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Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors,
and British History

Who first said 'Lead on Macduff'

macbeth witches
Lay or Lead? The witches will know.
Photo by Jeff Hitchcock at Flickr CC-BY

Using archives to track down the misquote.

'Lead on Macduff' is an invitation for someone to take the lead and that you will follow on. But as any keen Shakespearian or wordsmith will tell you, this is a misquotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 8.

The phrase should be 'lay on' which means to make a vigorous attack. The words are spoken by Macbeth to Macduff. They are in battle and Macduff challenges Macbeth to yield. Macbeth refuses, declaring:

I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet,
And to be baited with the rabble's curse.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane,
And thou opposed, being of no woman born,
Yet I will try the last. Before my body
I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

So when and how did this misquotation come about? This is challenging question and unlikely to be answered for misquotations often arise through ignorance or mishearing.

Eric Partridge's 'Dictionary of Catch Phrases' places it to the late 19c - early 20c., with an example quote from 1912.

However, with the advent of online sources, History House can now antedate that. These are examples going back in time:

In 1898, a drunk was arrested in London misquoting the phrase. He was fined 7s., in default ten days imprisonment.

Joseph Callaway, sixty four, was charged with being disorderly. The other night the prisoner stood in Villiers Street, Strand, and exclaimed in tragic tones, "Lead on Macduff, lead on! I'm the only real and genuine Sir Henry Irving. Lead on Macduff, lead on! The prisoner had a stick in his hand, and waved it about so energetically that several people narrowly escaped being struck.
Saturday 12 February 1898, Nottinghamshire Guardian, and Saturday 19 February 1898, Illustrated Police News.
Source: The British Newspaper Archive

In King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, (1885), when told to be prepared to enter the Place of Death, Captain Good tells Gagool, "Lead on MacDuff".

And this is the earliest we've found so far from 14 February 1867, in 'Country Words: a north of England magazine of literature, science, and art'.

The narrator in conversation with Punch, extols him to tell of the reason for his visit with the words: "That's the style. Lead on Macduff!"

This example from 1867 has no comment on its incorrect use which seems to indicate that it was a common but accepted misquotation even in the mid-Victorian period, and perhaps even before.

So if you are apt to use this phrase and are corrected by a wordsmith, you can tell them that although it may be a misquotation, it's been around for at least 140 years.

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Copyright 2014