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Shakespeare Quotes Everyone Gets Wrong

Shakespeare Quotes Everyone Gets Wrong May 1, 2018

Popular Shakespeare quotes everyone gets wrong

William Shakespeare's plays are highly quotable, but there are some Shakespeare quotes everyone gets wrong. To be fair, he did write many plays, and they aren't short. (The man loved his five-act structure.) And while a couple of these idiomatic alterations are rather minor, most of them are downright egregious. In fact, there are even times when the popular quote completely contradicts the meaning of the source material. If you're going to quote the Bard, you may as well quote him correctly. We're ready to set the record straight in this gallery of popular Shakespeare quotations no one can seem to get right.

Now Is The Winter

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"Now is the winter of our discontent" has grown into a very popular turn of phrase. It comes from the Shakespeare play "Richard III" and it suggests that something about the current situation is such a bummer, it's basically winter. Maladjusts and other brooding types might take to this interpretation. But the a deeper reading favors another, brighter meaning.

Made Glorious Summer

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The fact is that this phrase has been stumbling through modern usage with only half its legs. The full phrase goes, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." It's intended, then, as a celebration, for York's appearance has turned winter into summer. Remind your local loner the next time they try to shortchange this key quote.

“Romeo, Romeo…

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"Romeo & Juliet" remains one of the most enduring tragic love stories. After their first chance meeting at a party at House Capulet, Juliet takes to the balcony to ponder the fact that she's fallen for her enemy. Of course, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" sure sounds like she's asking where her boytoy is located. But its actual meaning is slightly different...

...Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

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You see, the "wherefore" in the phrase "wherefore art thou Romeo" actually has meaning closer to "why" rather than "where." Juliet is asking why Romeo must be named Romeo, a Montegue, and her family's sworn enemy. The context of the scene furthers the suggestion, having Juliet then contemplate a rose, which would smell as sweet by any other name, to paraphrase. Thus, even though Romeo is secretly close by, and it seems like Juliet's asking where he is, she's actually asking something totally different. 

Alas, Poor Yorick, I Knew Him Well

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The graveyard scene from Hamlet's fifth act is one of the most famous in dramatic history. In it, Hamlet talks to his friend Horatio as well as an old grave digger who speaks in riddles. Hamlet also happens upon the skull of Yorick, and supposedly says the line, "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well." It's since become a quick piece of shorthand someone can trot out to seem melodramatic. However, the original version plays a little bit differently.

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio

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“Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” First, Hamlet is speaking to Horatio, not to the skull of Yorick directly. Second, he doesn't say he knew he well, but beyond splitting hairs, what's imporant about the latter addition is its symbolic connection. As a man of "infinite jest" and "excellent fancy" (or fantasy, in the old parlance), Yorick was like Hamlet, too distracted by his own vision of the world to see the truth. It's more poignant than it first appears.

Star-Crossed Lovers

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The "star-crossed lovers" mentioned in the Prologue to Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" are easy to pick out. They're right there in the title! But what does it really mean to say that they were "star-crossed?" It suggests that their fates were already doomed, as the stars had crossed before they ever met. But maybe there's more to this phrase than meets the eye?

Dis-aster

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The phrase "star-crossed" can be thought of alongside another word: disaster. The etymology of this word breaks down to dis-, meaning against, and -aster, meaning star. Thus, a "disaster" is that which goes "against the stars." So it's not "crossed" as in the paths of the stars crossed, thus dooming the young couple. Rather, the stars were cross, as in angry, because their love went against or sought to overpower the natural lights. There's a bit of wordplay happening here that's more than worth illuminating.

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Gild The Lily

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To "gild the lily" commonly means to overdue it. Putting a hat on a hat would be another way of saying this. The original phrase doesn't seem to make much sense, though. Gilding is covering something in gold, and at first glance it seems it would be excessive to put gold on a flower. But this expression has actually been condensed from another, more flowery version. 

Gild pure gold, paint the lily

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The full phrase comes from Shakespeare's play "King John." It actually goes "to gild pure gold, paint the lily." And though the meaning hasn't really changed, it sure makes a lot more sence. To cover pure gold with more gold would obviously be decadent. And lillies are already colorful, so they wouldn't require painting. Though the phrase works as an idiom in its truncated form, we much prefer the poetry of the full phrase.

Lead On, MacDuff...

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"Lead on, MacDuff" is pithy little phrase that occasionally gets dropped into conversation among leisurely intellectuals. It comes from Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the infamous Scottish play about the dangers of lusting after power. MacDuff is another character, and it sounds like Macbeth is asking to follow him somewhere. But the context reveals something else entirely...

“Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! Enough…”

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The line is spoken when Macbeth and MacDuff are no longer friends. In fact, Macbeth is challenging MacDuff to a sword fight. The full phrase goes “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! Enough…” In other words, "Lay on, MacDuff" (not "lead on" as commonly thought) would equal "come at me, bro!" 

This Above All...

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Once again turning to "Hamlet," this time we find a quote from Polonius, advisor to the Danish King and father to Hamlet's rival Laertes. Polonius is in fact giving his son some last minute advice before the boy departs for France, finishing with this gem. "And this above all: to thine own self be true." It's become a staple quote for free-spirited types the world over, but a closer inspection shows its older meaning.

...To Thine Own Self Be True

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"To thine own self be true" could be read as inspirational. But what's being inspired, essentially, is an act of selfishness. This worldview suggests that everyone is looking out for their own interests, and the best thing a person can do is be true to what is always advantageous to them. This is true in a certain sense, but Polonius misapplies it in his own life, needlessly choosing to put himself in harm's way. He's true to his curiosity, but not his sense of propriety, and it costs him his life in the end. Should have listened to your own advice, old man!

Bubble Bubble Toil And Trouble

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This is a small little difference, but a certain cartoon show helped popularize this misconception. On the TV show "DuckTales," a Macbeth-inspired episode finds some of magical ducks chanting "Bubble bubble toil and trouble," around a cauldron. It makes sense, since the pot is, you know, bubbling and boiling. But there's a hidden meaning to the original line that makes it worth the full telling.

Double Double Toil And Trouble

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The original phrase is spoken in unison by the Three Witches of the Heath. They predict that Macbeth will rise to greatness, only to fall to even lower depths. The actual line is "Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble." The double-double aspect might conjure In-N-Out, but it actually speaks to the nature of wild exponential growth. "Double double" suggests the increasing of Macbeth's ambitions will only lead to greater ruin, but he misses that part of the prophecy, unfortunately for him.

Methinks the Lady Doth Protest Too Much

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This one's featured in the all-time crowd favorite, "Hamlet." "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," is something people say when they think someone is denying an accusation too strongly. And for all their denials, they just look even more guilty. It's spoken as though this were something Hamlet was saying to his mother Queen Gertrude, but in fact it's said by another character altogether.

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

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Gertrude herself is the one who says this key line. She's speaking about an actor who is playing a Queen in a play they're all watching. It's a play within a play, and Hamlet has staged it to try to draw out the supposed guilt of his mother and uncle. Thus he's made the Queen character especially dramatic, to the point that Gertrude herself is basically like, this lady needs to take it down a notch. It's very interesting that she speaks the line to a version of herself, rather than Hamlet to her.

Discretion Is the Better Part of Valor

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This famous line is from Shakespeare's "Henry IV," a play set around a massive war. It's spoken by the character Falstaff, and implies that it's wise to avoid taking needless risks. Strength in silence seems to be the implication, rather than boasting about one's merits like a braggadocio. Of course, looking at the text, we see there's more to this line than there first appears.

The better part of valor is discretion

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The full phrase goes, "The better part of valor is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life." Falstaff, you see, has just managed to hide out the entire war by faking his own death. Though it's the smart move in a personal sense, it's not exactly the most valorous or heroic. But it shares the common wisdom of those who run away, and live to fight another day. 

"O brave new world...

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In the context of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," the character Miranda exclaims this phrase in excitement over the recent new arrivals to her island. She's been stranded there with her "dad" Prospero and his servant Caliban, and finally some new folk have washed ashore after a storm. So when Miranda says "O brave new world, that has such people in't!" she couldn't be more sincere. However, her hopes for these men might be set a little high...

...That has such people in 't!"

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As you may have seen in our Crazy Word Origins gallery, the term "brave" has two meanings. The modern sense equates it with "courageous," but the older sense links to "barbaric" as well. So when Miranda says, "O brave new world," she probably means it in the modern sense. But Prospero, her parental figure who fled these men who have just washed ashore, sees them more as barbarians to be feared. In the play, however, Miranda is the better validated, and her faith turns out to be well-placed.

Curiosity Killed The Cat

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The phrase "curiosity killed the cat, but satisfation brought it back" first appears in print in 1905, but its source goes back much earlier. As to its meaning, it's about how being too curious can lead to trouble. However, the back half suggests the reward might be worth all the trouble after all. Of course, the original phrase meant something quite different...

“Care killed the cat.”

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Featured in the Shakespeare play "Much Ado About Nothing," the source phrase goes "What, though care killed a cat? Though hast mettle in thee to kill care." In context, Claudio is encouraging another man, Benedick, to draw his sword and fight. "Care" most closely means "cry" or "worry." So to say "care killed the cat" suggests overworrying can snuff out courage!

The World Is Your Oyster

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This phrase and versions of it have been floating around self-help communities for years. It suggests that the world is full of endless bounty, ripe for the picking. The world is an oyster, and its pearl is intended for you, seems to be the underlying sentiment. It's a pleasant thought to carry with you when things haven't been going your way. But its original context changed the meaning considerably.

“The world’s mine oyster”

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In Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor," it's the braggart Pistol who uses the full phrase as a kind of threat rather than for inspiration. "The world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open," he says to Falstaff, a man who refuses to lend him money. Then, Pistol is threatening to open Falstaff (or his purse) as a man would shuck an oyster. We'd guess the self-help gurus never had that thought in mind when they were casting off this now-stock phrase.

To The Manor Born

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Our last entry comes once again from "Hamlet," and has to to with a certain homophone. "To the manor born" is supposedly from the play, and is used in conversation to suggest a person was born in high society, in the manor rather than, say, in an apartment. But the actual turn of phrase goes a little differently, even if its ultimate meaning is fairly similar.

To The Manner Born

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The full quote goes: "but to my mind,—though I am native here and to the manner born,—it is a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance.” Hamlet is referring to his uncle and his regular nightly custom of getting drunk, dancing, and firing off cannons. Hamlet is saying he's "to the manner born," as in he's a Dane and has participated himself in these revels in the past. But having done so in the past, he now finds it better to abstain. Really he's just driving another wedge between himself and his would-be uncle, saying "he does this, and I used to that that, but now I don't because I know better, and therefore I'm better than him." Classic move, Hamlet.