By Bonnie James
As I was considering the latest announcement from the Trump Administration, this one pronounced by the toad-like personage of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, lately, the Attorney General of the United States, rescinding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), or Dreamers Act, thereby subjecting some 800,000 young people, who have lived in this country since childhood, to deportation, the lines spoken by Portia in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” came to mind:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven….”
I looked up the speech, and found that it was even
more apropos than I had recalled. It continues:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
“When mercy seasons justice.”
Oh, would that our President avail himself of such compassionate wisdom, as did his long-ago predecessor, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did not just read Shakespeare’s plays, he assimilated them into his character and made them the guiding spirit, even the consolation, of his life, and especially, his Presidency.
To be fair, Lincoln had the advantage of having been born and reared in a time of markedly superior general culture, when the basic reading text for schoolchildren contained passages from the King James Bible and from Shakespeare. One such textbook was William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution (1820), and, according to Roy P. Basler, in his wonderful 1973 essay, “Lincoln and Shakespeare,” some of the passages which Lincoln famously quoted at length during his Presidency, came straight out of this book. These included speeches from Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III. Which is not to say, of course, that Lincoln’s intimate knowledge of Shakespeare was limited to those passages—indeed, he continued to read the Bard, and to attend every performance of his plays he possibly could.
But, his early exposure to the sublime language of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible helped to form Lincoln’s exceptional literary brilliance. Shakespeare’s profound political, historical, and psychological insights informed Lincoln’s thinking and actions as President during perhaps the worst crisis in American history, while the Bible gave him the language that enabled him to reach into the hearts of Americans, and sustain them throughout the long and bloody Civil War.
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, painted by Francis Carpenter in 1864
Lincoln’s love for Shakespeare, especially the history plays, was well known, and cited by many of those who spent time with him. For example, the artist F.B. Carpenter, who painted Lincoln and his Cabinet in the “Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation” (which now hangs in the Capitol in Washington), wrote a book about his experience in the White House, in which he related an occasion during a session in which he was painting Lincoln, wherein the President began pronouncing Claudius’s speech from “Hamlet,” which begins, “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven…” (which Lincoln believed to be far superior to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy). In that speech, Claudius the King, who has killed his brother, Hamlet’s father, and married his wife, confronts his mortal sin:
In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘t is seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law, but ‘t is not so above.
“not so above,” i.e., in Heaven, where God’s law, or Natural law, prevails. For Lincoln, this idea permeates his thinking and writing.
Think, for example, of his Second Inaugural address, given as the terrible war was winding down, and only weeks before his assassination. After stating that “all knew” that slavery was the cause of the war; that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” but that “the prayers of both could not be answered,” he says:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh….
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Were President Trump to follow this course, he might indeed “make America great again.”