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.