Shakespeare didn’t want to kill all the lawyers, and Robert Frost didn’t think that good fences make good neighbors. Sometimes, people use famous lines by famous people to support their arguments. And, too often, the words they quote not only weren’t intended to support what they’re saying, they actually mean the opposite. Quoting out of context is no doubt as old as speaking out of turn. Which is fine as long as the quoter is using the quote to mean what it did originally. Otherwise, when someone says, “As Shakespeare said, first we must kill all the lawyers,” there’s always the danger of having someone like me say, “But Shakespeare didn’t say that.” Then, if I’m lucky, there’s a dispute that lets me explain that Shakespeare wrote the line in Henry VI Part 2 (Act IV, Scene II), but he never said anyone should kill lawyers. It wasn’t his opinion. In fact, he put the line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” into the mouth of Dick the Butcher who was part of a mob of rioters who knew what they planned was illegal and figured if there were no lawyers they wouldn’t get prosecuted. Besides being inaccurate, it’s not fair to Shakespeare-or any other speaker-to twist the meaning of his words.
It’s the same with the fence thing. Most of the time, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is used to support an argument in favor of fences by someone who never read the poem it’s taken from. In Mending Fences, the person making the statement is a neighbor with whom Frost disagrees. A few lines later, Frost wrote, “Something there is that does not love a fence.” Frost, in his own voice, says he doesn’t like fences unless they’re needed to keep livestock penned. He wrote:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.”
That’s why we have to be careful when we pull a quote out of the air and stick it in something we’re writing. We mustn’t confuse what an author wrote with what he or she believed. It’s so easy to do that when the quote is taken out of its context because it’s often necessary to have a character say something that is totally opposite what the writer believes in order to create dramatic conflict. Then, someone (again, who probably never read the original) will quote the character and claim that the author held the opinion. Good writing gets a bad rap because people quote, out of context, a character whom the writer intended as a bad example. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn has been called a racist book because of racist remarks by Huck’s father, Pap. In the context of the book, Twain paints Pap as the worst sort of bigot and all-around despicable person. Twain wasn’t racist, nor is the book. The character is, and it’s how Twain showed his opposition to racism.
Was Rudyard Kipling a racist or xenophobic because he wrote, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet?” (Actually, Kipling did meet Twain in 1889, but that’s another story.) The first and last lines of “The Ballad of East and West” certainly seem to say that. What’s missed by the less-than-knowledgeable quoter is that the whole rest of the poem, and it’s a long one, tells of an Englishman and a Arab who become blood-brothers, which they could do, as Kipling wrote, because, “there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” If anything, Kipling would have us understand that people should be judged as individuals rather than by their race. It’s an example of, if I may quote Kipling, “hearing your words twisted by knaves to make traps for fools.” What do you suppose he meant by that?