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Quoting Shakespeare Sparingly

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Quoting William Shakespeare is a little like breathing: every living person does it. "He's dead as a doornail," your roommate will say as she flips through the newspaper obits, never realizing she's just quoted part of a couplet from Henry VI. Or take another well-worn phrase, "Let's give the devil his due": it appears in Henry IV. (Ol' Billy did love writing about royals.)

Then come the billion lines instantly recognizable as Shakespeare. Case in point: "To be, or not to be." Thanks to the enormous number of movies, television shows, cartoons, comic strips and probably cereal boxes that have riffed off that line over the years, even if you slept through high school English, you know it comes from Hamlet.

The good thing about quoting Shakespeare is that it usually sounds so perfect that whoever is arguing with you is suddenly less inclined to disagree with whatever point or idea you're using the quote to enforce -- whether or not they know the quote came from the Bard's pen. (There's a reason why the man's works have endured for so long.) The bad thing about quoting Shakespeare is that everybody's been doing it for hundreds of years, meaning that many of the best phrases are overused. That's right: they're trite, and being trite is anathema to an intellectual.

Does that mean you should banish Shakespeare, King Lear-style, from your arsenal of everyday quotes? Absolutely not. Simply keep in mind that a little bit of him goes a very, very long way.

Theory Into Practice

Shakespeare was just one of many Elizabethan playwrights scribbling out a living on tales of irate royals turning each other into human pincushions. If you want a quote or speech with some of that late-sixteenth-century flavor, other options abound: Christopher Marlowe was another scribbler of some of the finest blank verse ever committed to parchment; his "Tho hast committed -- /Fornication: but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead" says as much about true love as anything in Shakespeare's poetry. Those looking for another quotable notable can seek out Sir Walter Raleigh, who gave the world a decent phrase or two.

Should you want to diversify even further (yes, you do), there exist centuries of quotes from virtually every imminent brain to ever wield a pen: Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, Teddy Roosevelt, and Nikolai Gogol constitute a mere fraction of the writers who sweated, bled, suffered, agonized, and tortured themselves over a sentence in order to provide you, years later, with the ideal epigraph for your PowerPoint presentation opener.

The Inevitable Footnote

Shakespeare will always offer an ideal fallback for quotes, particularly if a) you really want to quote Shakespeare, second-guessing by other intellectuals be damned, or b) you want to drop a phrase or speech familiar to everyone in the room. With one exception: never, ever employ the phrase "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark" (yes, Hamlet again) to describe something trite like a lack of coffee in the house: a dim buzzing sound will fill the world, as an irate Billy spins in his grave fast enough to shoot him straight to the Earth's molten core.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.