Funny You Should Say That! As Ol' Will Would Say...

Funny You Should Say That! As Ol' Will Would Say...

The benefits of quoting Shakespeare.

By John Cadley


Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” For we language lovers, the equivalent might be, “Everybody wants to be well-read but nobody wants to read.” Or, said another way, everyone wants to be thought of as well read. For some reason, there is an automatic assumption that if you read a lot, you know a lot. This has always seemed like a suspect goal to me, since highly knowledgeable people have gotten us into just about every mess there is. But admired they are, and if we want that same admiration there are two ways to get it. One is to actually read a lot, remember what you’ve read and to reference it at the perfect time.

That seems like a lot of work to me, and there is always the danger of matching the wrong author with the wrong book and having some twerpy former English major catch you, in which case you’ll be labeled a poseur and sent to the corner with a dunce cap on your head.

Thankfully, there is an easier, faster and much safer way: quote Shakespeare. For some reason, quoting even a few lines of the Bard makes people think you’ve read the entire canon of Western literature.

I know this from experience. I was educated at a time when students were required to memorize Shakespeare’s more famous soliloquies. And while the rest of that education went through my skull like wind through a tunnel, the interior monologues of Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet and the rest somehow stuck. I remember one time in particular a girl with whom I was infatuated mentioned that she was unhappy about the cold weather we were having – it was December in Massachusetts – and I replied, “Ah yes, now is the winter of our discontent.” She looked stunned, as if Cupid had laid aside his traditional bow and arrow and had instead hit her over the head with a club. She fell breathlessly into my arms and I’ve been quoting Shakespeare ever since.

Recently, a colleague asked about my progress on an assignment he had given me.

“When is it due?” I asked.

“Tomorrow.”

I looked at him with baleful eyes and said, “Tomorrow… and tomorrow…and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a – ”

At which point he interrupted me and said, “You know what? Whenever you get to it. No rush.”

You really don’t have to memorize much, either. You can simply say, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” and people will think you know the whole speech. Throw in a little something about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and they may even think you wrote it.

Best of all, Shakespeare affords us the delicious pleasure of insulting others with impunity. The next time someone makes you angry, rear back and say: “Thou calumnious onion-eyed death-token! Thou cockered, plume-plucked fustilarian! Thou roguish, tickle-brained clotpole!” Trust me: They will take it as a compliment that their stupidity, ignorance and ineptitude can be described in such lavish terms.

So now the question is: How do you quote Shakespeare? First of all, don’t go to the plays. The rhythms of Elizabethan iambic pentameter sound to the modern ear like an inebriated British aristocrat speaking with a speech impediment. You’ll understand every fifth word at best and feel like you’re taking a class in English as a second language.

And don’t buy The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It weighs 40 pounds and you could hurt yourself.

The obvious way, of course, is to spend a few minutes with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Or you could use the Internet, although Googling Shakespeare gives even a barbarian like me pause. Somehow, ferreting out the most beautiful words in the English language with search engine algorithms is just bad form.

The easiest way is to make one up yourself, which is easier than it sounds. Throw in an “in sooth,” an “alas,” and some cheesy poetic metaphor and who’s going to know the difference? Just this morning I was late for a status meeting and when asked for an explanation, I proclaimed, “In sooth, time is a thief that steals my best intentions and leaves me, alas, well past the appointed hour for our meeting, hey nonny nonny.”

My boss looked at me suspiciously. He didn’t think Shakespeare went to status meetings. But he wasn’t sure.


John Cadley is an advertising copywriter in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at jcadley@mower.com.

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