One of the superb essays in the Claremont Review of Books Lincoln bicentennial issue is Professor John Briggs’s discussion of Lincoln’s interest in Shakespeare. Professor Briggs makes the point that Shakespeare’s plays were ubiquitous in antebellum America. He recalls that Macbeth turned up at a critical point in the Webster-Hayne debate in 1830, when Hayne and Webster differed on the meaning of Banquo’s ghost:
Senator Hayne said the ghost was a manifestation of Senator Webster’s uncontrollable desire to revive Whig power by means of “dark visions of broken hopes, and honors lost forever, still floating before his heated imagination.” Webster’s counter, that Hayne had seriously misread Macbeth, is an impressive demonstration of the degree to which readings of Shakespeare could shape political debate. Banquo’s “gory locks were shaken,” Webster spoke in correction, “at those who had begun with caresses and ended with foul and treacherous murder.” The great orator followed with a shrewdly hyperbolic exposition of the entire scene, in which Hayne and the Democrats were indicted instead[.]
Professor Briggs quotes Webster’s rejoinder to Hayne:
The ghost of Banquo, like that of Hamlet, was an honest ghost. It disturbed no innocent man. It knew where its appearance would strike terror, and who would cry out, A ghost! It made itself visible in the right quarter, and compelled the guilty and the conscience-smitten, and none others, to start, “Pr’ythee, see there! –look! Lo,/ If I stand here, I saw him!” Their eyeballs were seared (was it not so, Sir?) who had thought to shield themselves by concealing their own hand, and laying the imputation of the crime on a low and hireling agency in wickedness; who had vainly attempted to stifle the workings of their own coward consciences by ejaculating through white lips and chattering teeth, “Thou canst not say I did it!”
“Thou canst not say I did it!” There’s a lot of that going around today too, though in low political farce rather than high political tragedy.