Mangling Shakespeare

A few days ago the "After Deadline" column at the New York Times ran a feature called "Mangled Shakespeare." The column covers issues of grammar and style in the paper, and this piece focused on the (mis)quotation of Shakespeare in the pages of the Times. At the risk of delivering a pedantic response to a purposefully pedantic column, I'd like to defend the mangling of Shakespeare here.

The quotation featured in the column comes (where else?) from Hamlet, specifically Act 1, scene 4, where the eponymous prince laments the notorious drunkenness of his uncle -- and, by extension, of Denmark as a nation. The line in question, which has become a proverbial phrase, is "a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance." It's a line that occurs in all three early texts of Hamlet, and in each case it's relatively the same, albeit with some significant variation. Here's the Q2 version of the passage, which includes 22 lines directly following the famous phrase which do not occur in the other texts:

Q2 (1604) - British Library copy 
I marry ist,
But to my minde, though I am natiue heere
And to the manner borne, it is a custome
More honourd in the breach, then the obseruance.
This heauy headed reueale east and west
Makes vs tradust, and taxed of other nations,
They clip vs drunkards, and with Swinish phrase
Soyle our addition...

Since those 22 lines are missing in both the Q1 and F1 texts -- both of which (especially the former) are often thought to reflect some elements of theatrical performance -- the lines are usually characterized as a cut, either as a way to avoid angering the newly crowned King James (whose wife happened to be from Denmark), or, perhaps more convincingly, as a way to stop Hamlet from once again slowing down the action with another long speech. The important thing for my purposes here, though, is that the crucial phrase is generally the same in all three texts. Here's the F1 and Q1 versions:

First Folio (1623) - University of Pennsylvania Furness Library copy
I marry ist;
And to my mind, though I am natiue heere,
And to the manner borne: It is a Custome
More honour'd in the breach, then the obseruance.

Q1 (1603) - British Library copy
I mary i'st and though I am
Natiue here, and to the maner borne,
It is a custome, more honourd in the breach,
Then in the obseruance.

[note the handwritten correction in the left margin, replacing the nonsensical "dreames" with "drinks," which is of course what the King does to "his draughts of renish," i.e. Rhenish wine]

As you can see, the lines are virtually the same, although the change in punctuation in the Folio (a colon followed by a capitalized "It") could be interpreted as a recognition that the phrase was already well-known, or at least quotable in a particular way.

What Hamlet is saying here, in context, is that although he was born in Denmark ("though I am native here"), and hence "to the manner born" when it comes to the notoriously riotous drinking of the Danes -- the "manner" here being excessive drinking -- he believes that it is a "custom more honoured in the breach than the observance." That is, as the recent Arden3 editors gloss it: the custom of excessive drinking is "more honourable to break than to observe." And that is how the OED defines the phrase, as well, for this very quotation is used to illustrate definition 3a of "honor" in its verb form: "To confer honor or dignity upon; to do honor or credit to; to grace."

However, that is not how the phrase is often used now. The "After Deadline" examples, taken from the pages of the Times, illustrate this quite clearly; indeed, the explanation from the stylebook shows that the phrase is used in almost the exact opposite sense of what Hamlet is actually saying:

Hamlet means that it is more honorable to breach, or violate, the custom of carousing than to observe it. So the phrase is properly applied to a bad custom or rule that should be ignored. Instead, we and others frequently use it in almost the opposite sense, referring to a good custom that, unfortunately, is often breached. As the stylebook says: 'more honored in the breach. The passage more honored in the breach than the observance, from "Hamlet," refers to a custom that is more honorably ignored than followed -- not one that is more often ignored.'
One of the examples cited looked familiar to me, and sure enough, it comes from a recent op-ed by Michael Bérubé on the child-abuse scandal at Penn St. ("At Penn State, a Bitter Reckoning."):

The principle of 'shared governance' is the least well understood aspect of academic freedom, and as a result, it is honored chiefly in the breach. But if the administration is serious about restoring shattered trust at Penn State, it must start by trusting its own faculty; and we faculty members -- invisible so far, too stunned and depressed to speak -- must work with the administration to repair what Mr. Sandusky and his enablers have destroyed.
This is the concluding paragraph of Bérubé's piece, and he makes a serious ideological and practical point here: the concept, and more importantly the actual practice, of "shared governance" (wherein a university's faculty actively participates in leading the institution, rather than ceding that authority to, or more often, having been marginalized by, the administrators) has been "honored chiefly in the breach" -- that is, has been recognized and enacted only "in the breach," which of course means that it has not been recognized or enacted at all. As the stylebook says, this is a good custom that has all too often been ignored. And in the case of Penn St., Bérubé argues that this fundamental failure had disastrous consequences.

So what is the problem here? I realize the point of a style and grammar column is to be pedantic, but Bérubé's point is perfectly clear here -- in fact, the point gains force through the ironic use of the word "honored." (Besides, as the as the newly crowned president of the MLA, Bérubé could simply change the standard meaning of the phrase by fiat). The problem, at least for the writer of the column, is that the phrase as it is actually used is not just incorrect -- it "mangles" Shakespeare, since it demonstrates that the user does not recognize or correctly interpret Shakespeare.

"Still, if we can't help ourselves [from quoting Shakespeare], we should at least make sure we're quoting correctly, and that the allusion means what we think it means."
The reason, obviously, is that authority possessed by Shakespeare (not to mention the status of Hamlet in particular as a sacred text of modernity) dictates that we use quotations just the way Shakespeare intended them to be used. That is, we should quote Shakespeare with a recognition of the texts' historicity. Which I find completely and totally ridiculous, since this attitude in turn shows a complete ignorance of the ways in which Shakespeare's plays -- and perhaps Hamlet above all -- were designed to be quoted out of context.

That was the whole point of the practice of commonplacing -- appropriating quotations, out of context, for one's own purposes. (If you need a refresher, I wrote about this in a previous post: "Necessary Quotation Marks"). Pedantic objections are thus not simply futile (as the attempt to fix a living language must always be) -- but it is incorrect. Particularly, we might say, when the quotation is perfectly understandable, lending force to one's argument.

So there are two lessons here: first, do not try to claim the pedantic high ground with an early modern textual scholar (our breed is nothing if not detail-oriented, which is another way of saying "pedantic"); and second, go ahead, mangle Shakespeare!