Study Guide

Abe Lincoln in Illinois

by Robert E. Sherwood

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Themes

Themes

Death
Lincoln’s life, as it is presented in this play, was ruled by his feelings about the deaths that he witnessed. Lincoln’s issues with death begin early, in the first scene, when Lincoln tells Mentor Graham that he thinks about death often ‘‘because it has always seemed to be close to me—as far back as I can remember.’’ He then describes helping build a coffin for his mother, who died when he was young, relating it to the men he saw in New Orleans who ‘‘had murder in their hearts.’’ The theme of death is continued with his loss of Ann Rutledge, the woman that he loved, who was socially and physically out of his league. Her death causes him to retreat from his political rise. He explains to Bowling and Nancy Green, ‘‘I couldn’t give any devotion to one who has the power of death, and uses it’’—a statement referring to prayer, but with implications to the responsibilities he will accept as president, sending troops off to war. Just as Ann’s death drives him away from political involvement, the death of his longtime friend Bowling Green makes him retreat from his planned marriage to Mary Todd. It is the near-death of young Jimmy Gale, though, that pulls him back into a sense of responsibility in both political and personal arenas. His prayer at the end of Scene 7 relates life to freedom and death to imprisonment and shows Lincoln shifting from despair to hope. Throughout the whole play, one element of death remains constant. His expectation of his own early death is present in the first scene, with his fear of the city, and is still present in the final scene, when, as Elizabeth points out, he always prefaces his plans with, ‘‘If I live . . .’’

Doubt and Ambiguity
Abe Lincoln in Illinois offers audiences a new way to look at Lincoln. Popular conception, based on his decisive actions during the Civil War, remember him as a man with a vision, who could see the necessity of fighting to preserve the Union no matter what the cost, and historical studies almost unanimously praise him for making the right choices. What Sherwood presents in this play, however, is a view of Lincoln as an uncertain man who in no way felt that he knew the right thing to do and who did what he could to avoid the responsibility of making decisions about the...

(The entire section is 946 words.)