Shakespeare Misunderstood

As the single most-quoted author in the English language, it should not be much of a surprise that Shakespeare is often misquoted.

Shakespeare Misunderstood

As the single most-quoted author in the English language, it should not be much of a surprise that Shakespeare is often misquoted. However, what may surprise you is how some of the best-known lines of Shakespeare are so commonly misunderstood, and misapplied.


For instance:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?

In this line, Juliet is not asking where Romeo is. Wherefore is a synonym for why. The line means this: Why is your name Romeo (of the rival Montague family)? The meaning becomes even clearer given the next line: "Deny thy father and refuse thy name!"

Besides understanding the correct literal meaning of a particular word in Shakespeare, the context of a line--and who is speaking the line--matters immensely. One common misunderstanding is humorously brought to light by Alicia Silverstone's character Cher in the 1995 film Clueless, in a scene where she corrects a pretentious college girl named Heather:

Heather: It's just like Hamlet said, "To thine own self be true."

Cher: Hamlet didn't say that.

Heather: I think I remember Hamlet accurately.

Cher: Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn't say that. That Polonius guy did.

 Hamlet is one of the wittiest characters in the Shakespeare canon. "That Polonius guy," on the other hand, is one Shakespeare's "greatest asses," full of what James Shapiro calls in the video below "aphoristic nonsense."

Why is this important? Hamlet is a play filled with dualism, in terms of plot, character and the use of language. Shakespeare contrasts the words and deeds of his characters in order to emphasize his protagonist's multiple antitheses. For instance, the fearsome advice the ghost of Hamlet's father imparts on Prince Hamlet does not pave the way for clear action. On the other hand, Polonius gives advice to his son Laertes that is easy to follow, but shallow and overly simplistic ("Neither a borrower nor lender be.") 

Therefore, Polonius's supposedly wise sayings must be understood as ironic. "Brevity is the soul of wit" comes from a character who can't keep his mouth shut. "To thine own self be true" comes from a character who is conducting a campaign of lies and deception. 

As Ben Brantley, chief theater critic of The New York Times puts it, this line is "not meant to be a truism to be sewn onto a needlepoint sampler." Why has this line been so misunderstood?

As Brantley suggests, it's not always such a bad thing to take a line out of context, a subject Big Think's "How to Think Like Shakespeare" panel grappled with as well:

What early US presidents looked like, according to AI-generated images

"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.

Abraham Lincoln, George Washington

Magdalene Visaggio via Twitter
Technology & Innovation
  • A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
  • "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
  • It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.

Keep reading Show less

VR experiments manipulate how people feel about coffee

A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.

Expert drinking coffee while wearing a VR headset.

Credit: Escobar / Petit / Velasco, Frontiers in Psychology
Surprising Science
  • Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
  • In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
  • The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Is empathy always good?

Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.

Quantcast