Quick Shakespeare Lesson for the Troglodytes

Also Didn't Know His Shakespeare

Also Didn't Know His Shakespeare

I’ve heard more than five market commentators, talking heads, politicians and reporters misuse the phrase “Now is the winter of our discontent,” over the last few weeks and I thought I’d take a quick moment to lend a hand to my less literate contemporaries.

The only thing I hate more than someone randomly or pretensiously quoting Shakespeare is someone doing so without a clue as to what they’re talking about.  Wow, I sound pretty pretentious now, too…or at least pedantic.  Too late, I started already.

The line “Now is the winter of our discontent” is the opening phrase of William Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Believe it or not, this is actually not a dire or bleak observation that Richard is making.  He is actually using “Winter” as an evocation of the end of something, in this case, his family’s unhappiness.  The rest of the stanza will illuminate this truth for even the most casual reader:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Richard is referring to his brother, Edward IV, when he talks of “this sun of York“, as Edward has just successfully taken the crown from Henry VI and the House of Lancaster.  The gist of this monologue is that the clouds are clearing up and the unpleasantness for Richard’s family is coming to an end.  Of course, Richard is tortured for the rest of the play, but that’s neither here nor there.  The winter of our discontent speech is meant to be taken as an uplifting one.

The incorrect usages of this phrase that keep popping up center around the mistaken belief that the winter of our discontent line is meant to be ominous or dark, to signify that we are in the thick of the awfulness.  I’ll give you a for instance:

Reporter 1: What’s the mood out there amongst the auto parts suppliers in the Detroit area?

Reporter 2: Well, certainly there is a sense of this being the winter of our discontent, with mounting job losses on the horizon for many in the industry.

Right.  So if you knew your Shakespeare, you’d realize that you just made the opposite point you were aiming for.  Stay in Detroit, Reporter #2, you could be their mascot.

It seems that more and more pundits and journalists these days deliver bad news on a company or sector using the winter line. 

TV personalities and market commentators aren’t the only ones to get this thing wrong.  In the 1993 film Reality Bites, there’s a scene where Ethan Hawke‘s disaffected slacker character (named Troy Dyer…clever, non?) answers their home phone with “Hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent…”.

He clearly thinks he’s being suitably slackerish and negative but in reality, he is unwittingly making the statement that things are about to get better, that Spring is headed his way.  I guess he’s accidentally right, as shortly after he ends up with Winona Ryder‘s tongue in his mouth.  No discontent there!

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful to those who’ve continuously misused Richard III’s catchphrase.  Sorry for being such a d#$% about it.

What's been said:

Discussions found on the web
  1. Willshill commented on May 29

    Just curious–when was it that the Bureau of Interpretation Police instituted the Rule of Singularly Correct Analysis? The long line of Professional Critics, they who “deduce” for their supper, had better quickly find a new line of work or starve, since they almost never agree two at once.

    During the plague years of 1592-94, the theatres were closed the majority of the time.
    I wonder if on the road to some provincial stop near nowhere, Burbage (who played Richard) might have uttered the line thus: “NOW is the WINTER of OUR Discontent.” ? I suppose Will might have been quick to pull him up short for that transgression–Not.

  2. Willshill commented on May 29

    Just curious–when was it that the Bureau of Interpretation Police instituted the Rule of Singularly Correct Analysis? The long line of Professional Critics, they who “deduce” for their supper, had better quickly find a new line of work or starve, since they almost never agree two at once.

    During the plague years of 1592-94, the theatres were closed the majority of the time.
    I wonder if on the road to some provincial stop near nowhere, Burbage (who played Richard) might have uttered the line thus: “NOW is the WINTER of OUR Discontent.” ? I suppose Will might have been quick to pull him up short for that transgression–Not.

  3. Willshill commented on May 29

    Just curious–when was it that the Bureau of Interpretation Police instituted the Rule of Singularly Correct Analysis? The long line of Professional Critics, they who “deduce” for their supper, had better quickly find a new line of work or starve, since they almost never agree two at once.

    During the plague years of 1592-94, the theatres were closed the majority of the time.
    I wonder if on the road to some provincial stop near nowhere, Burbage (who played Richard) might have uttered the line thus: “NOW is the WINTER of OUR Discontent.” ? I suppose Will might have been quick to pull him up short for that transgression–Not.

  4. Joshua M Brown commented on May 29

    many of the Bard’s lines were ambiguous (by design), many weren’t…

    this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one, not one that denotes the degree of severity of the House of York’s discontent.

    thx for reading.

  5. Joshua M Brown commented on May 29

    many of the Bard’s lines were ambiguous (by design), many weren’t…

    this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one, not one that denotes the degree of severity of the House of York’s discontent.

    thx for reading.

  6. Joshua M Brown commented on May 29

    many of the Bard’s lines were ambiguous (by design), many weren’t…

    this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one, not one that denotes the degree of severity of the House of York’s discontent.

    thx for reading.

  7. Willshill commented on May 31

    Quote: “this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one”
    __________
    –“Tone”, “optimism”–these are descriptions of things singularly “chronological”? — having nothing to do with their opposites (“ominous”, “dark”), many times felt in “winter–time”? Tonal qualities of “winter–time” have nothing to do with “time” in this sense, but the tonal qualities of “summer-time” (optimism) do? How can we arbitrarily remove one “sense” of a time (a quality naturally associated with it) yet logically leave intact as an argument, another, opposite quality associated with another particular time? Are you saying that only one quantity may be qualified in this case?
    _______________

    Quote: “The incorrect usages of this phrase that keep popping up center around the mistaken belief that the winter of our discontent line is meant to be ominous or dark, to signify that we are in the thick of the awfulness. I’ll give you a for instance:
    Reporter 2: ‘Well, certainly there is a sense of this being the winter of our discontent, with mounting job losses on the horizon for many in the industry.’ ”

    ____________
    –In that case, what else then would the quoted reporter be referring to if not a particular Time Period Of Our Discontent; a time which embodies a well-known mood? (And he’s made absolutely no mention of a claim that he’s quoting from the play in exact context) He’s simply extrapolating on the idea–as is Richard III, by the way, and in the very same methodological sense –of a prevailing mood relative to a particular time; using “Winter” as a negative (“ominous or dark”), adjectival and antithetical opposition to BOTH the time and the typical mood generated by the instance of the time period known to all as ‘Summer’. He simultaneously refers to– without the dual reference having to be stated or ‘explained’–the common and contrasting moods, each having their nexus in, and to, a particular instance of TIME. This notion of a particular Time and its accompanying Tone is exactly what Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Richard; and had we caught Richard at some point DURING the Winter of his family’s discontent, he might have used the opening phrase in the very same context as the reporter. If not, then there would have been no need for the advent of a ‘glorious Summer’ to rescue anyone from an “ominous or dark” Time that had a beginning, middle, and end.
    That the descriptive feelings generated by this particular period of time (Winter) are just beginning, already in progress, or fizzling to their end; to whom, what, or where they’re attributed, and the mode and means of prosody employed in their attribution, is immaterial, and have no affect in altering the tenor of the conceptual and symbiotic duality of the metaphor’s qualities as it’s being applied. The simultaneous multiple and/or utilitarian application of a metaphor does not, either immediately or necessarily, indicate the presence of ‘ambiguity’ in its meaning. There is no ambiguity here–the qualities of metaphor, in this case mutually relative to the Tone of a particular Time, all point to common ground, are dependent upon one another, and maintain the validity of multiple/simultaneous usage and indicated resultant meaning over time because of their inherent and obvious universality. Contextually, they are used quite properly by the reporter, given the situation in which he finds himself. Why so hard on him?

  8. Willshill commented on May 31

    Quote: “this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one”
    __________
    –“Tone”, “optimism”–these are descriptions of things singularly “chronological”? — having nothing to do with their opposites (“ominous”, “dark”), many times felt in “winter–time”? Tonal qualities of “winter–time” have nothing to do with “time” in this sense, but the tonal qualities of “summer-time” (optimism) do? How can we arbitrarily remove one “sense” of a time (a quality naturally associated with it) yet logically leave intact as an argument, another, opposite quality associated with another particular time? Are you saying that only one quantity may be qualified in this case?
    _______________

    Quote: “The incorrect usages of this phrase that keep popping up center around the mistaken belief that the winter of our discontent line is meant to be ominous or dark, to signify that we are in the thick of the awfulness. I’ll give you a for instance:
    Reporter 2: ‘Well, certainly there is a sense of this being the winter of our discontent, with mounting job losses on the horizon for many in the industry.’ ”

    ____________
    –In that case, what else then would the quoted reporter be referring to if not a particular Time Period Of Our Discontent; a time which embodies a well-known mood? (And he’s made absolutely no mention of a claim that he’s quoting from the play in exact context) He’s simply extrapolating on the idea–as is Richard III, by the way, and in the very same methodological sense –of a prevailing mood relative to a particular time; using “Winter” as a negative (“ominous or dark”), adjectival and antithetical opposition to BOTH the time and the typical mood generated by the instance of the time period known to all as ‘Summer’. He simultaneously refers to– without the dual reference having to be stated or ‘explained’–the common and contrasting moods, each having their nexus in, and to, a particular instance of TIME. This notion of a particular Time and its accompanying Tone is exactly what Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Richard; and had we caught Richard at some point DURING the Winter of his family’s discontent, he might have used the opening phrase in the very same context as the reporter. If not, then there would have been no need for the advent of a ‘glorious Summer’ to rescue anyone from an “ominous or dark” Time that had a beginning, middle, and end.
    That the descriptive feelings generated by this particular period of time (Winter) are just beginning, already in progress, or fizzling to their end; to whom, what, or where they’re attributed, and the mode and means of prosody employed in their attribution, is immaterial, and have no affect in altering the tenor of the conceptual and symbiotic duality of the metaphor’s qualities as it’s being applied. The simultaneous multiple and/or utilitarian application of a metaphor does not, either immediately or necessarily, indicate the presence of ‘ambiguity’ in its meaning. There is no ambiguity here–the qualities of metaphor, in this case mutually relative to the Tone of a particular Time, all point to common ground, are dependent upon one another, and maintain the validity of multiple/simultaneous usage and indicated resultant meaning over time because of their inherent and obvious universality. Contextually, they are used quite properly by the reporter, given the situation in which he finds himself. Why so hard on him?

  9. Willshill commented on May 31

    Quote: “this speech was clearly meant to set the scene with a tone of optimism, thus I think the only acceptable interpretation of “winter” is a chronological one”
    __________
    –“Tone”, “optimism”–these are descriptions of things singularly “chronological”? — having nothing to do with their opposites (“ominous”, “dark”), many times felt in “winter–time”? Tonal qualities of “winter–time” have nothing to do with “time” in this sense, but the tonal qualities of “summer-time” (optimism) do? How can we arbitrarily remove one “sense” of a time (a quality naturally associated with it) yet logically leave intact as an argument, another, opposite quality associated with another particular time? Are you saying that only one quantity may be qualified in this case?
    _______________

    Quote: “The incorrect usages of this phrase that keep popping up center around the mistaken belief that the winter of our discontent line is meant to be ominous or dark, to signify that we are in the thick of the awfulness. I’ll give you a for instance:
    Reporter 2: ‘Well, certainly there is a sense of this being the winter of our discontent, with mounting job losses on the horizon for many in the industry.’ ”

    ____________
    –In that case, what else then would the quoted reporter be referring to if not a particular Time Period Of Our Discontent; a time which embodies a well-known mood? (And he’s made absolutely no mention of a claim that he’s quoting from the play in exact context) He’s simply extrapolating on the idea–as is Richard III, by the way, and in the very same methodological sense –of a prevailing mood relative to a particular time; using “Winter” as a negative (“ominous or dark”), adjectival and antithetical opposition to BOTH the time and the typical mood generated by the instance of the time period known to all as ‘Summer’. He simultaneously refers to– without the dual reference having to be stated or ‘explained’–the common and contrasting moods, each having their nexus in, and to, a particular instance of TIME. This notion of a particular Time and its accompanying Tone is exactly what Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Richard; and had we caught Richard at some point DURING the Winter of his family’s discontent, he might have used the opening phrase in the very same context as the reporter. If not, then there would have been no need for the advent of a ‘glorious Summer’ to rescue anyone from an “ominous or dark” Time that had a beginning, middle, and end.
    That the descriptive feelings generated by this particular period of time (Winter) are just beginning, already in progress, or fizzling to their end; to whom, what, or where they’re attributed, and the mode and means of prosody employed in their attribution, is immaterial, and have no affect in altering the tenor of the conceptual and symbiotic duality of the metaphor’s qualities as it’s being applied. The simultaneous multiple and/or utilitarian application of a metaphor does not, either immediately or necessarily, indicate the presence of ‘ambiguity’ in its meaning. There is no ambiguity here–the qualities of metaphor, in this case mutually relative to the Tone of a particular Time, all point to common ground, are dependent upon one another, and maintain the validity of multiple/simultaneous usage and indicated resultant meaning over time because of their inherent and obvious universality. Contextually, they are used quite properly by the reporter, given the situation in which he finds himself. Why so hard on him?

  10. Joshua M Brown commented on May 31

    “because of their inherent and obvious universality”

    time and tone are not universal in either this metaphor or anywhere else in literature or on earth, unless they are meant to be. There is nothing “inherent” or “obvious” about their universality in this example.

    Rather, tone is what the reporters are mistaking for time in Richard’s metaphor.

    that said, your comment was the most interesting on this blog in awhile.

    as to my harsh treatment of the reporter in my example? That’s my raison d’etre.

    Thanks!

  11. Joshua M Brown commented on May 31

    “because of their inherent and obvious universality”

    time and tone are not universal in either this metaphor or anywhere else in literature or on earth, unless they are meant to be. There is nothing “inherent” or “obvious” about their universality in this example.

    Rather, tone is what the reporters are mistaking for time in Richard’s metaphor.

    that said, your comment was the most interesting on this blog in awhile.

    as to my harsh treatment of the reporter in my example? That’s my raison d’etre.

    Thanks!

  12. Joshua M Brown commented on May 31

    “because of their inherent and obvious universality”

    time and tone are not universal in either this metaphor or anywhere else in literature or on earth, unless they are meant to be. There is nothing “inherent” or “obvious” about their universality in this example.

    Rather, tone is what the reporters are mistaking for time in Richard’s metaphor.

    that said, your comment was the most interesting on this blog in awhile.

    as to my harsh treatment of the reporter in my example? That’s my raison d’etre.

    Thanks!

  13. Willshill commented on May 31

    hey, Thanks for the kudos.
    I still, however, must disagree on a couple of other counts. The strength of my disagreement has had the curious effect as to cause a spontaneous pentamerous poetic eruption. Simple, no doubt in its construction; less humble, we hope, in its aim at elucidation:

    Not unlike in their power to arouse;
    The glorious summer sunlight speaketh fair,
    With equal pow’r clouds low’r upon our house,
    So, dark and gloom of winter doth compare.

    –A conceptual duality as old as spoken and written word; yet as young to some as today’s first utterance by a child.
    GoodTIMES=bright; sunny;warm; positive= SummerTIME. Bad TIMES=dark; gloomy; cold; negative=WinterTIME.

    There’s a good chance that some of the ALL TIME greatest writers of literature, verse, and song– throughout history–just might argue the case for the obvious TIMELESSness inherent in these two very common and oft-recurring metaphoric connections. It’s tonality is very basic in concept–elementary in fact. It’s the way Nature speaks to us through our somewhat feeble powers of perception. Simple, but so unmistakably accurate as to be universal in its ability to be innately observed — by some of us anyway 🙂

  14. Willshill commented on May 31

    hey, Thanks for the kudos.
    I still, however, must disagree on a couple of other counts. The strength of my disagreement has had the curious effect as to cause a spontaneous pentamerous poetic eruption. Simple, no doubt in its construction; less humble, we hope, in its aim at elucidation:

    Not unlike in their power to arouse;
    The glorious summer sunlight speaketh fair,
    With equal pow’r clouds low’r upon our house,
    So, dark and gloom of winter doth compare.

    –A conceptual duality as old as spoken and written word; yet as young to some as today’s first utterance by a child.
    GoodTIMES=bright; sunny;warm; positive= SummerTIME. Bad TIMES=dark; gloomy; cold; negative=WinterTIME.

    There’s a good chance that some of the ALL TIME greatest writers of literature, verse, and song– throughout history–just might argue the case for the obvious TIMELESSness inherent in these two very common and oft-recurring metaphoric connections. It’s tonality is very basic in concept–elementary in fact. It’s the way Nature speaks to us through our somewhat feeble powers of perception. Simple, but so unmistakably accurate as to be universal in its ability to be innately observed — by some of us anyway 🙂

  15. Willshill commented on May 31

    hey, Thanks for the kudos.
    I still, however, must disagree on a couple of other counts. The strength of my disagreement has had the curious effect as to cause a spontaneous pentamerous poetic eruption. Simple, no doubt in its construction; less humble, we hope, in its aim at elucidation:

    Not unlike in their power to arouse;
    The glorious summer sunlight speaketh fair,
    With equal pow’r clouds low’r upon our house,
    So, dark and gloom of winter doth compare.

    –A conceptual duality as old as spoken and written word; yet as young to some as today’s first utterance by a child.
    GoodTIMES=bright; sunny;warm; positive= SummerTIME. Bad TIMES=dark; gloomy; cold; negative=WinterTIME.

    There’s a good chance that some of the ALL TIME greatest writers of literature, verse, and song– throughout history–just might argue the case for the obvious TIMELESSness inherent in these two very common and oft-recurring metaphoric connections. It’s tonality is very basic in concept–elementary in fact. It’s the way Nature speaks to us through our somewhat feeble powers of perception. Simple, but so unmistakably accurate as to be universal in its ability to be innately observed — by some of us anyway 🙂