedy

Abraham Lincoln
Dominic Conti as Abraham Lincoln in the Reduced Shakespeare Company production of The Complete History of Comedy (abridged). Photo by Sandy Underwood. Used by permission.

Regular readers of this blog know well that Abraham Lincoln was devoted to Shakespeare. But did you know that America’s 16th president also invented stand-up comedy? It’s true!

Well…it’s true in the sense that it’s a hyperbolic exaggeration that the Reduced Shakespeare Company claims is true in The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), a show I co-wrote with Reed Martin. We based our extravagant assertion on the undeniable truth that Abraham Lincoln may have been our funniest, or at least wittiest, president. For example, as Lincoln remarked of one opponent, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met.” Reflecting on many people, maybe himself most especially included, Lincoln observed, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” And what would surely go viral today if only he were around to tweet it: “No matter how much cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens.”

This is top-drawer observational comedy of the kind we’ve seen practiced by standup comedians for decades. Lincoln’s wit served him well in the legislature, out on the lawyer circuit, and in political debate, combining reflection with self-deprecation, a combination that Shakespeare used extensively.

It’s well-known that one of the few books available to young Lincoln was a collection of Shakespeare’s works, a copy of which he kept on his desk in the White House during his time in office. In a letter written in 1863, Lincoln confessed: “Some of Shakespeare’s 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…”

As funny as Lincoln was, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t list any of Shakespeare’s comedies as his favorites. Perhaps he loved the comedy of contrasts, in which a comic line or witty observation packs more punch against the backdrop of a serious or tragic tale. Perhaps, as he was writing to a famous tragedian, Lincoln reckoned that mentioning a comedy was below them both.

Perhaps he found existential struggle amusing, or at least instructive: As even an “unprofessional reader” would have noticed, many of Shakespeare’s heroes spend entire monologues agonizing over options available to them, analyzing the pros and cons of whatever situation they’re in, while frequently confessing to sins or admitting to failures they share only with the audience. Even Iago and Richard III, two of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, achieve a strong connection to the audience through their self-deprecating and witty charm.

King Lear stands out in Lincoln’s list of Shakespeare’s plays because the character of Lear has the fewest monologues of any of Shakespeare’s title roles. But for that sort of personal analysis, Lear had his Fool, the one person in a monarch’s court whose job it is to tell truth to power, who can be reflective and honest when the king refuses to be. We might think of the Fool as a traditional jester garbed in cap and bells, but in a way he’s more akin to how Adrian Scarborough played the character in the 2014 National Theatre production, as a mate of the King’s, a longtime colleague who could tell the King the truth as he saw it, sometimes camouflaged with wit and humor but not always.

Lincoln had no Fool. Or, to put it another way, Lincoln was his own Fool. When he was criticized for being two-faced, Lincoln famously responded by saying, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” By being so self-deprecating, Lincoln was able to disarm his critics, taking away their power by acknowledging his own human failings. Lincoln didn’t tell truth to power, he told truth to himself.

In fact, one can imagine Abraham Lincoln happily quoting Jaques in As You Like It — “I was seeking for a fool when I found you” — every morning while looking in a mirror.

Related: Men of Letters: Shakespeare’s Influence on Abraham Lincoln

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