- “I Often Quote Myself” (And Others): Modified Quotations in the Plays of Bernard Shaw
Bernard Shaw was no doubt aware of the currency that certain phrases may gain over time. This is perhaps why he is the origin of so many pithy sayings that we now find in quotation dictionaries.1 At the same time, Shaw was also aware of his fame and popularity. In fact, one gets the impression that many of the things he said or wrote were created for the waiting room of posterity, even if his longevity made him “survive long in the afterglow of his own legend.”2 Such self-awareness is epitomized in the now-famous quotation, “I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”
However, Shaw did quote many people other than himself. In fact, his frequent use of quotations in his plays is a common intertextual phenomenon. As Mieder and Bryan demonstrated in their compilation of Shavian proverbs,3 “it should not be surprising that Shaw uses a lot of famous quotations that have become proverbial over time.”4 After all, quotations are linguistic units that belong to the paremiological universe—the realm of proverbs—within the broader framework of phraseology.5 The importance of phraseological units (whether proverbs, quotations, or idioms) cannot be overlooked, provided they are “the numerically predominant lexical unit: in any language—that is, in its lexicon—phrasemes outnumber words roughly ten to one.”6
What is not so widely acknowledged, however, is that many of Shaw’s quotations are creatively modified to produce a deliberate, original effect. This neglect is far from justified, especially when taking into account the ubiquitous nature of modified phraseological units. Moon, for example, estimates that more than a third of all phraseological units include some [End Page 192] degree of variation.7 Furthermore, one must consider the stylistic effect that creative modification may add to dramatic discourse. It is therefore necessary to examine Shaw’s modified quotations to obtain a complete view of his general use of quotations. The purpose of this article, then, is to analyze the role that quotations play in Shaw’s dramatic language, with special attention to his extensive use of modified quotations.
Shaw’s Quoting Habits
Shaw’s wide-ranging knowledge is one of his most remarkable traits. A vast array of personal and intellectual interests drove him to a perpetual search for information on the most disparate topics. There are very few authors—or human beings, for that matter—who can compare to Shaw in this respect. As John Palmer explains:8
Now, the first thing to realise about Bernard Shaw is his overflowing gravity. He has taken more things seriously in his career than any living and notable person. He has taken music seriously, and painting and socialism and philosophy and politics and public speaking. He has taken the trouble to make up his mind upon scores of things to which the average heedless man hardly gives a second thought—things like diet, hygiene, vaccination, phonetic spelling, and vivisection.
Since Shaw’s myriad interests are in fact connected to his fondness for quotations and other types of literal intertextual links, it will be necessary first of all to evaluate his mastery of those subjects and also the authors with whom he was most familiar.
Obvious as it may seem, literature was the primary field of human culture cultivated by Shaw and, like everyone, he had his favorites. As Maurice Colbourne puts it, “even the smallest library of the Shavian student should contain at least the Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan, and Shelley. And Samuel Butler.”9 The case of Shakespeare is peculiar. If Shaw fostered a recurrent controversy about Shakespeare’s critical reception, it was because he possessed a command of that reception and also of the plays and poems in question: he was a “man who knew his Shakespeare from cover to cover by the time he was twenty.”10 In fact, “he was active in scholarly debates of his day and took part in such organizations as the New Shakespeare Society.”11 [End Page 193]
Another field of knowledge to which Shaw was devoted is history...