Top 10 Most Misunderstood Lines in Literary History


There’s no better way to sound smart than by dropping a perfectly timed quote from some well-respected literature.  It shows that you’re both well-read and possess the stunning intellect to memorize whole chunks of books in the off chance that you might need it at some point (and barely anyone ever considers the implication that you just have way too much free time).

The problem is that a lot of the most famous quotes need context to be fully understood and, if you use them without knowing what they really mean, you might accidentally be saying something pretty dumb.  For example…

10.  Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Image result for road not taken

Famous Quote: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

The United States’ most famous poet’s most famous poem is a timeless ode to the American ideals of “individuality” and “forging your own path.”  It’s one of those poems that’s so famous, even people who hate poetry can quote it.  These are the reasons it appears on The Academy of American Poets’ list of top poems for college graduation.

Except aside from that last part, everything we just said isn’t true.  Frost is actually using an old technique known as the “unreliable narrator,” and he isn’t even being all that subtle about it: in spite of the famous quote’s insistence that one road is “less traveled by,” the second stanza of the poem clarifies that both roads are “worn… really about the same.”  Oh, and also, Frost himself admitted that he was actually mocking the idea that single decisions would change your life, and specifically making fun of a friend of his who had a tendency to over-think things that really weren’t that big a deal.

So what you thought was life-affirming was really just another poet/hipster condescendingly saying “you think you’re an individual, when really you’re just a cog in the machine, man!

9.  William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

Image result for Romeo & Juliet “Star-Crossed Lovers"

Famous Quote: “Star-Crossed Lovers”

Aww, Romeo & Juliet: two teenagers in the throes of what could possibly be the most pure love in literary history.  This is why when a magazine wants to comment on, say, Justin Bieber’s love life or the relationship between a little boy and his horse, they’re likely to reference the sonnet that opens Shakespeare’s most famous play by calling them “Star-Crossed Lovers.”

And sure, this is totally appropriate, if you’re expecting these people to die.  “Star-Crossed” doesn’t mean “brought together by fate,” it means “fated to die,” because the stars (fate) have “crossed” you.  Shakespeare is intentionally reminding everyone at the beginning of his play that this is a frickin’ tragedy, you guys, and you’re in for a miserable ride.

8.  Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

Image result for "Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love that makes the world go round."

Famous Quote: “Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round.”

This is an amazingly misunderstood line from an amazingly misunderstood writer.  Pretty much everything about the life of Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) is shrouded in confusion and slander; rather than being about drugs, Alice in Wonderland is most likely a criticism of then-new forms of mathematics that were becoming popular at Dodgson’s own Oxford College.  In addition, though he was commonly accused of pedophilia, The Annotated Alice and The Carroll Myth makes the argument that Dodgson was actually asexual, and preferred the company of children because he was extremely uncomfortable with courting and any form of sexual innuendo.

Finally, and perhaps fittingly, his most famous quote is the one here about love making the world go ’round, and it is directly contrary to all of his pessimistic and strictly logical real-world values.  In context, this quote is said by The Duchess, a character who is introduced as a potential child murderer.  Hardly the kind of character a writer would want to speak the moral of his story.

Finally, need we remind you that Dodgson was a mathematician?  Almost every detail of his biography — as well as the actual context of this story — show that this idea of love as a geo-revolutionary repellent is supposed to be scoffed at, not adored.

So it’s true that you might believe this to be true, but if that’s the case then it’s also true that one of history’s greatest writers is making fun of you.

7.  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Image result for "This above all: to thine own self be true."

Famous Quote: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

No, this is not the last time Shakespeare is appearing on this list.  You can probably guess why this line has become popular: it’s a simple platitude, and it’s attractive because it deals with individuality (just like the Frost example).  However, if you look at who’s saying it and really analyze the content of the play, it becomes quickly obvious that Willy Shakes is making fun of this whole concept.

As anyone who’s read Shakespeare knows, the English language has evolved quite a bit since these plays were first performed, and what now seems like new-agey self-acceptance actually meant something quite different in Elizabethan times: Polonius is telling his son to work for himself, and only for himself, and to put everyone else he encounters second.  He’s not encouraging individuality, he’s encouraging selfishness.

Furthermore, Polonius spends the whole play being a complete nitwit, and even Wikipedia’s basic description of him includes pointing out that he is “wrong in all the judgments that he makes during the play.”  In most versions, Laertes (Polonius’s son,and the character he’s talking to) isn’t even listening — lots of stage directors will have the character roll his eyes and scamper off quickly to avoid the avalanche of clichés his father is dumping on him.

So what sounds like the kind of cutesy nonsense you’d roll your eyes at is really just bad advice given by a dumb character to someone who isn’t even listening.

6.  John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn

Image result for "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

Famous Quote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Of all the examples on this list, this is probably the most likely to be misunderstood.  After all, whether or not Keats was being serious when he said that, beauty = truth is basically the Kirk v Picard of classic English Literature.  Unlike that controversy, there has actually emerged a begrudging consensus, and that is “that Keats did not, in fact, believe that beauty is truth.”

The controversy boils down to whether Keats thought art was a) supposed to represent the real world, or b) was better than the real world, with most scholars eventually deciding that Keats believed the latter.  Not only does this cast a strange shadow over the rest of Keats’ work, which is described here as being “way over on the idealistic side of the sliding scale of idealism versus cynicism,” but it’s also just kinda fun and quirky that the most stereotypically pretentious comment in English Literary History was actually a sarcastic quip.

5.  William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

Image result for “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Famous Quote: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

“Wherefore” means “why,” as in, “why is your name Romeo?”  The central conflict of the play is that R & J can’t be together because they are members of feuding families.

Juliet isn’t asking where Romeo is — that’d be stupid.  He’s standing right in front of her.

Also, we told you Shakespeare would show up on this list again.

4.  Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

Image result for "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet."

Famous Quote: “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”

It’s usually just the last couple lines here that are quoted, usually to describe two things that, you know, won’t ever meet.  Memorable instances are from Raising Arizona (“There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet,”) and the first episode of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, if anyone cares at all about that.

The problem is that Kipling isn’t just being sarcastic here — it’s blatantly obvious that within the context of the poem this is just a straw man argument, and only stated at all so he can immediately point out why that statement doesn’t apply.

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

In addition to having some confusions about how capitalization works (silly nineteenth century, amirite?), Kipling is taking the blatant stance that colonialism pretty much rules and East and West are going to meet pretty hard despite all that physics stuff.

3.  Robert Frost, Mending Wall

Image result for "Good fences make good neighbors."

Famous Quote: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Hey Robby Frost, good to see you on this list again.  Privacy is the theme this time, and while the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” is not quite so famous as some others (though you’ve certainly heard it), Mending Wall gets launched up to number 3 on this list for one simple reason: it’s misunderstood by federal law.

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

That’s United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, literally creating hard law from thin air, and not understanding the thing he’s talking about.

Mending Wall does include the line “good fences make good neighbors,” but it also paints the character speaking that line as a bit of a twit.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall… (nature) sends the frozen groundswell under it.”  The poem tells a story of two neighbors with a wall between them, but every winter the wall falls apart, so the neighbors have to meet and mend the wall, spending more time together than they otherwise would have and growing increasingly frustrated with the each other.

Remember that the Supreme Court has nine justices, and at least one (Stephen Breyer) actually pointed out the error in his concurring opinion, but Scalia decided to leave the mistake in anyway.

2.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Image result for 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…"

Famous Quote: …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…”

We’re not going to put the whole quote up there because Nietzsche was a philosopher and therefore pretty longwinded, but we’ve highlighted the important parts.  Or rather, we’ve highlighted the parts that the Nazis thought were important, when they were all Nazi-ing around and committing the first ever industrialized genocide, trying to live up to the standards that Nietzsche, apparently, set for them.

The problem is that’s not what Nietzsche meant at all.  The original quote ends like this: “the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings — they all shared this need.”  Everyone’s a blond beast because blond beasts are a metaphor for lions.

So if you’re going to use a philosopher as the backbone of your political movement, you might want to make sure you finish reading his sentence before you get the war machine up and running.  Also, the fact that you thought he was advocating genocide was probably a pretty good hint that you shouldn’t have been listening to him anyway.

You stupid Nazis.

1.  William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Famous Quote: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

This is definitely the most quoted line in all of English literature, so much so that you’ve probably seen it as a parody more often that you’ve seen it written out straight — for example, “Shall I compare thee to a bale of hay.”  It’s one of the few poems that is just so cliché that, if a guy recited it to his girlfriend on a date, even the most love-sick of recipients would roll their eyes in disgust.

But when Shakespeare’s talking about “love,” he’s not talking about romantic love or feminine beauty– the first 126 sonnets in Shakespeare’s work are generally understood to be addressed towards a man, and many of the surrounding pieces are actually encouraging procreation.  Shakespeare isn’t wooing a beautiful woman; he’s telling a wealthy young ponz exactly what he wants to hear: that he’s just so damn sexy that it’d be pretty much the worst thing in the world if he didn’t have kids.

So if you’re a lady reading this, if any guy offers to compare you to a summer’s day, say “no, ’cause I’m not a dude.”  If you’re a guy, don’t offer to compare your lady to a summer’s day.  If you’re a man whose wife is trying to convince you that it’s time to have kids then…uh, that’s actually fine.  Nicely done.

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  1. Whoever made this, I love you! LOL. I love the “Wherefore are thou, Romeo” part. It makes me laugh.

  2. I’m not sure about this whole post and don’t care enough to discuss but whoever Dennis is, you made my little piece of Australia giggle hysterically tonight, thank you 🙂

  3. Shocked that with all the misused and misunderstood Shakespeare lines on here, “The world is my oyster…” doesn’t make an appearance.

      • The common usage of the phrase completely ignores the line that follows it:

        I will not lend thee a penny.

        Why then the world’s mine oyster,
        Which I with sword will open.

        This is not some ambiguous sentiment; it is an overt and threatening one. Shakespeare chooses the image of the oyster not simply because of pearl inside, but also because it was traditionally opened with a blade. It may be an image of readily-available wealth, but it is money to be specifically gained through violent means.

  4. When Ben franklin said,”time is money” he did not mean that “time” was literally money. That would be silly–Ben simply meant that if you buy a clock you will have to pay for it.

  5. one more to the list :-Friedrich Nietzsche – “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” The above quote has got nothing to do with carefree dancing as much as it has to do with people who are gripped with passion n fervour n love n forget the nearby society n its stupid rules !!!

    • “as it has to do with people who are gripped with passion n fervour n love n forget the nearby society n its stupid rules !!!”
      And just look at the sad irony of those that misappropriated so much of his work.

  6. I would have added “To sleep, perchance to dream” from Hamlet to this list.

    So many times I have seen people quote this when saying goodnight, but I doubt they understand the true meaning.

    The whole soliloquy is about Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, and the sleep to which he refers is death. He is then concerned that if he does kill himself and “sleep” he will be troubled by ongoing visions haunting him.

    Not quite the sleep and dreams that those using the phrase intend.

  7. I don’t agree that “The Road Not Taken” is misunderstood due to your proof found in the second stanza.
    When examining the lines “Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same” , one could also make an argument that, because the one path was “grassy and wanted wear”, the “equal wear” could mean the lack of wear. Since it is an unreliable narrator, we do not know if the narrator is the one who did not make the paths worn paths, of if society did not make the paths worn paths. If the narrator did not travel either path, then both paths were worn about the same, and this is in the sense that neither were traveled enough by the narrator for him to know which to take. But since one had more grass on it, it seemed to have called to the narrator more than the other. That is the counterpoint to your argument, and since there is this counterpoint, does that mean this poem has been misunderstood to begin with? Just a thought. (In addition to the argument about “regret” posted above.)

  8. Also, with “Romeo and Juliet”, “Wherefore thou art” is very misunderstood. Not meaning, where are you, but, why are you. Perhaps this should replace the “Frost” quote. Again, just a thought.

  9. I agree that the Lewis Carol line is misunderstood, but not for the reason that you claimed it be misunderstood for. Yes, there is a sense of sarcasm in the Duchess’s voice, however, it should be obvious that she is sarcastic to the reader. I think what is misunderstood is that love is indeed that actual focus of this part of “The Mock Turtle’s Story”. But rather the focus concerns a sense of order in the world, which then, in turn, falls back to your valid point of mathematics. Love, therefore, is a red herring. And perhaps those who quote this quote, might actually be using it in a sarcastic sense, and yet others do actually misunderstood the meaning. But, as I said, love is not the main focus of this section of the story. Lewis Carol loved children, and also used his college and the surrounding town as part influence to his work.

  10. As for “to thine own self be true”, yes, Laertes should roll his eyes, but partly because his father is going on and on, but also because he is a typical young man. Shakespeare knew this, and knew that often fathers dish out more advice then needed. But what came first, the cliches or did Shakespeare coin the phrases? Was Shakespeare actually passionate about the relationship between a father and a son, or lack of, in this point? Couldn’t have been that Hamlet wished his father was around to give such advice, and even beyond that, advice of how to frame his Uncle? So, therefore, is this line actually misunderstood, or more misused?