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.

Continue reading Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

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)