6 Misconceptions About Famous Books and Authors

No, William Shakespeare probably wasn't secretly the Earl of Oxford.
No, William Shakespeare probably wasn't secretly the Earl of Oxford. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From the mystery surrounding Shakespeare's true identity to the inaccuracies about Jane Austen's personal life and Ernest Hemingway's fabled “baby shoes” story, we're breaking down some persistent myths about a few of the world's most recognizable authors and literature, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well …” is the line from Hamlet.

One of the most iconic lines from one of Hamlet's most famous scenes is not what most of us think it is. The actual line is “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” And this is just one of many Shakespearean quotes that we are all completely misquoting. For example, the witches in Macbeth don’t say “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble”—it’s actually “double, double.”

And then there's the case of “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” This isn't a misquote per se, but many productions of Romeo and Juliet feature Juliet reciting these lines with her hand over her eyes like an explorer searching for her love. In reality, wherefore essentially means why, not where.

2. Misconception: Historians believe that William Shakespeare was not the actual Shakespeare.

It’s a pretty interesting conspiracy theory: William Shakespeare was simply the pen name of some other, anonymous writer (or group of writers). Potentially royalty, potentially a woman, but definitely not a simple actor from Stratford-upon-Avon.

While there are definitely a handful of people who believe these stories, it’s a misconception that Shakespeare’s identity is at the center of some great historical debate. The vast majority of theater historians and Shakespearian experts consider this theory farfetched and hardly credible.

There is no concrete proof that anyone other than William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. He did occasionally work with collaborators, but there’s no convincing evidence that there is some mysterious other figure masquerading as William Shakespeare. The main pieces of “evidence” are simply suspicions about his credibility. Such as, how could someone from a relatively humble background know so much about the inner workings of royal affairs? Is it possible for one person to write so many classics that are still studied today? Could a man really understand so deeply the beauty of life and love?

The lack of hard evidence hasn’t stopped the Anti-Stratfordian theory from making its way into popular culture. The Oxfordian theory posits that the true Shakespeare is Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxfordians’ main argument relies on the parallels between events in certain Shakespeare plays and events in De Vere’s life, reshaping these works to be more autobiographical than simply royal dramas. This theory has some basically insurmountable problems, though, like the fact that De Vere died in 1604, and several Shakespeare plays were published after that date, with references within the works to historical events that occurred in the decade after De Vere passed.

While it’s true that we don’t know everything about the life of William Shakespeare, it’s fair to say that the Oxfordian theory is based more on interesting coincidences than hard evidence.

3. Misconception: Frankenstein was created by an evil doctor and his assistant, Igor.

Not pictured: Igor
Not pictured: Igor / Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

For being one of the most famous horror stories of all time, there are a ton of misconceptions about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The most glaring one is, of course, that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster, but rather of his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. That’s an easy one. But there's another glaring misconception: Dr. Victor Frankenstein is not a doctor. Nowhere in the book does it ever say that he’s a doctor of anything. In fact, in Mary Shelley’s original novel, he’s a student. This misconception is due, in part, to the many iterations that came later, where Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as being Dr. Frankenstein.

Then there's the case of Frankenstein's assistant Igor, who isn't even in the original version of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein did have an assistant in a theatrical adaptation of the novel that premiered in 1823, but his name was Fritz. The character appeared again in the original 1931 film adaptation, which may be why so many people identify him with Frankenstein. But again, his name wasn't Igor.

So where did that name come from? Well, in the sequels to that original film, there was an Ygor—spelled with a Y, incidentally—but he was neither a hunchback nor a lab assistant; he was just an insane blacksmith. In the novel, there was no assistant at all. Igor, although mostly (and incorrectly) associated with Frankenstein, is now considered to be a stock henchman character for the gothic villain archetype. He’s even been depicted as being Dracula’s assistant in some iterations of that story.

4. Misconception: Jane Austen was completely anonymous.

It’s one of the first things discussed when talking about Jane Austen’s legacy: Her name never appeared on her books during her lifetime. And this is true—her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, was credited simply “By a Lady.” After its success, Austen’s subsequent novels were credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility” and eventually it became “by the author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.” This was due to a couple of factors, with the main one being 19th-century sexism. It wasn't considered proper for women to put a career, such as writing, above domestic duties like motherhood. And beyond the social pressures, male relatives generally had to represent women in legal matters. As a result, woman authors often chose to publish anonymously.

But most people don’t know that it was actually very common for books to be published without a credited author at the time, regardless of gender. James Raven, a professor of Modern History at the University of Essex, in his research into anonymity in the 18th century, found that between 1750 and 1790, around 80 percent of novels were published anonymously. And even without her name ever appearing on any of her novels, the secret of Austen’s identity wasn’t very well kept. In the book Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters, which details the life of the author as told by her family members, it’s revealed that among the aristocracy, it was fairly well known who the real author of Pride and Prejudice was. (The Prince Regent even invited her to his library.)

Her anonymity goes hand in hand with the pervasive notion that Austen was a shy, simple woman, often depicted as sort of a recluse. But this may be more of a posthumous fabrication than it is an accurate representation of Austen’s life. In Valerie Grosvenor Myer’s biography, Jane Austen: An Obstinate Heart, it’s stated that, after Austen’s death in 1817, her family was quick to “gentrify her, to portray her as cozy and sweet, ignoring the vinegary vein which fascinates us. They censored her letters and doctored her image. She was tougher, more irritable and more sardonic than they liked to acknowledge.”

5. Misconception: Hemingway is the author of a famous six-word short story.

Baby shoes, never written.
Baby shoes, never written. / Central Press/Getty Images

In most college creative writing classes, you’ll study the genre of flash-fiction. These are very, very short stories that still contain a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of the more famous examples is this infamous six-word tale: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

Ernest Hemingway is often attributed as the author of this tragic combination of words. This is, however, a misconception.

A literary agent named Petter Miller claimed to have been told the story of Hemingway coming up with the story by “a well-established newspaper syndicator” in 1974. He then published his claim in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing.

His story goes that Hemingway was having lunch with a handful of other writers. He offered a bet that he could write a complete story with only six words. Each writer put in $10, and after writing down the short story on a napkin and passing it around the table, he claimed the pot.

It makes sense that this story would be attributed to Hemingway. One of his defining qualities is his minimalist language. So a tragic, six-word story seems right up his alley. But there is no evidence to suggest that Hemingway is the actual author of this story. Miller’s story was apparently heard in 1974, but Hemingway died in 1961. In fact, it’s likely that there is no actual author, and it’s simply an amalgamation of actual ads from the early 20th century.

An ad appeared in the Ironwood News Record in 1906 that read: “For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office.” And then, in 1910, an article in the Spokane Press mentioned an ad that read “Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.”

Over the next few decades, several examples of similar stories (or titles of stories) arose. Various authors or playwrights have been credited, but the original author remains unknown.

6. Misconception: Sherlock Holmes’s catchphrase was “elementary, my dear Watson.”

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is still one of the most referenced and replicated characters of all time. Among his many adventures, one series of actions remains constant. Sherlock Holmes makes a perplexingly accurate observation, Watson is astonished, and Holmes responds with the casual and rather condescending retort, “elementary, my dear Watson.” The only problem? This string of words never appears in any of the original stories.

Holmes does say the word elementary to describe certain deductions throughout the books and stories. In 1893, Doyle’s short story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man,” which was published in The Strand Magazine, included “elementary” after Holmes deduced Watson’s recent actions based on the doctor’s appearance. In 1901, the serialized version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” included a scene in which Holmes examines a walking stick, and manages to deduce the size of the man’s dog. “Interesting, though elementary,” Holmes said.

He also, on multiple occasions, does use the phrase my dear Watson, sometimes even within the same scene that he uses the term elementary. (See 1893’s “The Crooked Man” again, for instance.) But never, not once, do the words appear together. This didn’t stop this phrase from working its way into the zeitgeist, though. As early as 1901, a short parody story that featured the detective Shylock Combs, included the phrase Elementary, my dear Potson.

Over the next century, this phrase would be used countless times by countless speakers. Various versions of Sherlock Holmes, outside of the Doyle canon, of course, would eventually wield the catchphrase like a badge of honor, such as in the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a modern fabrication.

Do you love reading? Are you eager to know incredibly interesting facts about novelists and their works? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out now!