Misquoting the Bard

Oil on canvas, Ophelia, 1851-1852, John Everett Millais, Photo by Gandalf's Gallery, 7 April 2010, Flickr, creative commons
John Everett Millais, "Ophelia, 1851-1852," Photo by Gandalf's Gallery, Flickr, 2010.

William Shakespeare’s works seem to be everywhere in popular culture. In Suzanne Enoch’s Sins of a Duke the hero thinks that “Shakespeare’s ‘tangled web’ didn’t even begin to describe the mess he’d fallen into” (226). The problem is Shakespeare did not say this. This quotation is actually from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion.

In analyzing the ways that romance authors reference Shakespeare, I have noticed patterns in how they misquote Shakespeare as well. While it is not uncommon for characters to quote a famous Shakespearean saying, some authors also attribute quotations to Shakespeare that are not from his works. Another example occurs in Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal where the hero thinks that Shakespeare said, “The law is an ass” (126). This was actually Charles Dickens. Often, these misattributions come from the characters, so it is unclear whether the authors make these mistakes intentionally.

Other authors use misquotations of Shakespeare to demonstrate a character’s knowledge. In Kasey Michaels’s A Midsummer Night’s Sin, the hero shows off his Shakespearean knowledge repeatedly:

Regina chuckled softly beneath her dark veil. “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

“Ah, but that is incorrect, pet. Still, a common error. The correct speech by our good friend Hamlet goes rather differently, with no well about it. ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.’ Etcetera. Thanks to my mother, I’ve got a head full of Shakespeare. And can’t seem to Shake it.” (228)

Victoria Alexander flips the exchange in Secrets of a Proper Lady by having the heroine correct the hero:

He furrowed his brow and tried to think of something intelligent to say. “I have it. ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.'”

“Not that well, Yorick,” she murmured absently, her gaze drifting over Warren’s desk. “The quote is actually ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.'”

“I knew that.” He scoffed. “It just slipped my mind for a minute. It’s from Hamlet.”

“Very good, Warren, indeed it is.” (249-50)

Alexander clearly gives the heroine the upper hand, positioning her as more knowledgeable than the hero. Liz Carlyle makes a similar move in Never Lie to a Lady, when the heroine corrects the hero’s misquotation of Macbeth:

“And God knows I love nothing so much as the sigh of a picturesque dockyard,” said Nash. “Lead on, Macduff.”

“Lay on,” Xanthia corrected, starting up the stairs.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It is ‘Lay on, Macduff,'” she said. “Macbeth is inviting Macduff to fight him. To come forward and attack. Really, Lord Nash, did you not learn your Shakespeare properly at Eton?”

“I’m afraid I have never learnt it at all,” said Nash quietly. (134-5)

These moments invert the patriarchal hierarchy and give the heroine intellectual superiority, or at least more knowledge of literary works. Whether this elevates the heroine or demotes literary knowledge as an important attribute is the question.

When romance authors aren’t correcting misquotations of Shakespeare, they often repurpose quotations from Shakespearean tragedies to focus on sex, such as in Maya Rodale’s A Tale of Two Lovers where the hero thinks, “To bed or not to bed his wife? That is the question” (246). The hero turns Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide into a debate about sex. In Jillian Hunter’s A Wicked Lord at the Wedding, the hero tells his wife that he is “Lean and hungry. . . But not for breakfast” (117). And in Liz Carlyle’s One Touch of Scandal, the hero quotes Macbeth while deflowering the heroine:

“If it were done,” he muttered as if to himself, “’twere well it were done quickly.”

“I don’t think,” Grace whispered, “that Shakespeare meant—”

But Adrian chose that instant to be done. He impaled her on a deep, certain thrust, leaving nothing but a cry of pure male satisfaction in his wake, and leaving Grace unerringly certain she would never walk again. (218)

By using quotations from the tragedies in particular, authors might be emphasizing violent elements of sex, as it appears in the above quotation. These authors are clearly interested in drawing on familiar Shakespearean quotations, but in shifting the context they remove the original meanings and replace them with their own.

Tamara Whyte

Tamara Whyte is a doctoral student in the Hudson Strode program, Renaissance studies at the University of Alabama, and author of "'A Consummation Devoutly to be Wished': Shakespeare in Popular Historical Fiction" in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger.

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