More honored in the breach
TO THE MANNER BORN
[A flourish of trumpets, and two pieces goes off]
What does this mean, my lord?
The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Is it a custom?
Hamlet:Hamlet Act 1, scene 4, 7–16
Ay, marry, is't,
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honor'd in the breach than the observance,
Outside the castle with Hamlet, nervously anticipating the reappearance of a ghost, Horatio is startled by a flourish of trumpets and the firing of cannons. Hamlet contemptuously explains the uproar as merely accompaniment to King Claudius's drunken toasts ("pledges") over Rhenish wine.
But it isn't only the king's custom to revel and carouse (to take his "rouse" and keep "wassail") late a-nights; it's the national custom, the "manner" of the people. Hamlet has adopted the English view: Danes, and Dutchmen, are regularly portrayed in Renaissance drama as constitutional soakers. Where Shakespeare seems amused, Hamlet is disgusted. The prince finds the manner to which he was born dishonorable, a national blight. Since Hamlet coined it, the phrase has come to refer to the manner not of a people but of a class—especially of the upper class. "Manner" is nearly a synonym of "manners," and what was to Hamlet's mind an insult has become a badge of distinction. I'm reminded of the British situation comedy, To the Manor Born.MORE HONORED IN THE BREACH
Since, to Hamlet's mind, native customs ought to bring honor on a people, it would be more honorable to forego was-sail and "up-spring reels." These customs are, as he puts it, "more honor'd in the breach than in the observance"—breaking tradition is in this case more honorable than observing it. His words have since been twisted around. Today we mean something like "more often disregarded than adhered to," perhaps taking "honor'd" to mean "observed" (as one "honors" tradition or "honors" a contract). But Hamlet's point is that the custom is observed too often, denigrating its observers rather than conferring honor on them.