Lecture on “Bartlett’s Familiar Shakespeare: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Quotation”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Thursday evening, Marjorie Garber, professor of English and American Literature and Language and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University (and member of the Swarthmore Class of ’66), gave the first of a series of interdisciplinary lectures sponsored in part by the William J. Cooper Foundation on “Perspectives in the Humanities.” Professor Garber’s lecture “Bartlett’s Familiar Shakespeare: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Quotation” questioned the ubiquitous use of Shakespearean quotations as sources of Shakespeare’s personal opinions and wisdom.

Garber challenged that the perpetual quoting and misquoting of Shakespearean characters in popular culture, the media, and politics resulted in “phrases floating free” without the context of character or plot to properly understand their meaning. By asserting that “Shakespeare said” a certain statement, speakers make use of a shortcut to increase their own authority without actually considering whether the statement in any way reflects Shakespeare’s opinions.

In fact, Garber explained, a closer examination of the sources of quotations reveals that it is next to impossible to discern Shakespeare’s personal beliefs regarding an issue as Shakespeare continually presents contrasting arguments regarding various topics, offering each side of the debate an equally eloquent voice. Taking the words of each character to be an absolute truth, therefore, is a mistake as Shakespeare’s characters and situations are full of contradiction.

Instead, Garber advocates that students of Shakespeare interested in his beliefs look at “the interplay of voices” rather than cutting out one or two lines of wittily arranged dialogue as is so conveniently presented by quotation books like those of John Bartlett. Quoting Shakespeare, Garber concluded, can only be beneficial, but one should take great care before trying to transform Shakespeare into a moral guide or source of ethical advice.

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