September 30, 2010

Brush up on your Shakespeare

Call it a hot topic, a pet peeve, or a hobby, but I collect Shakespearean misquotes.  Maybe it’s an extreme expression of my own Shakespearean arrogance, but I especially like when I find misquotes in historical documents or influential literature.

Misquotes fall into one of two general categories.  The first category encompasses words quoted correctly but used entirely incorrectly (the classic example of this is “wherefore art thou Romeo” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2) being quoted to mean “Romeo, where are you?” rather than “why are you Romeo Montague?”).  The second misquote category is for instances in which someone quotes words that are similar to Shakespeare but not exactly the Bard verbatim (i.e. “Alas Poor Yorick I knew him well” rather than what Hamlet actually says; “Alas Poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio…” (Hamlet 5.1)). 

Today’s offender comits a misquote belonging to the second category.  English Romantic Hannah More was not a stupid woman.  She was educated (unusual for women at that time), spoke Latin, was published several times over, and hung out with Samuel Johnson and David Garrick.  However, in her 1799 piece Structures on the Modern System of Female Education written in reaction to Wollstonecraft’s famous Vindication of the Rights of Women, Moreexecutes a grievous Shakespearean misquote.  In chapter eight, More talks about women writers and novelists.  In an attempt to demonstrate her point about the prevalent fear that too much reading turns women into rampant novelists, she cites two infamous stories: The Iliad and Macbeth.

More claims:

“The glutted imagination soon overflows with the redundance of cheap sentiment and plentiful incident, and by a sort of arithmetical proportion, is enabled by the perusal of any three novels, to produce a fourth; till every fresh production, like the prolific progeny of Banquo, is followed by ‘Another, and another, and another!’ “.

It actually took me some time to verify that this was a misquote because it sounded so familiar.  After a little research, I understood why.

More is confusing two passages from Macbeth.  The story she tells surrounding the quote is the story of 4.1 in which the Witches summon forth specters to show Macbeth the future.  After having been shown the armed head, the bloody child, and the crowned child holding a branch and being told famously “none of woman borne shall harm Macbeth” (4.1 1621-22) and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Byrnam Wood, to high Dunsmane Hill Shall come against him” (4.1 1635-37), eight ghostly kings appear.  Banquo appears last with a mirror in his hand which shows Macbeth Banquo's progeny through the ages.  Kings upon Kings, all of Banquo’s line.  Obviously this does not bode well for the “immortal King of Scotland”.

Macbeth does use the word “another” during this sequence, but not in the way that More recalls.  Here is what he says:

Thou art too like the Spirit of Banquo: Down:
Thy Crowne do's seare mine Eye-bals. And thy haire
Thou other Gold-bound-brow, is like the first:
A third, is like the former. Filthy Hagges,
Why do you shew me this? --- A fourth? Start eyes!
What will the Line stretch out to'th' cracke of Doome?
Another yet? A seauenth? Ile see no more:
And yet the eighth appeares, who beares a glasse,
Which shewes me many more: and some I see,
That two-fold Balles, and trebble Scepters carry. (Macbeth 4.1 1659-68)

While there are many words here, we only find the barest hint of More’s “authoritative” line of text.  Macbeth uses the word “another” once in the seventh line of this passage, though he implies the word several times more.  

At first, I was satisfied with this answer, but something was nagging me.  More’s quote still sounded so achingly familiar.  It took me a moment before I realized why that was.  More seems to have conflated this speech with another, more famous, speech of Macbeth’s.  Take a gander at what Macbeth says when news is brought to him of his wife’s demise:

She should haue dy'de heereafter;
There would haue beene a time for such a word:
To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow,
Creepes in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdayes, haue lighted Fooles
The way to dusty death. Out, out, breefe Candle,
Life's but a walking Shadow, a poore Player,
That struts and frets his houre vpon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Ideot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth 5.5 2337-2349)

(….I know that you didn’t really need to read that entire speech, but I can’t help myself.  It’s one of my favorites.)

Especially pay attention to the third line of Macbeth’s infamous sound and fury speech.  Familiar, no?  Apparently More did have a head for Shakespeare, a pretty good one at that since she remembered the particulars of an oft-forgotten bit of text.  Her recollection wasn’t perfect though because she super-imposed the words of one of the most famous canonical works onto a less-known bit of plot advancement.  How embarrassing!

I can’t help but laugh a little as the final implications of More’s misquote are that these ill-fated books by women writers are merely bits of fluff.  “Tales told by idiots”.  Far from being the enlightened pieces of literature that so frightened men of Eighteenth Century England, literate women were fated to write novels “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”.  Perhaps More’s misquote was more of a Freudian one.  After all, her primary reaction to Wollstonecraft’s work was “Rights of women!  We shall be hearing of the Rights of Children next!”.  I wish there was a more authoritative way to enter More’s mind regarding this little bit of inconsistency; it would have at least given the feminists something else to bicker about.

I think the moral of the story is (once again) if you’re going to quote him, quote him right.  More may not have had the benefit of the internet, but you certainly do!  There are plenty of free textual resources out there, and I am always willing to play dramaturge for inquisitive minds.

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