Inside Politics

Is that Baird or Bard?

It's nearly always a good idea to quote great poets and statesmen in your address to the United Nations.

Nearly always.

In the case of Foreign Minister John Baird, the quotations -- properly attributed -- were standard fare from Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Kahlil Gibran and Martin Luther King. And who's gonna argue with them?

One additional quote, though, was not attributed. Thrown in as though the words were Baird's own was this stirring line about the resistance of Russia and China to a UN resolution authorizing military action in Syria:

"Until the last syllable of recorded time, the world will remember and history will judge member states that are allowing the atrocities to continue."

Hmm. Baird or Bard?

Actually, it's both. It was William Shakespeare, in Act 5 of Macbeth, who coined the phrase, "To the last syllable of recorded time." And thereby hangs a tale. (The Taming of the Shrew, Act 1, Scene 2.)

Let's stipulate that countless Shakespearean phrases have made it into everyday speech and, even though these are tricky times for plagiarists, nobody moans if we don't attribute them properly.

Who even knows anymore that we have Shakespeare to thank for "fair play" and "one fell swoop" and "in the twinkling of an eye" and even "into thin air?" In each case, fussing about the source would be much ado about nothing.

If a Bard buff growls, "Out, damned spot!" when scrubbing a stained shirt, is he a plagiarist? Did anyone credit Shakespeare for the title of a Star Trek episode called, "All Our Yesterdays?"

Certainly not. And it's fair play to skip the citations when we're cursing some potentate who "struts and frets his hour upon the stage" with a speech "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Still, all of those last three quotes come from the same speech, in Macbeth, that was raided by John Baird for his remarks to the UN -- and the original conveys quite the opposite of what the minister was trying to say.

Baird's point was to stress the indelible stain upon Russia and China. The Bard's point was to stress that nothing's indelible -- in fact, that all our speeches are futile, however full of sound and fury they may be.

Here's Macbeth's bleak tirade, from Act 5, Scene 5:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

So. It's your hour upon the stage at the United Nations. Do you quote a speech about the futility of speeches? Or is that "neither here nor there?" (Othello, Act 4, Scene 3.) Do we "protest too much?" (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.) After all, "what's done is done." (Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 2.)

And, once you start down this road, it goes on and on to the last syllable of you-know-what...
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