“Nothing Equals Macbeth”

by John J. Miller on December 6, 2010

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

“I think that nothing equals Macbeth,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in 1863. “It is wonderful.”

I saw Macbeth over the weekend and mentioned it briefly on The Corner. This has led me to think a bit about Lincoln’s admiration of the play–and to a passage from David Herbert Donald’s biography of Lincoln, describing an incident shortly before Lincoln’s murder:

On the slow river trip back to Washington, Lincoln was silent much of the time, absorbed in thought. … [H]e turned to literary subjects and for several hours read to his guests on the River Queen passages from Shakespeare. From Macbeth he chose the reflections of the king, who has murdered his predecessor, Duncan, only to be overtaken by horrible torrents of mind:

…we will eat our meal in fear and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly: better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

Then, struck by the weird beauty of the lines, Lincoln paused, as Chambrun recalled, and “began to explain to us how true a description of the murderer that one was; when, the dark deed achieved, its tortured perpetrator came to envy the sleep of his victim; and he read over again the same scene.”

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