Shakespeare is frequently quoted, both by true Shakespeare enthusiasts, and people who just assume that quoting Shakespeare will make them sound smart. A lot of people who haven’t read a word of Shakespeare have heard about him enough in popular culture to feel comfortable referencing his most well-known works in casual conversation, even if they don’t actually have a real understanding of the text they’re citing.
“To be or not to be” is most likely the most famous quote from all of Shakespeare’s plays, and is almost certainly the most famous of the Hamlet quotes (regardless of what Tom Stoppard thinks), but how many people know exactly what it means? It’s frequently adapted to suit a variety of situations with varying levels of seriousness (“to eat oatmeal or not to eat oatmeal”), but the Prince of Denmark was actually contemplating his own suicide when he uttered those famous words. How many people who quote or adapt his indecisive soliloquy actually know that?
Macbeth is possibly the second most famous Shakespearean tragedy, but the details of that play are most likely more unknown to most people. It’s unlikely that there are even close to as many well-known quotes from Macbeth as there are in Hamlet. This is not due to any flaw in the play itself; some may argue that Macbeth is actually a better play than Hamlet, but for some reason, the betrayal on the part of Gertrude and Claudius and the scene where Hamlet’s father’s ghost asks him to seek revenge really seems to resonate with people. It’s more likely that the average person is familiar with some of the more colorful Macbeth characters, like the three witches, and of course the tempestuous Lady Macbeth than they are with the inner workings of the story itself.
The average person has at least heard of Romeo and Juliet. That person may even remember reading some of it in high school, or at least seeing the film version with Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, it’s likely that most English-speaking people could come up with a reasonable Romeo and Juliet summary if pressed. “Romeo and Juliet are teenagers from warring families. They meet and fall in love but know they must run away together because their parents won’t approve of their relationship…” It’s around here that a lot of people may get fuzzy. While most everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet take their own lives at the end of the play, they may not be aware of exactly the sequence of events that get them there. And fair enough, because that sequence of events involve Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin and subsequently getting banished, Juliet almost being married off to someone else, and a harebrained scheme on the part of a Friar.
A true fan of the play and a supporter of this star-crossed couple will keep reading and watching in the hopes that just maybe, this time, the lines won’t get crossed, and the plan works, and Romeo and Juliet are able to stay together (and alive) forever. It might actually be that, and not an intimate knowledge of the play itself, the distinguishes the real Shakespeare enthusiasts from the posers: a passion for the characters and their well-being.