If you’ve ever driven ‘cross the middle of the United States, you’re likely to have seen a billboard or two aiming to pass along some American wisdom from one of our great founding fathers. I saw this one the other day whilst traveling I70 between St. Louis and Kansas City:
“A Government big enough to give you everything you want, is a Government big enough to take away everything you have.”
This pronouncement struck me for two reasons. First, I thought it was silly and reductive. Second, I was sure in my bones that Thomas Jefferson didn’t write it. I’m not saying that Thomas Jefferson didn’t think it, or even say it maybe when he was drunk, but I knew that he had never written it. The sentiment seemed too simple and the delivery too slick for the man who wrote this about the University of Virginia:
“This institution of my native state, the Hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of it’s contemplation.”
A quick Googling put the matter to rest immediately: the “Government” quote is listed, along with many others, as having never been attributable to Jefferson, though Barry Goldwater and Gerald Ford both used it during their respective presidential campaigns.
The billboard got me thinking about our notions of wisdom, and our need to attribute bits of it to someone famously smart, or widely respected. It goes without saying that if the billboard had listed Barry Goldwater as the quotation-maker, the idea would carry less weight with drivers-by. But why? I mean, if you’re against big government and you come across a pithy saying, why does it matter if it was first penned by Joe Nobody?
Well, wisdom is a twitchy thing.
When I was a lad, and asked my Dad for money, he always replied: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Shakespeare said that.” It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that Shakespeare didn’t say it. Polonius – a character in a Shakespeare play, said it. And Polonius, as a character, is an old fool. Doddering. He also said “the apparel oft proclaims the man” and told Laertes he should dress like a Frenchman, then told Ophelia to “think [herself] a baby.” Was this wisdom? “To thine own self be true” is a beautiful sentiment, but shouldn’t we take it with a grain of salt when the speaker is blathering, sexist old brown-noser?
I began to wonder how often Shakespeare was misquoted, or quoted to cross-purposes. Because his works are so well-studied, you’d think there wouldn’t be that many misattributed couplets – but I found this one, wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, on many internet quotation sites:
“I love thee, I love but thee,
With a love that shall not die
Till the sun grows cold
And the stars grow old.”
Not Shakespeare, though it’s often thought to be from Romeo and Juliet. It’s actually by Bayard Taylor. Who? Exactly.
Left-leaners also go around misreporting politically convenient quotations. Just during the Iraq invasion, this was circumnavigating the Internet:
“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. […] When the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, […] the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How do I know? For this is what I have done. And I am Caesar.”
That gem didn’t appear in print until 2001, and was most famously called Shakespearean by no other than Barbara Streisand, although many others also blamed it on the poor Bard. Others actually said it came from the historical Caesar himself (it didn’t).
More insidious, perhaps, are those instances where snippets of text are taken out of context to bolster an argument that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have considered. For instance, CNN’s money channel used …
“Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets,
But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.”
… in an article called “Shakespeare’s Best Investing Advice.” That’s right: Shakespeare penned Venus and Adonis to encourage Elizabethans to invest in the stock market. Have you ever heard “What’s done cannot be undone?” That’s Lady Macbeth, and she’s talking about having brutally murdered the king in his sleep. Oh yeah, and she’s crazy and sleepwalking when she says it. A mint.com article used the As You Like It line “one man in his time plays many parts” as career advice for CEO hopefuls, and Startacus, a company that specializes in startup tips for young companies, translated Iago’s “How poor are they that have not patience!” to mean “It is going to take time to build a successful business.” Iago. Well I mean, wow.
Poor Shakespeare, poor Jefferson, poor anybody, really, who had a winning way with a quill pen. We use their words to shore up our arguments, win our debates, woo our lovers. If they happen not to have written the words we need, we just write what we want to say and call it sage-given wisdom. If those writers were alive today, I’d like to think they’d file suit against all the misquoters, mis-users, and mis-understanders.
Then again maybe they wouldn’t. Shakespeare did write “let’s kill all the lawyers.” I’m sure he meant that one.