The linguistic soup we swim around in contains more than a dash of Shakespeare. Tea-towels, fridge-magnets and dictionaries of quotation all tell us the Shakespearean origin of various phrases, that if we say them we are “quoting the Bard”. But I’ve been wondering about the times this process goes wrong – not when the wrong words are said, but when they’re presumed to embody a meaning they apparently didn’t have in the original. The issue came up in my research when reading John Barton’s defence of passages in the Christian lectionary which are clearly being taken “out of context”. The example he gives is “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”, which he points out is spoken around Christmas with a blithe disregard for the text’s apparent meaning in its historical, literary or even its Biblical contexts. It could almost be said that the words as read out in those services are in fact a different text, which happens to be verbally identical to a passage from Isaiah. Though their appearance surely makes some implicit claim to be reproducing or echoing the Biblical text – or deliberately recasting those words to reveal a richer potential meaning.
In the case of Shakespeare we don’t usually interpret misquotation (or misapplication) as revealing a new meaning, because we tend to assume a closer link between the words’ meaning in their historical period and their point for us today. I expect most scholars or enthusiasts have a few quotations from Shakespeare which make them wince when continually misunderstood. Here are a handful I particularly tend to notice. They’re worth analyzing not in order to sniff about how silly people are, but because they are a “use” of Shakespeare just as much as a film adaptation, and give us a chance to trace the sorts of meanings people expect from his works. Misapplications potentially provide us with a special insight into the ideas we project onto the verbal patterns found in the plays.
O Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo? (Romeo and Juliet, II.1)
Often used as if it meant “Where are you, Romeo?” Juliet in fact means “Why are you called Romeo?” She is not summoning Romeo and pining after her lover’s presence, but beginning an intellectual wrangle with herself on the relationship between a name and the object it points to, which will end in another famous quotation: that “a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. In other words, Verona girl discovers radical nominalism provides excellent conceptual basis for afterparty hookup.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, I.5)
Frank Kermode suggested in Shakespeare’s Language that the use of “your” has been misunderstood in this line. Rather than “your” referring to Horatio, Kermode argues that its meaning may be closer to “the”. Hamlet is thus not criticising Horatio’s limited world-view, but saying that all the philosophies they encountered in Wittenberg cannot contain the flavour of reality his experience hints at. In fact this sense of “your” still appears in modern speech, though it is often contracted to sound more like “yer” or “yuh”: “You see, the problem with your Russians is…” Perhaps it’s a grammatical quibble, but I’ve tended to hear this line used to argue for the existence of the paranormal, or psychic powers, or aliens, in a challenge to supposedly “orthodox” beliefs. (See also: sheeple, black helicopters, tin-foil hats, denunciations of the comments policy at The Guardian website.) If Hamlet is rejecting the limits of philosophy as a discipline, it may well be a reassertion of theology’s sovereignty as Queen of the Sciences. This would make it sound much more like a call to return to orthodoxy.
More honoured in the breach than in the observance (Hamlet, I.4)
Referring to the allegedly disgraceful drinking habits of the Danes, we usually hear this used to mean “a custom which has fallen out of fashion”. So it’s almost the exact opposite of what Hamlet meant by it. This particular example seems a particularly good example, as it “applies” the text so very far from its context. But this makes a certain amount of sense, since quoting Shakespeare (or using any proverbial saying with obviously archaic vocabulary and grammar) is an act which implies it is worth trying to maintain some sort of continuity with the past. Whether a conservative or radical interpretation results, the practice of embedding phrases like this in one’s speech involves recognising a historical gap between the moment the words were framed and the moment they’re being used, and trying to salvage some meaning from the other side. So it’s perhaps logical that the phrase should have been recast to lament the “breach” between our time and good old customs, rather than exhorting us to make that “breach” between our culture’s past and our own future. If only because Shakespeare would be an odd medium to make that appeal in…
Do leave your own (un)favourite misapplied Shakespeare quotations below – and any particularly noticeable context you’ve heard them used in!