Shakespeare's Words: Quotes, Misquotes, and Lost Contexts

By Jolliffe, Lee | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Shakespeare's Words: Quotes, Misquotes, and Lost Contexts


Jolliffe, Lee, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Shakespeare was a playwright and a poet. But he was not a preacher, though he is often mistaken for one. His long-time position as the writer whose words fall second only to the Bible in English letters has led to a misplaced reverence for his words, even when the quoters have lost the context of the words--and with it, the meaning. Yet his classic plays have a continuous presence in our lives and culture.

Think: If that wife-murdering King Henry VIII hadn't started a few little public schools; if Edward Jolliffe hadn't taught at such a school in Stratford; if Will Shakespeare hadn't attended that school (1) ... where would we be?

We'd have no star-crossed lovers by whom to judge all the others--Tony and Maria, Clark Kent and Lois Lane, Bill and Hillary. Our theater people wouldn't know where bad luck came from (from quoting "the Scottish play," of course, so referenced to avoid saying Macbeth aloud).

Hamlet would not have set the collegiate record for "worst spring break ever."

Pontius Pilate would stand alone as our only archetype of the guilty leader seeking absolution with a hand-wringing, hand-washing motion. No Lady Macbeth following behind him to remind us that, once your hands are bloodied, you really can't get the blood off. Ever.

We'd have no complaining that today's banks are more like usurers and want their pound of flesh (or noticing that, in our day and age, we can spare the tonnage).

No fabulous allegory of the playwright's life, his world a Tempest from which he creates a "brave new world." Not Aldous Huxley's dreadful version (a misuse of the quote indeed), but simply one where a young woman can spy her first rather glorious young man, in a place where free spirits frolic and Caliban lumbers around doing most of the work, like some misanthropic stage hand.

We'd miss some moments of family fun, like one multigenerational Thanksgiving gathering when a slacker promised she would do her chore "tomorrow." Someone else piped up, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." By the second line, the whole crew was chanting, "Creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time." So many different schools in so many different eras, but every English teacher had been the same.

Another Shakespearean family moment came as teenagers pitched in to carry great leafy branches of a downed tree out to the curb at dusk. "Like Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane," someone said, recalling Macbeth again.

Do you feel it pulling on you a little, that unity of culture that knits us together?

But if we had no reading-and-writing Billy Shakespeare to give us grand quotes, insights, and moments of shared culture, we would also be free of the misquotes and misused quotes from Shakespeare.

Consider the happy misquotes of Macbeth by folks out orienteering or geocaching. "Lead on, Macduff," they say. But it's "lay." And Macduff doesn't lead, he fights. " 'Lay on, Macduff. And damned be he that first cries, "Hold! Enough!'" Alarums. Retreat. Flourish." And on-stage comes the swordplay. The context has been lost with the passage of time, and from this the error springs.

Especially troubling are the points where our distance in time and a misplaced reverence for the playwright's every syllable leads some people to value all his words as if he really meant them. But often, he did not.

Consider Polonius, the quintessential "yes man" to King Claudius the usurper. Hamlet's evil uncle may have poured poison in the true king's ear, but Polonius lives on to pour saccharine into the queen's, until someone finally stabs him. Not, as you might expect, for being so sanctimonious, but for rustling in a closet like a mouse. (It's my favorite moment in the play. I've been wanting to stab him myself since he first yammered onstage in Act I, Scene 2.

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