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Lincoln & Macbeth: A Surprising Tale Told Through Primary Sources, Continued

“Abraham Lincoln…Shakespeare applied to our national breavement [sic]…” Folger Shakespeare Library.
Teaching Colleagues:

As promised, we’re following up with the surprising conclusion to our Macbeth-Lincoln “story.” Special shout-out to friends at Ford’s Theatre, the home of this last primary source. Check out Part 1 also.

Primary Source #3: Page of John Wilkes Booth’s Diary (Ford’s Theatre)

After assassinating Lincoln, Booth was on the run for almost two weeks. Realizing that the authorities were closing in on him, he wrote his final diary entry on April 22nd, referencing Shakespeare twice.

He first cited Julius Caesar’s Brutus—another assassin—writing: “I am here in despair.  And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for…”

He continues through his entry, recognizing that he is labeled a criminal and that his time is short. He ends his diary by quoting… you guessed it… Macbeth:

“but ‘I must fight the course.’ Tis all that’s left me.”

Booth was a well known Shakespearean actor like his brothers Edwin and Junius Brutus Jr. and his father Junius Brutus. He had played Macbeth in 1863, so he would have been intimately familiar with Macbeth’s words as he accepted his fate:

“They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly,
But, bear-like, I must fight the course.”

(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 7, Lines 1-2)

And thereby hangs a tale of Lincoln and Macbeth.

At the Folger, we love telling people that we are “Shakespeare’s home in America.” Our location on Capitol Hill is no accident—our Founders, Henry and Emily Folger, saw the library as a gift to the American public and understood that Shakespeare was (and still is!) an integral part to telling the American story. Through these three primary sources, we can see Shakespeare’s works and words woven through a pivotal moment in American history.


Primary Source List for This 2-part Blog Post

Letter to James H. Hackett from Abraham Lincoln, August 17, 1863.
Library of Congress

“The Martyr of Liberty” Broadside
Folger Shakespeare Library
Lithograph. United States, 1865.
Call Number: Art File B725.5 no. 3

Diary of John Wilkes Booth, April 21-22, 1865
Ford’s Theatre
Image, National Park Service

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