Titles Borrowed From Shakespeare

The better part of this section has been devoted to Shakespeare’s influence on our everyday speech. Now we turn to more self-conscious attempts to be catchy or literary or profound or commercial—sometimes all at once. Authors of all kinds have, like everyone else, turned to the Bard in a pinch; but sometimes they end up quoting him just because his language has so thoroughly permeated both written and spoken English that we almost breathe Shakespeare.

It’s quite natural for catchy phrases to turn themselves into titles somewhere along the line—Shakespeare himself capitalized on few, including “all’s well that ends well” and “much ado about nothing.” The literary wheel has come full circle (King Lear) as Shakespeare’s works have gradually become a vast public domain of catch phrases and poetic profundities. Indeed, why cudgel thy brains (Hamlet) when a time-tested title is ready to hand? From headlines to best-sellers to corporate reports, no written matter seems safe from a Shakespearean reference, intentional or otherwise.

I had originally hoped to provide a list of all the book titles pilfered from the Bard. As it turns out, only a madman would try to exhaustively catalogue such a list; this madman gave up after about five hundred of them. A true embarrassment of riches; if I needed any convincing not to call this book Dressing Old Worlds New (“Sonnet 76”) or Caviar to the General (Hamlet), that did it. So I borrowed from Cole Porter instead, whose song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is the showstopper of the 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate. (But there’s no escape: the title of the musical is itself a quotation from the play it adapts: The Taming of the Shrew.)

O, How the Bard Becomes It

Borrowing leads to more borrowings. Referring to the Bard is like eating potato chips: once you start, it’s hard to stop. In this regard, Aldous Huxley ranks as one of the biggest gluttons; he dipped his hand into Shakespeare’s bag at least seven times. Huxley could compass both the most patent of thefts (like 1922’s Mortal Coils, from Hamlet) and the most furtive (like 1944’s Time Must Have a Stop, from Henry the Fourth, Part 1).

Of course, Shakespeare loses nothing by it—in fact, he profits. Miranda’s naïve exclamation “O brave new world!” (The Tempest) didn’t often leap off anyone’s tongue until Huxley transformed it into the standard epithet for technological dystopia with his 1932 novel Brave New World. The success of this grim volume prompted the already all-too-willing Huxley to appropriate the line once again—for Brave New World Revisited (1958) —but by then he’d made the phrase his own.

Yet once a second generation of borrowers moved in on Huxley’s territory, even the moderate initiative involved in appropriating “brave new world” straight out of The Tempest dissipated into reflex, if not into parody. Witness Robert Cooke’s relatively early rerun, Improving on Nature: The Brave New World of Genetic Engineering (1977) and Grant Fjermedal’s more recent, and more hair-raising, The Tomorrow Makers: A Brave New World of Living Brain Machines (1986). Although these latter-day Cassandras probably had Huxley’s books foremost in mind, we brushed-up readers are prepared to remit a royalty to the Swan of Avon.

Of course, most authors who have swiped a few telling words from the Bard had already brushed up their Shakespeare thoroughly and wanted their readers to know it. D. H. Lawrence, for example, resorts to one of the most obvious of scenes for the short-story title “This Mortal Coil” (from Hamlet). Ingmar Bergman likewise goes where the action is— Julius Caesar —to title his film about a trapeze artist The Serpent’s Egg (1977). Anyone who would call a book O How the Wheel Becomes It (Anthony Powell, 1983—from Hamlet) or a story “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” (Thomas Pynchon, 1959—from Measure for Measure) assumes, perhaps too charitably, that everyone will recognize the Shakespearean provenance. And in a typical move, Vladimir Nabokov coyly plundered one of Shakespeare’s least-read plays, Timon of Athens, for the title Pale Fire (1962) —perhaps to prove that he was more brushed-up than thou.

The list of writers who turned to Shakespeare for help reads like a literary honor roll. It’s hard to know exactly what Charles Dickens had in mind when he called his weekly journal Household Words (published from 1980 to 1859), but the phrase seems to originate in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth. Nonstop Victorian novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret, derived the title of her Taken at the Flood (no date) from Cassius’s famous speech in Julius Caesar (Agatha Christie caught the same wave in 1948); Frederick Forsyth casts his log with Cassius’s nemesis Marc Antony when he calls down The Dogs of War (1974). Davie Halberstam quotes Antony’s fellow-in-arms and future nemesis Octavius with The Noblest Roman (1961). Ogden Nash resorted to Hamlet for The Primrose Path (1935), borrowing the line from Ophelia. Echoing one of Prince Hamlet’s more famous speeches, Archibald Macdonnell exclaims How Like an Angel (1935), and Rex Stout replies How Like a God (1929).

Joyce Carol Oates imagines Marc Antony’s New Heaven, New Earth (1974, from Antony and Cleopatra); she forgets Godfrey W. Mathews’s reminder that there are More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio (1934, from Hamlet). John Steinbeck turned to Richard the Third for The Winter of Our Discontent (1961); Dorothy Parker found Not So Deep as a Well (1936) in Romeo and Juliet, the same play Ford Madox Ford plumbed for It Was the Nightingale (1933). For his collection of essays W. H. Auden looked to Shakespeare’s pessimistic “Sonnet 111” for the title The Dyer’s Hand (1962).

The majority of Bard-pillagers—including the fifteen authors I found who called their books What’s in a Name? —welcome the literary association. In other cases, I have some doubts. If twenty-six writers, including at least six poets, proudly name their offspring Full Circle, chances are that more than a few are oblivious to the origin of the phrase in King Lear. Of course, no one could have had originality chiefly in mind when they hit upon Full Circle anyway. Sir Edward Elgar must have been mulling over Othello when he composed “Pomp and Circumstance” in 1901, or Elisabeth duchesse de Clermont-Tonnere (1929)? Did they advert to the Moor’s tragedy, or Elgar’s melody?

To Guard a Title that Was Rich Before

One glimpses an almost Darwinian pattern in the evolution of some Shakespearean titles—the daring initial appropriation is gradually, through the generations, domesticated as a distinct species. Perhaps C. K. Scott Moncrieff should have seen this coming when he took a line from “Sonnet 30” for his 1922 translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Remembrance of Things Past has cozily settled into its niche as the instantly literary title for sentimental commemorative volumes and nostalgic memoirs—by, for example, John Howard (1925), Sir Henry Studdy Theobald (1935), and, in these more unsentimental times, F. F. Bruce (1980). We shouldn’t forget to mention New Zealand’s contribution to the genre, Remembrance of Things Past: Solway College Golden Jubilee, 1966. A long ways from Marcel’s alma mater. As with Huxley, the credit goes neither to Moncrieff nor Shakespeare; but without that sonnet, we would be reading “In Search of Lost Time” and Proust would no doubt be even less widely read than he is now.

Every editorial page editor owes Shakespeare thanks for coining “What’s past is prologue” (The Tempest) —“Past and prologue,” for short. But so do institutions, who, if they could be said to have a favorite line, go for this one and all the time. If I were a corporation poised at a historic juncture, I’d use it too. Mills College, in Oakland, California, seems to be the pioneer here, having published in 1951 its self-celebrating “What’s Past Is Prologue”: 1852-1952, a Century of Education. The quotation marks around the borrowing indicate a level of self-awareness and candor that was to disappear as quickly from the species as it evolved. When the American Association of Social Workers published its tome What’s Past Is Prologue in 1955, the phrase had ceased to be a direct quotation and had become instead a kind of institutionalized formula. The American Civil Liberties Union briefly reverted back to quotation with its Constitutional Liberty: “The Past Is Prologue” (1958), but the use of quotation marks around a misquotation perhaps served as a negative example for posterity. Thus the unregenerate misquotation of The Past Is Prologue…Human Welfare in the Next Half Century (1964), a report sponsored by the American Federation for the Blind. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., adopts the phrase to lend a cultured air to his Past Is Prologue: A Centennial Portrait of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company (1968), and he’s joined by Wilfred A. Clarke in his History of the Bank of Mexico: The Past Is Prologue (1972). The centennial/semicentennial theme has by this point become inevitable, and the U.S. Highway Research Board follows suit in Past and Prologue: The First Fifty Years (1972), a title illustrating the final mutation of the phrase into the form we know from today’s editorial pages.

Some Are Born Great, Some Achieve Greatness, and Some Have Greatness Thrust upon Them

Shakespeare is prime hunting ground for memoirists, who perhaps hope to register their names in the same immortal rolls as Hamlet and Macbeth. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., looks back on The Salad Days (1988, from Antony and Cleopatra), as does Francoise Sagan (1984, English title). “One man in his time” (As You Like It) is particularly popular among biographers and autobiographers, who include Maud Skinner (1938), Nikolai Borodin (1955), Serge Oblensky (1958), Phyllis Lean (1964), Alick West (1985), Marjorie Bishop (1979), and G. B. Harrison (1985). And if you’re writing a flattering portrait of a monarch, what title could be more convenient then Every Inch a King, borrowed from King Lear? Princess Pilar of Bavaria and Major Desmond Chapman-Huston teamed up in 1932 to bestow this epithet upon King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Sergio Correa da Costa (or rather, his translator) was unembarrassed to apply the same title to his 1950 biography of the equally incomparable Dom Pedro I, first emperor of Brazil. King Hussein of Jordan shunned this company, opting instead to title his English-language reflections Uneasy Lies the Head (1962), perhaps thinking the weary Henry IV a more apt model than the insane Lear.

Whoever Herbert Chauncey was, we know from the biography by Sir Arthur Hallam Elton (Baronet) that he was Herbert Chauncey: A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning (1860, from King Lear). Roy Struben reports that an obscure relative was Taken at the Flood (1968, from Julius Caesar), also the title of another biography by John Gunther (1960). Sir John Rothstein set forth his life under the title Summer’s Lease (1965, from “Sonnet 18”). For his own memoirs, Vincent Massey resorted to the by-then-familiar What’s Past is Prologue (1963).

Critics and biographers who specialize in Tortured Artist figures instinctively turn to Hamlet, and home in on Polonius’s assessment of the prince’s ranting: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Act 2, scene1). It turns out that almost exactly the same could be applied to numerous latter-day literary figures—witness Harvey Eagleson’s “Gertrude Stein” Method in Madness” (1936), Edward Butscher’s Silvia Plath, Method and Madness (1976), Roger S. Platizky’s A Blueprint of His Dissent: Madness and Method in Tennyson’s Poetry (1989), and, with an interesting twist, Carol Becker’s Edgar Allan Poe: The Madness of the Method (1975).

But writers aren’t the only ones beset by schizoid tendencies; it’s only just that, since Shakespeare was an actor and producer as well as a dramatic poet, actors and producers should get to share in Hamlet’s condition. Dick Atkins first ventured this observation in Method to the Madness: Hollywood Explained (1975), and he was echoed by Maurice Yacowar, in Method in Madness: The Art of Mel Brooks (1981). Foster Hirsch shuns Hollywood to give “real” actors their due in A Method to their Madness: A History of the Actors Studio (1984). Those crazy artists!

Thankfully, not all creative minds are driven to despair. Other authors rush in to assure us that some famous literary figures were real family men and women. Leonard and Virginia Woolf, for example, made for A Marriage of True Minds, or so we are told by George Spater and Ian Parsons (1977, from “Sonnet 116”). N. Brysson Morrison presents True Minds: The Marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle (1974).

One Title in Its Time Plays Many Parts

Leaving the fertile field of literary madness, method, and marriage to others, some authors prefer to follow in Shakespeare’s dramaturgical footsteps, and they want us to know with whom they associate themselves. In this genre falls the earliest instance of a Shakespearean title I could find: playwright Isaac Jackman’s All the World’s a Stage (1777, from As You Like It). Another eighteenth century testament to the Bard’s long shadow is Frederick Reynolds’s play Fortune’s Fool (1796, from Romeo and Juliet). A certain Benjamin Webster staged his One Touch of Nature (from Troilus and Cressida) sometimes in the nineteenth century, and George Brookes’s own All the World’s a Stage may also date from this era. We may more precisely place Thomas J. Williams’s play Cruel to be Kind (1850, from Hamlet).

(Hamlet’s dubious apology to his mother was picked up 128 years later by pop tunesmith Nick Lowe, whose “Cruel to be Kind” turned up as the flip-side of the single “Little Hitler.” Another late-seventies rock act, Blondie, also plumbed Shakespeare for the punning title of their recent greatest-hits package, Once More into the Bleach [1989] —from Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach.”)

Upton Sinclair wrote a little-known play called A Giant’s Strength (from Measure for Measure) in 1948; that same year, Florence Ryerson and Colin Clements staged Strange Bedfellows (from The Tempest), just as the original version of Kiss Me Kate was being written. The fifties seem to have been a dead time for Shakespeare-inspired play titles, but there was a revival of the fad in the 1960’s which saw the production of the musical Salad Days by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds (1961, from Antony and Cleopatra), Louis D’Alton’s Lovers’ Meeting (1963, from Twelfth Night), and, most famous of all, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967, from Hamlet).

Time’s Thievish Progress to Eternity

Writers looking for that inspiring touch of the grandiose and the ominous often bestir themselves no further than the nearest Shakespeare tragedy. Duncan Williams didn’t have to look far for his To Be or Not to Be: A Question of Survival (1974). Marcia Millman needed a bloodier image for her The Unkindest Cut: Life in the Backrooms of Medicine (1978, from Julius Caesar). ABC television sent chills up and down our spines with their Macbeth-inspired expose, “Asbestos: The Way to Dusty Death” (The Wide World of Learning, 1978). H. C. Witwer, on the other hand, cleverly reworks Othello’s last words while rescuing a cool-headed heroine from the jaws of terror in Love and Learn: The Story of a Telephone Girl Who Loved Not Too Well, but Wisely (1924).

Perhaps most theftworthy of all is Macbeth’s great speech from Act 5, scene 5 [see TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW]. William Faulkner quotes this bleak little passage with the title of his well-known 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury. Though he was actually beaten to the punch by James Henle, who published Sound and Fury in 1924, Faulkner infused new vigor into the dismemberment of Macbeth’s speech. Sound and Fury itself continued to be popular—Jackson Wright (1938), Francis Chase, Jr. (1942), Maurice Gorham (1948), and Warner Troyer (1980) all used some version of the phrase. The line continues to nobly serve as the title of Esquire magazine’s monthly letters-to-the-editor column.

From other lines in the same speech, we have numerous versions of Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and two books (including one by the unstoppable Huxley) which go the whole way: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. This Petty Pace was wittily appropriated by the artist Mary Petty for her 1945 collection of drawings. Like Tomorrow and Tomorrow, the title All Our Yesterdays seems to be popular in science fiction circles, probably because of the Star Trek episode of that title. Jean Lissette Aroeste in fact adapted the popular teledrama as All Our Yesterdays: A Star Trek Fotonovel in 1978; John Peel caught on to the nostalgia in 1985 with his All Our Yesterdays; The Star Trek Files. Frank and Arthur Woodford lodge an entry with what may or may not be a work of science fiction, All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit (1969).

Alastair MacLean plumbed Macbeth’s speech for The Way to Dusty Death (1973), though his novel has nothing to do with asbestos. We’ve found two other authors besides Huxley who lighted on Brief Candles; three have availed themselves of the proximate Walking Shadows. Rose Macaulay wrote a tale, but not Told by an Idiot, in 1923. Malcolm Evans published Signifying Nothing in 1986 and was echoed a year later by Brian Rotman with Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero.

Besides All Our Yesterdays and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, a few other lines have lent themselves to science fiction. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962, also from Macbeth) may be the most famous, but Philip Dick’s Time out of Joint (1959, from Hamlet), and by Zdenek Jan Vaclavik’s gripping The Method in the Madness: A Unitary Neuro-Physiological Theory of Neurosis and Psychosis (1961). Scholars of a popular pseudoscience edited a collection with the interest-piquing title Economics: Myth, Method, or Madness? (1971), if just to show that artists and neuro-physiologists have no corner on that market.

How Every Fool Can Play upon the Word

Every field, it seems, has its literary-minded advocates and detractors. Etiquette is no exception, as someone known only as “the Lounger in Society” manifested by publishing a guide-book called, naturally enough, The Glass of Fashion (1881, from Hamlet). Two of Shakespeare’s most famous loungers have inspired festive-sounding publications. W. S. Maugham visits Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night for Cakes and Ale (1930). The obscure Herman Fetzer takes on the guise of another gastronome and writes Pippins and Cheese (1960, from The Merry Wives of Windsor) under the pseudonym “Jake Falstaff.”

If you’re thinking of inviting Toby of Jake over for a dinner party, you might want to have a few useful culinary guides on hand: Greta Hilb’s For Goodness Sake! (1964, from Henry the Eighth), Alice H. Regis’s Cakes and Ale: The Ultimate Food Glossary (1988, from Twelfth Night), and The San Diego, California, All Saints Church’s Sweets for the Sweet Tooth (no date, from Hamlet).

If, on the other hand, you find yourself at a professional establishment, you might want to investigate the sociology of interactions between customers and the hired help, as analyzed in William R. Scott’s The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America (1916, from Julius Caesar).

As in the social realm, writers concerned with politics have benefited from having Shakespeare’s plays at hand in a pinch. When the Inns of Court Conservative and Unionist Society published its perhaps not intrinsically gripping ruminations on the state of labor, it turned to Measure for Measure for the title A Giant’s Strength: Some Thoughts on the Constitutional and Legal Position of the trade Unions in England (1958). Gertrude Stein, Mel Brooks, neuro-physiology, and economics have a companion in one nation-state, as John Kane-Berman describes it in South Africa: The Method in the Madness (1978). South Africa is not alone among nations in being honored (or dishonored) by association with the Bard; Mabel Segun adopts Marc Anthony’s deathless words for her Friends, Nigerians, Countrymen (1977, from Julius Caesar), and she is joined by Hampton Howard in his recent Friends, Russians, Countrymen (1988).

Thou Com’st in Such a Questionable Shape

Speaking of Russia, Yuri Glazov poses a vexing question indeed in his To Be or Not to Be in the Party: Communist Party Membership in the USSR (also 1988). The same passage in Hamlet left to the mind of the translator of Hans Christian Anderson’s To Be or Not to Be? (translated 1857). To Be or Not to Be a Jew ponders Milton Steinberg (1950), but much more crucial is Claudia de Lys’s query To Be or Not to Be a Virgin (1960) — that is the question.

Kill All the Lawyers? asks Sloan Bashinsky in a study subtitled A Client’s Guide to Hiring, Firing Using and Suing Lawyers (1986) from Henry the Sixth, Part 2). The subtitle already answers the question, and the formula is repeated by Peter Bragdon. “What’s in a Name?” he inquires in the December 19, 1987 issue of Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report; “For Consultants, Much Cash” (from Romeo and Juliet). Less easily solved is James R. Carroll’s poser, “Wherefore Art Thou, Jerry Brown?” (in California Journal, Nov. 1985) — for now, at least, he is reportedly in charge of the California Democratic party. The organization OMB Watch, which keeps its eye on the federal Office of Management and Budget, doesn’t stop to ask questions, but flatly declares FY 89 Budget: The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of (1988, misquoting The Tempest).

All Thy Other Titles Thou Hast Given Away

If you happen to be keeping score, Aldous Huxley emerges from this match the champ. The seven swipes I’ve been able to verify include Mortal Coils (1922, from Hamlet), Brief Candles (1930, from Macbeth), Brave New World (1932, from The Tempest), Time Must Have a Stop (1944, from Henry the Fourth, Part 1), Ape and Essence (1948, from Measure for Measure), Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1958, from Macbeth), and Brave New World Revisited (also 1958). Left in the dust are William Dean Howells (score: 4) and the only other serious contender, the Nietzchean literary critic G. Wilson Knight (score: 5, further research pending). Though I continue to enumerate, log, and list, these three are nevertheless safely dead: the field is now wide open for any and all contenders. Pass the chips—the fun is just beginning.