Misunderstood Shakespeare: The Balcony Scene

Pretty much anywhere you go, whoever you talk to, if they know only one thing about any play by Shakespeare, it’s the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the most famous scene ever written. 

There’s just one problem with that:  there was no balcony. 

That’s correct. 

There. 
Never. 
Was. 
A.
Freaking.
Balcony. 

In the script, the stage direction is clear: JULIET appears above at a window. 

Not a balcony. A window. 

You can read the entire scene and see that not once is a balcony mentioned. 

I don’t know who invented it, but it was a killer idea that I bet Shakespeare would wish he had thought of, were he still alive today. 

Of course, directors can stage a play however they like, and make use of whatever structures and sets the theatre provides.

Filmmakers can do likewise, but one must keep in mind their tendency to just change whatever they want. Hollywood is notorious for that. The mayhem that comes from mass misunderstanding occurs when directors think they know better than the author, and when people watch a movie instead of reading the book.

It makes people and their assumptions about the original text wrong, and leaves them marinating in their wrongness until their wrongness is so commonly accepted that most people think it’s right. 

It just goes to show that what your English teacher always said is true: there really is no substitute for reading the book.

Frequently Mistaken: ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’

Today I received an email which included the line, “It doesn’t matter who’s responsibility it is…”

Written by a professional who should know better, it was ironic that it was me, and not them, doing a massive facepalm.

This incorrect use of the homophone “who’s” instead of “whose” is a common error, but that doesn’t make it excusable.

The apostrophe in “who’s” signals that it is a contraction— a shortening of two words into one, so that “who is” becomes “who’s”. Alternatively, it can also be a contraction of “who has”. You can tell which one it is by determining if the sentence is in past or present tense,

Examples:
That’s the boy who’s a really good actor.
Who’s in charge around here?
Who’s been eating my porridge?

‘Whose’ is a pronoun of ownership. 

Examples:
This is the farmer whose cows ate all my corn. 
Whose car is that? 

Once you know the difference, it’s fairly straightforward. That means there is absolutely no excuse for getting them wrong, even if they do sound the same when spoken.

Fun fact: “it’s” and “its” work exactly the same way.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: ‘Sea Change’

These days we understand the phrase “sea change” to reflect something new and positive in one’s life. It is frequently used to describe a significant transformation in a person or in one’s lifestyle.

In Australia, it has also come to mean a physical move from the city or the country to live closer to the ocean, or even taking a holiday at the beach. 

The phrase hasn’t always had such positive associations. 

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play ’The Tempest’, Prospero’s familiar spirit Ariel sings a song that makes Ferdinand believe that his father, Alonso, has drowned in a shipwreck, and that his father is buried at sea “full fathom five”, or five fathoms deep. Through the action of the water on his remains, his body is undergoing substantive changes: his eyes are turning into pearls and his bones into coral. There is nothing left of him that has not been transformed by the sea. 

Even worse, this story of the shipwreck and drowning is not true. It is, in fact, a ruse by Prospero to orchestrate a marriage match between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Prospero is quite comfortable with using trickery and misleading magic to achieve what he wants to, and this is not the only time during this play that he willingly deceives others to get what he wants. 

So, even though it does still reflect a significant transformation, it has much darker connotations than the term does now. Deceit, manipulation, grief and emotional blackmail all factor into the origins of this phrase that we use so differently today. 

Being Conscious of One’s Conscience

Said to me today: “I don’t want that on my conscious.”
Me: “You probably don’t want it on your conscience, either.” 
Them: “Huh?”
Me: “They are different words.” 
Them: “Really?”
Me: “I promise you.”

These commonly confused words sound similar but they are not homophones. 

Conscious is an adjective. It is a descriptive word that means awake or aware. 

Examples:
I’m conscious of the confusion between words that sound similar but which are very different in meaning.
He passed out, but he is conscious again now. 

Conscience is a noun. It’s the name given to that part of our being that tells us not to do something we know we shouldn’t, and accuses us when we have done something wrong so that we feel bad about it. 

Examples:
She was good at acting innocent, but her conscience was plagued by guilt.
His conscience reminded him daily of the things he had done. 

The difference in the way these words sound is minor, but the difference in meaning is significant

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

This line comes from Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1598. It was spoken by Dick the Butcher, a character nobody remembers except for this line, who was hanging about with his fellow rebels in a field at Blackheath.

It’s often quoted by people who are disillusioned with the legal system, or feel that certain members of the legal profession have less integrity than they should do. It is with these people for whom Dick the Butcher is likely to identify and sympathise. 

It is important to understand that the intent of the line was to be funny — a sardonic response from the sort of character who is likely to have suffered at the hands of a lawyer or witnessed them acting less than judiciously— rather than a serious suggestion or a statement of intent. When you read the scene as a whole, the jaded weariness of Dick and his mates is clearly evident as a contributing factor to their rebellion. This is the context in which this quotation must be read. 

Dick the Butcher is part of a group of rebels led by Jack Cade, who is extolling his qualifications to be king because of his noble connections, while the others are having a bit of a laugh at him because, realistically, he’s anything but noble. Jack does have ideas about a more egalitarian society, which form the context for Dick the Butcher’s punch line. As far as he’s concerned, if there were going to be some kind of ideal society, it wouldn’t have any lawyers in it. 

Cade concurs with Dick: lawyers using parchment to create documents is a waste of good lambs’ skins, and the beeswax used as a seal stings more than the bee does. He agreed to something legally once, and somehow gave up his freedom or rights by doing so. He doesn’t clarify what the issue was, but the audience certainly understands his sentiments regarding lawyers. 

The misunderstanding and misuse of this quotation arise from the interpretation that Shakespeare is saying that it’s the lawyers and upstanding citizens who would stand in the way of such a rebellion working because of their integrity and commitment to enforcing the law. 

I would be willing to put money on that theory having been dreamed up by a lawyer in the first place.  

If the predominant population of Shakespeare’s audiences were made up of lawyers, judges and clerks, this theory may have more credence.

However, the audiences were comprised of a much wider representation of society as a whole, only a small percentage of which was made up of lawyers. Many were quite common folk who stood throughout the performances, known as groundlings, while others were wealthier and could afford to pay for a seat. While some of those may have been lawyers, most were lords and ladies and members and other members of the gentry. 

It does seem that even in Shakespeare’s time there was a fair degree of scepticism about lawyers. While Shakespeare mentions the legal profession more than any other, this is by no means the only play in which Shakespeare makes a joke at their expense. Mercutio, for example, talks about lawyers grasping for money in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while the Fool in ‘King Lear’ makes a pointed statement about lawyers not saying or doing anything unless you pay them first. 

Shakespeare was not trying to incite violence against lawyers, but he certainly wasn’t suggesting that they are the protectors or upholders of society, either.  Dick’s statement is clearly satire, expressing cynicism about lawyers in ways that people understood even then. 

Don’t Waver Over Your Waivers!

A mistake frequently made in writing is to say that someone “did not waiver” in their faith, or from a decision they had made.  What they really mean is that the person in question did not waver

Once again, it is a failure to choose between differently spelled homophones that is the problem here. 

Waiver: the renunciation or surrendering of  ownership, a right  or a claim
Example: The council decided to waive the annual fee for dog registration. The waiver resulted in more households registering  their pets. 

Waver: to hesitate or falter, or to flicker, quiver or tremble.
Examples: Her feelings for him wavered between passionate love and indifference. 
He did not waver in his support for the mayor, who was a woman of integrity. 
The flame of the candle wavered in the gentle breeze.

At least when one waves at the waves, the spelling is the same so you can’t get it wrong!

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true”

There are thousands of images of this quotation in various fonts, or in hand-drawn calligraphy, as a caption on tee shirts, jewellery and even furniture, and as “motivational’ tattoos on Pinterest and Instagram. 

I cringe every time I see one of them, especially the tattoos. A photo can be deleted; a tattoo, not so easily. Don’t get me wrong: I love tattoos. I have six of my own. But the quote doesn’t mean what all those people think it does. 

The quotation comes from Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet in which a man named Polonius admonishes his son, Laertes, for still being at home instead of already on board the ship that is going to carry him to France, and insists that the ship will be waiting for him. Polonius then proceeds to keep on talking so that Laertes is even more delayed than he originally was. He cannot resist taking that one last opportunity to give Laertes a few pieces of “expert advice” to take with him as he leaves home and makes his way as a man of the world.  

At the end of the lecture he drops this bomb: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

These days, people tend to interpret this as Polonius encouraging Laertes to be proud of who and what he is, to be individual, and embrace his own character in an early modern version of “you do you”. 
Sadly, that is not the case. Polonius is not a candidate for any “Enlightened and Sensitive Parenting Award”. 

The intention behind “to thine own self be true” is neither about resilience or integrity. What he’s really saying to his son is “Screw everyone else. Put yourself first, do what you want, and don’t worry about what other people might need or want.” 

Nice, eh? Because what the 17th (or any other) century needed was more selfishness and arrogance from over-entitled, egotistic men.  

Rather than promotion of healthy self-awareness or individuality, this quote is, in fact, really bad parental advice given to a young man by his father who happened to be a self-important, pompous ass who liked the sound of his own voice far more than anyone else liked it. 

I’m all for healthy self esteem and individuality. We should definitely be promoting that. But we should also be promoting respect and tolerance for others and the ability to consider their needs at the same time, and Polonius was never going to be interested in any of that.

Don’t follow any advice that comes from Polonius, kids. Hamlet was 100% correct when he called him a rat. Neither he nor his self-serving philosophy deserves your respect. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “What The Dickens”

Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens. 

Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible. 

Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.

It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably  done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities. 

There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too. 

In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.

Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.

A Fit of Pique.

I get really annoyed when I see people writing about peaking someone’s interest. 

A mountain is peaked. A cap can be peaked. 
People can even look peaked: in this sense, it means they are pale. 
A career can peak. 
In fact, someone’s interest in something can peak, right before it declines again. 

While they sound the same, the correct term for having caused intense interest or curiosity, is piqued

To pique someone’s interest is to heighten or arouse it. In other words, it is to stimulate their curiosity or attention. 

A fit of pique is an episode of annoyance or irritation – such as might happen, for example, if someone’s negative emotions are piqued. 

A related word is piquant, which means provocative, tantalising, spicy or tangy. Food that excites the taste buds or a story that excites the imagination can both be described as piquant. 

The other homophone is peeked. This is the past tense of peek: to take a quick look, or a sneaky one. 

So… now that I’ve piqued your interest with my fit of pique, and you’ve peeked at my post… I’m sure your interest has long since peaked. 

See? Homophones can be fun!

Don’t Pour Over Those Books!

I’ve read a couple of different posts and even in a couple of books recently about people “pouring over” documents or books. 

I wondered at first if this was one of those things Americans do with words that nobody else does, but I checked, and it’s not. It’s simply an error caused by confusion by words that sound the same even though they are spelt differently and mean completely different things. 

What the people in question should be doing is poring over their books. 
To pore over books or documents is to be completely absorbed in what one is reading or studying. It suggests thoughtful application and concentration. 
The gerund is poring. 

To pour over books is just going to make a mess, and probably ruin them completely.  It’s really not advisable.