Writing Life: A Quick Word on Quotation
I’ve already mentioned several times in this blog how much I enjoy a cleverly-veiled allusion, but today I thought I would tip my hat to some of the most-abused ones on the market — and to many which simply exist within the English language as truisms or old sayings, and not a specific author’s work with context of its own.
This post was to a great extent motivated by a greeting card I recently found which read “If music be the food of love, play on — Hamlet, Act I.“ This is the most benign way to screw up a quotation or allusion to another work — just plain old misattribution (it’s actually the opening line of Twelfth Night). It’s reasonably unforgivable, since a Google search for the quote you want to use would give you the correct source, but you’re spared the embarrassment of having said one thing when you meant another entirely.
John Milton gave us a lot of good examples there, nearly all of them from the first two books of Paradise Lost — if anyone’s ever said that “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” or “Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe,” they were in fact quoting the Great Satan as an inspirational source. Generally speaking, it’s not the image they meant to conjure. Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Hamlet gets similar treatment — people love to remind other people to “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” or to toss off “To thy own self be true” in a solemn sort of way, but the character is a buffoon and the scene is meant to make him look foolish. Quoting him in earnest does the same thing to you.
My point here today is actually a pretty basic one: do your research before you slip clever hints into your prose that point the reader toward an earlier author’s work, or if you use a direct quotation. Understand that the words and images you’re borrowing come from a broader context, and you should know what that context is — because the reader might, and they will draw their conclusions based on what they know, not what you know. This is especially true for anything that references the Bible, which a surprising number of people know better than you would think.
Do your homework; don’t overdo the outside references. That’s pretty much what I’ve got for you today…that and a recommendation for anyone who needs a gift card that’ll make their English major friends laugh.