Misquoting Shakespeare. Again.

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Folded toilet paper memeLet me begin with a digression on memes. Like a virus, a meme can spread uncontrollably in the right environment and infect millions with an idea or goal. This, of course, is good for such advocates of social ideals as Greenpeace or PETA, but like viruses, there can be bad memes that do more damage than good. More, it seems, than good or socially constructive memes.

A meme is the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus*, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination.

Like a virus, a meme requires the communication between people to spread – talk, mail, the medium of literature, TV or music, and of course the Internet. A good example of a wildfire meme in popular culture was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another pop-culture meme is the spread of tattoos as fashion. Fashion itself is a seasonal meme, not unlike a seasonal cold.

But there can be bad memes as well; memes that poison, memes that distort and damage. Similar to Ebola virus or prions, these memes can jump cultures like viruses jump species.

Anti-semitism – disturbingly on the rise in France and the USA today – is a bad and infectious meme. So is any form of religious fundamentalism – look at how the meme of the jihad has spread across the Middle East. Computer hoaxes like the email chain letter that promises you riches if you forward the email to everyone on your mailing list, is another bad meme albeit more innocuous. Donald Trump’s tweets become memes almost as soon as he posts them.

One of the factors that accelerates a meme’s spread is its brevity. In an age when deep reading is a dying art and skim reading is the new normal (to disastrous effect ion our collective education and society), a meme finds easy access to hosts online.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to describe evolutionary principles help explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. As Wikipedia points out,

He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

Lincoln memeThe Internet is a meme factory; a sprawling source of cultural DNA. Ideas and symbols races across the world faster than ever than to the global network of users. The widespread use of Internet abbreviations like LOL and AFK show how quickly ideas can travel and be adopted. The current ukulele renaissance is an example of a popular cultural movement that spread – as a meme – thanks to the Internet’s ability to draw communities of like interests together.

But the Net is a source of bad memes as well as good. Bad information, urban legends, and outright lies are spread and take hold as easily as good ideas and culturally uplifting themes. Part of the problem with the the rapid spread of bad memes is the uncritical acceptance of the vast majority of users for whatever gets presented, and their willingness to believe in even the most preposterous and fatuous ideas, if presented in a reasonably competent manner.

The current economic slump may in part be meme-driven: individuals can spread inaccurate comments and opinions about a downturn, about businesses and corporations, and have them shared faster and to a broader audience than any traditional media outlet can correct them. Look at how Donald Trump’s ill-considered tweets about corporations like Amazon affected their stocks.They even affected the value of the South African rand, causing it to slump. Memes can be very dangerous.

We generally tend to accept the validity of something simply because it’s online or in print. Pseudosciences like astrology and creationism or New Age woo hoo like gluten-free diets and detoxing continue to collect adherents because people don’t use critical thinking to analyse the claims.

Personally, I consider it inexcusably lazy not to do so and I tire of receiving email hoaxes or similar Facebook posts from people who churn them out to their entire mailing list without once stopping to examine what they’re sending.

A quick search would list numerous anti-hoax and urban legend sites that deconstruct and expose the hoax. Far too many people just forward the stuff without that extra step. No wonder the Net is still such a ripe field for harvesting scams and spreading computer viruses: far too many of its users don’t think about what they’re doing. It’s easier to click “like” and “share” than to spend a minute or two verifying the content.

Pardon my lengthy digression. I think I’ve uncovered one of those common untruths in a quotation allegedly by Shakespeare. I was searching for a quotation by the Bard and came across this:

Children wish fathers looked but with their eyes; fathers that children with their judgment looked; and either may be wrong.

Now I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I read him a lot and I’ve never encountered this quote before. It’s a good aphorism, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t by the Bard. So I started looking for the source – the play or poem – from which this line was taken.

Dozens, maybe hundreds, of quotation sites reference this as a quotation by William Shakespeare, including: QuotationsbookFamous Quotes and Poems, and the inappropriately-named Brainy Quote (because  without proper citations, it is anything BUT brainy) and many, many others. Not one of dozens I explored referred back to the source of that quotation – i.e. the play, sonnet or poem from which it was derived. They all copied from one another and so it becomes “fact” without any verification. (One of the reasons many of these sites have no credibility is that they allow readers to post their own content such as quotations without proper attribution and with no editorial means to confirm the source).

Which leads me to another point: any online quotation attributed to someone that does not include an identified source of that quotation is very likely to be either made up or mis-attributed. Even more so when crafted into a picture meme and posted on Facebook (the picture is meant to detract the reader from questioning the source – after all, if it has a puppy or an angel, it must be true, right?).

So I went to the source itself: the online collections of Shakespeare’s own works. Many collections online are searchable, such as Open Source Shakespeare, the Bartleby collection (the 1914 Oxford Shakespeare), Rhymezone’s Shakespeare search. I also visited one of the very few reliable sources of attributed quotations: Wikiquote, where I finally found the answer (see below – unfortunately it wasn’t covered in another favourite: the Quote Investigator).

There are minor issues with some of the collections due to editing that can confound a lay researcher like me** but none of the collections of actual Shakespearean writing showed lines like the one attributed by the quotation above. Only a few minutes’ effort showed me not only that the quote was incorrectly attributed, but that, like a bad meme, the false attribution had spread to numerous other sites. And none of whose webmasters bothered to confirm the source as I had done. They all just accepted it as uncritically as do the folks forwarding the hoax chain emails.

It’s a bad meme, and it spreads easily, the literary equivalent of bird flu. Here’s what Wikiquote says it comes from:

Derived from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on p. 269, Aphorisms from Shakespeare (1812), Capel Lofft, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, a book which rewrites in aphoristic form Shakespeare quotations, in this case the exchange between Hermia and Theseus: “I would my father look’d but with my eyes”, “Rather your eyes must with his judgment look”.

Ah! Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I Scene I:

I would my father look’d but with my eyes.
Rather your eyes must with his judgment look.

Which is explained in Bartleby:

(Theseus)… dismisses the accounts of lovers and madmen on the grounds that they are both apt to imagine a false reality as being real. When, in I, i, 56, Hermia tells Theseus, “I would my father looked but with my eyes”, Theseus responds, “Rather your eyes must with his judgment look”(57). Theseus has a firm belief that the eyes of lovers are not to be trusted. That the eye of the lover “sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt”(11) is, to him, proof of this. It precisely by enchanting the eyes of the lovers that the faeries manage to create so much mayhem: “Flower of this purple dye, hit with cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye! When his love he doth espy, let her shine as gloriously as the Venus of the sky”(III, ii, 101-7).

So the quote in question is, as I had suspected, not from the Bard, but from authors who essentially bowdlerized and modified Shakespeare in the early 19th century to suit other purposes. 

So how to correct a bad meme? How to fix an error so that thousands of people don’t go around quoting an epithet they think came from our greatest writer, but in fact may be from a modern source or even a forgery? How to prevent the false quotation being used in books, essays, exams and term papers? I don’t think you can, not without considerable effort: writing every site where the quote is found, posting comments on hundreds of forums and blogs where it appears or where the Bard is discussed.

Yes, curmudgeon that I am, when I find such mis-quotes on my Facebook timeline, I post links to sites debunking them or to Wikiquote showing that it doesn’t have that quotation listed. But I am merely vox clamantis in deserto here. Few of the original posters respond positively to being corrected, and remove their incorrect posts so the bad meme does not continue to do its destructive work.

And that’s what these bad memes do: they infect and destroy education, literature, history and science by planting in their readers the seed of disinformation. It’s not a very far way to go from bad Shakespeare quotes to Big Brother’s “war is peace” meme because we accept everything at face value far too easily. Bad memes are dumbing us down at an alarming rate.

There is no way to inoculate the Web from such disinformation, and no way to make people use their critical reasoning faculty and commonsense to simply check first. There is no way to get everyone to  apply some elementary logical analysis before they adopt and share this bad or any other meme***

* Toilet paper origami as shown in the photo is used by memeticist Dr. Susan Blackmore as an example of a meme that propagated itself around the world. There’s an interesting counterpoint on the TED blog.

** For example, the line “All that glisters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice is sometimes edited to read “glitters” or even “glistens.” The original word used by the Bard is glisters, but you won’t find it in some edited collections. Because glisters is not commonly used today, the change to glitter or glisten is another meme. As Shakespeare was troubled in his day to have inferior plays attributed to him, thanks to the Internet’s meme factory and lazy webmasters, 400 years later we are troubled to have fake quotes attributed to him.

*** The opposite of a meme is the counter-meme, described in an article in Wired Magazine as a meme designed to drive out bad memes – built through memetic engineering. I’m not how to to create a counter-meme that undoes this Shakespearean mis-quote, however.

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