Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Orson Welles? Oscar Wilde? James Aswell? Richard Lederer? Anonymous?

yorick11Dear Quote Investigator: The influence of William Shakespeare’s works on the English language has been enormous; consider the following phrases:

To thine own self be true
It was Greek to me
Brevity is the soul of wit
To be, or not to be
Not a mouse stirring

The cultural ubiquity of the Bard’s words inspired the following humorous remark:

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

This statement has been attributed to two very different people who share the same initials: Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1936 by a syndicated columnist named James Aswell who was based in New York. Several Shakespearean productions were being staged in the city, and one featured the actor John Gielgud. Aswell presented the remark of a “debbie” which was a slang term for “debutante”; he then appended his own comment. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2

A pert debbie, attending the Gielgud interpretation the other night, quipped in the lobby: “But how can anyone listen to all those old saws and ancient wisecracks they’ve been hearing all their lives?” . . . Well, a lot of people go to Shakespeare to recognize the quotations.

In 1945 the tireless anecdote collector Bennett Cerf included a thematic joke in his compilation titled “Laughing Stock”, and Cerf also reprinted the jest in his syndicated newspaper column: 3 4

Guy Williams, of the Omaha World Herald, had his ears pinned back by a nice old lady to whom he had urgently recommended a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. “I can’t understand why you all make such a fuss over that man,” she told him after she had looked over the book. “All he’s done is string together a whole lot of very old, well-known quotations.”

In 1949, Evan Esar published the collection “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, and he assigned an instance of the quip in Aswell’s 1936 column to the prominent auteur Orson Welles: 5

WELLES, Orson, born 1915, American actor, director, and producer of motion pictures, radio, and stage.

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1958 a newspaper in Eureka, California printed an instance of the saying with an ascription to Welles. The material was based on Esar’s 1949 book and used the same thumbnail description of Welles. 6

In 1958 “The New Speaker’s Treasury of Wit and Wisdom” by Herbert V. Prochnow was published and it included the saying attributed to Welles: 7

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations. Orson Welles

In 1962 a newspaper Oshkosh, Wisconsin printed a slightly different version and credited the words to Welles: 8

Indeed, Orson Welles once complained that “Now we sit through Shakespeare just to recognize the quotations.”

In 1969 the father and son team of Herbert V. Prochnow senior and junior released “A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference”. The expression was included; but, strangely, it had been reassigned to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. QI hypothesizes that an error occurred in filing or transcription of the pertinent data: 9

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations. Oscar Wilde

In 1984 the teacher and popular language maven Richard Lederer relayed a joke similar to the one printed in 1936 and 1945 when he was profiled in the pages of the “The New Yorker”: 10

“I like to tell about a student who went to see ‘Hamlet’ for the first time and came back and complained that the play was nothing but a bunch of clichés strung together,” Mr. Lederer said.

In 1987 “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur credited Wilde: 11

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations. Oscar Wilde

In 1991 “The Miracle of Language” by Richard Lederer also ascribed the statement to Wilde: 12

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.” Unrivaled in so many other ways in matters verbal, Shakespeare is unequaled as a phrasemaker.

The attribution to Orson Welles has also continued to circulate. In 2013 a blog on “The Washington Post” website posted the following: 13

It’s one of the few conversations we still have together — taking high school students through the woods of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — one of the few writers we can all still quote with ease. Orson Welles quipped, “We sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.”

In conclusion, QI believes that James Aswell should be given credit for the joke given in the 1936 citation. The evidence connecting Orson Welles to the quip was weak. The 1949 statement apparently was derived directly or indirectly from the expression that was in circulation by 1936. QI was unable to find any direct quotations from Welles though it was possible that he repeated a pre-existing jest. The linkage to Oscar Wilde was probably a mistake.

Image Notes: Representation of Shakespeare that might have been created by painter John Taylor obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Statue depicting Hamlet examining the skull of Yorick from the Geograph project collection via Wikimedia Commons. Image file licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license with attribution: Peter Church. Orson Welles photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1937. All images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Barrett who raised this general topic on the ADS mailing list which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the other mailing list discussion participants. Many thanks to Claire from Clare who relayed a quip similar to the 1945 instance, and kudos to Thomas Fuller who provided the precise 1945 citation.)

Update History: On October 29, 2014 the 1945 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1936 October 17, Ballston Spa Daily Journal, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Ballston Spa, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 October 19, The Morning Herald, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 130 and 131, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  4. 1946 March 15, Greensboro Record, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 6A, Column 4 and 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Orson Welles, Quote Page 212, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  6. 1956 May 8, Humboldt Standard (The Times Standard), Do You Agree?, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Eureka, California. (Newspaper.com)
  7. 1958, The New Speaker’s Treasury of Wit and Wisdom by Herbert V. Prochnow, Section: Quotations, Quote Page 352, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1962 November 16, Oshkosh Advance Shakespeare Rates “Most-Quoted” Title, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Section: William Shakespeare, Quote Number: 5400, Quote Page 304, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1984 February 20, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town: Shakespeare in Concord, Start Page 42, Quote Page 44, Published by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Verified with online archive of page scans)
  11. 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Quote Page 52, NAL Books: New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1991, The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, Quote Page 95, Published by Pockets Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. Website: Washington Post, Blog name: ComPost, Article title: Happy Birthday, Shakespeare — no holds bard, Article author: Alexandra Petri, Date on website: April 23, 2013, Website description: Washington DC newspaper. (Accessed washingtonpost.com on October 28, 2014) link