So what's in a quote? Plenty if we get it wrong
Asked how he liked the play, the Shakespeare newbie said, "Fine, but he used a lot of cliches."
Our everyday speech is full of Shakespeareisms. When we use idioms such as a fool's paradise, a foregone conclusion, a sea change, a sorry sight, as dead as a door nail, as luck would have it, as pure as the driven snow, we're quoting the Bard.
But we often get it wrong. And instead of sounding like silver-tongued devils (think Mark Antony) we sound like twits (think Holofernes and Dogberry).
We get more turns of phrase from Shakespeare than any other source except the King James Bible of 1611. That's the same year in which Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is believed to have had its premiere on Nov. 1 at James' court. It was a good year to be the king.
First, the 47 guys you've had translating the Bible actually finish the job. Then you're throwing a bash, and you ask one of the royal flunkies what the entertainment is, and he says it's a new thing by that fellow Shakespeare, who's all the rage.
He's one of the largest industries in Southern Oregon, for example, as is shown by the continued success of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which will open its 2013 season this week.
The other day Rep. Mitch Greenlick of Portland was talking about universal health care, which he supports, when he opined that "getting there in one fell swoop is unlikely."
Well, you don't get someplace good in a fell swoop. "Fell" means fierce, dire or lethal.
A fell swoop is a sudden, ferocious attack by a falcon or other raptor. Idiomatically, it's like, say, going to Vegas and losing everything in one fell swoop.
Turning Shakespeare backwards is an entire category of Bardish misspeak. Take Polonius' advice to Laertes, "This above all: to thine own self be true." We nod sagely. But Shakespeare draped the words in irony by putting them in the mouth of Polonius, a devious old snitch and windbag who isn't true to anybody. Poor Laertes' eyes were glazing over. He just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge.
Another instance is Richard III's "Now is the winter of our discontent." We say that and let it go at that, but it's a fragment. The rest of the sentence is "... made glorious summer by this son of York." King Richard (whose bones apparently turned up in London the other day, by the way) wasn't complaining that it was a bad time, he was boasting that it was a wonderful time, thanks to — who else? — himself!
It's like quoting a character saying, "Ruby, my love for you is a fixed star," and dropping the rest of the line: "... but this is business, and I'm gonna torture you with these rusty pliers, fit you with cement overshoes, and take you for a little ride on the East River."
Other manglings don't reverse the meaning, but they weaken the image. "Gild the lily" is not bad. But the line from "King John" is richer: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily."
Some of these things we can trace to the guilty. Disney said, "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble." What the three weird sisters of "Macbeth" said was, "Double, double, toil and trouble."
Barbra Streisand incorrectly attributed this jewel to Shakespeare: "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword ... ."
Actually, that first popped up on an anonymous Internet posting in 2001, probably by a college sophomore with too many venti coffees on his nerves.
Capt. Kirk in a "Star Trek" episode said, "A rose by any other name smells just as sweet." The actual line from "Romeo and Juliet" is "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet."
Homonyms can be trouble. We say "to the manor born," meaning to inherit wealth or privilege. But Hamlet says "to the manner born," meaning a skill or talent that came naturally.
Speaking of Hamlet, he never says, "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well." He says, "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio."
The changing language can be a problem. When we say that all that glitters is not gold, we may forget we're quoting "The Merchant of Venice," and the line is actually, "All that glisters ... ."
Kids pretending to be knights cry, "Wherefore art thou Romeo," as if asking somebody where he is, as if "wherefore" were an archaic form of "where" rather "why."
Then there's "bated breath," which is visualized, if at all, as "baited." Bated would be less problematic if it had an apostrophe ('bated), because it means abated, or lessened or diminished. It's spoken by Shylock, the Jewish usurer of "The Merchant of Venice." When Antonio hits him up for a loan, Shylock reminds him of how the Christians spat on him and abused him.
"Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key, with bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness," Shylock says, going all sarcastic on us. What he means is speaking in a meek little mouse voice.
We use the expression to indicate suspense, although it's not clear what "baited" has to do with suspense. Or anything else. The only way it makes sense is if Shylock was eating sushi.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.