Report on a brief literary investigation

Recently I was listening to an audio book of the 6th century classic The Consolation of Philosophy, and this line came up: “So true is it that nothing is wretched, but thinking makes it so, and conversely every lot is happy if borne with equanimity.”

I snapped to attention, because it brought to mind a delightful memory from several years ago. I was trying to remember a quotation that was right on the tip of my tongue, and wrote a Facebook post like, “I’m trying to remember a quote about how things aren’t good and bad in themselves, but it’s all how you think about it. I think it may have been in verse.”

And sure enough, my friend Jason came up with it immediately. It’s from Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii. Hamlet has called Denmark a prison, and when his friends protest, he responds:

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.


Those lines had made an impression, but not a very firm one, until my friend helped me to remember it.

Of course, when I heard the audio book, the phrase “but thinking makes it so” jumped out at me. I wondered whether the translator had intentionally echoed the line from Hamlet.

I discovered that the audio book I was listening to was a somewhat modernized version of the H.R. James translation available on Project Gutenberg. A fuller quote is:

This very place which thou callest exile is to them that dwell therein their native land. So true is it that nothing is wretched, but thinking makes it so, and conversely every lot is happy if borne with equanimity.

H.R. James

The verbal echo was clear enough. I pressed my small Latin into service to see to how closely the English translation hewed to the original. From the Perseus Digital Library:

Hic ipse locus quem tu exilium uocas, incolentibus patria est; adeo nihil est miserum nisi cum putes contraque beata sors omnis est aequanimitate tolerantis.


I translate—woodenly, with many cognates, and with the help of a lexicon—as follows:

This very place which you consider exile, to its inhabitants is a homeland. For nothing is miserable except as you suppose but on the contrary every lot is blessed if borne with equanimity.


From this I conclude that the verbal similarity between James and Shakespeare is greater than is required by the Latin text. My next question then was whether the Bard might have lifted his phrase from an earlier English translation.

It turns out the Queen Elizabeth translated The Consolation of Philosophy (perhaps partially?), but I couldn’t find this passage among the published excepts. That is a shame, because that would be contemporary with Shakespeare.

Chaucer translated the book as well. Here is his version:

Þis same place þat þou clepist exil is contre to hem þat enhabiten here. Thy miseries proceed from the thought that thou art miserable. and forþi. Noþing wrecched. but whan þou wenest it Every lot may be happy to the man who bears his condition with equanimity and courage.


(Your guess on the punctuation is as good as mine.)

It doesn’t seem like Shakespeare is taking his words from Chaucer, at least.

So my conclusion is this. The semantic echo is unmistakable. It’s an ironic recasting of Boethius’s phrase: Boethius was literally in exile, but found solace in his mind. Hamlet is literally at home, but tormented in his mind. I have no doubt that Shakespeare was thinking of Boethius when he wrote that line—and it makes me hungry to find further linkages between the works.

I think H.R. James must have been aware of this as well, and as something of a tribute—or perhaps unconsciously, we can’t know—used the words of Shakespeare in his (then-)contemporary translation of Boethius. The phrase is, after all, hard to improve upon.

And literary puzzles aside, I highly recommend The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis wrote, I believe, that for a thousand years after its publication, it was considered the best book ever written. High praise from Lewis, and from the ages.