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Lead on Macduff

January 13, 2018

Last night I went to see Darkest Hour – an excellent film, with magnificent cinematography and a superb performance from Gary Oldman, if just a little hokey in parts. But there was one line of dialogue from Churchill that irritated me. As he’s following someone out of a room he says ‘Lead on, Macduff!’

Lead on Macduff. This facetious expression is a common misquotation from Macbeth. Macbeth would never ask Macduff to lead on. He and Macduff are sworn enemies. What Macbeth actually says is ‘Lay on Macduff – and damned be him who first cries “Hold, enough!”’ In other words, ‘Bring it on Macduff – let’s fight to the death!’

Churchill loved Shakespeare and frequently quoted from his plays. According to Richard Langworth, in fact, Churchill in his speeches and writings quoted from or alluded to no fewer than sixteen of Shakespeare’s plays – including Macbeth. (See https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchill-and-shakespeare/)

There is simply no way Churchill would have perpetrated that fatuous misquotation. It marred the verisimilitude of the film for me. (So did that scene on the underground, of course.)

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4 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Indeed. Like “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” which is always misquoted.

  2. Oh yes. “I knew him well.” V. annoying.

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    I share your frustration and I know it will make me wince when I get to see the film (which I must).
    What is worrying is to consider how many drafts and edits the script must have gone before that point, and rehearsals with leading actors, without anyone noticing the error.

    I am currently working my way through ‘The Crown’ (which is simply outstanding) and there is a telling scene showing Churchill repeatedly writing and re – writing the speech with which he announces the death of King George VI in order to get just the right rolling cadence. I believe that Churchill once said that he owed the measure and rhythm of his prose largely to the influence of Gibbon and the Decline and Fall . Getting back to Shakespeare, though, Richard Burton used to tell the story of playing Hamlet at the Old Vic, and one evening Winston Churchill was in the house. To his utter consternation, Churchill sat in the front row and audibly recited every line of Hamlet’s a split second before the actor did. Another notable feature of that production was the Burton was under-studied by Kenneth Williams. Kenneth Williams playing Hamlet; now that I would have loved to see.

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    Imagine Kenneth Williams’ reading would have been somewhat different. Hard to think of a comparable disparity – possibly Burt Lancaster for Charles Hawtrey or John Gielgud for Bruce Willis in Die Hard?

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