William Shakespeare’s influence on theater, literature and the English language is hard to overstate. He wrote some 39 plays and 154 sonnets, and is widely considered the greatest writer in the English language. A scribe of comedies, histories, tragedies and romances, he covered an enormous amount of territory, examining the human condition while creating iconic characters such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo, and Juliet.
Shakespeare wrote his plays for everyone to enjoy, and his crowds contained people from all walks of life. In the Globe Theatre, built by Shakespeare's theater company in 1599, poorer people—known as the groundlings—would stand in the central area, exposed to the elements. In the galleries, meanwhile, sat the nobility and other wealthy citizens, protected from the weather and the boisterous crowd below. Shakespeare’s ability to attract a mixed audience was part of his success, and also one of the reasons why his words and phrases permeated throughout society.
By the time of his death in 1616, at the age of 52, many of his phrases and idioms had gained a foothold in common parlance. So much so, that we still use some of them today — often without realizing they were coined by the Bard of Avon. If you’re trying to “break the ice” at a party, you’re quoting Shakespeare. If you’re “in a pickle,” that too came from the Bard…
Love is blind
– "The Merchant of Venice," "Henry V," and "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"
Shakespeare used this phrase in three of his plays, in reference to the way love can make us overlook the flaws in those we love (for good and for bad). In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica says “But love is blind and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit.” It remains a common phrase today.
In a pickle
– "The Tempest"
When King Alonso asks his jester, Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?,” the jester replies “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last.” Pickle here has a double meaning: Trinculo is both in trouble (the current usage of “in a pickle”) and drunk (he is pickled).
When the evil Iago sows the seeds of doubt in Othello's mind regarding his wife's faithfulness, he tells him, “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” We still use “green-eyed monster” in reference to jealousy in all its forms.
– "King John"
When Constance expresses her anger towards her supposed allies, she rails against them with “Thou cold-blooded slave, hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side?” Shakespeare used “cold-blooded” before it was used in a biological sense (for reptiles and fish), to express an unfeeling, callous, or deliberately cruel action. Today it is often used to refer to “cold-blooded killers.”
– "Antony and Cleopatra"
Cleopatra refers to her prior relationship with Julius Caesar as occurring during “My salad days, when I was green in judgment.” Salad days refers to a time of carefree innocence and youthful inexperience (the salad being green, as in immature). We use the expression in a similar way today, although it can also refer to a heyday or “the golden years.”
Break the ice
– "The Taming of the Shrew"
When Tranio speaks with Petruchio about how to woo the hard-hearted Katherine, he tells him to “…break the ice, and do this feat, achieve the elder, set the younger free.” Break the ice, in this sense, is a metaphor for the cold Katherine. Today it has a more general use, meaning to relieve tension or get the conversation going at a party or other social gathering, or when people meet for the first time.
As dead as a doornail
– "Henry VI, Part II"
This expression has been in use since at least the 14th century and was common in Shakespeare’s time. But its survival to this day probably has a lot to do with its appearance in Shakespeare’s play, when the rebel leader Jack Cade says, “…come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”
Cruel to be kind
Having killed Polonius earlier in the scene, and while berating his mother Gertrude, Hamlet says, “I will bestow him, and will answer well, The death I gave him. So again good night. I must be cruel only to be kind.” He is telling Gertrude that he must be cruel to her for her own good—the same way in which we use the expression today.
After Othello has a dream in which his lover Desdemona was unfaithful to him, he was convinced that it was true: “But this denoted a foregone conclusion.” Thanks to The Bard, the phrase has stuck around since 1604.
Knock, knock! Who’s there?
It’s possible that the now ubiquitous “knock, knock” jokes began with Shakespeare. The porter in Macbeth, while pretending he’s the gatekeeper in hell, uses the phrase a number of times, such as, “Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th' other devil’s name?”
One fell swoop
When Macduff hears that his family and servants have all been killed, he laments: “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?” While most people know what “one fell swoop” means (suddenly, or in a single, quick action), not many people know where the “fell” comes from. The “fell” used by Shakespeare is an old word that we no longer use, apart from in this phrase, meaning evil or cruel.
The world is your oyster
– "The Merry Wives of Windsor"
This phrase has changed slightly over the centuries. It originally appeared in a line by the character Pistol: “Why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” In the context of the play, it had a violent connotation, as Pistol wanted to forcibly open the metaphorical oyster to obtain money. Now we use it in a far more positive way, to convey that all is possible and anything can be achieved.
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