Boy, have I got a profound observation for you: Shakespeare gets quoted a lot. And quite often, the quoting is done without regard to the context from wence the quotation cometh. Great writers don’t make this mistake. When William Faulkner, for instance, named a novel “The Sound and the Fury” he knew quite well that the quote was from a specific speech in Macbeth that resonated beautifully with the theme of his novel about an aristocratic Southern family’s colossal decline largely attributable to the moral blight of slavery that had cast a pall over the family for several generations. If you think about that speech from Macbeth while reading Faulkner’s novel, the experience is enhanced by the resonance.
But like I said, Shakespeare gets quoted a lot without regard to context. And, sadly, those who do so these days can generally count on their audience’s ignorance. So they don’t have to worry much about accidental incongruities.
Here’s a little example. Perhaps you’ve heard someone quote the following: “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.” This line is from Henry VI, Part 2—and is itself an allusion to a rather famous precept found in another revered text (see Matthew 7:1). But in Henry VI, the quote cannot really be interpreted as a spiritual directive. The line is spoken by the young King Henry just after the passing of Cardinal Beauford. The audience knows that the Cardinal is a rather despicable fellow. And we see him die after being “suddenly” taken with “a grievous sickness” that did not exactly bring out the best in him. It made “him gasp, and stare, and catch the air,/ Blaspheming God and cursing men on earth.” The King reacts to the Cardinal's ugly death throes by sweetly urging his companions to forego judging this guy who seemed rather unprepared to face his Maker. In context, Henry’s “forbear to judge” instruction has to be seen as ironic. For “feeble Henry” is the only person in the play totally clueless about the machinations and mayhem swirling all around him as members of two powerful clans vie for power at Henry’s expense. Henry is being crushed by all of the free-floating evil. If anyone should have been doing a little judging right about then, it was Henry.
So, by lifting Henry’s line out of the world of the play and using it, for instance, as a tag line for an inspiring sermon, a person can create some unintended comedy. Kind of like quoting Polonius’s little words of wisdom, which have become entrenched clichés, as if they are legit advice. Someone who knows Hamlet knows that Shakespeare was not offering advice about frugality when he has Polonius say “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Likewise, those five people who know Henry VI are going to smirk instead of reflect upon their spirituality when they hear someone quoting Henry’s line about “forbearing to judge.”
When quoting, lawyers need to be WAY more wary about misusing quotations than those who misappropriate little bits of Shakespeare. Yet lawyers aren’t always so wary. They find some really good language in some court’s opinion, then take that quote and stick it in a brief to support an argument. But later on, the judge and/or the judge’s law clerk goes and looks at that quote in its larger context. They see the quote—but also notice the bit that comes right afterwards where the Court says: “But we disagree with our sister court’s analysis. We, therefore, reject the holding that arose from the analysis described above.”
Whoops. There is not much better fodder for a response or reply brief than catching a lawyer on the other side quoting a line from some case without regard to its context.
Legal quotations, like the best appropriations of Shakespeare, validate a position only if they resonate once fully contextualized.