No, Shakespeare didn’t “say” that

How often have you seen this passage quoted as “Shakespeare says …”?

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Not having read the play for several decades, I was surprised to find that the context of that passage, which I could have repeated more or less accurately from memory, entirely subverts its text. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” but so concerned about displaying his Stoic virtue as to neglect the practical details, is debating with the less attractive but much sharper Cassius whether their army should come down from the high ground and engage Antony and Octavian at Philippi, or instead hold position and force the enemy to come at them. Cassius advises Fabian tactics, but Brutus insists on rolling the dice, much to the delight of Antony when he gets the word.  As a result, the anti-Caesarean side gets wiped out. (This is largely Shakespeare’s invention, without much warrant from Plutarch’s account.)

In context, then, Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.

Footnote Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

13 thoughts on “No, Shakespeare didn’t “say” that”

  1. I think you jammed together a couple of sentences here? ("As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixt Shakespeare wrote great musicals.")

    As You Like It is one of my all-time favorite, whether read or watched, but I doubt I would have made any sense of either as a sixth grader. Who can say?

  2. I'm a baby boomer who also read Julius Caesar in 10th grade. We also read a comedy, I don't recall, it may have been "As You Like It." The previous year a local theater company had come to the school and performed excerpts from the play for the class. The faculty was less than pleased because the performance made many of the double entendres and bawdy bits clear that otherwise would have gone right over the students heads.

  3. Am I alone in thinking that the one character that Shakespeare doesn't properly bring to life is the one most interesting to us, the calculating Octavius? Perhaps he was rather too similar to Shakespeare's charming and ruthless Queen.

  4. Caesar is a lot deeper than people give it credit for–it's full of stuff like that. People often think Shakespeare was being sloppy when he had Brutus react twice to the news of his wife's death, in two very different ways, when in fact it shows high-minded Brutus as the two-faced politician he was. Or maybe he was an inspiring and effective leader, setting an example of stoicism in front of the men while he was being torn up inside…or maybe both at once. Shakespeare is always doing that sort of thing. Greatest characters in the history of English.

    Still, Caesar is one of the plays that reads well but always comes over leaden on the stage. It's a pity.

  5. I'm an early-model gen-Xer who was taught Shakespeare in the eleventh grade. Our teacher said that Shakespeare's plays were meant to be watched, not read, so that's mostly what we did. I found Macbeth to be pretty easy to follow, and since then I've learned to love a few of the other plays as well.

    Actors can smuggle an awful lot of context into a performance. It's like having a tutor standing behind you saying "that line there was a joke, not a threat, and that line there was a come-on." To me, they're an incomprehensible word-salad on the page, but seeing them performed makes things plenty clear.

  6. How many of the standard passages are like that? The one that comes to mind for me is the whole “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” which comes from the mouth of Polonius and is utterly ignored by everyone in the play who might hear it.

  7. PS: As a somewhat solipsistic teenager, I got a lot out of acting in school plays. The teach crucially important lessons that classwork does not. Worthwhile projects require teamwork; they often have strict and non-negotiable deadlines; and there is rarely a safety net. The curtain opens, and you're on. Team sports are alleged to offer many of the same benefits, but they never did much for me.

  8. How about Shakespeare "says," "To thine own self be true" from Polonius speech to Laertes? Similarly he "says" that you should "neither a borrower nor a lender be." But these words of wisdom are quoted all the time as if they were actually wise.

  9. I also “did” Julius Caesar in 10th grade. I don’t have any idea how they teach literature or the other creative arts in secondary schools nowadays, but when I was in school they seemed to go out of their way to turn students off to such things for life. At some point I had Great Expectations, which is a terrific book that almost anyone who likes to read would enjoy reading, but they taught it in an abridged version. Dickens is very easy to abridge, you just take out all of the funny and entertaining stuff, and what’s left is the story without any of the delight, and it kept me away from all of the joy of Dickens for twenty years. When I finally came back to Dickens I saw how cruelly I had been cheated.

    For Shakespeare, I got Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet. They taught the latter, I suppose, because it’s about teenagers in love. When we were doing R&J, the Zeffirelli movie was in the theaters, and my high school arranged a special screening for us with the very brief shot of Leonard Whiting’s bare behind excised. Thanks. But these two plays are among the least likely to inspire students with a love of Shakespeare, because they are, for Shakespeare anyway, rather dull. Why not Othello and The Tempest? Those might grab a lot of kids by the throat and hook them for life.

    I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of classical music in high school. We had this art-English-music program for smart kids, and we had a pretty wonderful music-appreciation teacher (whose fondest memory was of Albert Einstein playing the violin for him when he was at Princeton). There wasn’t a lot of opera in Washington (where I grew up) in those days, but I had a chance to experience “The Ballad of Baby Doe”, and something or other by Richard Strauss, and, somewhat later, “Treemonisha”. I didn’t fall in love with opera. Then, a few years later, I had the enormous pleasure of attending a performance of “Cosi fan tutte” (Pilar Lorengar on stage and Karl Boehm in the pit) and was hooked for life. Why not expose high-school kids to “La Boheme” and “Don Giovanni” and hook them for life? Why not give them the unabridged Bleak House, and not the abridged Great Expectations? I, happily, was always a sort of self-starter when it came to reading, but some young people need some nudging that they certainly weren’t getting when I was in school, and I suspect they’re getting even less of it today, what with all those standards of learning and similar horseshit.

  10. Brutus's speech, and its ring of truth, is what makes the play a tragedy. You feel Brutus is a high-minded idealist who is being true to himself – and that brings about his destruction and his cause's destruction.

    If you think Brutus is just a fool then the play is a farce or a tragicomedy.

    As Caesar was a tyrant, Brutus slew him, but just prepared the way for the demagogic Antony and the sly Octavian.

    PS I was lucky to be introduced to Shakespeare by the play Henry IV Part 1 with the brilliantly comic Falstaff, and a ripping big battle at the end. We later did Hamlet, about which there was plenty of discussion.

    James Shapiro 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a fascinating look at what influenced the dramatist in that year and the plays he wrote, among them Julius Caesar.

  11. I taught Macbeth this year to students with a wide range of abilities. I did something called a reverse classroom. They watched scenes or acts at home and then were quizzed on what they saw. The only exception was the final scene; we watched that communally and the kids went crazy at the end. We read the play aloud in class and acted out some of the scenes as well. If you asked my students, they wouldn't say that the unit was a picnic, but it allowed them to interpret the play for themselves and not (completely) rely on secondary sources.

  12. We read Macbeth in the tenth grade. I guess Bakersfield High School was relatively enlightened. With regard to As You Like It I first saw it in junior high school. The production was done by Hilo High School. I can say that it is every bit as funny in Hawaiian Creole English as it is in Elizabethan English.

  13. Actually, it would be fairer to say that "Shakespeare said:"

    There is a tide in the affairs of men
    Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
    Omitted, all the voyage of their life
    Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

    Since after all it is true, insightful, and expressed in a novel, poetic way by Shakespeare in this play.

    On the other hand, Shakespeare did NOT say (in the sense of asserting something factual about a historical moment):

    On such a full sea are we [Brutus & allies] now afloat,

    and the dramatic irony is simply that Brutus makes a deep observation about life while also engaging in a certain amount of wishful thinking about the level of his 'flood' tide.

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