More honoured in the breach or the observance?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

It is tempting to say that getting classical quotations right is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But if we did, we’d be guilty too. In the original, Hamlet is telling Horatio about the tradition of drinking sprees in the Danish court; he says it makes Danes look bad to other nations. So when he says

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance

he doesn’t mean they don’t do it; he means they shouldn’t do it. Honour’d here means ‘honourable’, not ‘complied with’.

Sometimes our errors come from shifts in culture. In a time when fires were the main source of heat, for instance, a fire that burnt bright but didn’t give off much heat was not much use. So when Polonius advises Ophelia to watch out for the ardor of young men (such as Hamlet), he uses this metaphor:

I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.

These days, we use light as a positive metaphor in conversation, and heat more often as a negative one, so people often say a topic generates “more heat than light” – quite the reversal from the original.

We may look on such misinterpretations and say “Now is the winter of our discontent” with cultural knowledge. But we would be stopping short; here’s the whole opening sentence of Richard III:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

So he’s saying that their unhappy period is now made happy by the new king. (Admittedly, the man who is saying this is not happy about the state of affairs.)

Sometimes we just get a word wrong, perhaps because another word seems to go better with it (and another author, perhaps). We play our cats to sleep and say “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” – and think it’s from Shakespeare – when the original is from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride, and it’s “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Now, why not use a popular variation when appropriate, right? But we’re editors, and part of our job is to keep writers from looking bad, which means we have to take a do-or-die approach to quotations. Or, um, well… Tennyson’s original in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is as follows:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Do and die? Perhaps we would do better to quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Just as long as we get the wording right.

4 responses to “More honoured in the breach or the observance?

  1. Glad you invoked Yoda. Dark side never you be! I particularly loved the quote from Richard III and how it is oftener used in an inverted context.

  2. Virginia Clark

    You missed one. Before I actually READ Hamlet I thought it was “to the manor born”. Made sense, somehow, him being a prince and living in a big castle and all that.

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