Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Too much Shakespeare?

If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it

— “Twelfth Night”, act I, scene 1

Is it possible to quote too much Shakespeare?

After the Bible, the works of the Bard of Avon provide more quotes than any other prose or poetry, perhaps followed by Cervantes (Don Quixote) in a distant third place. Will sure knew how to turn a phrase, and we sure know how to borrow one. From Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (from “The Tempest”, act V) to the original “Star Trek” series episodes[1] All Our Yesterdays and Dagger of the Mind (both from the same soliloquy in “Macbeth”, act II, scene 1), we pull out our Shakespeare regularly.

We get lots of common phrases from the Bard. There’s star-cross’d lovers (“Romeo and Juliet”, act I, prologue). We have a lean and hungry look (“Julius Caesar”, act I, scene 2). And to the manner born (“Hamlet”, act I, scene 4).

But there’s one that’s become so overused of late as to be hackneyed and annoying: “a sea-change”:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

— “The Tempest”, act I, scene 2

Everything, it seems, is now a sea-change, from campaign 2008, to cellular network providers, to Israel. A “list” has become a “laundry list”, a “plan” is now an “action plan”, and a “change” doesn’t make it any more unless it’s a “sea-change” (with or without the hyphen).

William Shakespeare also gave us some adages. Much as Ben Franklin told us that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” so we have this from Shakespeare:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

— “Hamlet”, act I, scene 3

When King John crowns himself a second time, we get this advice from Salisbury:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

— “King John”, act IV, scene 2

And there’s an image that’s more honour’d in the breach than the observance (“Hamlet”, act I, scene 4), because we’ve somehow turned it into “gilding the lily,” and that’s how it always now is. Unless we’re performing the play, we never quote the line right, but over-use a phrase that’s taken on a life of its own.

And there you have it: two phrases we take from Shakespeare that I dearly wish we’d give back, at this point merely full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (“Macbeth”, act V, scene 5).

Brush up your Shakespeare
Start quoting him now
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow
Just declaim a few lines from Othella
And they’ll think you’re a heck of a fella
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ’er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer
And if still to be shocked she pretends, well
Just remind her that All’s Well That Ends Well
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kowtow

— Kiss Me Kate, act II (Cole Porter)


[1] There are two other episodes from the original series that have titles taken from Shakespeare: By Any Other Name from “Romeo and Juliet”, act II, scene 2, and Conscience of the King, from “Hamlet”, act II, scene 2.


lidija said...

I wonder how many common phrases from his time Shakespeare borrowed that we just attribute to his writing. For example, "gilding the lily" may have been rephrased by him and we just don't know it because we may not have traced it to other writings (like newspapers, blogs, discussion boards - to capture the slang...) and as a time-specific slang it may not have made it into our speech. Or did it?

Laurie said...

I thought it was:
If her virtue at first she defends well,
Just remind her that All's Well That Ends Well.

I've sung it wrong for years!

I played in the pit for Kiss Me Kate in high school, and they actually sang "helluva fella." Nowadays that's probably just Too Darn Hot.

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, well:

1. Don't take my quotation as definitive!

2. There were so many alternative versions and verses and lines for that song that I'm not sure you can take anyone's quotation as definitive. The only thing we can be sure about is what words were used in the movie. Beyond that, every performance might have had somewhat different lines.

I think the version I quote is the movie's, but I'm not certain now (it's been stored on my computer for ages).

I do know that some of Porter's lyrics were considered a bit too spicy for the movie at the time, and were slightly altered — in "Too Darn Hot" and "I Hate Men", for sure ("His 'business' is the business that he gives his secretary," using some quaint slang of the day, was softened just slightly).

The same thing happened with some of Sondheim's "West Side Story" lyrics. In the Quintet, for instance, Anita sang, on stage, "He'll come home hot and tired / So what? / Don't matter if he's tired, as long as he's hot!" The movie version became, "He'll come home hot and tired / Who cares? / Don't matter if he's tired as long as he's there."

We used to be quite prudish in the movies. (And back then, Ed Sullivan asked Mick Jagger to sing "Let's spend some time together." The current FCC commissioners would be so pleased.)