Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Curious Case of the Misquoted Shakespeare

Zut! Monsieur Fran├žois Hollande, the socialist candidate running for president in La Douce France, cited Shakespeare during his first major political rally.

The quote is “They failed, because they did not start with the dream”. Needless to say, English and French journalists were trying to find the play it came from.

The problem is that (according to a French newspaper), the quote is from Nicholas Shakespeare, a distant descendent of The Bard. Nicholas is a novelist and credit at the Daily Telegraph. He wrote several books, including a biography of Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) who wrote 'In Patagonia'.

Nicholas confirmed that the quote was taken from his own novel 'The Vision of Elena Silves' (1989). In this novel, the words are spoken by the protagonist Gabriel, a Maoist revolutionary who joins the Peruvian terror group Sendero Luminoso.

But the story does not end there......the next day, Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in the Telegraph that he had combed through his own novel, but was unable to find the quote!

Toby Manhire of the New Zealand Listener decided to enter the quote in French as cited by Hollande into Google. Search results included several attributions to Shakespeare, including one that (incorrectly) states that the phrase comes from Hamlet.

So what did really happen? Quite likely, two separate quotes were mashed. As Antonia Bland pointed out in The Week, it’s a mix of William Shakespeare’s quote from Hamlet: “The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream” and the Anatole France quote “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe”.

But in the end, it was a powerful quote...that gave Hollande lots of PR!