Sunday, November 25, 2012

Go See Lincoln

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave
to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,
will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched,
as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural
Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer adept at quoting Shakespeare. Indeed, “better angels” in the speech quoted above is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144, in which Shakespeare discusses his two great loves, one which gives “comfort” and the other “despair.” The former—“[t]he better angel”—is “a beautiful man,” the same young fellow to whom about 2/3s of the sonnets are directed. The “worser spirit” is the infamous Dark Lady to whom many of the other sonnets are devoted; Shakespeare suggests that his love for the latter “angel” does not bring out the best in him and, he speculates in this sonnet, she seems to be in the process of corrupting his “saint to be a devil,/ Wooing his purity with her foul pride.” But Shakespeare also recognizes that his love for these two very distinct personalities indicates something about his own divided soul. Lincoln appropriated the metaphor in 1861 to allude to a nation on the brink of civil war, divided over the moral issue of slavery.
Lincoln really knew his Shakespeare. And like Shakespeare, Lincoln knew the power of story, word play, humor, and arguing by implicit analogy.
But most impressively, Lincoln knew how to enlist the aid of opponents by disarming them with his humility and by accepting compromise as essential to getting anything momentous accomplished. These aspects of the Great 16th Pres are on display in Steven Spielberg’s masterful new film featuring an astonishing performance by Daniel Day Lewis. The beautiful screenplay was crafted by America’s greatest living playwright, Tony Kushner, based on a terrific book, Team of Rivals, by presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. The movie’s riveting plot is about the legislative sausage-making necessary to secure passage of the 13th Amendment that finally abolished slavery in this country as a matter of law during the last throes of the Civil War. Immediately after sitting through a sold-out showing this weekend, I was ready to watch it all over again (except that I couldn’t because they kicked us out to make way for another sell-out crowd).
Hooray for the artistic and intellectual heft that has given us a cinematic work for the ages! Hooray for those flocking to see a movie about the rule of law, the excruciating triumph of equality, and the craggy face of true leadership. . . .
The film made me reflect that Shakespeare could have been anticipating Lincoln when he penned the following:
[T]his [man]
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off[.]

Macbeth, the would-be assassin, speaking of Duncan,
the Scottish ruler whom Macbeth ultimately murders
Macbeth, I.7

Certainly, if anyone should be damned by history, it is the Shakespearean actor who took Lincoln from us prematurely. Thankfully, Lincoln lives again in this new movie—which has so much resonance for our times, such much to teach us about our dueling angels.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific review. I couldn't agree more!