When it came to expressing truths about the human condition, arguably, no one did it better than Shakespeare. You probably know most, if not all, of each of the quotes I’m covering here. However, in all likelihood, you’d never guess that they came from some improbable sources.
1. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them (Twelfth Night). When you think about this quote, you probably imagine a noble hero who is about to assume a royal post or slay an entire enemy army on the battlefield. However, in the play, these lines comes from the dour and ridiculous character named, appropriately, Malvolio. Much to the amusement of onlookers, Malvolio is tricked into thinking that these words were meant for him. The heroine, Olivia, planted a secret note that Malvolio reads out loud, wrongly believing that he has a secret admirer. The ironic context of this otherwise inspiring quote shows how easily we can convince ourselves into thinking that we are great when, in reality, we’re a victim of our own conceit.
2. All that glisters is not gold (The Merchant of Venice). This quote instructs us to look beyond the superficial outward trappings and instead look to the inner qualities of the people and objects we encounter. This line is spoken during one of the play's few truly comic scenes when the heroine, Portia, is forced by the deceased father’s will to marry the suitor who correctly chooses her picture hidden in one of three metal chests: gold, silver, or lead. Neither she nor the suitors know which contains her picture. The gold chest reads, on the outside “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire," and it's only when the suitor opens it that he reads this now-famous tribute to substance over looks (which is contained inside a skull's mouth). The silver chest's inscription, temptingly, reads “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” As Portia entertains her first two ridiculously pompous suitors, they choose the gold and silver chests, misled by their own faulty and self-congratulatory reasoning. Only the suitor she truly wants to marry chooses the chest made out of the basest metal. The lead chest's inscription on the outside proclaims: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (i.e. marriage). The least vain and most sincere of her three suitors is willing to give everything up for Portia, despite the fact that the chest looks the most unassuming of them all.
3. Brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet). The person giving this speech believes in having his words pack as much punch as possible by being short and sweet, right? Again, Shakespeare manages to plant wise advise in an unwise character. However, irony strikes once again in that the speaker, Polonius, is one of the most long-winded characters in all of Shakespeare. Although Hamlet speaks the most lines of any Shakespearian character, the bombastic Polonius manages to put the least substance of all in any of his speeches. This provides wise advice, made wiser by the fact that the speaker proves his own point.
4. This above all, to thine own self be true (Hamlet). Yet another great quote from Hamlet, the play. However, it’s not Hamlet who utters it. Guess again—it’s that same fellow Polonius. He is saying farewell (a final one, as it turns out), to his son Laertes, who seems to be in a great hurry to get away from his pontificating father. We interpret this quote to mean that it’s important to be authentic and honest. In the same speech, he utters an almost equally famous line: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." Once again, Shakespeare plants some terrific life advice in the mouth of one of the play's least wise characters.
5. O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on (Othello). Even if you never heard all of this famous quote, you've probably referred to the "green-eyed monster" often enough (though if you're a Boston Red Sox fan, you are more likely to know about the "Green Monster"). In any case, trying to avoid being jealous seems like pretty good advice for anyone to give a friend. However, like the other quotes we've seen already, the speaker is the least probable character to be offering it. In fact, the line is spoken by Iago, the very character who feeds that green-eyed monster by planting baseless claims that Othello’s wife’s was cheating on him. Iago is motivated by a combination of revenge and a desire to create mischief. Although this is generally a good rule of thumb to live your life by, it also provides a word of warning to consider the source before you take someone’s advice.
6. Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise (King Lear). With age should come wisdom, or so we believe. Becoming "old and wise" is one of the commonest positive stereotypes we have about aging. In the twisting of this adage, the King Lear’s personal "Fool" (that's his name in the play) tells him that despite the fact that he's old, he's making some very unwise decisions. In this play, Lear mistakenly casts aside the only faithful of his three daughters (Cordelia) because, when asked how she feels about him, she refuses to flatter him the way that her sisters did. She can say "nothing" more than the fact that she feels toward him the way a daughter should to a father, and that's that. Cordelia's honesty provokes another famous quote by Lear (“Nothing will come of nothing”). By the end of the play, it turned out that the other daughters dispossessed their father, turning him out into the cold with no one other than his Fool to comfort him. By ignoring the fool’s wise advice, it turns out that it was Lear who became the fool.
7. Good counsellors lack no clients (Measure for Measure). This may not be one of the most famous of Shakespeare's quotes, but it's appropriate in the context of psychology. Mental health professionals who do their job well have thriving practices. Yet again, though, the character to utter this observation is Pompey, a "bawd" one whose escapades in the play suggest that he is anything but wise. He who makes his living by working in a brothel (for a certain “Mistress Overdone”). Pompey is trying to offer words of comfort to his boss who's just been booted out of town when the chief justice decides to enforce a ban on prostitution (“though you change your place, you need not change your trade"). Forgetting this rather seedy situation, we can take the line out of context to show that if you’re good at what you do, you’ll never be short of people seeking your help.
8. He that dies pays no debts (The Tempest). In what many believe to be Shakespeare’s last play are some of his most memorable characters who utter many of its greatest lines (including "We are such stuff as dreams are made on"). Both mystical and charming, the play centers around one of Shakespeare’s favorite themes of father-daughter relations (shades of Lear, and many other works). Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, are cast adrift on a remote island, until they are miraculously restored to their former home by a joyously happy ending. Stephano is a typical Shakespearean provider of comic relief. In this quote, he observes that there is an upside to death after all. It’s particularly interesting that Shakespeare uses this vehicle of the play written when he was oldest. In contrast, many of his earlier plays are full of morbid observations about death (“from hour to hour we rot and rot," spoken by Macbeth).
9. Much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery (Macbeth). Speaking of Macbeth, it’s difficult to think of a play with any less comic relief (even Hamlet has several comic scenes). However, we get some break from the morbid and tragic main plot of the play in the Porter, who appears right after Macbeth and his wife murder the King. Having pulled an all-night bender, the Porter’s speech details the “three things” that drink provokes. The speech provides the opportunity for Shakespeare to inject one of his favorite types of puns into a play filled with one remorselessly tragic plot. Drink, the Porter notes, “makes him stand to, and not stand to,” a line the actor usually illustrates with finger gestures in case the audience doesn’t get the full meaning.
10. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool (As You Like It). Along the same lines as our first quote, this is spoken by one of the comic characters of the play- Touchstone, the court jester. This quote not only teaches us about the virtues of humility, but also about the wisdom of seeing ourselves in an honest, if not self-deprecating, light.
Shakespeare’s comedies provide scene upon scene of characters who wittily banter between each other and lead characters who engage in mockery, comic mixups (“Comedy of Errors”) and just plain silliness. The quote “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late” comes from one of the most farcical of them all, “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
There’s some psychological wisdom to be gained from many of these comic exchanges, although mostly they demonstrate Shakespeare’s inimitable facility with the language of puns. Characters approaching sit-com dimensions even appear in Hamlet in the gravedigger’s scene, when they pose riddles and sing to each other about death ("What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter? The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a 40 thousand tenants").
Whether spoken in irony or in jest, it's hard to imagine better examples in Shakespeare of quotes that teach us psychological wisdom despite, or perhaps because of, their paradoxical sources.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013