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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #76 (article first published : 2007-04-3)

The stimulus for this article was provided by no less a dignitary than a judge in South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal, who was showing off his knowledge of Shakespeare. He shouldn’t have.

The newspaper report read as follows:

“The Supreme Court of Appeal this week cautioned that awards of public tenders were `notoriously subject to influence and manipulation’ and the high constitutional standards governing the process were ‘honoured more in the breach than the observance’.”

Yes, of course we know what he means: simply that the standards referred to are not adhered to as often as they should be, which is all the time. But why would Shakespeare – who wrote the words – use the word “honoured” for a departure from good practice?

We had better have a look at the play the judge was quoting, Hamlet. When the play opens, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is in mourning for his father, who has recently died. To make matters worse, his uncle, his father’s brother, has married Hamlet’s mother with – in Hamlet’s view – indecent haste. Hamlet has been told that two castle guards have seen his father’s ghost, and in Act I Scene 4 Hamlet is waiting on the battlements with his two friends, Horatio and Marcellus, to see if it will appear again.

While they wait, there is “a flourish of trumpets, and two pieces (of artillery) go off.” Horatio asks, “What does this mean, my lord?” and Hamlet explains: “The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse (he’s having a party), …And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish (wine) down, The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out The triumph of his pledge.”

Horatio, who is from out of town, asks innocently, “Is it a custom?” and Hamlet replies, “Ay, marry, is’t (Yes, indeed); But to my mind…it is a custom More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

His meaning should be quite clear: the new king’s constant revelry disgusts him; it would be more honourable for everybody concerned, and for Denmark itself, if the custom were not observed at all.

This is by no means what was meant by our learned friend in the Court of Appeal. His quotation means, in effect, that constitutional standards should not be adhered to, when he obviously meant that they should.

I suppose we should learn from this not to use quotations unless we are quite sure exactly what the writer meant in the first place. But perhaps judges are above such mundane considerations. - Ulysses Online.




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