Sisters Doing It For Themselves: The Problem of Female Agency in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Photo by Gioele Fazzeri on Pexels.com

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a play in which Shakespeare exposes the lack of agency for early modern women, who are treated as commodities and bargaining chips by a society that cares little for their emotional wellbeing at all.

Even Baptista, who claims to care  about his daughters’ happiness, still considers their futures in terms of economic power and wealth rather than healthy relationships.

The play portrays two sisters constrained, albeit differently, by the same things: social expectations of what women should be like, and their father’s decision that the younger one cannot marry until the older one is married. 

BAPTISTA
Gentlemen, importune me no farther,
For how I firmly am resolv’d you know:T
hat is, not to bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder.I
f either of you both love Katherina,
Because I know you well, and love you well,
Leave shall you have to court her at your pleasure.

The Taming of the Shrew I.i

Both Katherina (Kate) and Bianca exemplify the social position of young women of their time: constrained by a plethora of social conventions, young women in Shakespeare’s day had to resort to more subtle measures to pursue their own goals and interests.

The two sisters respond differently, each responding to the social norms for women in their own way, but neither of them is particularly compliant or obedient: they simply express it in different ways.

Katherina, called a shrew because she is oppositional and argumentative, exerts control over her situation through her behaviour. She sets her own terms for her relationships by making others work for her cooperation and acceptance. Her independence and intelligence make her unwilling to be an easy choice for any man, and an unsuitable choice for most of the rich and privileged men of Padua. She will not be objectified as a token wife or an ornament for some man’s arm. 

BAPTISTA
Now, Signior Petruchio, how speed you with my daughter?

PETRUCHIO
How but well, sir? How but well?
It were impossible I should speed amiss.

BAPTISTA
Why, how now, daughter Katherine? In your dumps?

KATHERINA
Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack,
That thinks with oaths to face the matter out.

The Taming of the Shrew, II.i

Her behaviour, then, is not a straightforward matter of having an unpleasant personality. In fact, the verbal reports of of her behaviour are far worse than anything witnessed by the audience in the play.

It is fair to say that Kate’s relationship with Petruchio does not work out any better for her independence than anyone might have expected.  Sadly, where there was so much potential for a meeting of their intelligent minds and a relationship that served to refine them both, it is fair to say that Petruchio’s treatment of Kate in his attempts to tame her are nothing short of abusive and cruel– and that is precisely Shakespeare’s point. Other men praise Petruchio for his achievement, but Shakespeare leaves an sour aftertaste in the mouths of his audience by showing that her spirit had to be sacrificed for security, or possibly even survival. 

Similarly, Bianca is faced with the challenge of pursuing her chosen husband despite the constraints of her father’s house rules, and society’s expectation that she will make the best match socially and financially rather than following her heart. Her responses show her to be tenderhearted and emotional, but neither the wealthy old man or the rich, eligible bachelor are actually interested in her feelings. One reads the scene in which Grumio and Tranio compete for Bianca’s hand with a sense of foreboding, wondering what kind of life she might have with either one of them.

BAPTISTA
The gain I seek is quiet in the match.

GREMIO
No doubt but he hath got a quiet catch.
But now, Baptista, to your younger daughter;
Now is the day we long have looked for.
I am your neighbor, and was suitor first.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
And I am one that love Bianca more
Than words can witness, or your thoughts can guess.

GREMIO
Youngling, thou canst not love so dear as I.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
Greybeard, thy love doth freeze.

GREMIO
But thine doth fry.
Skipper, stand back, ’tis age that nourisheth.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
But youth in ladies’ eyes that flourisheth.

BAPTISTA
Content you, gentlemen, I will compound this strife.’
Tis deeds must win the prize, and he of both
That can assure my daughter greatest dower
Shall have my Bianca’s love.
Say, Signior Gremio, what can you assure her?

The Taming of the Shrew, II.i

Bianca may appear compliant and sweet in her father’s observation, but she is quite disobedient and deceitful in response to her father’s wishes. She dissuades those she does not want, and encourages the one she desires to marry— all while pretending to be a well-behaved young lady going about her lessons. The question must be asked: is Bianca really any more obedient or cooperative than her sister?

Enter Tranio, dressed as Lucentio, and Hortensio, dressed as Litio.

TRANIO
Is’t possible, friend Litio, that Mistress Bianca
Doth fancy any other but Lucentio?
I tell you, sir, she bears me fair in hand.

HORTENSIO
Sir, to satisfy you in what I have said,
Stand by and mark the manner of his teaching.

They stand aside.Enter Bianca and Lucentio, dressed as Cambio

LUCENTIO 
Now, mistress, profit you in what you read?

BIANCA
What, master, read you? First resolve me that.

LUCENTIO
I read that I profess, the Art to Love.

BIANCA
And may you prove, sir, master of your art!

LUCENTIO
While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart!

They retire.

This is confirmed in the final scene of the play, where Bianca’s behaviour is both defiant and uncooperative in response to her husband’s requests. Neither she nor the widow who marries Hortensio is any less a shrew than Kate might have been earlier in the play. This is a profound contrast to Kate’s submissive responses to Petruchio’s orders, and the irony of the situation is not lost on neither the present company nor the audience.

Re-enter KATHERINA

KATHARINA
What is your will, sir, that you send for me?

PETRUCHIO
Where is your sister, and Hortensio’s wife?

KATHERINA
They sit conferring by the parlor fire.

PETRUCHIO
Go fetch them hither: if they deny to come.
Swinge me them soundly forth unto their husbands:
Away, I say, and bring them hither straight.

Exit KATHERINA

LUCENTIO
Here is a wonder, if you talk of a wonder.

HORTENSIO
And so it is: I wonder what it bodes.

PETRUCHIO
Marry, peace it bodes, and love and quiet life,
And awful rule and right supremacy;
And, to be short, what not, that’s sweet and happy?

BAPTISTA
Now, fair befal thee, good Petruchio!
The wager thou hast won; and I will add
Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns;
Another dowry to another daughter,
For she is changed, as she had never been.

PETRUCHIO
Nay, I will win my wager better yet
And show more sign of her obedience,
Her new-built virtue and obedience.
See where she comes and brings your froward wives
As prisoners to her womanly persuasion.

Re-enter KATHARINA, with BIANCA and Widow

Katharina, that cap of yours becomes you not:
Off with that bauble, throw it under-foot.

WIDOW
Lord, let me never have a cause to sigh,
Till I be brought to such a silly pass!

BIANCA
Fie! what a foolish duty call you this?

LUCENTIO
I would your duty were as foolish too:
The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,
Hath cost me an hundred crowns since supper-time.

BIANCA
The more fool you, for laying on my duty.

PETRUCHIO
Katherina, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women
What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.

WIDOW
Come, come, you’re mocking: we will have no telling.

PETRUCHIO
Come on, I say; and first begin with her.

WIDOW
She shall not.

PETRUCHIO
I say she shall: and first begin with her.

KATHERINA
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

PETRUCHIO
Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.

LUCENTIOWell, go thy ways, old lad; for thou shalt ha’t.

VINCENTIO’
Tis a good hearing when children are toward.

LUCENTIO
But a harsh hearing when women are froward.

PETRUCHIO
Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped.
To LUCENTIO
‘Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white;
And, being a winner, God give you good night!

Exeunt PETRUCHIO and KATHARINA

HORTENSIO
Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.

LUCENTIO’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.

Exeunt

The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii

The fact that, in the end, Kate is forced to surrender those very qualities that make her strong and interesting is a profound indictment of early modern society. It doesn’t matter if her submission is played straight or with irony, and it doesn’t matter whether Kate submits out of love for Petruchio or desperation for her own circumstances: it leaves a nasty aftertaste either way. Ultimately, she had no choice but to do and say what her husband insisted, and nothing else. It is difficult to see any selfless love or respect for her on Petruchio’s part: he got what he wanted, and then smirked about it to his mates.

That final scene and the discomfort it create further highlight the flawed attitudes to women of both the Early Modern society, and of men who only see people through an economic lens. Baptista’s perceptions of his daughters, and of the men who wanted to marry them, were as skewed as the values of the society that created them.

While it might be satisfying to think we have come so much further than that, and in some ways, we have– there are also ways in which we have not. Sure, women can drive, vote, own their own property, have a job and a career, and make their own choices and decisions about their futures. However, they still get disrespected for being strong and independent, for having thoughts or opinions of their own, or for choosing a career over family and marriage. For as long as women are paid less than men for equal work, or disregarded and slut-shamed as victims of sexual harassment or assault, or expected to do the lion’s share of child rearing or domestic tasks while working as hard as their male partners do, this play will remain relevant.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Helpful post: What Is Female Agency in Literature?

Satisfying Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away #4: Avaunt!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person.  It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Avaunt definitely carries spiritual or superstitious weight. This is the word one would use for commanding demons, witches and any other evil presence to leave. When directed at people rather than the supernatural, it carries connotations of derision, hatred, or fear; that the speaker seeks to protect themselves from those to whom they speak is clearly evident.

In The Comedy of Errors, Act 4, Scene 3, we see Antipholus and Dromio discussing the courtesan who has just demanded gold from Antipholus.

COURTESAN
Well met, well met, Master Antipholus. I see, sir, you have found the goldsmith now. Is that the chain you promis’d me today?

ANTIPHOLUS
Satan, avoid, I charge thee tempt me not.

DROMIO
Master, is this Mistress Satan?

ANTIPHOLUS
It is the devil.

DROMIO
Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam, and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, “God damn me,” that’s as much to say, “God make me a light wench.” It is written, they appear to men like angels of light, light is an effect of fire, and fire will burn: ergo, light  wenches will burn. Come not near her.

When the lady asks again for either the promised gold chain or the return of her ring, Antipholus uses avaunt to send her away, emphasising the spiritual or supernatural  theme of his earlier judgement upon her.

COURTESAN
I pray you, sir, my ring, or else the chain;I hope you do not mean to cheat me so?

ANTIPHOLUS
Avaunt, thou witch! Come, Dromio, let us go.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Othello uses the word twice. First, In the course of Iago’s subtle and insidious destruction of Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s innocence, Othello tells Iago, ‘Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.”

Later, he uses the term in the presence of Lodovico to dismiss Desdemona once he has finished accusing her of being false and mocking her distress at his treatment of her. Here, he speaks to Lodovico and Desdemona alternately in the one speech.

Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient Proceed you in your tears
Concerning this, sir O well-painted passion!
I am commanded home. Get you away;
I’ll send for you anon. Sir, I obey the mandate,
And will return to Venice. Hence, avaunt!

Exit Desdemona.

Othello speaks politely to Lodovico while simultaneously disrespecting Desdemona. The tone of Othello’s words to his wife is very similar to that used by Antipholus, demonstrating the contempt and moral heft of the dismissal. At this point, it is clear that there is no going back for Othello: he has made up his mind, and his love and respect for her are dead.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday


In Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 4, Macbeth is shaken by the appearance at dinner of Banquo’s ghost, which he addresses thus:

Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

In that powerful second scene of Richard III in which Richard woos Anne Neville and begs her to marry him, Anne responds to Richard’s interruption of the funeral procession of the former King Henry VI with words and tone of superstition and the supernatural:

GLOUCESTER
Stay, you that bear the corse, and set it down.

ANNE
What black magician conjures up this fiend
To stop devoted charitable deeds?

GLOUCESTER
Villain, set down the corse, or, by Saint Paul,
I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.

GENTLEMAN
My lord, stand back, and let the coffin pass.

GLOUCESTER
Unmanner’d dog, stand thou when I command.
Advance thy halberd higher than my breast,
Or by Saint Paull Ill strike thee to m foot,
And spurn on thee, beggar, for thy boldness.

ANNE
What, do you tremble? Are you all afraid?
Alas, I blame you not, for you are mortal.
And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.
Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have. Therefore be gone.

The exchange that follows is full of the imagery of saints and devils, angels and demons, and heaven and hell.

In both these instances, the supernatural context of the use of avaunt! demonstrates the seriousness and spiritual gravity with which it was spoken. It was the word used to command sinners rather than saints and fiends rather than friends.

Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away: Avaunt!
#Shakespeare #language #howto

Satisfying Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away #2: Get Thee Hence!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person.  It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Get thee hence! is equivalent to “Get out of here!” or “Get away from here!” It often seems stronger and more urgent than begone! or get thee gone!

Upon hearing of the royal decree that the Duke of Suffolk must be exiled – later in that same scene of Henry 6, part 2 in which she previously bid him “get thee gone”– Margaret of Anjou urges the Duke of Suffolk to leave her presence in a hurry before her husband, King Henry VI, finds them together:

“Now get thee hence, the King, thou know’st, is coming.
If thou be found by me, thou art but dead.”

Margaret’s pleas escalate from “get thee gone” to “get thee hence” in proportion to the danger of Suffolk being found in her company. demonstrating the increased urgency of her tone and command.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

A sense of impatience rather than imperiative is captured in Act 4, Scene 4 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona where Proetus bids Launce, who has just screwed up Proteus’ gift to Silvia of a puppy,
“Go, get thee hence, and find my dog again,
Or ne’er return again into my sight.
Away, I say! Stayest thou to vex me here?”

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra uses the phrase twice in the course of her conversation with an  Egyptian messenger who delivers unwelcome information regarding Marc Antony: that Antony is good friends with Caesar, and finally that he is married to Octavia.

Obviously angry, Cleopatra repsonds to the messenger with considerable hostility: after wishing a most infectious pestilence upon him, striking him to the ground, threatening him with torture and saying that he has “liv’d too long”, this exchange occurs:

CLEOPATRA
Is he married?
I cannot hate thee worser than I do,
If thou again say yes.

MESSENGER
He’s married, madam.

CLEOPATRA
The gods confound thee, dost thou hold there still?
MESSENGER
Should I lie, madam?

CLEOPATRA
O, I would thou didst;
So half my Egypt were submerg’d and made
A cistern for scal’d snakes! Go get thee hence!

The repetition of “get thee hence” just a few lines later highlights the strength of the command and is proof positive that Cleopatra wasn’t messing around.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Get thee hence! is certainly expressive and delivers a satisfying sense of Shakespearean drama to your demand to be left alone.

Of course, if they don’t go, you can always try mixing it up a little with the words of Imogene from Cymbeline, Act 5, Scene 5: “O, get thee from my sight… Dangerous fellow, hence!”

Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away: Get Thee Gone!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person. It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Begone is the base level entreaty for someone to leave. To say “Fellow, begone!” is the equivalent of “Okay mate, out you go…” today. If not addressing someone who is actually a fellow, you can use any other form of address, or simply say “Begone!” with an imperative tone. A flick of the hand toward the door could add a nice dramatic touch.

Get thee gone! adds a touch of urgency. It’s more like saying “Go, quickly!” or “Get out now!” This is used forty times throughout Shakespeare’s plays, usually when there is a sense of timeliness or hurry about the leaving. It can also suggest impatience or frustration with the person to whom the command is addressed.

In Henry IV part 1, Act 1 Scene 3, King Henry addresses Worcester thus:”Worcester, get thee gone, for I do seeDanger and disobedience in thine eye.”

In Act 3, Scene 1 of Timon of Athens, the grief-stricken Timon tells Alcibiades he wants to be left alone with the command “I prithee, beat thy drum and get thee gone.” This is a reference to the military practice of beating a particular rhythm for retreat, making it the Elizabethan equivalent of “beat it!”

In different parts of Henry 6 , we see Margaret of Anjou use Get thee gone in two different ways.

In part 2, Act 3 Scene 2, Margaret of Anjou farewells the Duke of Suffolk with an impassioned speech:
“O. let me entreat thee cease. Give me thy hand,
That I may dew it with my mournful tears;
Nor let the rain of heaven wet this place
To wash away my woeful monuments.
O, could this kiss be printed in thy hand.
That thou might think upon these by the seal,
Through whom a thousand sighs are breath’d for thee!
So get thee gone, that I may know my grief,
‘Tis but surmised whiles thou art standing by,
As one that surfeits thinking on a want.
I will repeal thee, or, be well assur’d,
Adventure to be banished myself;
And banished I am, if but from thee.
Go, speak not to me; even now be gone.”

In Act 3, Scene 6 of Henry 6  part 3, Margaret is far less heartbroken to be bidding her husband, King Henry VI, farewell. Furious and resentful at the amount of power he has given to his councillors– and her enemies– Warwick, Faulconbridge and York, Margaret announces her intention to summon her army and go to war with them. Henry begs her to “Stay, gentle Margaret, and let me speak.”
Her response is curt: “Thou has spoke too much already; get thee gone.”

Yet again, Shakespeare’s Margaret demonstrates that elementary truth: tone really is everything.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Shakesepearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away
#Shakespeare #words

Shakespeare Nerd: Valentine’s Day Edition

This Valentine’s Day edition of Shakespeare Nerd is brought to you by the brilliant Mya Gosling, creator of Good Tickle Brain.

Image reproduced here with permission.
Image reproduced here with permission.

Shakespeare Nerd Valentine’s Day Edition via @goodticklebrain
#ShakespeareSunday #ValentinesDay

Misquoted Shakespeare: “Bubble, Bubble Toil and Trouble”

I have more than one friend who likes to stir a pot of whatever they are cooking and say in a witchy voice: “Bubble bubble, toil and trouble…”

At times – usually when it is someone I don’t know well – I choose to be diplomatic and just let them go. They’re having fun. 

When it’s a friend who I know will not be offended, I have told them gently what the correct line is, and given them a few extra lines to use when the family asks, “What’s for dinner?” “Eye of newt and toe of frog” is a family favourite in my own kitchen, with “fillet of a fenny snake” a close second.

When I asked one of them if she knew she was quoting Ducktales, not Shakespeare, she took it in her stride and immediately switched to a voice that sounded almost exactly like Donald Duck. It was most impressive, and I should have been less surprised by that given that we’ve done theatre together. 

Still, it is a quote that people do get wrong.

In the opening scene of Macbeth, he witches actually say “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble”  as the refrain of their song about making a potion in the cauldron in the centre of the stage. 

My favourite opening scene among all Shakespeare’s plays, this is a passage that is super cool and super creepy at the same time. Despite the fact that the witches are brewing something potent, the song concludes with a witch declaring that “something wicked comes” when Macbeth enters. It’s a powerful statement of how dark and deadly the central character of the play will turn out to be. 

You can read the entire scene here.

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, sets and furniture is available to them. 

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.

Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespeare: “Lead on, Macduff!”

“Lead on, Macduff!” is a phrase often used to say “after you” when people are being polite and opening doors for someone, or showing that they will follow another person’s lead. 

People who use this phrase think they are quoting Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, but they’re not quite doing so: those are not the words Shakespeare wrote. 

Both the phrase and its meaning have been changed over time. 

What Shakespeare wrote was “Lay on, Macduff”, and Macbeth wasn’t opening any doors or following Macduff’s lead when he said it. Macbeth and Macduff were fighting one another, and only one of them would survive. The words “Lay on, Macduff” were Macbeth saying “come on, fight me!”

So, next time you open a door, or commit to following someone else’s lead, be careful about saying “Lead on, Macduff”. If they know their Shakespeare, they might just fight you! 

Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespeare: “One Foul Swoop”

This morning’s conversation in my kitchen is a clear demonstration of just how much of a Shakespeare Nerd I really am.

H: I need egg cartons. Where do I get egg cartons? 
Me: How many do you want? 
I pointed to the top of my fridge where there sat a stack of egg cartons. 
Me again: Take them all. 
H: Oh wow! Thanks! 
K: That’s awesome! I’ll grab them in one foul swoop and put them in the car.
Me: Well, that’s decided my blog post for today. 
K: Huh? 

In Act 4, Scene 3 of ‘Macbeth’, Malcolm and Macduff engage in testing one another’s loyalty to Scotland rather than to Macbeth, who has become king. During that conversation, Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and children at the order of Macbeth, whom he describes as a “hell-kite” who has slain his “chickens” in “one fell swoop”. 


The deed was certainly foul, but that isn’t what Shakespeare wrote. He wrote “one fell swoop” which is an entirely different thing. 

Here, fell means ‘fierce’. 

It’s an image of violent attack, of hunting, and of predator and prey, which leaves the audience in no doubt that these murders were calculated and precise. The term “hell-kite” leaves the audience in no doubt of the evil motivations behind the slaying.

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.