The Top 10 Greatest Misquotes in Literature
To be fair, it’s a lot easier misquoting someone speaking than it is someone writing. Because when someone writes something down, it’s not like anyone can change it!
….Or can they? Oh, yes, they can. That’s the beauty of humanity, language, and pride. Three terribly fallible concepts of all existence. Pride is fallible. Language is definitely fallible. And let’s face it: humanity is certainly fallible.
After all, when God said don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, I think He kind of meant it. Too bad Adam and Eve started talking to a snake. Big mistake.
I Digress, Though…. Because I’m Willing to Bet God Knew They Were Going to Get a Bite!
You might’ve read a prior article to this about misquotes in history. This is about literature. Some of this will blow your mind even more than historical quotes recorded or remembered (and we all know that basic human memory is about as imperfect as rotted termite-infested wood).
The fact, though, is this: some written quotes do have to be, for lack of a better term, ‘misquoted.’ Sometimes the quote’s just too long. And when a quote is that timelessly important, a scholar or journalist or whoever can get sort of tired of writing the darn quote over and over again (especially when words do cost money. No, seriously, they do!).
Unfortunately, this means that sometimes the meaning of the quote gets a little twisted. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way.
But that’s the great thing about literature, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily about the intended meaning – but rather what we get out of it, however wrong our meaning of what we read is wrong.
Whether we got it wrong or not shouldn’t matter, right? Because most of these literary geniuses are dead anyway. They’re not going to turn into zombies and come for us to eat our brains just because we’ve misquoted them. Maybe.
So, in a nutshell, it’s important to know that misquotes are a must in literature. But just in case you’re scared of zombies, you’re going to learn firsthand why these misquotes – as well the correct quotes – are what they are.
And who knows – for understanding the truth, you may come out a better literary hypnotist than any of them combined.
We’re going to start with….
In Tim Burton’s film “Ed Wood” in 1994, he paid homage to one of the worst directors ever in history: Ed Wood. This guy coincidentally was also one of the last directors to work with the famous actor Bela Lugosi, the same actor who played the iconic horror character Count Dracula.
Watch the film “Ed Wood,” and you’ll notice that the character playing Bela Lugosi does say a line in the script that has been remembered for generations to be Bela Lugosi/Dracula incarnate:
“I want to suck your blood.”
Seriously chilling in a black-and-white darkness sort of way, don’t you think? You want to know what’s funny, though?
The original author of the novel, Bram Stoker (a playful picture of him above as a hideous vamp), never wrote that piece of dialogue. Never. Nor did it show up in the original film Bela Lugosi actually starred in. We never read it or hear it anywhere…except in Tim Burton’s film, “Ed Wood.”
And that was literally over a century ago that somehow the guy who directed the first Batman movie can inject in the minds of every horror-crazed individual this quote that never existed.
Of course, the quote does state pure fact: Dracula did want to suck blood. Duh.
I can’t tell you how many times this has been seen and expressed in literature and film. And it makes pure sense. But this is a perfect example of an idea – a timeless idea, obviously – resulting from something completely different.
It’s the quote from a William Congreve play called “The Mourning Bride,” published back in 1697. Many have heard of this line and have used it and quote Congreve for it:
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? We’ve seen it everywhere. Jack and the Beanstalk. Harry Potter. Even Disney’s Robin Hood when the foxy Robin Hood charms the wolven Sheriff of Nottingham with a beautiful song.
The problem is this: There’s just one word wrong in that line. Look closely in the actual text for the actual play, and you’ll find that the correct line states:
“Musick hath Charms to sooth a savage Breast.”
Not “beast.” Breast. Seriously! A breast. From a lady, I think.
Holy cow, what a switch here! And this is a perfect example of the misquote actually making more sense when you think about it. When do you ever see a savage breast? Breasts are not known for their savageness.
Of course, that’s the beauty of poetry. Because the word ‘breast’ could also be an image for the heart, given a breast happens to be right over it. So therefore we’re talking about a savage heart here.
Got to love metaphors, right? They make language so easy. Easy as a holy cow.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Who likes a little bit of Sherlock Holmes? Not Robert Downey Jr., though, although Mr. Iron Man handles the character well.
For countless ages, Mr. Doyle has mystified the literary crowds with the ever-popular duo of Holmes and Watson. And for many years we always had the impression that Dr. Watson was a bit of an understudy to the great detective.
Why? The evidence to solve this mystery shows clearly in the great quote we know of Holmes when he says so haughtily:
“Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Oh, tsk, tsk. How can you be so dense, my dear fellow? Pour me another cup of tea and let me explain to you how incredibly wise I am and how much of a slug you are.
We end up thinking that Dr. Watson is nothing more than a child trying to figure out how an apple grows. All because of those four words Holmes always says when the clincher of each mystery Doyle wrote comes to fruition.
Here’s the surprising thing, though: in literally all of those mystery stories Doyle wrote about the great Sherlock Holmes, not even once does the character confidently exclaim to his trusted ‘sidekick’ the words, “elementary, my dear Watson.”
In truth, Doyle oftentimes does have Holmes say the term “elementary” and the phrase “my dear Watson.” But never in the same sentence. The only time we ever hear the phrase so beautifully misquoted is in a 1929 film entitled “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”
Moreover, do you even understand that these stories are not even in the perspective of Holmes himself? Every single story comes essentially from the mouth of Watson himself. These are his stories.
Amazingly, Holmes on several occasions has praised Watson for his deductive ability. On several occasions, it’s actually Watson himself who solves the case, but with Holmes confirming it all for him!
So in reality the prestigious Dr. Watson is more than elementary here. That’s the genius of literary magic.
The Apostle Paul
Yes, we’re going back to the Bible again. But for good reason. This book is rich with work that could easily be misquoted. One quote in particular:
“Money is the root of all evil.”
Even non-Christians have heard of this adage! And for the most part, it’s true (at least for gamblers). There’s just one problem, though…. The great Apostle Paul never wrote this.
He actually wrote this: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
So you can understand that it makes sense to sort of ‘shorten’ the quote and make it even easier to understand. Here’s another problem, though: now the meaning is completely different.
Let’s be fair here: money isn’t bad. We need it to pay our mortgage, for Christ’s sake. To say that actual money leads to evil is like saying a college degree will lead you to a $150,000/year salary!
Sure, the paper stating that you’re ‘educated’ looks pretty; but you better do the work to find the job, first. Just be sure to use the money wisely. You buy tons of bling, and for sure you’re pretty much in love with all of those presidential flashcards; you’ll burn in Hell for it.
I’ve got to be honest: I love this poet. The work he’s done has been so tremendous that even in the year 4566 where there are no trees or spider webs, his work will still live on.
It’s funny, though, that the famous quote from his poem The Road Not Taken was so blatantly misunderstood…. (What? Seriously?)
“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Robert Frost is a perfect example of how a writer’s intention is completely different from what a reader can get out of it. It’s ingenious, actually.
Would you be surprised if you found out that Frost actually didn’t intend for the poem to be about ‘individuality’ and ‘uniqueness’? Surprisingly, he didn’t.
Due to a writing technique known as the unreliable narrator, if you were to read every single line separately in the poem, once you got to the second stanza where he writes that both roads are “worn…really about the same,” you end up finding out that it really doesn’t matter which road you take!
Oh, but a person’s special for taking the road less traveled by…. Bravo! Congrats!
To be fair, this really isn’t a misquote, but a misinterpretation. Seriously, though: even Frost himself stated that the poem was a mockery of individuality.
That really all he was saying with this poem was this: you think you’re unique and special, but in reality you’re just another speck in the space-time continuum!
Hopefully Frost’s continuum, though, really does have trees and spider webs.
Like Tim Burton for Bram Stoker, Steven Spielberg took creative license with the novel written by one Winston Groom inspiring the film “Forest Gump” with Tom Hanks saying that wonderful line making us wish we were as stupid as stupid does. Don’t deny it: you loved that lovable speedster Forrest Gump. Especially this quote:
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Now, unlike the Tim Burton-Bram Stoker thing, this is an example of where the writer-director decided to change the original quote drastically to fit the entire premise of the film. Groom’s original line in the book was simply: “Bein’ an idiot ain’t no box of chocolates.”
Big difference. And a totally different feeling.
I’d imagine if we saw that in the film version of Forrest Gump, we’d picture an idiot played by Jim Carrey getting pummeled out of something from “Home Alone” and “Dumb and Dumber” on acid.
Steven Spielberg didn’t want that, though. Sadly, Groom then reported that he was quite upset with the change. I guess life ain’t no box of chocolates, Groom. This is what you get.
While we’re on the whole interpretation swing, this one’s a fun one. You know the novel “Alice in Wonderland,” right? Let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole.
Out of the whole entire head trip of a book, there’s one line that has been celebrated as a line of love for ages and ages, singing Kumbaya and holding hands for as long as you’ll ever remember:
“Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love that makes the world go round.”
We get the impression that this man Lewis Carroll (who’s real name, by the way, is Charles Dodgson, just so you know) was a fun-loving man with a great spirit, wearing one of those cheesy chenille sweaters with a hot cup of Joe in hand and a big smile on his face. Kind of makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Sadly, though, he was nothing close to that. He was nothing like the ‘whimsical’ and ‘romantic’ fantasy writer we always saw him as.
Let’s get just a bit of a biography going here, in that the great Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) was nothing more than a dodgy mathematician who wanted to criticize the new forms of mathematics practiced at the time. He maintained such criticism by writing the book “Alice in Wonderland.” Sad to say, the book actually wasn’t about drugs (although one can say that the Mad Hatter was definitely on crack).
In addition, Dodgson was constantly accused of pedophilia. Studies had shown an argument stating that the man was in fact asexual, preferring only to be around children and not around the opposite sex. Sort of creepy.
If that’s not enough to get you thinking that this man is hardly the type to think that “love makes the world go round,” know this: that quote in the book was spoken by one of his characters, the Duchess. You know who the Duchess is? Oh, yeah, she was a potential child murderer in the book.
And “Alice in Wonderland” was a children’s book, basically. Right?
Look at the quote one more time, and you can possibly see that Dodgson (I’m sorry, Carroll) was probably making fun of the entire idea of love. The idea of love. Ha! Off with his head!
He was probably one of the coolest philosophers known to man and one of the only ones that died of a venereal disease. Why was he cool? Because he practically talked about a Superman! A real Superman. Actually, he called it an “overman.” A man who was ‘beyond’ the regular man of society, someone who transcended all religious, philosophical and conventional thought.
Who knew that this one man easily could’ve influenced another great visionary: Adolf Hitler. Holy wow.
The quote obviously misquoted is this:
“…at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast, prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory…”
That’s just a smidge, though, of the entire quote, because let’s face it: philosophers are long-winded, and Nietzsche’s way up there with the long-winded trophy for the universe. But I digress, yet again.
So where do the Nazis and Hitler fit in? Let’s just say that they took this quote and ran with it, thinking that the “blond beast” would be the great army of Nazi soldiers parading about in their need to conquer everything.
Yeah, thanks, Nietzsche.
The funny thing is the philosopher didn’t even mean that at all! If you read the rest of the quote conveniently omitted here, you’d find that it continues saying that the “Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings – they all shared this need.”
That simply means that Nazis, Chinese, Indian, Native American, African-American, Russian, Polish, French, good ol’ fashioned hamburger-lovin’ American heroes – and, yes, even the Jewish community! – are all the same. Emphasizing equality.
The “blond beast” wasn’t Hitler, really. The “blond beast” was a metaphor for a lion. And every tribe, every race, every nation – they all have the great lions Nietzsche talks about.
You hear that, Hitler? Get to reading a little bit more before deciding to blitzkrieg half the world. Oh, wait – you burned all your books.
What a way to end the list, right? Good ol’ Will Shakes. Billy Speare. The great poet and playright.
You wouldn’t believe how many misquotes there are here. Which is why I saved the last two entries on this list for last. Starting with….
A truly beautiful line from the play Romeo and Juliet. It even sounds beautiful. We can get all symbolic here, too, and say that stars are lovely, and crosses are pure. Therefore, this is about lovely and pure lovers!
Even scholars would insist that the term “star-crossed” was actually meant to be something forbidden. When you ‘cross’ something out, that means it’s off limits.
That makes sense, too, given that both Romeo and Juliet probably shouldn’t have gotten together given it could’ve started World War 550,000. Those Montagues and Capulets hated each other so much.
Most, though, interpreted the quote of “star-crossed lovers” as something meant by fate. Which is why Romeo and Juliet turned out to be one of the greatest love stories of all time. And it is.
We just forget that Romeo and Juliet was essentially a tragedy. That was Shakespeare’s intention, really. Yes, it was about love. But both of these teenagers die in the end, for crying out loud! It’s horrible! And they die not even knowing that they didn’t have to die!
Could anyone be any more stupid?
Back then, the English language was such that certain words meant something different than what they mean today. In fact, Shakespeare himself was an originator of words that to this day are still in the dictionary.
But the real meaning of being “star-crossed” is that you were meant to die. It means that the “stars have crossed you.” Back then, stars were typically interpreted as the fates.
That’s how the whole play starts, literally, if you think about. Here we have a story about two lovers meant to die. Yay. Will, you were such a downer, man.
And More From William Shakespeare
If that wasn’t enough to get you reeling, know this: while the great poet was known for his romanticism and the popularization of the romantic sonnet, you’d be surprised to know that his first 126 sonnets he ever wrote were actually known to be addressed towards a man. Not a woman.
What? Shakespeare wrote sonnets about a man? Yes. He did.
I’m speaking, of course, about the famous quote from probably one of his most popular sonnets:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Great love poem, actually (thankfully not a horror poem, right?). And many a woman out there has read it and felt the vapors all because a male suitor – even a male suitor with flabby muscles – presented it to her.
Shakespeare’s words practically have pheromones leaking out of the letters. You can rub the paper with the words on it all over your chest and have women flock toward you like moths to a flame. Nothing says romantic like a Shakespearean sonnet.
Surprisingly, though, this particular sonnet was among the first 126 he wrote. That means the sonnet’s actually about a guy.
In fact, those 126 sonnets he wrote specifically encouraged procreation. Back in the day, he was commissioned to write these poems to basically appease the male egos and remind all noble and royal gentlemen that they indeed should have kids because they’re so manly.
In essence, Shakespeare wasn’t wooing a woman here. He was complimenting a man on his virility. Eww.
So if you’re a woman and your would-be boyfriend or soon-to-be husband tried to pull that one on you, spouting out this ridiculous poetry, remind him that you’re not a dude. And if you’re a guy, don’t compare your lady to a summer’s day. Compare your lady to Jennifer Lopez or Kim Kardashian. You’ll get a better response that way.
So the Serpent Deceived You, Eh? Go to Your Room!
I bet God was peeved. I would be, too, if my kids ate my prized fruit. But the important thing to understand is that we all do make mistakes. How we deal with them matters. And I’d have to say that God handled it pretty well, in my opinion.
That being said, I think we’ve handled the literary industry well, too. After all, no zombified authors of old aren’t coming out to get us for completely raping their words in ways they never imagined.
My thoughts, though, is that they’re proud. Because while they may have intended something specific in their literary works, it’s almost like a compliment that we interpreted it differently. Opening doors. Seeing more than what was written.
The words – nay, the very letters – are able to speak volumes and volumes more than what the authors even intended.
In my eyes, there can be no better compliment.