In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines a famous phrase derived from Shakespeare
The old line about Hamlet, that it’s ‘too full of quotations’, wittily sums up the play’s influence on not just English literature but on the everyday language we use. Many of us know, and some may use, phrases such as ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘neither a borrower not a lender be’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘frailty, thy name is woman’, ‘primrose path’, ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, ‘method in one’s madness’, and many more. All of these derive from one play: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But some of the expressions and quotations from the play have been misapprehended, so that they are often used to express sentiments far removed from the original play. Hamlet’s line about a custom being ‘more honour’d in the breach than the observance’ is a classic example, as is another of his utterances: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
But this time, let’s consider that line about a custom being ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’. We’re in Act 1 Scene 4 of Hamlet, and Hamlet is talking with Horatio:
Hamlet. The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail and the swaggering upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Horatio. Is it a custom?
Hamlet. Ay, marry, is ’t.
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour’d in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations.
That phrase, ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’, has entered common speech, where it is often used to lament a custom, tradition, ceremony, or procedure falling out of fashion. So someone might talk of ‘the good old British tradition of fair play’ in sport being ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’, accompanied by a sorrowful shake of the head as the speaker mourns the lack of such fair play in modern British sport.
But such a use of the phrase is the exact opposite of what Hamlet means. The context for the passage helps to put us right: Hamlet and Horatio have gone up onto the battlements of Elsinore castle at night, so that Hamlet can speak with the Ghost that has been previously sighted. We already know, having see him making witty but bitter asides at court, that Hamlet has no time for Claudius, his uncle but now also his stepfather, following his mother’s hasty remarriage to him following the death of Hamlet’s father.
And now, in the scene in which we find the phrase in question, ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’, Hamlet hears the trumpets sounding which indicate that his uncle is busy drinking, knocking back Rhenish wine with each of the toasts or ‘pledges’ he makes being accompanied by drums and trumpets. Hamlet clearly doesn’t approve of such behaviour, so when Horatio asks Hamlet if Claudius is merely honouring some ancient custom at court, Hamlet replies that if it is a custom, it’s one the royal court can do without.
In other words, we might paraphrase Hamlet’s lines about the custom being ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’ as ‘it is a custom that would be better honoured by breaking rather than adhering to’. The phrase is thus one in a considerable list of quotations from Hamlet – we might add ‘to the manner born’ (often misquoted as ‘to the manor born’), Polonius’ advice to Laertes as taken unironically, or Hamlet’s lines about there being ‘more things in heaven and earth’, etc. – which are often misapplied or misunderstood. But of all, ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’ is perhaps the commonest of all: a phrase whose very meaning is (to apply the misinterpretation itself to this line) more honoured in the breach than in the observance of its true meaning.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.