There’s little doubt that Shakespeare is the greatest English writer to have lived, and has of course provided the world with all manner of fantastic quotes. So it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare is also one of the world’s most misquoted writers! Whether from poor memory or a case of ‘Chinese Whispers’, many Shakespeare quotes are not actually true quotes from Shakespeare at all, but rather distortions of his words. This post aims to highlight and correct the most common Shakespeare misquotations.
Below are a selection of Shakespeare misquotations – where the original wording is changed – and Shakespeare misattributions – quotes by other writers frequently attributed to Shakespeare:
Top Shakespeare Misquotations
‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well’
The true Shakespeare version is slightly different: ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’
‘Lead on, Macduff’
…is a term that people use to say, ‘go on, I’ll follow you’ but in Macbeth it’s about Macbeth inviting Macduff to engage with him in one-to-one combat, and the phrase is: ‘Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold! Enough…’
‘Gilding the lily’
…is a widely used idiom to suggest that someone is exaggerating. It comes from King John. Shakespeare’s line is: ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.’
‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’
…has a familiar ring and is very close to Shakespeare’s version, but the word order is slightly different in Hamlet. It is ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’
‘Discretion is the better part of valour’
…is the best excuse we make for ducking a dangerous decision is using the familiar cliché and yes, it comes from Henry IV Part 1, but Shakespeare words it ‘The better part of valour is discretion.’
‘Bubble bubble toil and trouble’
The script for the Disney film DuckTails includes this quote, and is an often-used misquotation of a phrase from Macbeth. Shakespeare’s version is ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.’
Top Shakespeare Misattributions
Poets through the ages have written beautiful, memorable lines and phrases, and if asked who wrote them our mind often jumps to Shakespeare. Here are the top lines misattributed to Shakespeare, but actually penned by other writers:
‘No man is an island’
Comes from the poet John Donne: it is taken from a sermon, not a poem. Donne, a Jacobean poet, was also the Dean of St Paul’s in London and this is a famous quotation from his Meditation 17. The passage ends: ‘therefore send not to ask for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.’ Ernest Hemingway’s most famous novel is titled For Whom the Bell Tolls.
‘Come live with me and be my love’
Is often ascribed to Shakespeare, but is actually the start of Christopher Marlowe’s famous poem, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.
Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’
This classic line is widely thought to be from Shakespeare, however it was written by the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson, describing the death of his close friend, and some say, lover in his poem In Memoriam.
‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’
…sounds like it was written by Shakespeare but actually comes from The Mourning Bride by Irish playwright, William Congreve.
The Elizabethan and Jacobean play texts are among the most beautiful English language texts. Another Jacobean text was just as full of wisdom and beauty as those: it is the Bible. Shakespeare and the Bible are the two most quoted sources in the everyday world of the 21st century but ancient quotes from the Bible are often mistaken for Shakespeares. For example:
‘He kept him as the apple of his eye.’ Deuteronomy 32:10
‘Put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.’ Proverbs 23:1
‘Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die.’ Corinthians 15:32
‘I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.’ Job 19:20
‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ Timothy 6:10
‘All my intimate friends detest me; those I love have turned against me. I am nothing but skin and bones.’ Job 19
‘They do not practice what they preach.’ Matthew 23:3
‘How the mighty have fallen.’ Samuel 1:25
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