Your English teacher probably told you that every line of literature has meaning. I think that’s half true, the line has meaning if you give it meaning. There are some sentences that everyone knows what the meaning is. Then there are also sentences that everyone thinks they know what the meaning is.
Here are five misunderstood lines from literature.
- “Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?” by William Shakespeare
Ah, my rants against Shakespeare continue. I’ve spoken about the Bard here and here in previous articles but I suppose that in this case he can’t be blamed. Many of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines are misunderstood. This is mostly to do with the change of the English language over the last four hundred years.
One of Shakespeare’s most well known and quoted lines is Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Juliet says this line on her balcony after her family’s masked ball during which she encountered her “Star-Crossed” lover Romeo. On first reading, the meaning of the line seems clear. Juliet is asking where Romeo is and this is the meaning taught in most classrooms. In Elizabethan times Wherethou meant Why. Translated into modern day English the line would be something like, Why are you Romeo? Out of context this line doesn’t make sense until you remember that the main conflict of the play is that Romeo and Juliet can’t be together because they’re from feuding families. Juliet is asking the night, unaware that Romeo is there, why Romeo is a Montague.
Jumping back to the term Star Crossed. The phase has come to mean romantic or soulmates and is often used to describe celebrity couples in gossip magazines. That wasn’t its intended meaning. Think of the phrase Star Crossed as in the stars are Crossed against you, it’s not going to happen. As I said in my review of Romeo and Juliet the play is not meant to romanticise teen relationships.
A few other Shakespeare’s lines that are misinterpreted are:
“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?” which was meant to be taken as an insult or said sarcastically.
“I was adored once too” is said by Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelve Night. Out of context the quote sounds tragic and melancholy but was meant in jest.
“This above all: to thine own self be true,” sounds like something from a book of inspirational quotes. It is said by the character Polonius in Hamlet who is “wrong in all the judgements that he makes during the play.” Polonius didn’t have good intentions when he said the line to his son Laertes. Polonius means put yourself first and others second but Laertes wasn’t listening.
- “Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round” By Lewis Carroll.
Almost everything about Lewis Carroll, is shrouded in mystery. Real name Charles Dodgson, Dodgson’s sexuality has been questioned by historians. Dodgson had a very close relationship with a ten year old girl called Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration for Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson’s relationship with Liddell has been closely scrutinised but it is speculated that Dodgson was asexual, a person with no sexual desire. It is theorised that Dodgson was more comfortable among the company of children due to their innocence than adults although claims of predatory nature have tainted his reputation. During his life Dodgson suffered mysterious migraine attacks, two of these attacks left him unconscious. Modern day doctors have been unable to find the cause of this illness. Dodgson also kept a series of personal diaries and journals which he used to record his day to day activities. Many of these documents have been stolen by over the years, leaving tantalizing gaps in our knowledge of the man.
The biggest misconception about the author is the message of his most famous novel. It is a common misconception that Alice in Wonderland is about drugs. Alice drinks a variety of potions throughout the novel and eats a mushroom that changes her physical state. The caterpillar smokes something strange in a pipe and the phrase “down the rabbit hole” means to enter a state of confusion and chaos, the experience of which can be brought on by drug use.
Alice in Wonderland is actually about Maths. You see, Dodgson was a Mathematician and his novel is an attack on the new forms of mathematics. He didn’t believe in ideas such as imaginary numbers (think back to your maths lessons, If X is a number… etc.) and based the rules of Wonderland on these mathematical formulas to illustrate how utterly ridiculous they were. Unfortunately although the world Dodgson created was based on madness it was a truly captivating place. The line “Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round” is uttered by a potential child murderer and was meant to insult people who believed the line, not to promote that train of thought.
- “Good fences make good neighbours” By Robert Frost
While this example isn’t as well known as others on this list the fact that someone in the American court quoted the poem while not understanding it has boosted the line’s popularity. United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said:
“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbours.”
The distinctively American poet was, of course, Robert Frost but his quote was taken out of context. In the poem Mending Wall two neighbours have to fix a fence between their houses and grow increasingly more irritated with each other with one of the neighbours repeating the phrase “good fences make good neighbours.”
I think it’s worth mentioning that another Robert Frost poem The Road Less Travelled By is described as the world’s most misunderstood poem. I’ve already spoken about The Road Less Travelled By in a previous article which you can find here.
- “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road” by Jack Kerouac.
When I was at uni, everyone loved On The Road by Jack Kerouac. The novel is about the travels of Kerouac and his friends across America as they search for the answers to life’s biggest questions against a backdrop of sex, parties and drug use. The novel is semi autobiographical and recounts Kerouac’s travels in the 1940’s which he recorded in notebooks and later expanded into a manuscript. On The Road has inspired the likes of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson and is also credited with creating The Beat Generation which is best described as individuals, normally young adults, who reject social norms and believed in self expression. The Beat Generation first emerged in turned into the Hippy movement that dominated the 1960’s.
Jack Kerouac hated The Beat Generation. He argued that those who willingly joined the movement didn’t understand it. Both himself and his characters were forced into their lifestyles, it wasn’t a choice they made. Kerouac also hated the experiences he describes in his book. Although the lifestyle of living “in the moment” has been idealised, Kerouac claims it was more unpleasant than people think. Although there were good times such as wild parties these were rare and most of the time was spent traveling and scourging for food. Interestingly Kerouac wrote and based his novel in the 1940’s, describing a different era that those who celebrated and related to the novel.
5. “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” by F Scott’s Fitzgerald
I love The Great Gatsby, it’s so deliciously complicated. Is Gatsby a good or bad person, is Daisy really as naïve as she seems and did the characters deserve their fates? I won’t say anymore in case you’ve not read the book yet but I recommend you do as it is a quick read. One of the key elements of The Great Gatsby is the lavish parties Gatsby throws. Nick, the narrator of the novel claims that Gatsby throws a party seemingly every night. These parties have become symbolic of the 1920’s and the very phrase Gatsby party has become synonymous with the phrase extravagant. Prince Harry attended a Gatsby party, Sir Paul McCartney threw a Gatsby party costing him a quarter of a million pounds and even I, a self proclaimed introvert was lured out of my chambers for a Gatsby party at Senate House in London several years ago.
The first party in the novel is thrown by Tom Buchanan and although everyone there wants to have Tom’s wealth and status no-one is enjoying themselves. Next we have Gatsby’s party. Everyone is having a fantastic time but nobody knows who their host is and they don’t particularly care. From Gatsby’s point of view the party has one purpose, to attract Daisy Buchanan and although she does eventually attend a party, Gatsby fails in rekindling his relationship with her. For both Gatsby and his guests the parties he throws are self destructive. Gatsby’s parties are very symbolic of the American dream. The partygoers want enough money to buy their fancy cars and enough drink to crash them. There’s no way Fitzgerald knew about The Great Depression which would follow his novel but it seems his characters certainly did.
Thanks for reading, I really enjoyed writing this article, I hope you enjoyed reading it and I’ll see you next time. Take care.