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 sixt Shakespeare wrote great musicals.) This would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any actual 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 good drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

[Cross-posteed at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.