Wherefore Must Thou Misquote Me?

I could write a number of different posts about William Shakespeare, and I probably will end up doing so. Genius is a word that can be thrown around too easily, but I think we can safely apply it to Shakespeare. The number of words he coined, the beauty of his language, and the thematic richness of his works are incomparable to much else. But I won’t write too much about him now. What I’m interested in for the moment is when people get Shakespeare wrong. There are many of his quotations everyone is familiar with, regardless of how much they know about his work. But quite often, we misquote or misinterpret them. For example:

Now is the winter of our discontent! (Richard III): Not so much a misquote, this one, as only including half of the quote: Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York. So you can see that with the following line, the meaning is completely changed. Still though, Now is the winter of our discontent! obviously works on its own, and it has an ominous ring to it, so no wonder it caught on!

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble… (Macbeth): Again, this one makes sense, as the stage directions do specify that the three witches are standing round a boiling cauldron. The actual line though, is Double, double toil and trouble. Because, you see, the witches now want double the toil and trouble that Macbeth has already suffered. Poor chap.

Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well! (Hamlet): just a shade catchier than the original Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? (Romeo and Juliet, obviously): This one is not actually usually misquoted, but misunderstood. Most of us assume that wherefore is simply an old-fashioned word for where, and Juliet is calling for Romeo, wondering where he is. But wherefore actually means why in this context. Juliet is lamenting the fact that Romeo is Romeo Montague, and she Juliet Capulet, and because of their family’s feud, they cannot be together. She’s wishing that he could simply have another name so there could be no obstacle to their love. This is clear if one continues on from the famous line:

JULIET

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

ROMEO

(aside)

Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

JULIET

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy: thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, nor arm nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O be some other name!

Don’t get me wrong though: I may grumble, but the simple fact that such phrases are in everybody’s vocabulary 500 years after Shakespeare’s death is a testament to, yes, his genius!

10 thoughts on “Wherefore Must Thou Misquote Me?

    • I’ve always liked “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
      That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
      And then is heard no more: it is a tale
      Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
      Signifying nothing.” from Macbeth.

      Liked by 1 person

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