Librarians are, generally, voracious readers. We like novels and poetry and theater and all the ways wordsmiths spin phrases into beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and most importantly, ideas. So, it should surprise no one at all that when those beautiful ideas get mangled in pop culture, we are either angered or amused. I want you to love Shakespeare and the Brontes and Robert Frost, but not just in soundbites. I want you to enjoy them in their full, complex, not-suitable-for-vinyl-wall-sign glory. So, I present to you this librarian’s top ten list of literary quotes that get mangled by being removed from their context. And I encourage you to dig into the plays, novels and poems from which they arise. Whether you’re reading them for the first time or the fifth, they are worth the read.
“Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
People, whatever Heathcliff’s soul was made of, they should have excised it early and burned the place down to contain the contagion. He was a bad, bad man, and Cathy was no better. Repeat after me. Wuthering Heights is not a love story. Wuthering Heights is a horror story. AGAIN! Wuthering Heights is not a love story…
“To thine own self be true.” Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
This may be the ultimate example of “consider the source.” Polonius’ maxims to his son upon leaving Denmark to France may seem to be the words of a loving and wise father, but the more you get to know Polonius, the less you appreciate him. He’s a social climber who’s involved in all sorts of intrigues, not the least of which are spying on his own children. I’m all for integrity and empowerment, but maybe choose a different cheerleader, eh?
“Good fences make good neighbors.” Mending Wall by Robert Frost
I fear we are a country that often quotes poetry, but rarely reads it, and less often reads it carefully enough to understand it. Before you ever mutter this line, please, please please, go read the poem within which it is found. There you will find a speaker who is annoyed as heck that his dumb neighbor insists that every spring they collaboratively mend a fence where no fence is needed. Here’s the line I wish we all knew by heart and repeated often instead: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.”
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
This one shows up frequently in the online bibliophile community–on websites, blogs, or goodreads profiles . It is unfortunate, then, that the line is spoken by Miss Caroline Bingley, a snobby, gold-digging, manipulating twit who likely hasn’t read anything in all her life. Her faked reading philosophy is meant to advance her cause with Mr. Darcy against Elizabeth Bennet, the character who actually does read while Caroline Bingley won’t shut up about it. Jane Austen was a fierce and funny social critic. It’s fun reading her through that lens.
“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s gonna show up more than once on this list. His language is poetic, granted, but if you have some knowledge of advanced punctuation and vocabulary, you will quickly understand that Juliet knows right where her lover stands–on the balcony before her face. Wherefore does not mean where. It means why. Why are you Romeo? It’s the central theme of the play–what a terrible and tragic thing it is to be in love with your enemy, especially when your parents are brain dead and not paying much attention. If you’re wondering where in the big wide world your true love is hiding, the question to ask is not “wherefore art thou Romeo?” And speaking of Romeo and Juliet…
“Star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
I think that Romeo and Juliet is a strong contender for most often and most intensely misunderstood work of dramatic art to date. Why does this get read as a love story? It is not a great love; it’s a dumb teenage infatuation made tragic by two families’ foolish rancor for each other. Star-crossed does not mean that you are fated or destined to be together, as it is so often used. Star-crossed means betrayed by fate, or, in this case, destined by the stars to die. This is not romantic. It is not sexy. It should not be printed on your wedding announcements. I promise I will be done with Shakespeare if you will repeat after me: Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. Romeo and Juliet is a horror story. AGAIN! Romeo and Juliet is not a love story…
“I took the road less-traveled” The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
I made no promises about Frost repeats. Again, you should carefully read the poems you quote. If you read this one, you would realize that the speaker of the poem is actually looking at two nearly equally worn paths, and the poet even seems to mock the speaker a bit for making more of this little decision than it deserves. Frost doesn’t actually believe that the speaker’s choice of paths will “make all the difference.” Frost was a bit more curmudgeonly than that. Just take a dang path, people. Robert Frost does not care, and neither should you.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.
Ok, I lied. One more from the bard. See, folks. You’ve really got to pay more attention to your Shakespeare. This line is often used to inspire folks to propel forward and take their proper place among the great and powerful leaders of the future. Here’s the thing: Shakespeare puts these words in the mouth of one of his greatest fools! Malvolio’s a dour, self-righteous jerk who is transformed into a simpering jester in yellow stockings when the other characters convince him that Olivia loves him.Trust me, Malvolio-style greatness is not something you would wish to have thrust upon you.
“‘Tis love that makes the world go ‘round.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll.
You really need to pay attention to who is speaking the line of which you are enamored. Who speaks the line gives you great insight into what the author really meant by it. In this case, the line is spoken by the Duchess in Alice In Wonderland. The Duchess might in fact be incapable of love, but she’s very good at keeping her baby from sneezing. By beating him. Alice, on the other hand, seems to think, as Caroll likely did himself, that the world works best by everyone minding their own business.
“Screw your courage to the sticking point.” Macbeth by William Shakespeare.
It feels right to end this one with the Bard even though I’ve broken my “no more Shakespeare rule” twice. His work permeates western culture–even Gaston uses this line in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast– but it’s also layered and dense, and you could spend your whole life studying the work and still have things left to discover. In the case of Macbeth, this quote comes from none other than Lady Macbeth, perhaps the scariest femme fatale I have met on the page or on the stage. She’s got, well, problems. Deep, dark, murderous problems that you should not emulate or encourage. So yes, encourage your loved ones to be courageous, but maybe not in the context of delivering stab wounds.