Leaving aside matters of literary interpretation to focus on simple facts, I want to correct, once and for all (if only I could), the single most annoying (perennial, ubiquitous) of the English-speaking world’s Lapses in Cultural Literacy; Department: appeals to authority; Subdivision: quotation from Shakespeare.
I am not talking about the simple and understandable mistakes of neophytes. I am perfectly happy to correct students who recite Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 and incorrectly stress the second syllable of the word “damasked” instead of the first syllable. I don’t mind enlightening those (often the same ones) who say “she belied” in that same sonnet as if the words formed a subject-verb unit instead of the subject of a subordinate elliptical clause and a modifying passive participle. (The line means “I think my love as rare [in beauty] as any woman [is rare in beauty] who has been lied about in the false comparisons of other poets).
Similarly, the least bit of patience will suffice to instruct the uninitiated that the word “wherefore” in Juliet’s famous line—“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” (Romeo and Juliet
, II.ii.33)—means “why” and not “where.” (“Why must your name be Romeo Montague?”)
It’s a mere bagatelle to inform students and actors that in The Tempest
, “Milan” is pronounced by Shakespeare with the stress on the first syllable, not the second. And only a modicum of increased effort is needed to persuade them that in The Taming of the Shrew
the hero’s name is spelled “Petruchio” precisely because Shakespeare wanted it pronounced by his English actors as the Italians would pronounce “Petruccio.” (Where it is not ignorance, you can be pretty sure it is pretentiousness that causes modern actors and directors to reverse Shakespeare’s intentions and say “Petrukio”—they want to show you that they
Italian pronunciation even if you don’t.)
But what ever and again tries my patience, what digs under the skin as no other sling or arrow of outrageous ignorance can do, what drives me even to blogging, is the relentlessness with which the pastors, promoters, pundits, purveyors, and puritans of our age misread Hamlet’s comment on the Danish habit of shooting off canons whenever the king takes a ceremonial drink: “It is a custom / More honored in the breach than the observance” (Hamlet
Countless moralizers have beaten us over the head with a club made from the authority of Hamlet’s phrase in order to accuse this or that person or organization or movement of honoring some custom only in words but breaching it in practice. But the club is Styrofoam, or rather mere hot air, which contributes to nothing but intellectual global warming. Why? Because THIS IS NOT WHAT HAMLET MEANT! The misreading of his sentence turns it into an attack on hypocrisy, which is the worst—for Jean-Paul Sartre the only—sin in our modern moral lexicon, but which is not what Shakespeare is discussing at the moment. Why can the abusers of the bard not get it into their anti-hypocritical heads that Hamlet does NOT mean that the Danes are breaching a custom they pretend to follow?
In the context the word “honored” means “to be honored” or “honorable.” Hamlet means it is a custom that it would be more honorable to break than to keep. As the rest of the speech makes clear, he doesn’t like the idea that the otherwise excellent reputation of the Danes is ruined by this one compromising custom of rocking the whole countryside with canon fire whenever the king takes a gulp of Rhine wine. The point relates to the rest of the play in the parallel Hamlet draws between that one bad custom of the nation and the one dram of evil in particular men that can ruin their otherwise stainless virtue (as happens to Hamlet himself later in the play). But we’re leaving literary interpretation aside.
When Hamlet wants to talk about hypocrisy, he does it in no uncertain terms. Let the anti-hypocrisy pundits study Hamlet’s speech to his mother and comprehend the kind of act that “Calls virtue hypocrite” or what it means when “reason panders will.” But please stop trying to turn a custom Hamlet hates into one he wishes people would follow.
Once and for all: “more honored in the breach than the observance” means “breaching it is more honorable than observing it.” Repeat. Fix it in your mind. Spread the word. Interrupt the perpetuation of this solecism with resolute correction. Help stamp the erroneous “honored in the breach” right straight out of the language. Think of the next generation being born and brought up in a world in which everyone, to an English-speaking man, woman, and child, knows what Hamlet meant.
Now watch carefully for the correct usage in the following dialogue:
Our moralizers mangle Hamlet’s meaning.
Is it a custom?
Ay, marry, is’t,
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance
(To say the least).