By Gordon Gidlund

Political Shakespeare: Lincoln, Hamlet, and a Civil War Cartoon shakespeare news The Shakespeare Standard shakespeare plays list play shakespeare

Shakespeare’s works traveled to America with early English colonists and quickly took root. So much so that by the mid-nineteenth century, being conversant with the Bard was an essential part of an educated American’s cultural literacy.

During the Civil War, then, politicians in their speeches and soldiers in their letters home freely quoted from the plays and sonnets without worry of seeming affected. Newspaper articles likewise referenced the canon, and editorial cartoons drew on Shakespearean imagery.

Below is one of the more famous cartoons of the Civil War:

Drawn by Justin H. Howard and commonly known as “The Chicago Nominee,” it appeared during the 1864 presidential campaign when former General George McClellan, the Democratic nominee, ran against incumbent Abraham Lincoln.

As depicted, McClellan wears a regal costume topped with a plumed kepi and stands by an open grave holding Lincoln’s decapitated head. The caption reads, “I knew him, Horatio: A fellow of infinite jest . . . Where be your gibes now?” These lines from Hamlet are spoken after a gravedigger offers up the skull of Yorick, jester to Hamlet’s father.

(The citation is incorrect, Act IV instead of Act V, perhaps due to reliance on a bowdlerized version.)

The “Horatio” at far right is New York Governor and prominent Peace Democrat Horatio Seymour. The White House is visible in the distance. The gravedigger is intended to fit the prevailing stereotype of an Irishman, thus representing the constituency of such Democratic machines as Tammany Hall.

The cartoon ostensibly indulged an accusation of callousness displayed by Lincoln. The incident in question occurred two weeks after the 1862 Battle of Antietam, when Lincoln visited the battlefield to consult McClellan who had commanded the Union forces. According to one version of the story reported widely in Democratic newspapers, Lincoln was riding in an ambulance with McClellan and others when he urged his bodyguard to sing a “funny song” to cheer everyone up—even as the dead were being buried. McClellan protested, but the song was still sung.

Howard was a popular illustrator whose political cartoons frequently appeared in the influential magazine Harper’s Weekly. With “The Chicago Nominee,” he appears focused in skewering Lincoln over his reputation for jocularity—too often making “gibes”—enabling the accusation to ring true with the apt quotation from Hamlet. But in analyzing this cartoon within its four corners, while it is certainly unpleasant to be shown as a cut-off head and maligned as insensitive to war dead, can we declare it entirely anti-Lincoln?

Here we must brush up our Shakespeare. How is McClellan portrayed?

He is rather flamboyant, maybe pompous. But he clearly assumes the role of Prince Hamlet. And how is Hamlet the character, at least until “The Mousetrap” scene, commonly described? He is indecisive, even pathologically so. He dithers over whether he truly saw the ghost of his father or the devil. He cannot resolve what he must do.

Historians will likely say that sounds familiar. That was the charge against McClellan. He appeared reluctant to move against the rebels, intimidated by inflated estimates of their troop strength.

Lincoln himself once said,

“If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”

Eventually, Lincoln removed McClellan from command due to his lack of aggressiveness. (We are unable to determine whether Lincoln himself ever saw “The Chicago Nominee,” but if he did, given his documented familiarity with the text of Hamlet, he almost certainly would have gotten the inside joke.)

So we must view this cartoon on subtler levels.

We may even plausibly speculate that Howard received an assignment to exploit the uproar over the Antietam “song-singing” story yet may himself have felt ambivalent, perhaps skeptical of the accusation against Lincoln. Conceivably, he then subversively threaded the needle (in a Shakespearean twist?) by also lampooning McClellan.

After all, Howard could have achieved much the same primary caricature and audience resonance (and satisfied any partisan patron) by simply ridiculing Lincoln in the guise of Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, Nick Bottom, or any of a half-dozen other stock comic figures well known to Shakespeare buffs.

Incidentally, Lincoln was re-elected anyway.

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