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Shakespeare’s Most Famous Misquotes

vintage book with "Shakespeare" on the cover
JasaShmasa/Shutterstock

William Shakespeare arguably wrote some of the greatest quotes in the English language—but that hasn’t stopped pop culture from seriously taking some lines out of context. In fact, there’s a good chance that at least one of your favorite inspirational quotes actually means something quite different than what you think it means, like these six famous lines below.

“To thine own self be true”

Play it’s fromHamlet

Popular context: This statement is often used as an inspirational quote encouraging someone to “be themselves.”

Actual context: In Hamlet, this famous line is actually just one part of a monologue that’s anything but inspirational. The long-winded, pompous Polonius offers it as part of his advice to his son Laertes, and in context, it’s actually hypocritical to the point of humor. The speech in its entirety exhorts Laertes to behave well—ignoring, of course, that Polonius himself is behaving very badly. He spies on and manipulates his own children to ingratiate himself with King Claudius, and seems to have no real guiding morals of his own. The speech is not earnest advice, but an ironic illustration of Polonius’ distasteful hypocrisy.

“Age cannot wither her…”

Play it’s fromAntony and Cleopatra

Popular context: This statement is often used as a romantic tribute to one’s beloved. The line in full reads, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” and is often quoted in a complimentary way.

Actual context: This quote is indeed about Cleopatra, but it’s not a compliment from her lover Antony. Instead, it comes from the mouth of Antony’s frustrated ally Domitius Enobarbus, who is describing Egypt and Cleopatra to the Romans. Here’s the fuller context:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

In other words, Enobarbus is criticizing Cleopatra for using her beauty and wiles to seduce Antony and to manipulate everyone from commoners to priests. Far from being romantic, the speech is actually quite insulting, essentially describing Cleopatra as a maelstrom of all evil things.

“Some are born great…”

Play it’s fromTwelfth Night

Popular context: This statement is often used as a serious quote about the nature of greatness or of nature vs. nurture.

Actual context: The full quote—“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em”—is decidedly less philosophical and dignified. In context, a group of servants is playing a dirty prank on their steward, the nasty Malvolio—faking a letter from their mistress in which “she” professes love for Malvolio. And, in the grand tradition of Shakespeare, some of the most quotable lines are actually coarse jokes aimed at the commoners in his audiences. In this case, “greatness” is actually an unsubtle, bawdy euphemism for… well, you can probably guess.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Play it’s fromA Midsummer Night’s Dream

Popular context: This statement is often used as a quote to describe female empowerment or “girl power.”

Actual context: In context, this quote is actually the exact opposite of “girl power”—it’s part of a “catfight” between two women. After fairy magic mixes up two sets of lovers, Lysander and Demetrius both express love for the same woman, Helena. This angers Hermia, the woman who they both previously wished to woo. When Hermia unleashes her anger on Helena, Helena begs the men to defend her and describes Hermia thus: “When she is angry she is keen and shrewd. She was a vixen when she went to school, and though she be but little, she is fierce.” It’s not a compliment, but a nasty insult that’s meant to paint Hermia in a deeply unflattering light.

“The better part of valor is discretion.”

Play it’s fromHenry IV, Part 1

Popular context: This statement is often used as a meditation on the nature of bravery, typically noting that the truly brave are those who don’t seek glory for their deeds.

Actual context: Technically, the quote’s popular meaning isn’t that far off from its meaning in the play—but the popular meaning lacks the irony of its contextual one. The line comes from the comical and cowardly Falstaff at the conclusion of the play’s final battle. After the heroes and their enemy, Hotspur, have left him for dead, Falstaff gets up and monologues to himself about how the act of playing dead saved his life—which is the cowardly “discretion” he refers to. He then doubles down on the irony, stabbing Hotspur’s corpse and, upon Prince Hal’s return, claiming to have killed Hotspur himself—assuming glory and valor that is not his, and once again lending serious irony to his line.

“The world’s mine oyster.”

Play it’s fromThe Merry Wives of Windsor

Popular context: This statement is often misquoted as “the world is my/your oyster,” and is usually a quote encouraging an optimistic outlook on life, with the connotation being that the world is simply out there for the taking and that there are “pearls” just waiting to be discovered by all.

Actual context: It’s the line that comes after this one that gives the line the much-needed contextual meaning. The full line, which Pistol delivers after Falstaff refuses to lend him a penny, is “Why, then the world’s mine oyster / Which I with sword will open.” That second half of the line reveals that, when taken in context, the statement has a much more violent meaning. Rather than being a cheery assurance that the world is a rich place to be discovered, the quote instead emphasizes violence as the necessary means of obtaining riches. The words “with sword” call to mind both an image of forcing an oyster open with a blade and of using one’s sword to cut down adversaries in battle; both layers of meaning ultimately invoke violence as the best means of getting what one wants in life.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »