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This place matters

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Out of context

So a lot of famous quotations take on a completely different meaning when you look at them in context. Take the famous quotation from the book of Ruth - you know, the one read at every wedding ever:
Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, but death part thee and me.
 This is sort of an ironic selection for weddings, as these words are spoken right after Ruth's marriage has been by death parted. They're actually spoken from Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. Jeremy and I still used it at our wedding, mind you. We kind of figured we'd already decided to spend our lives together long before, and getting married was really about joining each other's families. Or I figured that, really, and Jeremy went along because he was done with planning a wedding.
When it comes to having quotations taken out of context, Shakespeare's probably the king. I always find it so weird when people equate romance with Romeo and Juliet. Mutual suicide isn't many people's idea of a great date night. 
You've probably seen the inspirational Shakespeare quotation "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." This comes from Twelfth Night, and it's meant as a joke. See, Malvolio is a servant in the house of Olivia, and he has a crush on the boss lady almost as big as the giant stick up his ass. A couple of members of Olivia's household decide to play a prank on Malvolio, counterfeiting a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio. The words are meant to puff up his ego, the better to humiliate him later. And the "greatness thrust upon them" bit was meant as a double entendre.
Some of Shakespeare's most famous words of wisdom come from Hamlet. "Neither a borrower or a lender be," and "the apparel oft claims the man," and of course "This above all else: to thine own self be true." But the guy who speaks those words, Polonius, is kind of a weenie. Though Polonius is an adviser to the king, most characters see him as, in Hamlet's words, a "tedious old fool." He's always going about spewing his canned wisdom and generally being a busybody. The poor guy gets maybe the most undignified death in all of Shakespeare - he gets stabbed when caught creeping on the queen and Hamlet in her bedroom.
Finally, let's talk Ben Franklin. Most of the time, when people quote Ben Franklin, they quote the little aphorisms found in Poor Richard's Almanac. The advice is staid and puritan - "early to be and early to rise," and "Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today," and "A penny saved is a penny earned." But Franklin's life was anything but staid and puritan. He had affairs, wrote a letter to a friend about how to choose a mistress (which included a suggestion to woo an older woman so you don't have to worry about getting her knocked up), and exhorted his friends to "fart proudly."
Turns out, what many don't know is that the views in Poor Richard's Almanac don't necessarily reflect the views of the author. When Franklin laid out a page of the almanac and found he had a little space left over, he'd fill that space with some little saying or witticism. He made some of those nuggets up himself, but many were proverbs that were already in popular use when he wrote them. These quotations, then, aren't so much Franklin's words of wisdom as Franklin's words to fill white space.


Excerpt from a commencement address by Alan Alda at
Connecticut College, on the day of her graduation.

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