Everyday phrases we owe to Shakespeare

Everyday phrases we owe to Shakespeare

Everyday phrases we owe to Shakespeare

Did you know that many common English phrases originated in the Bard’s writings?

The Droeshout Portrait, 1623

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616; playwright, poet and quite simply the most influential writer in English literature. Over the course of his writing career he penned 39 plays: histories like Henry V and Richard III, tragedies like Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, and comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It. He also wrote some 154 sonnets, of which number 18 is my favourite:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Beautiful, don’t you think? No doubt the words of this sonnet are familiar to you; it is well known. And no doubt many other words by Shakespeare are familiar to you too, for 400 years later his legacy lives on in the English language. I’m sure you recognise the following phrases as quotations from Shakespeare’s plays:

  • A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse
  • A plague on both your houses
  • A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
  • All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players
  • Brevity is the soul of wit
  • Screw your courage to the sticking-place
  • Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble
  • Et tu, Brute
  • Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears
  • The course of true love never did run smooth
  • Frailty, thy name is woman
  • If music be the food of love, play on
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be
  • Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more
  • The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
  • Though this be madness, yet there is method in it
  • To be or not to be, that is the question
  • Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Birthplace of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

In fact, we quote from Shakespeare often, but we may not realise we’re doing so. Plenty of ‘modern’ phrases have their roots in the works of Shakespeare. Here are some examples:

Too much of a good thing

Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us. (As You Like It)

Vanish into thin air

Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away. Go; vanish into air; away! (Othello)

Wild-goose chase

Nay, if our wits run the wild goose chase, I am done;
for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than,
I am sure, I have in my whole five – Was I with you there for
the goose? (Romeo and Juliet)

The green eyed-monster

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (Othello)

Devil incarnate

Yes, that a’ did; and said they were devils incarnate. (Henry V)

All that glitters is not gold

All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold. (The Merchant of Venice)

Send him packing

Faith, and I’ll send him packing. (Henry IV: Part 1)

To come full circle

Thou hast spoken right, ’tis true;
The wheel has come full circle: I am here. (King Lear)

Truth will out

Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out. (The Merchant of Venice)

Break the ice

And if you break the ice and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free
For our access, whose hap shall be to have her
Will not so graceless be to be ingrate. (The Taming of the Shew)

Wear my heart upon my sleeve

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (Othello)

Statue of Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon

In my heart of hearts

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (Hamlet)

Foul play

Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief;
And by these badges understand the king.
For your fair sakes have we neglected time,
Play’d foul play with our oaths. (Love’s Labours Lost)

All of a sudden

I pray, sir, tell me, is it possible
That love should of a sodaine take such hold? (The Taming of the Shrew)

Love is blind

But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit (The Merchant of Venice)

A heart of gold

The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant. (Henry V)

Stuff that dreams are made on/of

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (The Tempest)

Be all and end all

If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all. (Macbeth)

One fell swoop

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop? (Macbeth)

The game is afoot

Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip. (Henry IV Part I)

Heart’s content

I wish your Ladyship all heart’s content. (The Merchant of Venice)

High time

There’s none but witches do inhabit here;
And therefore ’tis high time that I were hence. (Comedy of Errors)

Fight fire with fire

Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror (King John)

The reconstructed Globe Theatre, London

For ever and a day

Rosalind: Now tell me how long you would have her after you have possessed her.
Orlando: For ever and a day. (As You Like It)

Fancy free

But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

A sea change

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (The Tempest)

As pure as the driven snow

Lawn as white as driven snow. (The Winter’s Tale)

Have not slept a wink

O gracious lady,
Since I received command to do this business
I have not slept one wink. (Cymbeline)

Lie low

If he could right himself with quarrelling,
Some of us would lie low. (Much Ado About Nothing)

More fool you

The more fool you, for laying on my duty. (The Taming of the Shrew)

Fair play

Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it, fair play. (The Tempest)


The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-bloodied-Gods assist me! (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Seen better days

Good fellows all,
The latest of my wealth I’ll share amongst you.
Wherever we shall meet, for Timon’s sake,
Let’s yet be fellows; let’s shake our heads, and say,
As ’twere a knell unto our master’s fortunes,
‘We have seen better days.’ (Timon of Athens)

Well read

In faith, he is a worthy gentleman,
Exceedingly well read (Henry IV Part 1)

Along with these phrases – and more – in Shakespeare’s works we find the origins of many words used today, like dauntless and dwindle and lonely and swagger and unearthly and bloody and countless and eventful and generous and hurry and gloomy and majestic and radiance.

Shakespeare did not invent every word and phrase in his works that has endured to this day; he coined many but he sometimes borrowed from other writers and used colloquialisms of people of the time. However, he contributed more ­to the English language than any other writer, and the enduring, far-reaching influence of his works has meant that we have come to quote the Bard often in everyday language. As the playwright and poet Ben Johnson wrote in the preface to the First Folio, published in 1623 after Shakespeare’s death, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’


Picture credits: 1) public domain/Wikipedia; 2) Paul Cowan/Shutterstock; 3) Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock; 4) Lance Bellers/Shutterstock.

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