language corner

Shakespeare didn’t say that

Lines that are (mis)attributed to the Bard
September 30, 2014

Hell hath no fury like a writer scorned, and, should Shakespeare be alive today, he might feel much scorn’d.

People misquote Shakespeare so often that he might well think no one actually reads him. Or perhaps he would be flattered, since so many pearls of wisdom by others are attributed to him. It’s they who would be filled with wrath.

Last week, we discussed two frequently mangled phrases: gilding the lily and wherefore art. Those are but minor irritations when entire passages are misattributed. Shakespeare is so oft’ misquoted, in fact, that there’s even a website, Not by Shakespeare, that catalogues the slings and arrows of outrageous quotation.

Take our opening phrase, substituting, of course, “woman” for “writer.” Not Shakespeare. It’s William Congreve, in his 1697 tragedy, The Mourning Bride. The actual line is “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,/Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.”

While “hath” does not appear in Congreve’s play, and the line is slightly off, the “Hell hath no fury” line is firmly established in idiom. Many websites and social media postings will say it’s Shakespeare, but saying won’t make it so.

Congreve might be also furious that another of his lines, from that same play, is not only frequently credited to the Bard, but also has two variations. It was Congreve who said that music could soothe savages.

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Well, actually, what he said was: “Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,/To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.” But at some point, perhaps in fussy Victorian times, “breast” became “beast,” and animals became the target of the soothing music, instead of the heart that Congreve intended. The phrases are nearly idiomatically interchangeable now, but journalists should aim to get it right and make a clean breast of it.

Congreve also was cheated on recognition of another well-known phrase. In his 1700 comedy The Way of the World” he wrote, “Say what you will, ’tis better to be left than never to have been loved.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, repurposed that line 150 years later, in his Memoriam to Arthur Henry Hallam, as “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Shakespeare sometimes gets credit for that one, too.

The lesson here, as we’ve said before, is to check for the primary source (and author) before quoting, especially when it’s the Bard.

Speaking of which, it’s not clear why or when Shakespeare became known as simply “the Bard.” The tem “bard” was first seen about 1488, The Oxford English Dictionary says, to describe “an ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets.” Shakespeare himself used the term in Richard III, in 1597.

It was probably during the 19th century, when Shakespeare’s profile skyrocketed, that Shakespeare became known as England’s “national poet” and “the Bard of Avon,” shortened to the more familiar “Bard.”

Today, if you want to practice what George Bernard Shaw called “bardolatry,” you should first make sure, to paraphrase one line in Sonnet 145, that those words Shakespeare’s own hand did make.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.